Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Darkness At Noon

A book review

     I should have read Darkness At Noon many years ago, in college, when it was assigned reading for a course I took that studied "Intellectual History In The Twentieth Century," or some similar title.

     But I didn't read it then, sorry to say.  However, in my recent explorations of history, I ran across some references to this classic, and I decided to order the book online.  I'm glad I did.

     Arthur Koestler, a Hungarian Jew, was only thirty-four when he completed the manuscript for this influential book; but he had packed a lot of experience and intellectual freedom and development into those few years. 

     He had grown up in Hungary under both prosperous and straitened circumstances; had survived the violent Hungarian Bolshevik Revolution of 1919 and the violent reaction, led by Admiral Horthy, that displaced it; had enrolled in a university and suddenly dropped out; had lived on a kibbutz in Palestine, and worked in Berlin for Jabotinsky's brand of militant Zionism; had flown (as a journalist) with the polar aviator Lincoln Ellsworth in the Graf Zeppelin; had joined the German communist party; wrote anti-Fascist literature for the Comintern; participated in the Spanish Civil War, where he was imprisoned under sentence of death; was released; edited a successful Encyclopedia of Sexual Knowledge; and had decisively broken with communism -- in fact, with all totalitarianism -- by 1938.  This was at a time when both Nazism and Stalinism were in their heyday of popularity among European (and American) intellectuals.  Koestler was certainly charting his own course.

     The early date of this book's genesis makes the author's insights into the intellectual (and even spiritual) failures of revolutionary thought very impressive to me.  (The book was begun in 1938, even before the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact that sent shock waves throughout the intelligentsia.)

     The context of the book can be best understood by Koestler's dedication:

The characters in this book are fictitious.
The historical circumstances which determined their
actions are real.  The life of the man
N. S. Rubashov is a synthesis of the lives of a number
of men who were victims of the so-called Moscow Trials.
Several of them were personally known
to the author.  This book is dedicated
to their memory.
Paris, October 1938 - April 1940

     It is the story of the last few weeks in the life of a high ranking Communist who has run out of favor with the Stalinists and has been arrested and imprisoned.
     The main character, Nicolas Salmanovich Rubashov, is an old bolshevik whose commitment to the Revolution predates 1917.  He has held a high position in the Party, and has worked in foreign countries as both a revolutionary activist, and as a high government functionary.  He understands what is ahead of him in prison: he has been there before, and he knows how the game will be played.  And he has time to think.

     I cannot call the fictional Rubashov a good man.  But he is certainly a man.  And through him, Koestler preserves the memory of a whole class of men whom we might otherwise only know, and therefore dismiss, as nothing but apparatchiks.  Something of human experience, and therefore of humanity, has been preserved; and for that I must thank Arthur Koestler.

     I shall not further summarize or analyze the book:  it is best to read it as Koestler wrote it.  But its deep insights into the failures of logic and rationality, the failures of personal philosophy, the failures of Marxist historicism, and the essential failures of both the Trotskyite and Stalinist factions of the Party are, in my view, of especial relevance today.

     Why?  Because while Stalin is dead and discredited, the ghost of the old bolshevik Trotsky lives on in America in the mindset of men like Saul Alinsky and Leo Strauss, whose influence has been enormous on the thinking, and the modus operandi, of the CIA and the current crop of Neo-conservatives who run both American political parties in their appointed directions.

     And Rubashov -- Koestler -- knows, at the last, where that mindset is going to lead.

     Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is the last part, where Rubashov discovers, within himself, what he calls "the Grammatical Fiction."  I will not give his discovery away; but you can easily discover it for yourself.  I hope that you do; or have.

     It could make you hope that Darkness At Noon might be subtitled, "Or, A Small Candle At Midnight."

     I urge a fresh reading of this important book.

*       *       *

     Wikipedia has summaries of both Koestler's life and Darkness At Noon.   Comments and criticisms are most welcome.


  1. I've never heard of this one, so putting it on my amazon wish list :)

    Have you heard about Herbert Hoover's, Freedom Betrayed? I'm currently reading it now and am fascinated by the depth of Hoover--a statesman and a peace maker. I have only heard how horrible and out of touch he was, not that he gave his life to prevent WWII.

  2. Dear castiron,

    Thanks for mentioning Freedom Betrayed. I just ran across a mention of it, and had put it on MY wish list. I'm interested in your thoughts on this book.

    Feel free to comment, maybe at Park Bench (to attract more traffic than this post) .

    I ran across some information as to why Hoover would rightly be antagonized by the thought of FDR as president -- has to do with H's Food-Relief work in Belgium at the end of WW 1.

  3. I'm only 100 or so pages into Hoover's writing. The introduction by the editor is a mini-book of itself, describing how much time Hoover spent in writing and why it took so long to bring his "magnum opus" to be published.

    A blogger I found linked by Lew Rockwell has written some interesting posts on Freedom Betrayed, while you wait for me to finish wade/slog thru it : )

    One quote, tho, I already highlighted in my copy is in a section mentioning Mussolini's Fascism, "Few Americans observed that the economic part of Fascism was simply the adaption of the measures applied in the United States, Britain and other democracies when combatants in the First World War."

  4. Castiron,

    Thanks for the link to Bionic Mosquito. I have begun reading the posts there.

    There is an interesting one which references James Garner's speech in the 1960s film, The Americanization of Emily, which I found interesting, too. I may post something about it.