Arthur Koestler’s Darkness At Noon

Darkness At NoonThe Supreme Court of the United States recently ruled in favor of gay marriage, completing a cultural revolution that seemed almost unthinkable just a decade ago, when even Democratic hopefuls like Hillary Clinton were affirming their belief in “the sanctity of marriage.” Revolutionary ideas dominate in academia and in the media as well, where masses of young people are expressing their growing discontent with “the way things are,” and in a way that precludes any debate. The moral issues and the facts that generate those issues are treated as settled, dissenters are vilified and the march of progress – heedless of its own direction – continues unabated. Here, for example, is Camille Paglia’s less-than-flattering portrait of a modern college graduate:

I’ve encountered these graduates of Harvard, Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, and Princeton; I’ve encountered them in the media, and people in their thirties now, some of them, their minds are like Jell-o. They know nothing! They’ve not been trained in history. They have absolutely no structure to their minds. Their emotions are unfixed. The banality of contemporary cultural criticism, of academe, the absolute collapse of any kind of intellectual discourse in the U.S. is the result of these colleges, which should have been the best, instead having retracted into caretaking. The whole thing is about approved social positions in a kind of misty love of humanity, without any direct knowledge of history or economics or anthropology.

History, economics, anthropology and, I might add, literature, are hindrances to the revolutionary mind, providing, as they do, cautionary messages about overzealousness in the pursuit of human perfection. Arthur Koestler’s Darkness At Noon is one such cautionary tale, written by a man with first-hand knowledge of the revolutionary outlook and its consequences.

The novel centers on Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov, the one-time second-in-command of the Bolshevik Revolution who, at the novel’s outset, finds himself imprisoned for crimes against the Party. Koestler’s genius is in presenting us with a guilty man, a man with blood on his hands, and yet a man nonetheless innocent of the wrongdoing for which he stands trial. In his rise through the Communist Party, Rubashov ruthlessly dispatched even those people dedicated to the cause, people naive enough to believe “their subjective guilt or innocence mattered,” all the while secure in the belief that he was immune from similar treatment. “The Party can never be mistaken,” Rubashov informs one unlucky character. “You and I can make a mistake. Not the Party. The Party, comrade, is more than you and I and a thousand others like you and I. The Party is the embodiment of the revolutionary idea in history.” The Party gradually becomes synonymous with the edicts of No. 1, an obvious stand-in for Stalin, whose picture must be prominently displayed in the home of every citizen, and whose every whim and caprice is treated like iron law.

But what is most frightening is Koestler’s psychological portrait of the True Believer, of the person whose faith in the revolutionary ideal is so unshakeable that even his arrest and imminent death are slow to disillusion him. Here is part of Rubashov’s manifesto, a defense of his indefensible actions:

Each wrong idea we follow is a crime committed against future generations. Therefore we have to punish wrong ideas as others punish crimes: with death. We were held for madmen because we followed every thought down to its final consequence and acted accordingly. We were compared to the inquisition because, like them, we constantly felt in ourselves the whole weight of responsibility for the superindividual life to come. We resembled the great Inquisitors in that we persecuted the seeds of evil not only in men’s deeds, but in their thoughts. We admitted no private sphere, not even inside a man’s skull.

This is the very essence of totalitarianism, the frightening conviction that no dissent, even in thought, can be tolerated, and it comes, as Rubashov rightly identifies, from the totalitarian’s unshakeable belief in the correctness of their own morals. Like the Inquisition, who felt themselves guardians of men’s souls, the Revolutionaries Rubashov speaks of claim to have found the one true way to salvation, to equality, to utopia — and what are a few wrongfully imprisoned, a few million starved peasants, compared with such a lofty end? Here is another character, Ivanov, stating this moral calculus explicitly:

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 sacrificial lamb.

Under such inhuman calculus, “truth is what is useful to humanity, falsehood what is harmful.” And the individual, embodied, for us, by Rubashov, can aspire only to being a willing sacrifice for the greater good.

I have seen this ugly zeal in the firing of Mozilla’s Brendon Eich or the recent witch hunt against Nobel laureate Tim Hunt. I have seen the progressive disdain for debate and the willingness to punish mere ideas on college campuses across the Western world, where conformity with Paglia’s aforementioned “approved social positions” is the only and ultimate good. And I feel very strongly that, in abandoning the study of literature to politicized halfwits (deconstructionists, post-structuralists, “critical theorists” — dogmatists, all), we have deprived ourselves of the insights of a Koestler and doomed ourselves to repeat the follies of the past.