Totalitarianism in literature

Adam Przeworski is a well known political scientist and a very forceful writer. In one of his articles, Democracy: A Never-Ending Quest, he offers the following advice to graduate students:

So my advice to young people is to study the basics, and basics for me are mathematics, philosophy, and history. Political science can wait (p. 10).

In other words, Przeworski believes that social scientists should engage in empirical research only after they develop other important skills. By mathematics he means logic as exemplified in game theory. While many think of logic as a collection of complicated formal proofs that few people read, logic is nothing more than clarity of thinking. Philosophy is also indispensable, because we are standing on the shoulders of giants who came before us. Finally, there is history. Proper understanding of history is critical, if one wishes to explain contemporary events.

However, Przeworski does not mention literature. This, I think, is a big omission. I was reminded of the power of literature when reading The Captive Mind, by Czesław Miłosz. Miłosz (1911 – 2004) was a well known Polish poet. His poetry won him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980. Yet his books are arguably more impressive than his poems. In The Captive Mind, he explains how Polish intellectuals coped with the Nazi occupation of Poland (1939 – 1945) and later with Marxism. His work is full of insights one is not going to finds in books written by social scientists.

I was particularly struck by Miłosz’s description of his close friends. All of them belonged to the same circle of intellectuals, and their impact on others was considerable in the era of non-democracy. Indeed, the pen is mightier than the sword. Yet Miłosz is ruthless in his descriptions. Here is how he summarizes the man he calls Alpha, the moralist (he is writing about Jerzy Andrzejewski):

In his desire to win approbation he had simplified his picture to conform to the wishes of the [communist] Party. One compromise leads to a second and a third until at last, though everything one says may be perfectly logical, it no longer has anything in common with the flesh and blood of living people…Who knows, probably some unknown peasant or some minor postal employee should be placed higher in the hierarchy of those who serve humanity than Alpha the moralist (p. 110).

His treatment of Beta, the disappointed lover (Tadeusz Borowski) is even harsher:

When I met Beta in 1942, he was twenty years old. He was a lively boy with black, inteligent eyes. The palms of his hands perspired, and there was that exaggerated shyness in his behavior that usually bespeaks immense ambition. Behind his words one felt a mixture of arrogance and humility. In conversation he seemed inwardly convinced of his own superiority; he attacked ferociously yet retreated immediately, bashfully hiding his claws (p. 111)

Miłosz is uncompromising on every page of his book. I would like to call his style refreshing but that would be inaccurate. His book is not refreshing, it is devastating. By writing honestly, he paints a picture that few of us can relate to. But on this score, Beta, the disappointed, is even more overwhelming. Borwoski was a prisoner at Auschwitz and then wrote books about his experience there. Here is what Miłosz thought about his works:

I have read many books about concentration camps, but non of them is as terrifying as his [Borowski’s] stories because he never moralizes, he relates (p. 115)

A short excerpt from Borowski’s We Were in Auschwitz should suffice:

Here comes a woman walking briskly, hurrying almost imperceptibly yet feverishly. A small child with the plump, rosy face of a cherub runs after her; fails to catch up, stretches out its hands, crying, ‘Mama, mama!’

‘Woman, take this child in your arms!’

‘Sir, it isn’t my child, it isn’t mine! the woman shouts hysterically, and runs away covering her face with her hands. She wants to hide; she wants to reach those who won’t leave in a truck, who will leave on foot, who will live. She is young, healthy, pretty, she wants to live. But the child runs after her, pleading at the top of its voice, ‘Mama, mama, don’t run away!’

‘It’s not mine, not mine, not…!’

Until Andrej, the sailor from Sevastopol, overtook her. His eyes were troubled by vodka and the heat. He reacher her, knocked her off her feet with a single powerful blow and, as she fell, caught her by the hair and dragged her up again. His face was distorted with fury.

‘Why you lousy fucking Jew-bitch! Jebit twoju mat’! You’d run away from your own child! I’ll show you, you whore!’ He grabbed her in the middle, one paw throttling her throat which wanted to shout, and flung her into the truck like a heavy sack of grain.

‘Here! Take this with you, you slut!’ And he threw her child at her feet.

‘Gut gemacht. That’s how one should punish unnatural mothers,’ said an SS man standing near the van.

Act II, or the segregation, quoted in The Captive Mind (p. 120 – 121)

One can certainly learn about autocracy from political scientists, and there is much to learn from their books. But if one wants to try to understand how totalitarianism feels like, then one should read Miłosz, Borowski and other poets. For better or for worse, these authors change their readers forever.

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