Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon discusses the dilemma of an “old guard” communist who is captured by a system which, in its present state, he despises as immoral, crude, and the antithesis of its original intentions. It is often thought that the bravest thing a captured man can do is to “die in silence,” but Rubashov shows us, through rigorous, and ultimately terrifying, logic, that sometimes the bravest thing one can do is to capitulate.
Torture and strong-arm tactics can only break a man’s soul, but logic can turn one’s soul so that it works for the torturer. Rubashov believed in the ideals of communism, and in the end he sacrificed himself for them. Two methods of interrogation are possible, Glelkin’s brand of restrained barbarism or Ivanov’s method of internal logic. Rubashov discovers that thinking to oneself is not a monolog but a conversation. Logic and honor are at loggerheads. The result is exemplified by R.’s conversation with No. 402 by means of a tapping system since both are isolated in cells.
I AM CAPITULATING.
He waited curiously for the effect.
For a while nothing came; No. 402 was silenced. His answer came a whole minute later:
I’D RATHER HANG….
Rubashov smiled. He tapped:
EACH ACCORDING TO HIS KIND.
He had expected an outbreak of anger from No. 402. Instead the tapping sign sounded subdued, as it were, resigned:
I WAS INCLINED TO CONSIDER YOU AN EXCEPTION. HAVE YOU NO SPARK OF HONOUR LEFT?
Rubashov lay on his back, his pince nez in hand. He felt contented and peaceful. He tapped:
OUR IDEAS OF HONOUR DIFFER.
No. 402 tapped quickly and precisely:
HONOUR IS TO LIVE AND DIE FOR ONE’S BELIEF.
Rubashov answered just as quickly:
HONOUR IS TO BE USEFUL WITHOUT VANITY.
No. 402 answered this time louder and more sharply:
HONOUR IS DECENCY NOT USEFULNESS.
WHAT IS DECENCY? asked Rubashov, comfortably spacing the letters. The more calmly he tapped, the more furious became the typing on the wall.
SOMETHING YOUR KIND WILL NEVER UNDERSTAND, answered No. 402 to Rubashov’s question. Rubashov shrugged his shoulders:
WE HAVE REPLACED DECENCY BY REASON, he tapped back.
No. 402 did not answer any more. (140-141)
The past is developed as a major theme early in the book. Rubashov was an important founding Party member and thus accrues stature and respect. He repeatedly mentions the disappearing pictures on the wall where famed party leaders once hung. The past is controlled by the present Rubashov claims. The picture of the great Party founders is being outdated as person after person admits to ridiculouly trumped-up crimes against the state. As Rubashov says “ever since Stalin has sat on the top of the party, the air underneath has been unbreathable.” This loss of real time, this abolishment of reality, is a constantly looming force for the imprisoned Rubashov. If he admits to crimes he did not commit he will be remembered as a traitor, not a hero. It he does not admit to them, on the other hand, he will have failed to do a last service to the state, this service would be to capitulate because he is different. The state cannot tollerate his implicite critisisms or his mental dissention from the norm.
Rubashov is a dreamer. He was a true believer in communism. In his words “Once when the great “we” [the people] still existed, we understood them as no one had ever understood them before. We had penetrated into their depths, we worked the amorphous raw material of history itself… We dug into the primeval mud of history and there found her laws. We knew more than ever men have known about mankind” (67). But, he continues “you [modern communists] have buried it all again… the masses have become deaf and dumb again” (67-8). According to traditional Marxist theory history is a progressive force. Mankind goes through preordained, determined stages, from serfdom to capitalism to communism. But at the time of the revolution in Russia in 1916, the people were still largely serfs. Capitalism and industrialization had not yet prepared the workers to rise up; instead farmers rose up. This crisis called for a corrective solution is the form of a temporary board which would rule in the people’s name until such a time that the people could rule for themselves. But the board became essentially a dictatorship, more cruel and oppressive than even the Czars. Koestler brilliantly shows this by having Rubashov wake up and wonder if the arresting officers at the door are German or Russian. But despite the faults of the present system it was believed that it must be tolerated for the eventual goal. This, in the end, is the siren call to Rubashov. He sacrifices himself, not allowing himself the luxury of indignation in public, or the escape of remaining silent. He takes the hard way out, and cooperates. His thoughts are, after all, not pure; he has thought traitorous thoughts. To him this was equal to commiting the crimes themselves.
Darkness at Noon is made more powerful because Koestler uses symbolism to make the story a tale of an era rather than of individuals. The characters are not only individuals, but symbolic of a generation. Ivanov is more than just a warden, he is a stand in for the entire communist old guard as well as a whole type of logic. He believes in persuasion by logic, not torture. He is able to laugh at the present system of communism and see its flaws. For these reasons he is eventually imprisoned and killed. His death signifies the death of a generation. Ivanov’s underling Gletkin is the paragon of the new communist generation. He epitomizes controlled barbarism and has little understanding of Rubashov or his nature. He triumphs in the end, but by killing the old logic he also dooms his nations future. On the smaller scale Rubashov’s toothache (in fact a broken off piece of molar at the root) has monumental significance for the plot. It may signify Rubashov’s conscience, a thing considered superfluous and in fact harmful by the Party. Or perhaps the toothache is a sign of Rubashov’s guilt. At one point the dentist offers to take it out the remaining fragment of tooth, but without novocaine because none is available. This bears a striking similarity to the painful weeks of sleep deprivation and questioning done by Gletkin in order to obtain a full confession of mostly false crimes from Rubashov. In fact, after Rubashov publicly admits to these false crimes his tooth pain disappears. Is it because he has defeated his conscience and Ivanov’s brand of logic has triumphed? Perhaps. On the other hand, as Freud said, “sometimes a cigar is only a cigar.”
This powerful book reveals Stalinist communism as a harsh, brutal and soulless force. The truth and the past became secondary, and only the Party and its survival became important. Darkness at Noon is a searching look at communism from the perspective of an insider.
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