Saturday, June 6, 2009

Darkness at Noon (Koestler)

In an age when public speeches, the plays in our theaters, and women's fashion all seem to have come off assembly lines, arrests can be of the most varied kind. They take you aside in a factory corridor after you have had your pass checked--and you're arrested. They take you from a military hospital with a temperature of 102, as they did with Ans Bernshtein, and the doctor will not raise a peep about your arrest--just let him try! They'll take you right off the operating table--as they took N.M. Vorobyev, a school inspector, in 1936, in the middle of an operation for stomach ulcer--and drag you off to a cell, as they did him, half-alive and all bloody (as Karpunich recollects). Or, Like Nadya Levitskaya, you try to get information about your mother's sentence, and they give it to you, but it turns out to be a confrontation--and your own arrest! In the Gastronome--the fancy food store--you are invited to the special-order department and arrested there. You are arrested by a religious pilgrim whom you have put up for the night "for the sake of Christ." You are arrested by a meterman who has come to read your electric meter. You are arrested by a bicyclist who has run into you on the street, by a railway conductor, a taxi driver, a savings bank teller, the manager of a movie theater. Any one of them can arrest you, and you notice the concealed maroon-colored identification card only when it is too late.
-Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago Part 1

Most of twentieth century literature can be summed up in the following sentence:

Someone must have slandered Josef K, for one morning, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested.

The presence and absurdity of arrest (and Arrest) is almost constantly present throughout the entire 100 years. Most times for unknown reasons, as in Solzhenitsyn and Kafka. However, even when the reason is known, as in Camus, Banville, and Sartre, it is often just as absurd as when it is not. In fact, then the absurdity seems to come to the fore all the more, since the very question of "why me?" is even disarmed.

Darkness at Noon operates somewhere between these two. The protagonist, Rubashov, was once an architect of what we can assume is a regime similar to Stalin's (the book never explicitly states where it takes place, nor does it cite the name of the regime's leader). As things grow more and more uncertain politically he begins to realize that he could be arrested at any point--and, in fact, is (upon waking from a dream in which he is being arrested). In his dream, which he has had periodically for years, three men come to his door, drag him out of bed and arrest him without explanation (much like Josef K.). He tries to put on his jacket but the sleeve is turned inside out, and he struggles to get his arm into it until he is knocked out by one of the officers. It is at this point that he wakes up to the pounding of the officers outside his door.

The particularity of his arrest is felt throughout the Gulag type prison he is kept in--his neighbor a cell over discovers who he is and is disdainful, since Rubashov was part of the organization that landed him in prison in the first place. Despite the tension between the two, they maintain a very human relationship throughout the novel, finding common ground in the hopelessness of their mutual situations. What follows as the novel unfolds is an exploration of the way a political body evolves, gathering new blood as the younger generation picks it up from the older, and how this political body--though created by and made up of people--acts ruthlessly against the humanity of those who once represented it. Rubashov, as the older generation, is "made an example of," even though he has committed little more than second guessing himself (and spends much time in prison trying to pinpoint the meaning of this second guessing, and second guessing it as well). He searches for meaning in why he is there, and finds only absurdities which become twisted into reasons through a rigorous systematic logic which has no desire to recognize absurdities. Simply put: in a political system, the absurd does not get people to act.

The Times Literary Supplement describes it as:

"...a grimly fascinating interpretation of the logic of the Russian Revolution, indeed of all revolutionary dictatorships..."

but the political significance is only scratching at the surface of the depths Darkness at Noon probes. At heart, it is almost a cautionary tale of the Hegelian, idealistic dialectic taken to its logical extreme. Though I wouldn't necessarily categorize this as distinctly "existential," I think that this concept of arrest--and Arrest (as an abrupt stop)--which runs through the twentieth century is one which is concerned primarily with existence, and particularly existence in disjunction with an Ideal. In this sense, Koestler's book is, in Kierkegaard's words: "a dialectic which always knows how to keep the problem hovering, and precisely in and through this seeks to solve it." But, to continue in Kierkegaard's words: "there is another dialectic which, since it begins with the most abstract Ideas, seeks to allow these to unfold themselves in more concrete determinations; a dialectic which seeks to obstruct actuality by means of the Ideal." That would be the dialectic which jails Rubashov, and the one which is being confronted in Darkness at Noon.

It is a simple book, and I don't mean to, myself, start with abstract Ideas and sully it by over academizing it. But there is also something in it which is wholly representative of an entire century of thought, and which shouldn't be brushed aside by saying: "its about communism being bad." Or: "its anti-totalitarianism." I don't even necessarily think that you could logically state by the end of this book that it has anything to do with the concept of communism. Like almost all writing of the 20th century, and all good writing after Kafka--from Camus to Sartre, Beckett to Banville--it is concerned with existence.

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