Rereading “Darkness at Noon”

Preparing to read Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic, by Michael Scammell (Random House), I have been rereading Darkness at NoonArthur Koestler‘s 1940 rendering of an old-guard Russian revolutionary’s thoughts as he faces inquisition and certain death at the hands of a new generation of Communist functionaries during the Stalinist purges of 1938. Koestler’s aging Bolshevik hero, Nicolas Rubashov, is said to have been modeled on Bukharov, Trotsky, and Christian Radovsky, but in his personal mettle and the relatively principled nature of his musings, he at times reminds me of Ayn Rand’s only “good” collectivist character Andrei Taganov in We the Living, whose noble spirit drives him to commit suicide rather than live with the corrupted nature of a revolution he sacrificed other people’s lives for: those he killed or watched die. In his prison cell, Rubashov compulsively remembers two innocent men and a woman, his lover Arlova, whom he betrayed and allowed to die–all for a revolution turned arbitrary and unworthy. He considers the forbidden word, “I,” and taps out its cipher on his cell wall in prison code, his last act before his execution for crimes he has confessed to but didn’t commit.

Ayn Rand disliked Koestler, just as she disliked Scammell’s other biographical subject, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, and for similar reasons. In her view, neither dug deeply enough to hit upon the bedrock importance of  the individual self. Solzhenitsyn held to a pre-revolutionary, anti-Western Christian paradigm. Throughout the 1940s, Koestler defended Communist “ideals” against the temporary reality of Stalin. In a letter to Isabel Paterson in 1948, Rand calls Koestler “confused.” According to Robert Hessen, when asked about Darkness at Noon after a speech at the Ford Hall Forum, Ayn Rand answered with one word, “Junk,” and moved on.

Rubashov’s meditations on William James’s “oceanic” religious feelings and on the meaning of the self as at least partly limited by historical necessity and tied to duty are distinctly anti-Rand. But his nostalgia for a pre-Revolutionary world of boyhood Russian country houses and great books is Randian, and his thoughts about the paradoxes of Party loyalty cast a sidelight on both Taganov and Commandant Kareyev in “Red Pawn”:

“The infinite was a politically suspect quantity,” Rubashov muses, “the ‘I’ a suspect quality. The Party did not recognize its existence. The definition of the individual was: a multitude of one million divided by one million.”

Rubashov’s thoughts go on:

“The Party denied the free will of the individual–and at the same time it exacted his willing self-sacrifice. It denied his capacity to to choose between two alternatives–and at the same time it demanded that he should constantly choose the right one. It denied his power to distinguish good and evil–and at the same time it spoke pathetically of guilt and treachery.”

This was the world Ayn Rand braved emigration to a strange country to escape and that she fashioned Andrei Taganov, Commandant Kareyev, and Howard Roark to light the way out of. And yet Rubashov, who has not been permitted to enter “the land of promise” or even glimpse it “from a mountaintop,” as Moses did, and who dies in confusion, seeing “nothing but desert and the darkness of night,” is a tragic figure. We’ll see if the “confused” Koestler is tragic, too.

Anne C. Heller