Avishai: What ‘Darkness At Noon’ Tells Us About Our Current Political Moment

Author Arthur Koestler in the 1960th. Portrait by photographer Fred Stein (1909-1967) who emigrated 1933 from Nazi Germany to France and finally to the USA. Photo by: Fred Stein/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
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“Darkness at Noon had staying power,” Michael Scammell writes in The New York Review of Books, “for Rubashov’s story…powerfully illuminates the human condition, men’s moral choices, the attractions and dangers of idealism, the corrosive effects of political corruption, and the fatal consequences of psychological and ideological fanaticism.”

The occasion for Scammell’s essay is the chance retrieval of Koestler’s original German manuscript, by a doctoral student named Matthias Weßel, who was combing an archive in Zurich. Until now, Scammell reminds us, all translations worked from the English version Koestler produced hastily with his translator (and lover) Daphne Hardy, as they were preparing to flee France and the Nazi invasion. Presumably, the two themselves worked from this very manuscript, once thought lost.

Scammell shows that the English original departs in clumsy, revealing ways from the German even-more-original—and that Koestler’s uncertain literary reputation in German-speaking countries could be enhanced by publication of a new German edition. He urges that new translations from this German edition should follow. “It will be like seeing a cleaned oil painting for the first time after the old and discolored varnish has been removed.”

This is a strong claim and Scammell supports it with various examples, almost all of which seem to imply that the original had a harder edge, consistent with the cruelty of Soviet Communism—whose exposure, Scammell implies, the novel was written to expose. Rubashov’s police driver, for instance, was rendered as “chauffeur,” and “fever” as “temperature.” A strike on the head from a revolver butt had been dropped. Rubashov’s (arguably pathetic) meditations on masturbation had been dropped. Interrogators were rendered as “examining magistrates.”

These euphemisms, Scammell thinks, seriously are seriously misleading. He supposes the young and ingenuous Hardy employed them because she could not escape the precincts of British civility—the “niceties of habeas corpus or the rule of law”—when conjuring Soviet horrors. “Hardy softened Rubashov’s fate by civilizing his surroundings and cushioning his pain.” A new translation suggesting more searing pain, would presumably better capture what Koestler was trying to convey—about totalitarianism, corruption, zealotry, hence, “men’s moral choices.”

But the euphemism Scammell calls “the most glaring” caught my eye. He notes that the English version’s section headings were contrived as follows: “The First Hearing,” “The Second Hearing,” The Third Hearing,” and “The Grammatical Fiction.” He says they would have been more properly rendered as “The First Interrogation,” and so on. Yet it is the last section heading, whose translation he does not dispute, that is obviously the most cryptic—and Scammell says nothing about it. Just what is that “grammatical fiction” Rubashov contemplates and why do Darkness at Noon’s scenes of brutality culminate in Rubashov feeling tortured by, of all things, this? Does the book’s “staying power” really depend on deepening our appreciation for Rubashov’s physical intimidation and shock? Or is there something else—not lost in translation, hiding in plain sight—that needs to be retrieved and reinterpreted for new generations, especially after the moral debauch of Stalin’s Soviet Union is past?

To be blunt, by focusing on how consciousness bends to physical pain, or pleasure for that matter, we are missing “Darkness at Noon”’s main point. Rubashov has been tortured, yes, but the plot of the novel (if plot is the word for it) is the unfolding of his inner despair. Ever the dialectician, Rubashov is suffering not simply because he is being pushed around by his own murderous clique. The tragic slant, the real source of his torment, is that he is never sure his accusers aren’t right about him. He dreads that his own political actions have been immoral because they were ineffectual. He cannot readily distinguish between the two.

Rubashov had originally assumed that he could find something close to ethical ground, and meaning for his life, by a “scientific” grasp of society. Locked in a materialist universe—where matter, including people, are thought merely inertial and accidental—Rubashov assumed that right is what works, or must eventually work. He thought he had joined a cadre of social engineers. He had been invested in the belief in historical “laws”: the crises of capitalist production, the formation of an industrial proletariat, the gradual disappearance of material scarcity, the revolutionary sparks of class consciousness, and so forth. The objects of the Party’s science, the masses, themselves responded to capitalism’s buffetings. To oppose the force of historical laws was wrong because it was futile, as self-destructive as opposing the law of gravity.

The “moral choices” Rubashov recognized, then, boiled down to the recognition of necessity. Though numbed by prison, and increasingly cynical about the people who put his back to the wall, Rubashov feels inclined to submit to their verdict. He concedes this rather bluntly to Ivanov, the subtler of the GPU’s interrogators—whom Scammell, with a softening euphemism of his own, calls the “good cop”:

We had descended into the depths, into the formless, anonymous masses, which at all times constituted the substance of history, and we were the first to discover her laws of motion. We had discovered the laws of her inertia, of the slow changing of her molecular structure, and of her sudden eruptions. That was the greatness of our doctrine. The Jacobins were moralists; we were empirics. We dug into the primeval mud of history and there we found her laws. We knew more than ever men have known about mankind; that is why our revolution succeeded.

Ivanov, in his turn (and before he is himself arrested), plays on Rubashov’s vanity. Rubashov should confess to being an enemy of the proletariat because the Party would now benefit. The individual is just material for the Revolution. The desire for any individual good beyond what works for Number One is an infantile psychic wish. The “first-person singular” reflects this illusory wish. It is a “grammatical fiction”:

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. The greatest temptation for the likes of us is: to renounce violence, to make peace with oneself. Most great revolutionaries fell before this temptation, from Spartacus, to Danton and Dostoyevsky; they are the classical form of betrayal of the cause.

The first-person singular, a grammatical fiction. But now comes Rubashov’s real crisis. He becomes distracted by a thought with terrible force. Can it be that a presumed knowledge of consequences is not sufficient ground for any ethical claim? He is tormented by the memory of Arlova, the secretary who had adored him, served him, and then sacrificed her life to his political rehabilitation. He is grief-stricken visualizing the curve of her breast. This is not simply, as Scammell implies, a counterpart of lost masturbatory fantasies. Their lovemaking—no, love!—had put Rubashov in a state where he had felt himself mysteriously “absolute”; where meaning could not be justified by a calculation of radical consequences. Arlova had been arrested for participating in one of his intrigues. Rubashov did not come to her defense. She was tried and, at last, executed. (“‘You will always be able to do what you like with me,’ she had told him—and he did!”)

Ivanov dismisses Dostoyevsky, but Koestler relies on our familiarity with Dostoyevsky’s most famous dialogues to frame Rubashov’s responses. He ventures (not quite cogently) that Raskolnikov, Crime and Punishment’s hero, finds out how “twice two are not four when mathematical units are human beings.” Rubashov cannot seem to get out the point he wants to make, which is that he cannot account for why matter matters—why people, including himself, should not be mere means to higher ends, which is usually another’s ends.

So Rubashov’s burgeoning guilt is more physically intolerable than any strike from the butt of a gun. Had he not exploited her devotion from the start, the way the Party had exploited his own? Was not “absoluteness” the basis for making choices that could be called, strictly speaking, “moral choices”? The Party, Rubashov tells Ivanov gloomily, was actually burying people, a category that seems curiously new to him: “One more makes no difference; everything is buried, the men, their wisdom and their hopes.”

Rubashov has begun to wonder, and cannot stop, whether there must be a dignity the Party’s radical pragmatism cannot explain. In the end, he does confess, knowing pretty well that he is inviting execution. But he seems to do so because—wracked by a kind of suicidal shame—he has lost the ambition to justify his existence through any worldly achievement. He seems to retreat into what’s left of him. In morbid intuitions, Rubashov finds the sources of a curiously sublime freedom. He will, alone, await “the shrug of eternity.”

I am not competent to judge if Hardy caught all the nuances of the original, but it is hard to imagine any translation distorting ideas and exchanges so vividly drawn from Koestler’s experience of historical materialist casuistry. A new edition may be all to the good, but it will not make Darkness at Noon’s agony more available to new generations than the old one; you don’t make the agony of “St. Matthew’s Passion” appreciably more available, say, by switching from Spotify to Tidal’s hifi. The enduring question is whether materialist methods, when confused with ethical search, still have the capacity to debase the politics of a free society.

Rubashov’s epiphany about the limits of materialism could be of particular value to a new generation in the thrall of its own rather ahistorical variety. I mean the academic behaviorism Koestler railed against at the end of his life, and which he mocked in his last novel, The Call Girls. This has launched a creepy form of political punditry that assumes, much as the younger Rubashov had, that people are atomized bundles of appetites, shaped by demographics and mechanized wills. Do rights derive from our “absoluteness” or are they merely the goods of consumers? When we choose our good, do we choose like an explorer or pick like a shopper? If the former, what more to expect from the commonwealth, if the latter, what less?

All of this may sound like a sophomoric questioning of free-will vs. determinism, but not every question sophomores ask is a bad one. Getting this one right, as Koestler for one knew, could be a matter of life and death. Behaviorist assumptions don’t turn us into commissars. But they do cause many students, and eventually many journalists, to care less about what is just and more about “the perception out there”—about voters whose good is rendered as “preferences,” “interests,” “winning”—as if winning is the most justice we can hope for. Think of how many times we see Bill Moyers asking us what is right as compared with Chuck Todd asking what will play. Todd’s language is not as dangerous as Ivanov’s. But it produces dangers of its own, as the current election suggests.

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