Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler

Darkness at Noon, written by Arthur Koestler, is about a high ranking political prisoner named Nikolai Salmanovich Rubashov (NS Rubashov), his two interrogators (Ivanov and Gletkin), a couple of Rubashov’s prison cell neighbors, and some key people in Rubashov’s life in his later years. While author chooses not to specifically name the Soviet Union as the country where the story takes place, the story does in fact take place in the Soviet Union. The novel often refers to the “revolution” or the “party” and to “Number One.” Just know that this refers to the Communist Revolution, the Communist Party, and Joseph Stalin.

While Koestler’s book does use the final weeks in the life of the fictional Rubashov as a vehicle for the main part of the novel’s story, a series of economic, political, philosophical, and historical concepts are explored as well.

The book contains a thorough debate about the merits of collectivism vs. what is referred to as Christian humanitarianism or individualism. The interrogators often serve as the mouthpiece for the collectivist concepts, and in this case, the Machiavellian point of view argued is that the ends justify the means. One person is always expendable for the good of the collective. And Rubashov firmly believed that very thing for most of his life. But he has been struggling with his conscience for the last several years, especially since the lives of people around him started to come to untimely ends as a result of his fierce loyalty to the party. The book pits this collectivist mentality against “Christian humanism,” which espouses the idea that the individual is sacred and should be treated as valuable on his or her own individual merits.

Another collectivist concept that runs deep throughout Darkness at Noon is the idea that history is subjective and that Stalin/Soviets, etc. would be able to manipulate it or defeat it; bend it to their will. They felt they could commit whatever atrocities they wanted as long as one day it all worked out and their Utopia was created, and any perceived sins would be forgiven. The best historical example of this was the death of millions of Ukrainian farmers under Stalin’s watch. They starved to death as their harvests fed the rest of the country. On a personal note, I hope the collectivists are wrong in thinking that history will absolve them of such crimes against humanity.

Still another concept that the author explores is that Stalin and the Communist party have effectively (and mistakenly if I’m reading the author’s intent correctly) replaced God or religion in the eyes of the masses. And again, if I’m reading the author’s intent correctly, he thinks people like Rubashov and others yearn for a true religious experience rather than this false one (there is a great deal of Christian symbolism in the novel, such as the pieta (painting of virgin Mary with her arms outstretched). *Note: Some sources have stated that Koestler was born into a Jewish family but didn’t practice, and others state that Rubashov is a Jewish name, yet as stated, the religious symbolism in the novel was largely Christian.

At the end of the book, Rubashov ultimately confesses to essentially everything (except the most minor offense, which was thrown out by his interrogator) they accuse him of, although neither his accusers nor Rubashov really believe him guilty of these crimes, at least not all of them or in the spirit in which they will be interpreted. In today’s language, it’s a false confession brought about by torturous tactics.

The methods utilized to illicit false confessions in this Soviet political prison included psychological torture (leaking information to his neighbor and then dragging a man past Rubashov’s cell to his execution and staging it so that he would scream out Rubashov’s name before they killed him), physical torture such as sleep deprivation and lack of food, sensory techniques like blinding light in his eyes as they interrogated him, deprivation of medical care (Rubashov’s toothache was so bad that he had a visibly swollen cheek), and more.

In his final hours, Rubashov develops the concept that there is a repeating cycle to mass consciousness and political maturity where the former facilitates the latter and a revolution will inevitably break out. Then something else tends to happen (such as the invention of gunpowder) where people need a new authoritarian regime again for a while until the process repeats itself. Ultimately this new philosophy is the final piece of the puzzle in Rubashov’s mind that allows him to live with his decisions and confess to everything. It allows him to make the leaps necessary to believe that he had been serving a greater plan, that his friends that died didn’t die in vain, and that his own death would actually still be serving the cause.

I wish I could tell you that in the end, Rubashov did the right thing and fought against the Communist regime that he served his whole adult life. But in the end, he was branded a traitor and unceremoniously shot in the back of the head in the basement of the prison.

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