Czeslaw Milosz on Ketman/Esotericism

Complete freedom is just not possible in human societies. Even partial freedoms are a stretch, always under pressure because of the “no shouting fire in a crowded theater” class of objections, and prone to be slashed. It’s no use complaining about political correctness and the like: every system, every ruling ideology tends to protect itself; and, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t last for long.

In the 1950s, Czeslaw Milosz wrote the following about the people’s democracies in which lived, such as Poland. This is from The Captive Mind, Chapter 3, lightly edited. The chapter is called “Ketman,” which is another word for “esotericism,” an older and respectable word which real meaning few people even know, and that I’ve discussed here before (there’s yet another modern way of expressing the same thing, popular among sophisticates in the SF Bay: the Kolmogorov Option):

Officially, contradictions do not exist in the minds of the citizens in the people’s democracies. Nobody dares to reveal them publicly. And yet the question of how to deal with them is posed in real life. More than others, the members of the intellectual elite are aware of this problem. They solve it by becoming actors.

It is hard to define the type of relationship that prevails between people in the East otherwise than as acting, with the exception that one does not per­form on a theater stage but in the street, office, fac­tory, meeting hall, or even the room one lives in.

Such acting is a highly developed craft that places a premium upon mental alertness. Before it leaves the lips, every word must be evaluated as to its consequences. A smile that appears at the wrong mo­ment, a glance that is not all it should be, can occa­sion dangerous suspicions and accusations.

A visitor from the Imperium is shocked on com­ing to the West. In his contacts with others, begin­ning with porters or taxi drivers, he encounters no resistance. The people he meets are completely re­laxed. They lack that internal concentration which betrays itself in a lowered head or in restlessly mov­ing eyes. They say whatever words come to their tongues; they laugh aloud. Is it possible that human relations can be so direct?

Acting in daily life differs from acting in the theater in that everyone plays to everyone else, and everyone is fully aware that this is so. The fact that a man acts is not to his prejudice, is no proof of unorthodoxy.

But he must act well, for his ability to enter into his role skillfully proves that he has built his characterization upon an adequate founda­tion. If he makes a passionate speech against the West, he demonstrates that he has at least 10 percent of the hatred he so loudly proclaims. If he con­demns Western culture lukewarmly, then he must be attached to it in reality.

Of course, all human be­havior contains a significant amount of acting. A man reacts to his environment and is molded by it even in his gestures. Nevertheless, what we find in the people’s democracies is a conscious mass play rather than automatic imitation. Conscious acting, if one practices it long enough, develops those traits which one uses most in one’s role, just as a man who became a runner because he had good legs develops his legs even more in training.

After long acquaint­ance with his role, a man grows into it so closely that he can no longer differentiate his true self from the self he simulates, so that even the most intimate of individuals speak to each other in Party slogans. To identify one’s self with the role one is obliged to play brings relief and permits a relaxation of one’s vigi­lance. Proper reflexes at the proper moment be­come truly automatic.

This happens in literature as well. A poet writing a piece of propaganda does not confine himself to a purely rationalistic approach. Imbued with the thought that poetry ideally should be suited to reci­tation in chorus at a meeting, he begins by tuning himself to an appropriate pitch of collective emo­tion before he can release himself in words.

Poetry as we have known it can be defined as the individual temperament refracted through social convention. The poetry of the New Faith can, on the contrary, be defined as social convention refracted through the individual tempera­ment. That is why the poets who are most adapted to the new situation are those endowed with dra­matic talent.

The poet creates the character of an ideal revolutionary and writes his verses as the mon­ologue of this character. He does not speak for himself but for the ideal citizen. His results are rem­iniscent of songs written to be sung on the march, since the aim is the same: the forging of the fetters of collectivity that bind together an advancing col­umn of soldiers.

A constant and universal masquer­ade creates an aura that is hard to bear, yet it grants the performers certain not inconsiderable satisfac­tions. To say something is white when one thinks it black, to smile inwardly when one is outwardly sol­emn, to hate when one manifests love, to know when one pretends not to know, and thus to play one’s adversary for a fool (even as he is playing you for one)—these actions lead one to prize one’s own cun­ning above all else. Success in the game becomes a source of satisfaction.

Simultaneously, that which we protect from prying eyes takes on a special value because it is never clearly formulated in words and hence has the irrational charm of things purely emotional. Man takes refuge in an inner sanctuary which is the more precious the greater the price he pays in order to bar others from access to it.

Acting on a comparable scale has not occurred often in the history of the human race. Yet in try­ing to describe these new mores, we happen across a striking analogy in the Islamic civilization of the Middle East. Not only was the game played in defense of one’s thoughts and feelings well—known there, but indeed it was transformed into a perma­nent institution and graced with the name of Ketman.

What is Ketman? I found its description in a book by Gobineau, entitled Religions and Philoso­phies of Central Asia. Gobineau spent many years in Persia (from 1855 to 1858 he was a secretary in the French legation, from 1861 to 1863 he was French minister), and we cannot deny his gift for keen ob­servation, even though we need not necessarily agree with the conclusions of this rather dangerous writer. The similarities between Ketman and the customs cultivated in the countries of the New Faith are so striking that I shall permit myself to quote at length.

The people of the Mussulman East believe that “He who is in possession of truth must not expose his person, his relatives or his reputation to the blind­ness, the folly, the perversity of those whom it has pleased God to place and maintain in error.” One must, therefore, keep silent about one’s true convic­tions if possible.

“Nevertheless,” says Gobineau,

there are occa­sions when silence no longer suffices, when it may pass as an avowal. Then one must not hesitate. Not only must one deny one’s true opinion, but one is commanded to resort to all ruses in order to deceive one’s adversary. One makes all the protestations of faith that can please him, one performs all the rites one recognizes to be the most vain, one falsifies one’s own books, one exhausts all possible means of deceit.

Thus one acquires the multiple satisfactions and merits of having placed oneself and one’s relatives under cover, of not having exposed a venerable faith to the horrible contact of the infidel, and finally of having, in cheating the latter and confirming him in his error, imposed on him the shame and spiritual misery that he deserves.

Ketman fills the man who practices it with pride. Thanks to it, a believer raises himself to a permanent state of superiority over the man he deceives, be he a minister of state or a powerful king; to him who uses Ketman, the other is a miserable blind man whom one shuts off from the true path whose existence he does not suspect; while you, tattered and dying of hunger, trembling externally at the feet of duped force, your eyes are filled with light, you walk in brightness before your enemies. It is an unintelli­gent being that you make sport of; it is a dangerous beast that you disarm. What a wealth of pleasures!

Milosz goes on, later:

Professional Ketman is reasoned thus: since I find myself in circumstances over which I have no control, and since I have but one life and that is fleeting, I should strive to do my best. I am like a crustacean attached to a crag on the bottom of the sea. Over me storms rage and huge ships sail; but my entire effort is concentrated upon clinging to the rock, for otherwise I will be carried off by the waters and perish, leaving no trace behind.

If I am a scien­tist I attend congresses at which I deliver reports strictly adhering to the Party line. But in the labora­tory I pursue my research according to scientific methods, and in that alone lies the aim of life. If my work is successful, it matters little how it will be presented and toward whose glory. Discoveries made in the name of a disinterested search for truth are lasting, whereas the shrieks of politicians pass. I must do all they demand, they may use my name as they wish, as long as I have access to a laboratory and money for the purchase of scientific instruments.

If I am a writer, I take pride in my literary achievements. Here, for example, is my treatise on Swift, a Marxist analysis. This type of analysis, which is not synonymous with the Method or the New Faith, makes possible a keen penetration into historical events. Marx had a genius for observation. In fol­lowing him one is secure against attack, for he is, after all, the prophet; and one can proclaim one’s be­lief in the Method and the New Faith in a preface fulfilling much the same function as dedications to kings or tsars in times past.

Here is my translation of a sixteenth-century poem, or my novel whose scene is laid in the distant past. Aren’t they of permanent value? Here are my translations from Russian. They are viewed with approbation and have brought me a large sum of money, but certainly Pushkin is a great poet, and his worth is not altered by the fact that to­day his poems serve Him as a means of propaganda. Obviously I must pay for the right to practice my profession with a certain number of articles and odes in the way of tribute. Still, one’s life on earth is not judged by transitory panegyrics written out of neces­sity.

These two examples of professional Ketman should demonstrate how little discomfort it creates for the rulers. It is the source of considerable dynamic force and one cause of the tremendous im­petus toward education.

The object is to establish some special field in which one can release one’s en­ergies, exploit one’s knowledge and sensibility, and at the same time escape the fate of a functionary entirely at the mercy of political fluctuations. Chemical ex­periments, bridges, translations of poetry, and medi­cal care are exceptionally free of falsity. The State, in its turn, takes advantage of this Ketman because it needs chemists, engineers, and doctors.

From time to time, it is true, there come from above muffled grumbles of hatred against those who practice Ketman in the realm of humanistic studies. Fadeyev, Moscow’s literary overseer, attacked the University of Leningrad because one of its students had writ­ten a dissertation on the English poet, Walter Savage Landor. “Who needs Landor? Who ever heard of him?” cried Fadeyev. So it would seem that moderation and watchfulness are indicated for those who espouse this form of Ketman.

Certain practicing Catholics serve even in the security police, and suspend their Catholicism in executing their inhumane work. Others, trying to maintain a Christian community in the bosom of the New Faith, come out publicly as Cath­olics. They often succeed in preserving Catholic institutions, because the dialecticians are ready to accept so-called “progressive” and “patriotic” Catho­lics who comply in political matters.

The mutual game is rather ambiguous. The rulers tolerate such Catholics as a temporary and necessary evil, reason­ing that the stage has not yet arrived at which one can utterly wipe out religion, and that it is better to deal with accommodating bigots than with refrac­tory ones.

“Progressive Catholics” are, however, conscious of being relegated to a not particularly honorable place, that of shamans or witch-doctors from savage tribes whom one humors until one can dress them in trousers and send them to school. They appear in various state spectacles and are even sent abroad as shining testimonials to the Center’s toler­ance toward uncivilized races. One can compare their function to that of “noble savages” imported to the metropolis by colonial powers for state occasions.

Their defense against total degradation is metaphysi­cal Ketman: they swindle the devil who thinks he is swindling them. But the devil knows what they think and is satisfied.

Informing was and is known in many civilizations, but the New Faith declares it a cardinal virtue of the good citizen (though the name itself is carefully avoided). It is the basis of each man’s fear of his fel­low-men.

Work in an office or factory is hard not only because of the amount of labor required, but even more because of the need to be on guard against omnipresent and vigilant eyes and ears. The people one talks with may seem relaxed and careless, sympathetic and indignant, but if they appear so, it is only to arouse corresponding attitudes and to extract confidences which they can report to their superiors.

In effect this cult of the community produces something which poisons the community itself. The mentality of the Party’s sages is, indeed, rather strange. They make concessions to physiological hu­man weaknesses, but they refuse to admit that man has other foibles as well: that he feels fine when he can relax, and unhappy when he is afraid, that lying is bad for him because it creates internal tension.

These weaknesses, together with others like the de­sire to better one’s own lot at the expense of one’s fellow-men, transform the ethic which was originally founded on cooperation and brotherhood into an ethic of a war pitting all men against all others, and granting the greatest chances of survival to the craft­iest. Victory in this new struggle seems to belong to a breed different from that which was favored to win in the battle for money in the early days of i­ndustrial capitalism.

If biting dogs can be divided into two main categories, noisy and brutal, or silent and slyly vicious, then the second variety would seem most privileged in the countries of the New Faith. Forty or fifty years of education in these new ethical maxims must create a new and irretrievable species of mankind. The “new man” is not merely a postu­late. He is beginning to become a reality.

Ethical Ketman is not rare among highly placed figures in the Party. These persons, no matter how capable they are of murdering millions of people in the name of Communism, try to compensate for their professional severity and are often more honorable in their personal relations than people who affect in­dividualistic ethics. Their capacity to sympathize and help is almost unlimited. Indeed this very feeling of compassion pushed them onto the road of revolution in their youth, and in this they reiterated the experience of Marx himself.

One finds this Ketman chiefly among the old Communists. Conflicts between friendship and the interests of the Revolution are matters they weigh at length in their conscience; and they are pitiless only when completely convinced that, in shielding a friend or in refraining from denouncing him, they are injuring that cause which is most pre­cious to them.

One can never foresee when and in whom this Ketman will appear, which makes for an element of surprise. Individuals who give one every reason to suppose that they do not denounce others turn out to be inveterate informers; individuals who are apparently most indifferent to “prejudices,” show themselves inexplicably loyal toward their friends and even toward strangers.

The inhabitants of Western countries little real­ize that millions of their fellow-men, who seem superficially more or less similar to them, live in a world as fantastic as that of the men from Mars. They are unaware of the perspectives on human nature that Ketman opens.

Life in constant internal tension develops talents which are latent in man. He does not even suspect to what heights of cleverness and psychological perspicacity he can rise when he is cornered and must either be skillful or perish. The survival of those best adapted to mental acrobatics creates a human type that has been rare until now. The necessities which drive men to Ketman sharpen the intellect.

Obviously, people caught up in this daily struggle are rather contemptuous of their compatriot political emigres. A surgeon can­ not consider a butcher his equal in dexterity; just so a Pole, Czech, or Hungarian practiced in the art of dissimulation smiles when he learns that someone in the emigration has called him a traitor (or a swine) at the very moment when this traitor (or swine) is engaged in a match of philosophical chess on whose outcome the fate of fifteen laboratories or twenty ateliers depends.

They do not know how one pays­—those abroad do not know. They do not know what one buys, and at what price.

In short, Ketman means self-realization against something. He who practices Ketman suffers because of the obstacles he meets; but if these obstacles were suddenly to be removed, he would find himself in a void which might perhaps prove much more painful. Internal revolt is sometimes essential to spiritual health, and can create a particular form of happiness. What can be said openly is often much less interest­ing than the emotional magic of defending one’s pri­vate sanctuary. For most people the necessity of living in constant tension and watchfulness is a torture, but many intellectuals accept this necessity with mas­ochistic pleasure.

He who practices Ketman lies. But would he be less dishonest if he could speak the truth? A painter who tries to smuggle illicit (“metaphysical”) delight in the beauty of the world into his picture of life on a collective farm would be lost if he were given com­plete freedom, for the beauty of the world seems greater to him the less free he is to depict it. A poet muses over what he would write if he were not bound by his political responsibilities, but could he realize his visions if he were at liberty to do so? Ket­man brings comfort, fostering dreams of what might be, and even the enclosing fence affords the solace of reverie.

But suppose one should try to live without Ke­tman, to challenge fate, to say: “If I lose, I shall not pity myself.” Suppose one can live without outside pressure, suppose one can create one’s own inner ten­sion—then it is not true that there is nothing in man. To take this risk would be an act of faith.

Like I wrote four years back, perhaps the key to esoteric writing is to let the reader know that you’re engaging in esoteric writing, that clues must be found below the surface. Come on, it’s not that difficult.

About David Roman

Communicator. I tweet @dromanber.
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