Growing up, I remember my grandfather recommending Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon to me. I think our conversation was around capturing war through fiction. It was one of those recommendations which I noted, but for one reason or another never got around to reading til now.
Darkness at Noon is based on the Moscow trials. This was a series of show trials held in the late 1930s involving Nikolai Bukharin and twenty of his Soviet government colleagues were accused of a host of crimes, such as plotting to assassinate Lenin and Stalin, carving up the Soviet empire, and restoring capitalism. Darkness at Noon revolves around a fictional old Bolshevik, Rubashov, who has been arrested and tried for treason.
The novel was written quickly after these trials in difficult circumstances, starting it in the summer of 1939 and finishing in April 1940.
Koestler describes the unfolding of what he calls ‘Kafkaesque events’ in his life; spending four months in the concentration camp in the Pyrenees and being released in January 1940, only to be continuously harassed by the police. “During the next three months I finished the novel in the hours snatched between interrogations and searches of my flat, in the constant fear that I would be arrested again and the manuscript of Darkness at Noon confiscated”.Source: Darkness at Noon by Wikipedia
A German copy of the finished manuscript was sent to Switzerland and an English copy was sent with Daphne Hardy, Koestler’s girlfriend at the time, who – even though she had no prior experience – had actually translated the novel. The German copy was lost until 2015, when it was rediscovered, so it was Hardy’s translated copy which was eventually published.
The original title for the book was The Vicious Circle, but this was rejected by the publishers, Jonathan Cape. Hardy was unable to contact Koestler as he was still trying to make his way to England, suggested Darkness at Noon, taking it from the book of Job:
They meet with darkness in the daytime, and grope in the noonday as in the night.Source: JOB 5:14
Whether it be secret meetings between agents, the process of interrogation or communicating by code in jail, the novel paints a picture of life under communist rule. It explores the fraught nature, where one moment you maybe marking others for death, only to then be marked yourself. At one moment, the butcher sacrificing lambs so lambs will no longer be sacrificed, only for the tide to turn and then to become the lamb that is being butchered.
He is damned always to do that which is most repugnant to him: to become a slaughterer, in order to abolish slaughtering, to sacrifice lambs so that no more lambs may be slaughtered, to whip people with knouts so that they may learn not to let themselves be whipped, to strip himself of every scruple in the name of a higher scrupulousness, and to challenge the hatred of mankind because of his love for it—an abstract and geometric love.Source: Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler
This fragile environment is epitomised by the discussion of execution of Bogrov over his interpretation of the choice of submarines to be developed.
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.Source: Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler
It does not matter if the party and No.1 later changes tacks, therefore absolving Bogrov of the difference of opinion, it is always about being in line with the messaging.
Beyond communist life, Darkness at Noon delves into the world of the internal dialogue. In a space where everything is for the party, this is always an unknown. In part the novel investigates the alienation associated with psychological torture. An example of this is Rubashov’s discussion of monologue as dialogue:
He found out that those processes wrongly known as “monologues” are really dialogues of a special kind; dialogues in which one partner remains silent while the other, against all grammatical rules, addresses him as “I” instead of “you”, in order to creep into his confidence and to fathom his intentions; but the silent partner just remains silent, shuns observation and even refuses to be localized in time and space.Source: Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler
More than this though, it is an investigation into how and why somebody might come to the position of admitting guilt for something that they know is not necessarily true.
The show trials were both a symptom of this corruption and proof of the rot that was undermining the whole system, and the most loyal party members among the accused had confessed because the ideological ground beneath their feet had been cut away and they had nothing more to believe in. It was their resulting psychological collapse that Koestler wished to explore, rather than the mechanisms of the trials themselves.Source: The Eerily Prescient Lessons of Darkness at Noon by Michael Scammell (Lithub)
In turning against the party they had lost their sole source of support and, unable to resist any further, confessed to their “crimes” as a “last service to the party.”
It is interesting to compare Koestler’s investigation of the internal dialogue with George Orwell’s 1984, a book written after Darkness at Noon, but also about totalitarian regimes. Orwell was clearly influenced by Koestler, having reviewed Darkness at Noon in 1941 for The New Statesman:
Brilliant as this book is as a novel, and a piece of brilliant literature, it is probably most valuable as an interpretation of the Moscow “confessions” by someone with an inner knowledge of totalitarian methods. What was frightening about these trials was not the fact that they happened – for obviously such things are necessary in a totalitarian society – but the eagerness of Western intellectuals to justify them.
Unlike Koestler, whose exploration is largely after Rubashov has been arrested, Orwell provides an insight into Winston Smith’s inner thoughts and decision to betray the party as they happen.
Although both had become disillusioned after spending time fighting in the Spanish Civil War, Orwell had a different take on Communism. For him, it is largely about power, as Adam Kirsch explains:
Koestler’s reckoning with Communism is very different from Orwell’s vision in “1984,” which was published nine years later. In Orwell’s dystopia, “Ingsoc,” English socialism, is not really an ideology at all, just a tissue of lies and a tool for mass hypnosis. The Party’s leader, O’Brien, famously tells Winston Smith, after his arrest, that the core of its appeal is pure sadism, the pleasure of exercising total power over another: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” Stalinism, for Orwell, dressed up this power worship in a lot of meaningless doctrine that people learned to repeat without thinking about it—what the novel calls “duckspeak.”Source: The Desperate Plight Behind “Darkness at Noon” by Adam Kirsch (The New Yorker)
In some respects, the novel is dated, especially in regards to Communism and its threat to society. However, as Adam Kirsch captures, at some point every political creed faces the question of what evil means are justified for noble ends:
Its central theme will probably always seem timely, because every political creed must eventually face the question of whether noble ends can justify evil means. As Koestler saw, this problem reached its pure form in Communism because its avowed aim was the noblest of all: the permanent abolition of social injustice throughout the world. If this could be achieved, what price would be too high? Maybe a million or ten million people would die today, but if billions would be happy tomorrow wasn’t that worth it?Source: The Desperate Plight Behind “Darkness at Noon” by Adam Kirsch (The New Yorker)
Place between Nineteen Eighty-Four and Stasiland on the bookshelf.
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