Inhumanity Is Part of Human Nature / Part II.

Jean-Paul Sartre once shocked the reading public by making the paradoxical claim that the French had never been as free as during the German occupation. It was, he claimed, only a seeming paradox since one gets trapped by free choice that disguises necessity – and for the French were deprived of the temptation of this trap by the German occupiers who left them no choice. And if the French were left with no choice, the same applies to the Poles a hundred times more so! After all, some of the German satraps tried to woo the French, promising them a place at the feast when, thanks to their collaboration, the New Order finally triumphed. The Poles, on the other hand, were told right at the start, in no uncertain terms, that the only role the New Order envisaged for them was that of workhorses, and that they had only one use for Poland, that of Lebensraum for the Thousand Year Reich. Thus there was no escape from fighting the invader; the only thing that was debatable was how soon to begin the fight and what weapons to deploy. The instinct for self-preservation, moral obligation and patriotism all spoke the same language. In unison, they said: don’’t give in, resist, fight.

The Soviet occupation, if I may use a term that defies customary usage, was very different. The Polish People’s Republic meant rule by winners, not losers, who promised to lead the country, haunted by war and pre-war poverty, into a land overflowing with previously unknown blessings. Land for the peasants, work for the workers, education for children, healthcare for all, freedom from the fear of unemployment and poverty and moreover, human dignity for all, respect for every kind of work, cultural treasures for everyone, an end to the nation’’s division into the high and mighty on the one hand and the poor commoners kowtowing to them on the other; an end to people’s ill-treatment and humiliation, the coming of a people finally elevated by the leverage of solidarity (sic!) onto the highest plane of community. In short, social justice firmly resting on the enlightened tripod of freedom, equality and fraternity. All this would appear to appeal to the instinct for self-preservation, ethical impulse and patriotism to speak again in unison, only this time carrying the opposite message to the one it carried earlier. All that was required was to believe in those promises. Or, in spite of a few doubts about the sincerity or power of those making the promises, to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Mass-Produced Hypocrisy

Once Poland was plotted onto the map of the German Lebensraum, German totalitarianism brutally rejected even those few who sympathized with its world view in spite of its provenience. The slogans of Soviet totalitarianism, on the other hand, tempted and attracted even many of those who were not, to put it mildly, convinced of the virtues of its country of origin…

People aggrieved by the hereditary misery and civilizational backwardness tormenting their fellow countrymen found it difficult to resist the charm of communist slogans. The slogans appealed equally to their sense of social justice and, simply, to their love of the homeland.

What kind of patriot (a person who places the good of the nation above the interests of caste) would not wish his fellow countrymen to be able to partake of the blessings promised by these slogans?

The problem was that it quickly became obvious that the slogans were one thing and practice another. Instead of narrowing, the gap between Poland and the rest of Europe continued to widen. The promised prosperity was nowhere to be seen. Apart from being less ostentatious, the new divisions were just as great as the old ones. And above all this floated the spectre of a brutal and ruthless power that tolerated no opposition and was allergic not merely to ideas that deviated from its beliefs, but to all ideas that that it did not itself inspire, order or bestow. Just as the privileges of the new elite came to be symbolized by yellow curtains, the phraseology of social emancipation and people’s power symbolized the callousness of the rulers and their lack of scruples.

The Nazi occupation left many wounds on the nation’’s body and soul but hypocrisy was not one of them. By contrast, this was the method of inflicting wounds that Stalin’’s totalitarian system preferred and that the authoritarian regime which followed perfected. The mass production of hypocrisy was an essential (even if not an intentional, and hence not called by its proper name) feature of Soviet communism and of the regimes it was willing to tolerate in its sphere of influence. People were expected to form a congregation that showed unthinking obedience and discipline, though not necessarily faith. Apart from a brief Sturm und Drang period, only a few people, including the ruling elites, believed in the slogans they spouted, but everyone was obliged to repeat them at every public occasion. In time, faith actually became an inconvenience to the government, since belief in the infallibility of the principles inevitably revealed the fallibility of their interpreters.

According to an unwritten concordat regulating mutual relations between the rulers and the people, the rulers were supposed to behave as if it they were completely devoted to the implementation of the programme of social prosperity and justice that they proclaimed, while the people were supposed to speak in public as if they believed them. It may not have applied to everything, but Vaihinger’’s als ob [as if] principle certainly applied fully to the everyday contact between the government and the Polish people. And the point is that it was not an appendix to the system but a necessary condition of its existence.

In his years of exile Alexander Solzhenitsyn suggested that his fellow countrymen should hold a day without lies, implying that one such day would be enough to bring about the collapse of the Soviet system. We will never know if he was right but his assumption did not seem much more absurd than the system to which it related.

However, geo-political factors cast doubt over the realism of Solzhenitsyn’’s idea. In Yalta the so-called West washed its hands of the affairs of the peoples populating the areas east of the River Elbe, subsequently providing plenty of evidence, through actions rather than evasive words, that apart from repeating its own set of slogans that were distinct from those proclaimed beyond the Elbe, it had no intention of getting its hands dirty again by meddling in their affairs. The Poles, even the most fanatically anti-communist and most radically rebellious among them, could not count on succour or help from the outside, and it was only madmen and incorrigible romantics who could dream of taking on their eastern neighbour’s might in a lone duel that could have ended just as tragically for the country as all previous uprisings, starting with the November Uprising [of 1830, against the Russian Empire] and ending with the Warsaw Rising of 1944. And therefore the idea that the Soviet empire might implode and self-destruct had not occurred either to the domestic intelligentsia with its factual and sober reasoning nor to any of the highly respected and authoritative sovietological institutes around the world, flush with funding and brains of the highest calibre; such a thought was not mooted even many years later, when the colossus’s feet of clay began to visibly waste away. In these circumstances living a lie became a condition of survival more for those who lived the lie than for the regime that demanded their hypocrisy. As for the regime, it did appreciate the consent of its subordinates but it could just as easily have managed without their pretended, sincerely insincere consent.

Either way, the lie was lived and for many years there was no indication that the cup of the people’’s patience might run over. As Witold Wirpsza’s melancholy poem A letter about conscience says:

They say: we are building socialism.

And they are right, even though they are lying.

They have taught

Their thoughts and imagination

To crawl; and creeping along the crevice

That their bellies had hollowed in the emptiness,

They will learn any catechism

By heart!

Is the individual really nothing, a zero?

Surprisingly (or perhaps not so surprisingly) the heirs, spokesmen and most zealous practitioners of hypocrisy in present-day Poland are the ruling elites. In this respect things have somewhat returned to the norm from which the Communist regime had deviated. The people (or at least that part of the people that does not speak on behalf of ruling parties; and even they only when there are no nosey journalists around) seem no longer to take words seriously while the rulers do not take seriously what the people are saying (at least in the breaks between elections – which are actually getting longer as a result of a shrinking of public memory in general, and the memory of pre-election promises in particular…).

In one of his Flying University lectures Adam Michnik explained how the intellectuals succumbed to the rulers who were at odds with the people, by believing that historical rights were implacable, that the direction of events had been predetermined, and that resisting history could only increase the number of sacrifices that would have to be made on the way to the goal without ever changing the course of history. Resisting history would amount only to the proverbial attempt to stop a speeding train by placing a stick in the spokes of its wheels – an attempt that was doomed to failure. Therefore, Michnik said, even though they were fully aware that violence has triumphed and that the will of the majority of society is being raped, the intellectuals thought it had to be that way, that it could not be any other way, since the result had been predetermined, since history has condemned mankind to progress; and thus everything that attempted to resist its course could only be (objectively speaking) mean and foolish plotting by reactionaries. Perhaps what we have here is one of the ketmans that Miłosz had observed and catalogued?

Or, in the words of Vladimir Mayakovsky, whom Joseph Stalin considered the greatest poet of the Country of Soviets, an individual is nothing, an individual is zero – on his own he can’’t lift a five-stone log. Yes, if there is still something about these words that arouses our indignation today, in a completely different world, it is probably their sincerity – the fact that they so loudly express sentiments that we ourselves hesitate to express for the sake of our own peace of mind and out of respect to our interlocutors.…

For we intellectuals, the heirs of Auschwitz and people civilized through and through in a contemporary fashion, have a tendency to ritual worship at the altar of the free and thus fundamentally omnipotent individual, but in the privacy of our soul we don’t really believe in the individual’’s (and thereby also our) omnipotence. It is a paradox, or perhaps, when we really think about it, it’’s not really a paradox, that the authority of the individual has never sunk so low as in this day of the cult of the individuals and their human rights. Statistics dutifully registering the majority support for this or that party or this or that washing powder, lists of bestselling books, most popular films or spectacles attracting the greatest crowds, have deprived the individual of the authority which the pioneers of modernity promised it would be endowed with. All that the individual has left is a shovel; and as folk wisdom warns, it’’s useless to try reaching for the sun with a shovel. Or reaching for mass culture, if we apply folk wisdom to the social sciences.…

As Günther Anders noted in 1956 – without an iota of enthusiasm, in contrast to Mayakovsky, who had departed this world at his own request a quarter of a century earlier) – The game goes on whatever we do; regardless of whether we participate in it or not, it goes on and we are its participants, adding in final desperation: And nothing will change if we refuse to participate. So is an individual really nothing, a zero? Some fifty years since the passing of Stalin’s favourite a Frenchman, Pierre Bourdieu, and some Germans – Claus Offe and Ulrich Beck – seem to have no doubt with regard to this question. Though using different words, they all sound the same warning: the freer the individual, the less his moves can influence the course of the game. The greater the tolerance (or indifference?) the world shows to an individual’s acts, the less is the influence we exert on the game we play and that is played with us. The world takes the form of a solid block which we cannot shift from its place and which, to cap it all, is opaque and windowless so that we cannot look inside to discover what has made it so heavy. And the officials sitting at their desks in Warsaw confirm our conviction that this burden is not an illusion but the sacred truth, by constantly repeating that whatever they do, they do it because they have to, because there is no other way, because otherwise it would be the end, since to do anything else would lead the country and the people to unimaginable disaster. They repeat this mantra in unison with those from other capitals who claim that There Is No Alternative (TINA), as Jacek Żakowski put it in his devastating critique “Anti-TINA”.

Hope, courage and perseverance

The more numerous the chorus and the more sonorous its song, the slimmer the chances of discovering the truth of its refrain. Or, as Florian Znanecki’s collaborator William Isaac Thomas, suggests: if people believe that a certain view is true, it becomes true as a result of their actions. In other words: the more the individual believes in his lack of power, the harder he will find it to discover his own power and to bring himself to use it. TINA is a brilliant way of clearing one’s conscience. And also an excellent prophylactic: if applied conscientiously, the conscience will not get a chance to discover that it has been soiled.

It so happened that a couple of years ago, within a short space of time, I attended birthday celebrations of two individuals: Václav Havel and Jacek Kuroń. These were great opportunities to stop and think again about everything I have said so far about the role of the individual.

Let’’s be honest about it, Havel and Kuroń were mere individuals, they lacked that which is supposedly essential for an individual in order to free himself from his allegedly natural powerlessness. They had no aircraft carriers or missiles, no police or prisons, they lacked riches or fame, TV studios or crowds of sycophantic troubadours and zealous yes-men. They did not appear on TV surrounded by throngs of admirers, they were not featured on the front pages of newspapers. Yet, in spite of all this, both of them, in their own way, changed the rules of the game for their fellow countrymen. They succeeded thanks to three very basic weapons known to mankind at least since the stone ages: hope, courage and perseverance – except that they used them more often than I, and probably most of us, would.

Havel has said of hope that it definitely is not a prognosis. It does not bow religiously to statistical trends, and it certainly does not throw in the towel when these happen to be unfavourable. Speaking of Havel, Richard Rorty recalled Kenneth Burke’s words: We discover the future by finding out what people are allowed to sing about, linking it with Havel’’s motto that it is impossible to tell in any one year what song will be on people’’s lips a year from no. Bearing this in mind, one has to muster the courage to keep up hope, something that Maria Janion once described as obstinate idealism. Havel did muster that courage, as did Lipski and Jacek Kuroń…

Bishop Jan Chrapek would repeat obstinately: Live in a way that will leave a trace in this world. Havel, Lipski or Kuroń would probably have specified the kind of traces that mattered, advising people to live in such a way that they left the world a better place than they had found it. And acting on their own advice, they have made the world a better place, even though only a tiny little bit – and even though none of them believed that all their hopes would come true and despite the fact that one might have (as indeed they had themselves) quite a few objections as to the fruit their efforts have borne.

Nevertheless, they have made the world a better place at least to the extent that the price that we have to pay today for hope, courage and perseverance is smaller than it used to be, making it a little easier to live according to the guidance they provided and that they themselves followed. The world has come a few steps closer to fulfilling Jacek Kuroń’’s maxim: The truth (actually a number of varying, often contradictory truths) is the property of free citizens. Thus, towards the end of his life, Kuroń was able to say with a clear conscience: It is enough to have the will, the idea and a bit of perseverance to achieve something really significant in our Poland again. And to remind us: It means it is worth having the will. And it’’s worth trying. In spite of everything.

So perhaps the melancholy predictions of Günther Anders and Vladimir Mayakovsky’’s enthusiastic proclamations worthy of quite a different cause, are not necessarily true? They are not, if one is a Havel, a Kuroń or a Lipski. And they do not have to be true, if we insist on following in their tracks and if we have the courage to accept the consequences. Of course, not many people have it in them. I don’’t think I have it in me. But I suspect I might have made a more energetic effort if I had not told myself that I could not…

Ketmans, the tricks of the mind

Ketmans were introduced by Miłosz in his book The Captive Mind. The book’’s hero was the mind, and all those who used it but allowed it to become captive. What he had in mind was not the ordinary mind, not the one that we all possess (under the name of reason) albeit not to the same degree. He wrote about the mind as a privilege, about the mind that serves only the select, and by definition, the few who write and those they write about. The mind that, unlike reason, (sound reason, of course) does not tell us what to do but what one is supposed to and forced to do. In order to do its job properly, reason has to be captive: one has to stick to the predetermined path, not deviating from it and not allowing those one leads to deviate from it. The more faithfully reason follows the orders that have to be followed and the more obediently it serves the powers that be and those who issue orders, the better reason does its job.

If Paul, following the example of Paul, is peaceful, not bothering anyone, then the mind, as Saul, invents the wildest frolics. That is its vocation, that is its raison d´être. The mind needs freedom – the mind breathes freedom. The captive mind is a contradiction in terms (or, as the English would have it, an oxymoron). What could it be? Could it be the mind masquerading as reason? The mind that has stooped to the level of reason (sound reason, I repeat….)? In the name of what? Of tricking the powers that be? (There was a popular joke in the Warsaw student theatre Stodoľa in the sixties: We are governed by half-intelligent people…. But I’’m saying it from the point of view of quarter-intelligent people! And the satirist Vladimir Voinovich defined socialist realism, the artistic equivalent of the captive mind, as praising the powers that be in terms they can understand.) Power is based on the fact that you can’’t cheat it without cheating yourself. Because reason is the sleeping pill of the mind. If we use it in small daily doses it becomes a drug. If we use it in large doses, it turns into poison. But to ask what the mind is up to when it is busy taming and shackling its natural freedom until it can no longer exercise it, would be as futile as asking what the wind does when it is not blowing or what a river does when it is not flowing. The mind is truly itself only when it is in uncharted territory: the kind of territory of which reason warns us: hic sunt leones. And that is its only use. Nothing more, but also nothing less. And I am convinced that this is not little, far from it.

I repeat: ketmans are a trick of the mind. It is the mind that, like Peter (before he became a saint) denies its vocation, that needs ketmans. In his ketman typology Miłosz clarified the different ways people armed with a mind tried to (were able to?) trick themselves into believing that they were not tricking themselves. For hundreds of years people armed with a mind have been referred to as intellectuals. Ketmans are the professional tool of intellectuals. Or rather, an indispensable ingredient of their first aid kit. And these first aid kits, as Derrida warned, are full of drugs: medicine if taken in small doses and poison if the dose is exceeded.

For the rest of us, i.e. the overwhelming majority of us, ketmans are not indispensable. To people armed with a mind the world is not a subject of creative transformation, which is why they do not have to justify to others or to themselves if they renounce or give up the process of transformation; even more so if they never even thought of it and attempted it. Those who feel confined in Plato’’s cave and who cannot forget the brightness out there and cannot recall it without a painful pang of sadness, mock the platonic troglodytes, dismissing the cave dwellers’’ daily cave-bound routine as stupefying and dehumanizing. Yet a routine, particularly if it lasts long enough to turn into a habit, provides protection to the self from being torn asunder, a fate that befalls anyone who dares to cross the threshold of Plato’’s cave. As Richard Sennett discovered during the forty years he devoted to the intense observation of New York bakers, by making the world uniform and monotonous, routine makes it a place that is safe, predictable and generally free of surprises at the same time; and by this token routine tears true professional pride apart but allows us to pull our lives together.

Conclusion to follow.

Translation: Julia Sherwood

Part I of this essay appeared in Gazeta Wyborcza on 18 May and is available online here, English here.

This article was originally published in Polish in the Gazeta Wyborcza on 25 May 2009.