People who are out of step with the prevailing authority practice ketman to avoid trouble. Ketman is a way to dissemble. At a minimum people practicing ketman must self-censor their speech. When silence isn’t enough, ketman-practitioners find ways to appear to actively support the regime. When ketman-practitioners cannot escape the oppressive regime, they develop ways to express their natural feelings by engaging obscure topics or technical issues. 

Ketman is described by the poet and Nobel prize winner Czesław Miłosz in his book The Captive Mind published in 1953.  The Captive Mind describes how life under totalitarianism crushes thought.

As a Pole, Milosz is intimately familiar with totalitarianism. Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 ignited WWII, as you no doubt already know. The Soviet Union in accord with its secret pact with Germany subsequently occupied the eastern portion of Poland. Warsaw was in the German sector which is where Milosz, then  28, was confined. After experiencing the travails of German occupation, Poland was entombed in the Soviet Bloc during the Cold War.

Communism was imposed on Poland violently and from abroad. This is not what Leftists like Milosz expected the revolution to look like.

After the war, Miłosz worked as a cultural attaché in the Polish embassy in Washington. Finding himself the representative of a government that was a puppet of Soviet totalitarianism, Milosz practiced ketman for several years until he defected in 1951.

Ketman is derived from a Persian word for concealment. Shiite Muslims practiced ketman to conceal their true beliefs from their Sunni Muslim rulers, for example. In The Captive Mind, Milosz identifies 7 types of ketman. Aesthetic ketman is escapism by immersing oneself in art, literature, and music of past ages. I read this section with special interest. The other essays in The Captive Mind are brilliant portraits of some of Milosz’s contemporaries. 

Milosz and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn are the two best writers of the 20th century. I sometimes get carried away by enthusiasms and at one time considered Celine and Bukowski great writers (not so much anymore, especially the latter), but youthful interest in Balzac and  Solzhenitsyn continues undimmed. Milosz is a later interest but The Captive Mind is without a doubt one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Milosz is the best poet of the 20th century.

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