They are fundamentally ignorant, not because of lack of factual data—on the contrary, there is a great abundance of such data—but due to failure of imagination. All the isolated facts we know would add up to worthwhile knowledge only if we were to perceive the unifying pattern behind them. For this, however, imagination would be needed, and nobody is able to imagine a reality totally different from the one in which he has lived all his life. Thus, being informed about some stark and salient facts about life in the East, the Westerner blunderingly tries to explain them with the help of concepts and categories familiar to him. The result is a naively distorted picture, and, above all, total inability to guess why and how the Eastern despotism succeeds in its projects of regimentation.
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My friend told me that his public library had shelves and shelves of books for sale written by political scientists during the Cold War, all trying to puzzle out what the Soviets were thinking. Among the books that have already started to gather dust are the most distinguished works related to communism.
I doubt many people will read Koestler in another fifty years. All those novels about nuclear anxiety will probably soon be forgotten too: On the Beach, etc. None of my friends who studied philosophy care much about Karl Popper or Alexander Herzen.
The obvious exception is , which survives even as Animal Farm, deservedly, disappears along with the memory of its historical originals. I am a little embarrassed about why I picked it up. The book is a study of the capitulation of artists to the demands of Communism, and I was looking for some insight into the bad state of political affairs in this country—the fact that so many people who seem bright enough are willing to accept what they must know are lies for the sake of their political affiliation.
Wise people say this is suspicious. Hooray, I thought! Take that, Dubya! Because what I wanted out of this book was to be told things I already knew, with a dash of wit, from someone with some moral authority. I was a symptom of the bad situation I was describing. Milosz describes the attractions of Communism; the hard questions that any all-embracing philosophy spares a person from answering for herself; and the strange sort of dissembling life produced in a society of informants.
There were oblique analogies here to American life, but nothing direct. Everything was beautifully written, and clearly the product of an incisive mind, but it felt like a book that no one would much care to read fifty years from now.
And then, a few chapters in, Milosz starts writing a different sort of book. He produces four character sketches of artists known to him who, in some form of another, decided to bend their art to the demands of the state. Each one is enthralling. It is one of the most beautiful acts of identification I have ever come across. Novelists are continually writing about artists — painters, musicians, other writers — but I have never come across another book that I felt had such insight into the different varieties of the artistic temperament.
Milosz does not attempt any generalizations; the sketches, in addition to being a history of life in Poland during the Nazi years, are attempts to see what made these specific writers decide to alter their art to the dictates of socialist realism. Milosz describes their life and temperament, he reads everything they have written; and slowly, he brings out some element of their outlook that keeps emerging through their life and work, something that makes them willing to settle, in the end, for untruth.
Most Western artists no longer have to worry about the demands of the state, but the traits that make a person susceptible to one capitulation will always leave him open to others, and modern society has no end of compromises that it encourages artists to make. Forget modern society—life encourages compromises. It is always easier to take your cues from convention, give up before something is quite right—or, for that matter, just leave the damn page blank and go to bed.
There are a few books that I feel like I need to read every few years to steady myself somehow. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is one; I think this will become another. I encourage everyone to read it. Posted by.
The Captive Mind
In the novel, a new Mongol Empire conquers Poland and introduces Murti-Bing pills as a cure for independent thought. At first, Murti-Bing pills create widespread content and blind obedience, but ultimately lead those taking them to develop split personalities. He describes them as feeling a mixture of contempt and fascination. The constraints placed on politicians and policemen by the rule of law struck them as incomprehensible and inferior to the police states of the Communist world.
The Captive Mind, by Czeslaw Milosz