The Captive Mind

Chapter 3 of Milosz’s book is titled Ketman which he derives from Arthur Gobineau’s book Religions and Philosophies of Central Asia. In Persia, ketman is a term used to describe intellectuals who would publically support a tyrannical regime while internally arguing against it.  Milosz observed the same phenomena in the totalitarian east and thus adopted the term.


He noted that in the East, under the Soviet regime, the intellectuals act everyday as if they are in a play because the slightest change in body language can lead to imprisonment.  In the West, one is open and speaks their mind without hesitation which would shock those in the East that suppress their opinions.  Over time, the process of constantly watching body language and the act of suppressing ideas and opinions became automatic and eventually ones behavior.


Perceptively, Milosz observed that a society the forces one to keep emotions and thoughts hidden and suppressed prizes cunning and subversion.  What Milosz describes as the key attributes of the New Faith (Soviet communism).  I think this is an extremely important and accurate description of high level soviet politics.  Even among those who are their closest consorts, the soviet politburo kept their true thoughts an ideas suppressed as they utilized Machiavellian tactics to increase their own power.  We can see this type of political infighting especially after the death of Stalin as few Soviet watchers of the time saw Khrushchev emerging as the Soviets new leader.


Privately, a ketman intellectual enjoys bourgeoisie Western culture.  They know, understand, and appreciate the newest information that emerges from the West, but publically they must denounce these Western influences.  The intellectual serves in a unique role.  The people of the East have a respect for intellectuals and listen to their arguments carefully thus the Soviets manipulated them.  The Soviets say if you support us publically we will ignore some of your “questionable” actives.  The ketman then publically toes the party line which pleases the Soviets, and, in return, they are left alone privately to enjoy whatever culture they please.


A religious ketman is also a useful tool for the Soviet system.  The Soviet ideology state that members are atheists but there is still a large population of Christians especially in the Eastern Block.  Therefore, the Soviets would use religious leaders in a similar fashion to intellectuals.  They would be manipulated and used until the state no longer needed their influence.  Being publically of faith in the USSR meant that your fate was already decided – death or imprisonment.


When observing this society of people that are emerging in the East, Milosz points out that informing has become a “virtue.”  That is secretly telling the secret police about your neighbor, colleague, friends, child, and even spouse is seen as a positive in Soviet Union.  Now days, with the fall of the USSR, we take this as a known fact, but back in the 1950s this was not widely known in the West.  Now, in the former East, one can go certain record collections and look at the files accumulated about an individual and, in some cases, learn of those who informed on you.  While this has important ramifications for the present, in the 1950s, Milosz believed that this type of behavior destroyed the natural brotherhood one has for his fellow man.  Informing milieu where only the craftiest could win.


The last couple paragraphs of Milosz has an interesting discuss on how many of the intellectuals in East enjoy acting in the Soviet society in that it fills a type of void.  He uses the example of a painter who enjoys painting a bucolic scene ordered by the state, but if the state, were removed this painter would be lost for ideas and unable to uses their inner creativity because it was never properly formed.  Thus this artist and intellectuals find reprieve in the state because they are told how to use their talents or as Milosz stated, “they are afraid of freedom.”


The man of the East believes he is empty so he accepts anything even if it is bad in order to find himself.  He is too fearful to take a chance on the wisdom of the past and the talents given to him by God.  They enjoy being a tool for the state because it fulfills them and they did never fail because the state will always support them.

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