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In the garden of choice
Standards in a plastic world
The Captive Mind by the poet Czeslaw Milosz is a remarkable set of reflections on the way Polish people dealt with their country being ripped apart first by the Nazis and then the Communists. Considering the experience of the Second World War, he wrote, ‘for five and a half years we lived in a dimension completely different from that which any literature or experience could have led us to know. What we beheld surpassed the most daring and the most macabre imagination.’ This was a time in which the bounds of the possible were reshaped in the most terrible of fashion. He further observed:
Man tends to regard the order he lives in as natural. The houses he passes on his way to work seem more like rocks rising out of the earth than products of human hands. … He behaves a little like Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush, bustling about in a shack poised precariously on the edge of a cliff.
His first stroll along a street littered with glass from bomb-shattered windows shakes his faith in the ‘naturalness’ of his world.
Milosz powerfully captured how people’s values and perspectives were reordered by the reality of war, in which experience repeatedly outstripped imagination. What is remarkable is how people can adapt to the most extreme and unlikely of settings, with this malleability being both a source of strength and weakness.
Which world is ‘natural’? That which existed before, or the world of war? Both are natural, if both are within the realm of one’s experience. All the concepts men live by are a product of the historic formation in which they find themselves. Fluidity and constant change are the characteristics of phenomena. And man is so plastic a being that one can even conceive of the day when a thoroughly self-respecting citizen will crawl about on all fours, sporting a tail of brightly colored feathers as a sign of conformity to the order he lives in.
The war revealed people and the orders they construct as being far more unstable and open to revision than we might expect. At certain times, this is revealed in drastic fashion. A ‘new normal’ suddenly appears, as the old one is blown up or quickly sinks without a trace. Yet such transitions can also occur more gradually. Indeed, this is what Milosz explored in much of his book: the way people lost their footing as sands shifted, beliefs crumbled, and expectations exceeded. At least with a sudden shift, the choice is presented unambiguously. Would that lead to a different answer? Perhaps for a few, probably not for most. Still, it is all the more challenging when the decisive moment never arrives. ‘Not too much pressure was exerted no great demands were made on anyone’, he noted. And yet, with each step, one moves in a direction, one choice leads to another, and to another, and so on, and soon enough, it creates a momentum that leads somewhere once unexpected. A slippery, nasty kind of path dependency. The frog boils, with one’s morality as the soup base.
Milosz had a deep appreciation and sympathy for the conditions in which people found themselves, one in which History and the devil appeared to be offering a better deal. He understood how ‘fear paralyzes individuality and make people adjust themselves as much as possible’. This is not the thoughtlessness that Hannah Arendt identified and warned against, but force of circumstance working like a chokehold on individuals as they decide. Yet where Arendt and Milosz meet is in their willingness to pass judgment. People make choices, those choices have consequences. One can understand the logic, but not excuse it. Sometimes what is necessary is simply doing what is right.
In rebelling, I believe I protect the fruits of tomorrow better than my friend who keeps silent. I assume the risk and I pay.
In 1951, Milosz chose exile, writing The Captive Mind shortly after. Rejecting the suffocating embrace of History, he determined, ‘there must be, after all, some standard one dare not destroy lest the fruits of tomorrow prove to be rotten.’ Milosz’s garden certainly has its forking paths, but do not be mistaken, there is a correct route to the fruit.