The Books: “Darkness at Noon” (Arthur Koestler)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler

41S8QJPJ7NL._AA240_.jpgDarkness at Noon is one of the most important books of the 20th century. The book is, as the New Statesman aptly described it: “One of the few books written in this epoch which will survive it.” Read it alongside Master and Margarita (post here). Follow it up with 1984. And keep The Gulag Archipelago (post here) and The Great Terror (post here) nearby, to cross-reference. That’s its status, its importance. I would even argue that it would be difficult to understand the convulsions of the 20th century without reading this book. You want to understand a totalitarian society? You want to understand how the “show trials” in the USSR under Stalin’s reign really worked? Well, you need to read Gulag Archipelago, you need to read The Great Terror – but you also need to read Darkness at Noon. It’s an extraordinary document, a record not just of WHAT they did, but even more importantly, how. One of the reasons the West was so summarily duped in the 1930s by the show trials of big-wigs like Zinoviev and Kamenev, is that it is difficult to understand how such a thing could come to be. Why would these guys confess? If they were “innocent”? It makes no sense. And the parade of confessors in the block, excoriating themselves relentlessly for “incorrect” thinking and “sabotage” – it was quite convincing. In this case, of course, what you saw is NOT what you got. It was a performance. The verdicts drawn up beforehand – then it was just a matter of getting these people to confess. Now by the 30s, of course – there really weren’t any more real enemies of the state. Stalin had taken care of that. So the people in the block were not “victims” – they were the stars of the revolution, the big-wigs who had made it all happen. It must have been fantastic! I don’t mean that word like “great”, I mean it like: beyond belief. The stories of those show trials (detailed step by step in Robert Conquest’s great The Great Terror) are unreal. UNREAL. Darkness at Noon is about one of those show trials. Rubashov is an old revolutionary – maybe like a Bukharin type. He devoted his life to the party. And now the party is turning in on its own. He is jailed. The book details the series of interrogations he goes through, psychological torture and pressure … and how disorienting that kind of thing is. You begin to doubt yourself. What is true? Am I guilty? Did I sabotage? Even just in my thoughts?? And this is how “the party’ gets you, in the end. By getting inside your head. There IS no innocence inside your head. If you ever had even the slightest thought that things weren’t going well, that maybe things should change … then that constitutes guilt in such a society. Correctness must go down into your bone marrow. It is the party’s way or no way. (“He loved Big Brother.”) Bulgakov is so so brilliant about this in Master and Margarita (excerpt here). It’s hard to picture HOW that happens if you have never been pressured to such a degree, or if you live in a society that is free – where all different sides can be heard. The disorientation of living in a one-party state doesn’t just limit what men and women can DO, it has as its goal a limit on what you are allowed to THINK. And to a huge degree, it succeeded. It’s thought control they are after. George Orwell really goes after that, with the whole “newspeak” thing … how language is distorted, blunted. When you control what can be said, you can control what people think. It’s that fucking simple.

Arthur Koestler was a really interesting guy. Born in Hungary, emigrated to England, was a devoted Communist – as were many folks in those days. At the time, the Communists were on the front-lines against Fascism (never mind that their results ended up being the same – that’s another conversation – I’m talking about the early 30s – you have to get in the perspective of that time, and not do your “we know the end” judgment of this, because that’s stupid, frankly.) Koestler, though, began to see the “great terror” happening in Russia – and it caused him to, famously, break with the Communist Party. Darkness at Noon is his book, basically, about WHY. It is a brave book. It was an unpopular statement at that time, where most intellectuals were apologists for Stalin, because they still believed in the Socialist dream. The roll-call of names of authors who saw what was really going on and then wrote about it – and were, consequently, pilloried – is long. And illustrious. Orwell. Robert Conquest. These people were not fooled by the show trials. They ‘saw’ – even though there was no information at the time. The full archives of the Politburo were not available until the early 1990s. Conquest realized, when he got to take a look at the archives finally, that he had underestimated the extent of the terror. Of course. Here’s some interesting biographical information on Koestler. Fascinating guy.

I read it in 2 days. Could not put it down. It’s terrible. Terrible. One of the most enraging books I have ever read. And the scary thing is: it works on the reader in the same way that it works on Rubashov, our hero. You begin to doubt … that what you know is true. You start to ask yourself: could I withstand that pressure? Could I tie myself in knots to justify my actions intellectually (which was what “the party” was all about)? What is true? How can we really know?

Here’s an excerpt. Rubashov is being interrogated by Ivanov. The interrogation goes on for the entire book; it has different stages – but, essentially it’s the same conversation. The point is to grind Rubashov down to powder. That is what totalitarian societies do. It is, in the end, their main goal. Oh, and Stalin is never named, although he is omnipresent. He is referred to as “No. 1”.

Darkness at Noon is a must-read. In it lies the entire 20th century.

EXCERPT FROM Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler

Ivanov paused and poured himself another glass of brandy. Rubashov walked up and down in front of the window. After a while he said:

“Why did you execute Bogrov?”

“Why? Because of the submarine question,” said Ivanov. “It concerned the problem of tonnage – an old quarrel, the beginnings of which must be familiar to you.

“Bogrov advocated the construction of submarines of large tonnage and a long range of action. The Party is in favour of small submarines with a short range. You can build three times as many small submarines for your money as big ones. Both parties had valid technical arguments. The experts made a big display of technical sketches and algebraic formulae; but the actual problem lay in quite a different sphere. Big submarines mean: a policy of aggression, to further world revolution. Small submarines mean: coastal defense – that is, self-defense and postponement of world revolution. The latter is the point of view of No. 1, and the Party.

“Bogrov had a strong following in the Admiralty and amongst the officers of the old guard. It would not have been enough to put him out of the way; he also had to be discredited. A trial was projected to unmask the partisans of big tonnage as saboteurs and traitors. We had already brought several little engineers to the point of being willing to confess publicly to whatever we liked. But Bogrov wouldn’t play the game. He declaimed up to the very end of big tonnage and world revolution. He was two decades behind the times. He would not understand that the times are against us, that Europe is passing a wave and must wait until we are lifted by the next. In a public trial he would only have created confusion amongst the people. There was no other way possible than to liquidate him administratively. Would not you have done the same thing in our position?”

Rubashov did not answer. He stopped walking, and again remained leaning against the wall of No. 406, next to the bucket. A cloud of sickening stench rose from it. He took off his pince-nez and looked at Ivanov out of red-rimmed hunted eyes.

“You did not hear him whimpering,” he said.

Ivanov lit a new cigarette on the stump of the old one; he too found the stench of the bucket rather overpowering.

“No,” he said. “I did not hear it. But I have heard and seen similar things. What of it?”

Rubashov was silent. It was no use to try and explain it. The whimpering and the muffled drumming again penetrated his ears, like an echo. One could not express that. Nor the curve of Arlova’s breast with its warm, steep point. One could express nothing. “Die in silence,” had been written on the message given him by the barber.

“What of it?” repeated Ivanov. He stretched out his leg and waited. As no answer came, he went on speaking:

“If I had a spark of pity for you,” he said, “I would now leave you alone. But I have not a spark of pity. I drink; for a time, as you know, I drugged myself; but the vice of pity I have up till now managed to avoid. The smallest dose of it, and you are lost. Weeping over humanity and bewailing oneself – you know our race’s pathological leaning to it. Our greatest poets destroyed themselves by this poison. Up to forty, fifty, they were revolutionaries – then they became consumed by pity and the world pronounced them holy. You appear to have the same ambition, and to believe it to be an individual process, personal to you, something unprecedented …” He spoke rather louder and puffed out a cloud of smoke. “Beware of these ecstasies,” he said: “Every bottle of spirits contains a measurable amount of ecstasy. Unfortunately, only few people, particularly amongst our fellow countrymen, ever realize that the ecstasies of humility and suffering are as cheap as those induced chemically. The time when I woke from the anesthetic, and found that my body stopped at the left knee, I also experienced a kind of absolute ecstasy of unhappiness. Do you remember the lectures you gave me at the time?” He poured out another glass and emptied it.

“My point is this,” he said; “one may not regard the world as a sort of metaphysical brothel for emotions. That is the first commandment for us. Sympathy, conscience, disgust, despair, repentance, and atonement are for us repellent debauchery. To sit down and let oneself be hypnotized by one’s own navel, to turn up one’s eyes and humbly offer the back of one’s neck to Gletkin’s revolver – that is an easy solution. The greatest temptation for the like of us is: to renounce violence, to repent, to make peace with oneself. Most great revolutionaries fell before this temptation, from Spartacus to Danton to Dostoevsky; they are the classical form of betrayal of the cause. The temptations of God were always more dangerous for mankind than those of Satan. As long as chaos dominates the world, God is an anachronism; and every compromise with one’s own conscience is perfidy. When the accursed inner voice speaks to you, hold your hands over your ears …”

He felt for the bottle behind him and poured out another glass. Rubashov noticed that the bottle was already half empty. You also could do with a little solace, he thought.

“The greatest criminals in history,” Ivanov went on, “are not of the type Nero and Fouche, but of the type Gandhi and Tolstoy. Gandhi’s inner voice has done more to prevent the liberation of India than the British guns. To sell oneself for thirty pieces of silver is an honest transaction; but to sell oneself to one’s own conscience is to abandon mankind. History is a priori amoral; it has no conscience. To want to conduct history according to the maxims of the Sunday school means to leave everything as it is. You know that as well as I do. You know the stakes in this game, and here you come talking about Bogrov’s whimpering …”

He emptied his glass and added:

“Or with conscience pricks because of your fat Arlova.”

Rubashov knew from before that Ivanov could hold a lot; one did not notice any change in his behaviour, beyond a slightly more emphatic way of speaking than usual. You do need consolation, thought Rubashov again, perhaps more than I do. He sat down on the narrow stool opposite Ivanov and listened. All this was not new to him; he had defended the same point of view for years, with the same or similar words. The difference was that at that time he had known those inner processes of which Ivanov spoke so contemptuously, merely as an abstraction; but since then he had experienced the “grammatical fiction” as a physical reality in his own body. But had these irrational processes become more admissible merely because he had a personal acquaintance with them now? Was it any the less necessary to fight the “mystical intoxication” merely because one had oneself become intoxicated by it? When a year ago he had sent Arlova to her death, he had not had enough imagination to picture the details of an execution. Would he now behave differently merely because he now knew some of its aspects? Either it was right – or it was wrong to sacrifice Richard, Arlova and Little Loewy. But what had Richard’s stutter, the shape of Arlova’s breast or Bogrov’s whimpering to do with the objective rightness or wrongness of the measure itself?

Rubashov began again to walk up and down his cell. He felt that everything he had experienced since his imprisonment had been only a prelude; that his cogitations had led him to a dead end – on to the threshold of what Ivanov called the “metaphysical brothel” – and that he must begin again from the beginning. But how much time was there left? He stopped, took the glass out of Ivanov’s hand and drained it. Ivanov watched him.

“That’s better,” he said with a fleeting smile. “Monologues in the form of a dialogue are a useful institution. I hope I reproduced the voice of the tempter effectively. A pity that the opposite party is not represented. But that is part of its tricks, that it never lets itself be drawn into a rational discussion. It always attacks a man in defenseless moments, when he is alone an din some effective mise en scene: from burning thorn-bushes or cloud-covered mountain tops – and with a special preference for a sleeping victim. The methods of the great moralist are pretty unfair and theatrical …”

Rubashov was no longer listening. Walking up and down, he was wondering whether to-day, if Arlova was still alive he would sacrifice her again. This problem fascinated him; it seemed to contain the answer to all other questions … He stopped in front of Ivanov and asked him:

“Do you remember ‘Raskolnikov’?”

Ivanov smiled at him with irony. “It was to be expected that you would sooner or later come to that. Crime and Punishment … You are really becoming childish or senile …”

“Wait a bit. Wait a bit,” said Rubashov, walking up and down agitatedly. “All this is just talk, but now we are getting nearer the point. As far as I remember, the problem is, whether the student Raskolnikov has the right to kill the old woman? He is young and talented; he has as it were an unredeemed pledge on life in his pocket; she is old and utterly useless to the world. But the equation does not stand. In the first place, circumstances oblige him to murder a second person; that is the unforeseeable and illogical consequence of an apparently simple and logical action. Secondly, the equation collapses in any case, because Raskolnikov discovers that twice two are not four when the mathematical units are human beings …”

“Really,” said Ivanov. “If you want to hear my opinion, every copy of the book should be burnt. Consider a moment what this humanitarian fog-philosophy would lead to, if we were to take it literally; if we were to stick to the precept that the individual is sacrosanct, and that we must not treat human lives according to the rules of arithmetic. That would mean that a battalion commander may not sacrifice a patrolling party to save the regiment. That we may not sacrifice fools like Bogrov, and must risk our coastal towns being shot to pieces in a couple of years …”

Rubashov shook his head:

“Your examples are all drawn from war – that is, from abnormal circumstances.”

“Since the invention of the steam engine,” replied Ivanov, “the world has been permanently in an abnormal state; the wars and revolutions are just the visible expressions of this state. Your Raskolnikov is, however, a fool and a criminal; not because he behaves logically in killing the old woman, but because he is doing it in his personal interest. The principle that the end justifies the means is and remains only the rule of political ethics; anything else is just vague chatter and melts away between one’s fingers… If Raskolnikov had bumped off the old woman at the command of the Party – for example, to increase strike funds or to instal an illegal Press – then the equation would stand, and the novel with its misleading problem would never have been written, and so much the better for humanity.”

Rubashov did not answer. He was still fascinated by the problem as to whether to-day, after the experiences of the last few months and days, he would again send Arlova to her death. He did not know. Logically, Ivanov was right in everything he said; the invisible opponent was silent, and only indicated its existence by a dull feeling of uneasiness. And in that, too, Ivanov was right, that this behaviour of the “invisible opponent”, in never exposing itself to argument and only attacking people in defenceless moments, showed it in a very dubious light …

“I don’t approve of mixing ideologies,” Ivanov continued. “There are only two conceptions of human ethics, and they are at opposite poles. One of them is Christian and humane, declares the individual to be sacrosanct, and asserts that the rules of arithmetic are not to be applied to human units. The other starts from the basic principle that a collective aim justifies all means, and not only allows, but demands, that the individual should in every way be subordinated and sacrificed to the community – which may dispose of it as an experimentation rabbit or a sacrificial lamb. The first conception could be called anti-vivisection morality, the second, vivisection morality. Humbugs and dilettantes have always tried to mix the two conceptions in practice, it is impossible. Whoever is burdened with power and responsibility finds out on the first occasion that he has to choose; and he is fatally driven to the second alternative. Do you know, since the establishment of Christianity as a state religion, a single example of a state which really followed a Christian policy? You can’t point out one. In times of need – and politics are chronically in a time of need – the rulers were always able to evoke ‘exceptional circumstances’, which demanded exceptional measures of defence. Since the existence of nations and classes, they live in a permanent state of mutual self-defence, which forces them to defer to another time the putting into practice of humanism …”

Rubashov looked through the window. The melted snow had again frozen and sparkled, an irregular surface of yellow-white crystals. The sentinel on the wall marched up and down with shouldered rifle. The sky was clear but moonless; above the machine-gun turret shimmered the Milky Way.

Rubashov shrugged his shoulders. “Admit,” he said, “that humanism and politics, respect for the individual and social progress, are incompatible. Admit that Gandhi is a catastrophe for India; that chasteness in the choice of means leads to political impotence. In negatives we agree. But look where the other alternative has led us …”

“Well,” asked Ivanov. “Where?”

Rubashov rubbed his pince-nez on his sleeve, and looked at him shortsightedly. “What a mess,” he said, “what a mess we have made of our golden age.”

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25 Responses to The Books: “Darkness at Noon” (Arthur Koestler)

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  14. Harriet says:

    It’s such a good book. I, too, was goaded into reading it. In Spanish class one year in high school, a friend would steal every piece of paper I got out and write “Koestler, Arthur Darkness at Noon” across it in huge letters. I successfully resisted that year, because he was being annoying, but by the next year he’d graduated and so I read it.

  15. alex. says:

    Wonderful post, both for the subject and because it brought back memories. I stumbled across Koestler some twenty years ago. I devoured Darkness at Noon, and then his autobiographies, Arrow in the Blue, and The Invisible Writing. Thanks to you I will revisit his timeless work.

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