Today man believes there is nothing in him, so he accepts anything, even if he knows it to be bad (i.e., voting for the lesser of two evils) in order to find himself at one with others, in order not to be alone. As long as he believes this there is little one can reproach in his behavior.
– Czelaw Milosz, The Captive Mind
A man’s subconscious or not-quite-conscious life is richer than his vocabulary. His opposition to this new philosophy of life [i.e., Communism] is much like a toothache. Not only can he not express the pain in words, but he cannot tell you which tooth is aching.
Like the climate scientists chaining themselves to the White House fence, aware their warnings are futile as politicians dither and people look for normalcy, I too exist in history’s blind spot. That is, history wants to barge forward on its road to better and better without any input that’s too inconvenient to the overall purpose: ka-ching ka-ching. That many people – even a majority – disagree with that history project I’ve no doubt. But what is the disconnect between disagreement and act that only a few part ways with the project? It lies, I’m convinced in the rupture with otherness, a poetic problem, very real, that keeps non-consenting liberal minds captive inside the awesomely catastrophic project, rather than outside, intentionally local, improvisational, civilly and metaphysically disobedient.
I wonder, do people still read The Captive Mind, Czeslaw Milosz’s dissection of totalitarianism? I wasn’t sure, when I picked up our yellowed 1981 Vintage Books paperback copy, a reprint from the 1951 original, if the work wasn’t dated. It was, after all, a Cold War indictment of Stalinist or Communist totalitarianism long since gone with glasnost. But dated it is not! For us who must now wonder if it’s possible to free liberal minds from our captivity in neoliberal totalitarian reality, even my crumbling 42-year-old copy fairly sang with relevance.
After weeks of front page photos in the NY Times of dead bodies and bombed out structures in Ukraine, we learn – not to great surprise – that many lefties view the war in Ukraine as “just” – that is justified. (Ron Jacobs, “Supporting Militarism will not Bring Justice, Only Death” CP, 4/6/22). What hope can be left that people – liberals in particular – will remember there is no good war, that we can stop being led around by the NY Times, Washington Post, NPR, et al, as if our wanting them to report the truth were the same as their doing so? Once again, the media constructs, with invaluable help from Russian atrocities, a plausible evil side such that there can be a good side (for us white hats to be on) to which armaments may be righteously sold. ka-ching ka-ching.
Well, from inside perhaps the most thorough-going system of mind-capture the world had known up to that time, the poet Milosz’s book offers hope for freeing even the most captive minds. Yes, I would venture, even the mind captive in the loving embrace of liberal media, liberal affluence and liberal good intentions. The “hope” comes via Milosz’s way of revealing the hidden opposition under the near-total uniformity imposed on eastern European countries post-WWII by the USSR. Although failure to adhere to “the System” could get one killed or sent to the Gulag, widespread opposition did exist, but only in emotion. For most people in the “peoples’ democracies,” their opposition – and this gets to the very meaning of “totalitarian” – could not be put into words. Milosz humorously made the point: [though] ”the superiority of Russian realist painting over French impressionism has been proved in Moscow, unfortunately, the eye is used in the appreciation of a painting” That is, “the most learned discourse cannot transform an ugly canvas into a great work of art.” This obstinacy that cannot be convinced against its own sense(s) Milosz called “the strangeness of man.”
The obstinacy of this “strangeness” is not the heroic resistance of an underground movement, which often are powered by nationalist (not good-for-all) fervor. This estranged part – we can call it the human soul, the lone recalcitrant hold-out for truth – will not gather to itself a resistance movement of patriots, nor one of anti-authoritarian anti-patriots. But it holds fast against even the most convincing theory, the most implicit unanimity, the most unchallengeable assumptions, and surely can hold out against WMD claims certified as fact in the Times, identity politics or lesser-evilism. Milosz spoke as a poet, his calling a gift of insight to which if he were not true, ”my poetry would be tasteless to me and fame detestable.” But what if the calling to see things from the soul’s-eye viewpoint is more universal – and way more declined – than we know? Is it possible every soul is called but most decline being chosen?
Poetic understanding is not beyond the reach of any human being. Because, as is in the way of poetry and creative expression, it can “only” free minds singly, one by one, some may see it as a deficient basis for a social movement that must move masses. However, if in relation to the enormity and urgency of our problems we see this as a discouraging fact, it’s because we haven’t tried it! Befriending this “strangeness” (i.e., taking poetic action) is where we must look to free the captive mind that is one’s own! Free your poetic mind and then tell me you don’t believe mountains or masses can be moved.
Speaking for the estranged soul, Milosz made real the invisible, unspoken, but existing opposition in peoples’ hearts and souls whose minds otherwise were captive. Thus it seems evident to me, the work of serving the great human dreams of peace and social justice is the work of freeing captive minds, the work not of propaganda, but poetry, a concentration of the mind such that one lives not to be “at one with others,” but at one with oneself. The mind of a person at one with herself is not captive, but free.
It may be a stretch to suggest that in the hearts and souls of liberal Americans there exists opposition to the implicit faith in progress – to the consensus history that has us triumphant in it. In deference to that belief, despite all evidence to the contrary, we trust that progress, in particular technological progress – will continue to make life better and better. Intelligent dissenters to this modern pie-in-the-sky, of which there are many, attempt to dissuade us by showing us distressing facts that demonstrate the lie: the worsening economy, the high rate of joblessness, growing inequality, 24-7 surveillance, the deterioration of the environment and climate collapse, etc.
However, the really distressing fact is facts do not move us to part ways with this greater faith that brings us into unison with others in consensus history (that is, the history we’re conscious of). Or, as Milosz wrote, “one does not defeat a Messiah with common-sense arguments.” This is particularly true for those of us not among the starving or homeless, nor among the working class essential workers being routinely exploited. Despite that we’re constantly disturbed by persistent rumors of climate collapse, mass extinctions, the creeping awareness that fascist evil is gaining ground, this disturbance is not sufficient to make us opponents of the one neoliberal shared reality and, though we’re not passionate about it, the 2-party “democratic” electoral system. It cannot shake liberal minds away from our faith in this being the best of all thinkable worlds.
Reading Milosz one sees there is a “ground” upon which one can stand to oppose the dominant assumptions in rudderless liberal society. It is that “life spark” that exists singularly in humans, in which, unfortunately, we don’t believe. We believe in the togetherness of our talking about Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Academy Awards. That is, we trust group truths, not subjective ones. The truth that though arrived at singly is universal, is a stranger to us. (Unless we’re a poet.) Two mental acts are required for overcoming the obstacle of unbelief: First, the near-absolute demand we be in unison with others has to be let go of – at least temporarily; otherwise we cannot discover its falseness. Much harder, a voice must be given to the worthless, easily dismissible, no doubt wrong voice in myself that is saying something to the dominant conversation which doesn’t care what I think. That is, the strangeness I feel privately, that inconvenient feeling I’m inclined to dismiss in order to be at one with the group, is something (though I don’t believe in it), not nothing (though I believe it to be a nullity and I treat it as such). That strangeness is my true dissidence to uniform opinion (i.e., there can be a just war and this one is it!). Moreover, this strangeness is precisely my Self, my soul, from which I have been unnaturally estranged.
That is, dissidence, long thought to rely upon solidarity, equally cannot be separated from individuality. To befriend the “strangeness-that-is-you” as the poet did, is the immense human, evolutionary task – I would call it duty – of becoming the other one is (rather than barring one’s otherness in permanent estrangement). Taking up the task makes one not simply a poet, though it does that. It is a retrieval of oneself from the obscurity, the frittering, the enthusiasm for “idiotic pastimes,” the self-defeating anger that, all forgivable, of course, keep us captive within mass society, east or west.
In my own case being a writer brings with it this obligation to ally with my strangeness against my inclination to suppress it. That is, the forces that would nullify the soul’s reality will never cease their efforts to return Her to Nothing (and I to purely no account). The demand it makes is the very difficult intellectual task of charging neoliberal reality – which Americans accept, no matter how bad we know it to be – with its crimes, as much as we charge Putin – or Trump – with theirs. The obligation otherness imposes on the creative person is to act as lay “public intellectual” – professional credentials or no! – out of loyalty to the strangeness, an act of faith.
Not many kicks and giggles here! With this obligation comes a sentence I find harsh: unlike, for example, a feminist identity, identifying with my otherness means I no longer can assume at-oneness with social others. After a childhood in which I wanted desperately not to be different (that is, I perceived my difference as my “illness” not my bliss) this has been awesomely difficult. Undergoing an intense personal crisis at mid-life, I was lucky enough to learn something about trusting that strangeness, a contrarian understanding based in believing instead of doubting. My writing is how I sustain it, but comradeship is darn hard to come by out here in provincial Upstate NY. Although mine may be an unusual case, I’m more convinced than ever the mind captive in mass society – in particular its liberal bourgeois strata – cannot be freed without the poetic nature, without active sympathy for the voice (“nothing”) in oneself that is automatically suppressed in society.
However late and ill-prepared has been my arrival at being a thinking person, I can state with some confidence that trusting in the “something,” the attempt to give the something a voice, reveals an immense unhappiness, an existential heaviness that contradicts completely the lies we’ve absorbed: That is, this is not the best of all possible worlds! This revelation contradicts our liberal training which denies the emotional and spiritual realities that make art – along with food and shelter – a necessity for all, not a perk for the elite. We’ve been deprived of the means we have to release our identity from the mass, from surrender to centralized power, to corporate chains wiping out local towns and communities, to a reality in which people are tied to screens as to a lifeline saving them from hopeless fear, anxiety and depression – i.e., from seeking the center that will hold, the “holy” center, in ourselves.
As I write from History’s blind spot, another voice in me cries out: Serenity prayer aside, I confess I am sick about what I cannot change! My writing changes nothing except myself! My social world is constituted of people who never read what I write, who for the most part will not parlay with their own strangeness. I make not a dent in their consciousness. I don’t know how to love them well. I don’t know how to convey this hope I know exists, that is real and not hokum like the next Lesser Evil’s promises. Even with the small, but real community I have here in Utica, I’m in pain over all the ones lost to the old false belief, who will not bend to hear what the strangeness is saying.
Like the Cold War Communist faithfuls, liberal Americans remain engaged in history’s upward project and fear being left out. They read the NY Times and listen to NPR news and liberal pundits in order not to be left out. Or they read the contrarians online to be a part of the network of skepticism and doubt, or buy cryptocurrency; they exist without a center. Even with all the proof we have that History’s “second name is Annihilation,”(Milosz) a rug thrown over the truth, history is our shared consensus reality; those who doubt its benefits, or are left out by design, – all the no-accounts – find ourselves in history’s blind spot. This blind spot is as effective as any gulag at suppressing dissent. It will not go away until more people discover the blind spot is the center. From here you can see.