Darkness at Noon, Today

Cover of
Cover of Darkness at Noon

The challenges to Enlightenment Humanism come from all sides. In the U.S., on the Right, a fundamentalist rejection of modernity has led to an increasing, unreasoned disbelief in the scientific method and the process of rational inference from its results. It rejects any conception of the human without GOD, even as it rationalizes varied forms of ungodly political behavior by humans. In the name of a conflated free will and Darwinian determinism, it professes a kind of invisible social hand, a geopolitical laissez-faire in a divine master plan, while it rejects the free determinations of Enlightenment thought that lead to any kind of communitarian consciousness. It leads us nowhere.

There is the pre-Enlightenment anti-modernity of Islamism, as the most widespread and aggressive fundamentalism

And there is the Left of the The God That Failed, by original nature a product of the Enlightenment, though not Humanism, and which, as Arthur Koestler revealed in that work and in the novel Darkness at Noon, demands its own fundamentalist devotion. As Christopher Hitchens wrote of the novel’s protagonist,

Nicholas Rubashov is modeled on those former Bolshevik intellectuals who made full “confessions” of fantastic and abominable crimes at the Moscow show trials of the late 1930s. And, because Koestler had by no means forgotten what he had learned about the dialectic, he decided to place Rubashov in a dilemma from which he himself had escaped. What if the opponent of Stalin is still half-convinced that Stalin is morally wrong but may be “historically” right? He may decide to put his name on the confession and hope that history will one day vindicate him. His last duty to the Party may, in other words, be suicide….

…Apart from Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, there is no finer example in fiction of a pitiless interrogator facing a victim with the intention of saving his soul. Indeed, the teamwork of the two questioners, Ivanov and Gletkin, is so logically and artistically represented that it actually had the effect of converting some people to communism! Rubashov has one fatal weakness, which is that of the open-minded intellectual: “the familiar and fatal constraint to put himself in the position of his opponent, and to see the scene through the other’s eyes.” His dogmatist jailers suffer from no such disadvantage. This is a crux that has relevance well beyond the time and place in which it was set. Orwell’s more widely read Nineteen Eighty Four, which has many points of similarity with Darkness at Noon, makes the same terrifying point that the fanatics don’t just want you to obey them: They want you to agree with them.

At one point during his imprisonment, Rubashov, who is now tormented by conscience over people he himself sent to their deaths, has been witness through the peephole of his cell to another prisoner’s being dragged in torment to his execution. Rubashov believes this has been staged for his benefit to weaken his resolve. Rubashov’s senior interrogator, Ivanov, a former colleague, says this was an error made by his junior.

It is not in my interest to lay you open to mental shocks. All that only drives you further into your moral exaltation. I need you sober and logical. My only interest is that you should calmly think your case to a conclusion. For, when you have thought the whole thing to a conclusion—then, and only then, will you capitulate. …”

“I know that you are convinced that you won’t capitulate. Answer me only one thing: if you became convinced of the logical necessity and the objective rightness of capitulating—would you then do it?”

This is the beginning of Ivanov’s mental assault.

Apage Satanas!” repeated Ivanov and poured himself out another glass. “In old days, temptation was of carnal nature. Now it takes the form of pure reason. The values change. I would like to write a Passion play in which God and the Devil dispute for the soul of Saint Rubashov. After a life of sin, he has turned to God—to a God with the double chin of industrial liberalism and the charity of the Salvation Army soups. Satan, on the contrary, is thin, ascetic and a fanatical devotee of logic. He reads Machiavelli, Ignatius of Loyola, Marx and Hegel; he is cold and unmerciful to mankind, out of a kind of mathematical mercifulness. 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. Apage Satanas! Comrade Rubashov prefers to become a martyr. The columnists of the liberal Press, who hated him during his lifetime, will sanctify him after his death. He has discovered a conscience, and a conscience renders one as unfit for the revolution as a double chin. Conscience eats through the brain like a cancer, until the whole of the grey matter is devoured. Satan is beaten and withdraws—but don’t imagine that he grinds his teeth and spits fire in his fury. He shrugs his shoulders; he is thin and ascetic; he has seen many weaken and creep out of his ranks with pompous pretexts …”

That is the open attack, of reasoned, historical determinism revealing itself for what it is – what the Marxist would call freedom: action in accordance with reason. Next – to assail the moral nature:

“My point is this,” he said; “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. To sit down and let oneself be hypnotized by one’s own navel, to turn up one’s eyes and humbly offer the back of one’s neck to Gletkin’s revolver—that is an easy solution. The greatest temptation for the like of us is: to renounce violence, to repent, to make peace with oneself. Most great revolutionaries fell before this temptation, from Spartacus to Danton and Dostoevsky; they are the classical form of betrayal of the cause. The temptations of God were always more dangerous for mankind than those of Satan. As long as chaos dominates the world, God is an anachronism; and every compromise with one’s own conscience is perfidy. When the accursed inner voice speaks to you, hold your hands over your ears. …”

Today, no one on the far Left with a public voice and who is not a member of some marginalized Marxist party in the post-Marxist era would make this argument – no one, perhaps, but Slavoj Zizek in his detached, comic persona. But in his voice as moralizer, he suggests where the far Left has traveled since Ivanov – a destination Ivanov, as it happens, imagines and rejects. There is every reason to call it The Guardian Left.

But that’s tomorrow.


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