Review - Darkness at Noon (Koestler)

Rating: 5/5

This novel starts off with an imprisoned protagonist thinking of the past where the prisoner was part of the very Revolution that has now imprisoned them. As the story progresses, philosophical ramblings come at increasingly frequent intervals and the novel reveals the most valuable plot point: watching the protagonist go back and forth between the belief that the “Revolution” was a good thing, which will eventually attain its original goals; and the belief that the Revolution was incorrect to say that “an individual is the product of one million divided by one million.”

Other dystopia tell us about the villain well before the book starts: No one thinks what Big Brother does in 1984 is doing could be remotely good. No one thinks that burning books in Fahrenheit 451 is the logical thing. The outcome is framed, forcefully and without any shred of doubt, as an aberration; a mistake. The author is trying to get the reader to realize the absurdity of the situation and the mistakes in reasoning that lead to it. While reading Darkness at Noon though, this is not always clear. I am fairly convinced that the Revolution did not actually change anything in this fictional world and that had it not happened nothing significant would have been lost. However, we get to see the present through Rubashov’s eyes, and Rubashov himself was deeply involved in creating the Revolution and putting No. 1 in power. So, when Rubashov explains the reason for the way things were done during the Revolution, it is clear (to us and to Rubashov himself) why Rubashov himself has now been imprisoned by No. 1.

The story starts off with the protagonist of this novel, Rubashov, switching relentlessly between the present and the past. It took me some time to understand what was going on, whose story this is, where we were. I managed to piece together most of this by p.70. But then, from p.73 to p.76, Koestler has another character read Rubashov’s full biography. Nevertheless, this part of the book was fun. So, one thing I will say is this: *Do not obsess over the specifics of where the revolution is happening, what Rubashov’s exact role was, how No. 1 came to power, what happened to the old leader, etc.* These are mostly peripheral to the main question of the plot: *Should Rubashov participate in his own self-sacrifice for the sake of the Revolution? Or should he “die in silence” and betray the Revolutionary cause, which has become increasingly unclear to him?* Just as Rubashov was instrumental in the death of a union member who believed the Party’s ideals too much, now No. 1 has come to him and asked for his head. Should Rubashov acquiesce?

During the course of the hearings, we see that Rubashov thinks everything out to the logical conclusion: He concludes that “the Party can never be mistaken.” He decides to confess to the charges that are laid upon him, under considerable duress, and agrees to go to a public trial. The tactics used on him are (ironically) the same that worked on common peasants: sleep deprivation, constant interrogation with brief periods of rest of a couple hours at most, a fluid set of charges that are applied on him and updated on the fly depending on what actually confesses to.

But he also ignores some key flaws in his thinking: He says that he is acting honorably, and that to act with honor is to “be useful without vanity.” From the descriptions of what No. 1 did to his opponents or is now doing to Rubashov himself, it is clear that No. 1’s primary characteristic is his vanity. There is no honor in what No. 1 is doing. He has lied to his population that Rubashov is a traitor to the Revolution; and he has lied to Rubashov (indirectly) that the population needs a traitor in order to be invigorated about the Revolution; that there will be a war soon and to give them a public trial is the only way to reinforce their true belief (or at least, weed out more “traitors”). No one benefits except No. 1, who stays in power perennially, through the application of this devious logic.

One final thing is about revolutions themselves. The book only lightly touches on this point, but it felt very insightful to me. Rubashov was a part of the original Revolution; he was fighting against economic fatality; he was applying philosophy to problems in order to get the population to revolt against Capitalism. The generation after the Revolution’s founders are also ostensibly doing the same thing; however, there is one key difference: They have never seen the world before the Revolution. In essence, they have no idea what they are rebelling against. They were born when the world had already been transformed violently; and now, they knew nothing about the transformation or how the world was before the transformation. This breaks the whole setup: The Revolution is reduced to nothing more than a “mythical event” which is used to keep things going the same way as they currently are; to retain power within the same centers and the same people. There is no possibility for any true “Revolution” which remains both true to its original goals and in constant flux. For the original goals will soon be forgotten. And the flux that overthrew the old ruling class to put the new one in place, if allowed to continue, might be used to throw out the new ruling class and put an even newer one in its place. This is the ultimate logical wrench in the wheel.

Rubashov is unable to find any way to pull the wrench out. But he is hopeful:

[Rubashov thought] Soon it would be over. But when he asked himself, For what actually are you dying? he found no answer. It was a mistake in the system; perhaps it lay in the precept which until now he had held to be incontestable, in whose name he had sacrificed others and was himself being sacrificed: in the precept, that the end justifies the means. It was this sentence which had killed the great fraternity of the Revolution and made them all run amuck. What had he once written in his diary? ‘We have thrown overboard all conventions, our sole guiding principle is that of consequent logica; we are sailing without ethical ballast.’ Perhaps the heart of the evil lay there. Perhaps it did not suit mankind to sail without ballast. And perhaps reason alone was a defective compass, which led one on such a winding, twisted course that the goal finally disappeared in the mist. Perhaps now would come the time of great darkness. Perhaps later, much later, the new movement would arise – with new flags, a new spirit knowing of both: of economic fatality and the ‘oceanic sense’. Perhaps the members of the new party will wear monks’ cowls, and preach that only purity of means can justify the ends. Perhaps they will teach that the tenet is wrong which says that a man is the product of one million divided by one million, and will introduce a new kind of artithmetic based on multiplication: on the joining of a million individuals to form a new entity which no longer an amorphous mass, will develop a consciousness and an individuality of its own, with an ‘oceanic feeling’ increased a million fold, in unlimited yet self-contained space.

– p.206