Tuesday, August 31, 2004


The Captive Mind Now - What Czeslaw Milosz understood about Islam. By Christopher Hitchens

So, I read through these essays again, finding something fresh and worthy each time. But the one I was actually looking for did not have anything, at least ostensibly, to do with the battles against modern tyranny in Europe. It is titled, cryptically, "Ketman." "Ketman" is a term from ancient Persia, brought to Milosz's attention by Arthur Gobineau's book Religions and Philosophies of Central Asia. (Gobineau, now rather despised for his ethno-theories, was a senior French diplomat in Tehran for many years of the mid-19th century.) He had noticed that the dissidents in Persia, long accustomed to theocratic tyranny, had evolved a style of their own. As Milosz had himself observed about intellectuals under totalitarianism, the need for survival often involved more than just keeping your mouth shut. Tough moments could often arise where you had to make positive, public affirmations of loyalty and even enthusiasm. So with the oldest form of oppression known to the mind: that of religion. As Gobineau had phrased it:

"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 than 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."

Gobineau cited the efforts of one Sadra, a rationalist disciple of Avicenna. This savant carefully observed all the cardinal dogmas of Shiism, spent hours elaborating the minutest details of the faith and proclaiming his superior knowledge of them, until he had won great praise from the mullahs and imams. Then, "seasoned with unimpeachable professions of faith, he succeeded in spreading Avicennism throughout the entire lettered class; and when at last he believed he could reveal himself completely, he drew aside the veils, repudiated Islam, and showed himself the logician, the metaphysician that he really was."

Not everybody possesses the arcane intellectual credentials, or the sheer nerve, to practice ketman at this exalted level, but Milosz points out that it can be employed, or perhaps better to say deployed, in less rigorous and demanding forms. One of these is "aesthetic ketman," which relies upon the need of even the most absolutist society to boast of some sort of cultural or academic capacity. "Aesthetic ketman," observes Milosz,

"is expressed not only in that unconscious longing for strangeness which is channeled toward controlled amusements like theater, film and folk festivals, but also into various forms of escapism. Writers burrow into ancient texts, comment upon and re-edit ancient authors. They write children's books so that their fancy may have slightly freer play. Many choose university careers because research into literary history offers a safe pretext for plunging into the past and for converse with works of great aesthetic value."

He goes on to say:

"How can one still the thought that aesthetic experiences arise out of something organic, and that the union of color and harmony with fear is as difficult to imagine as brilliant plumage on birds living in the northern tundras?

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