Jean Bethke Elshtain is the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago. She is the author or editor of some 20 books, including Women and War, Democracy on Trial and, most recently, Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World. In February she delivered the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh. In this post, Jean discusses the work of Czeslaw Milosz.
Jean Bethke Elshtain on Czeslaw Milosz
In the early 90s I was part of a faculty reading group at the university where I then taught dedicated to examining the politics and literature of the new central/eastern Europe. We decided to return to Czeslaw Milosz's classic, The Captive Mind. Derided by left-wing critics still enamoured with Marxism, this masterwork got located as just another polemical entry in Cold War argumentation. Over dinner one evening - I was fortunate enough to be seated next to Milosz - he told me that one University of California, Berkeley, faculty member informed him that he had received tenure at that esteemed institution in spite of rather than in part because of having written The Captive Mind.
Leading the discussion on The Captive Mind, I noted a distinctive cast of mind at work. I called it 'incarnational', given Milosz's insistence that trafficking in abstractions takes us away from, rather than putting us in contact with, that which we would understand. An incarnational text is a world of concrete presences: it derives from an impulse to make 'real' that which is symbolized or represented. A symbol, a metaphor, a figure does not stand apart from but participates in 'the thing itself'. The writer aims neither for a pure realm nor an ideal form but for a way to express reverence for that which is.
Milosz is rightly celebrated for having captured such delicately specific concrete moments in his poetry, moments that quickly slip or threaten to slip from our grasp. His poems, he tells us, are encounters with 'the peculiar circumstances of time and place'. This is true as well of his prose. One looks to Milosz to capture something about the quotidian. And the horrible truth about much 20th century politics is the immediacy of stark, physical pain: disappearances, death camps, torture, on and on. Milosz apprizes us of the terrors of an impositional and invasive 'universalism' armed, as was communism and Sovietism, with a sure and certain blueprint for history and a method - 'dialectical materialism' - that could turn the basest and most horrific things (mass slaughter) into the gold of some future perfect order.
The 20th century mind was susceptible to seduction by socio-political doctrines of this sort, hence a willingness to accept totalitarian terror for the sake of a hypothetical future. Milosz throughout his work puts on display the impoverished, one-dimensional, flattened view of the human being which a totalizing ideology requires and feeds on, inviting a phenomenon like 'the young cannibals who, in the name of inflexible principles, butchered the population of Cambodia' and who 'had graduated from the Sorbonne and were simply trying to implement the philosophic ideas they had learned'. The need for 'objective enemies' - enemies because they stand in the way of the triumph of a race, a class, or a religion (as in Islamist ideology) - is a central feature of a 'captive mind'.
The publication in English (in 2005) of early Milosz work* - essays and letters from occupied Poland, 1942-1943 (with responses to some of the letters by Jerzy Andrzejewski) - alerts us to Milosz's conviction that Europe was in the grip of a spiritual crisis; indeed, in the throes of nihilism characterized by cults of power and death and the displacement of a quest for spiritual perfection by a social project, as man aspired to omnipotence in a world allegedly beyond truth and falsehood: the 'triumph of the will' on a vivid and horrifying scale.
Milosz's genealogy of these developments turns on a particular trajectory in the 'Protestant spirit' that became 'obsessed with [a] moralizing mission' and displaced that on to social forms. Whatever one makes of this explanation, Milosz's phenomenology of this triumph of subjectivism and the will is as fresh now as it was in 1942 and 1943. Spurning limits of any kind, trashing 'conventional morality', caught up in the coils of self-confirming ideologies, monsters of consistency unleashed horror after horror upon the body of the European continent - and beyond at a later point.
As does Hannah Arendt in her essay 'On Violence', Milosz displays the ways in which the intoxication of 'the deed' moved to defeat 'the Christian virtues' as little more than the 'qualities of the enslaved' that the 'debased Jewish nation' had also 'elevated to the level of merits'. In another variant, the mysteries of 'the dialectic' are brought to bear to demonstrate how slaughter here and now is necessary and no more to be lamented than an apple falling from a tree given the force of gravity: the 'scientific laws' of nature or society dictate these outcomes. Milosz advocates a point also limned by Albert Camus, namely, that 'absolute freedom' and terror go hand-in-hand.
So World War II must not, he insists, be remembered as at base a series of power-plays to determine continental dominance, but as a war about 'man and the world' that 'resembles religious wars'. Those who preach contempt for humanity, and locate value only in future perfect states cleansed of the imperfect beings who people the here and now, 'derive justification for the most vile acts from the annihilation of values; since nothing enduring exists, since life is nothing but a meaningless swarming of vermin that devour one another, everything is permitted...' The individual is immolated on the altar of an idea gone mad. The demonic elements of human nature, rather than being held in check, are given free rein.
There is a great darkness attendant upon the human soul. To celebrate this darkness or to deny it leads all too easily to gulags and death camps at worst, to the soul-killing and mind-numbing politics of 'utility maximization' in another, though far less deadly, incarnation. And as for art? It, too, has capitulated to the darkness over and over again, Milosz reminds us. Art might have reminded us of the realities of what soft-shelled human beings are all about in their concreteness; instead, too often, violence and riots of loathing for ordinary human beings are prominently displayed. Abandoned too is the saving grace of irony and recognition of 'what a terrifying desert is a society without a sense of the tragic...'
Rightly remembered as a great poet, Milosz's contributions to prose should not be slighted. In a variety of forms, he helped to keep alive those sensibilities and values that refuse to capitulate to the darkness of terror and the celebration of violence.
* Czeslaw Milosz, Legends of Modernity: Essays and Letters from Occupied Poland, 1942-1943 (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2005).
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]