Tuesday, December 1, 2009

On "Darkness at Noon" by Arthur Koestler ****

I'd known of Koestler's book initially only because it was a constant on the shelf at a bookstore at which I worked. A few years after that, it came up in the top ten of a list of the top one hundred novels ever written, as recommended by critics and professors. I barely knew the work, and most people I've mentioned the book to in the past couple of weeks haven't either. Yet it had some significance apparently to those of an older generation--and for good reason.

Koestler's book is a novel of ideas, which is not something I've read much of lately. By that, I mean that it is a book more concerned with its themes and ideas than with its story; it is more philosophical treatise than plot-driven narrative (though there is a plot); the thoughts themselves remain interesting enough to drive the book forward. The book is broken into a series of three confessions, each one of which explores concepts of right and wrong, power and progress, ethics on a political stage. The story is a veiled description of life in Stalinist Russia, of men who led the Bolshevik Revolution yet died years later accused of being traitors to the party--in fact, not only being accused by confessing to such.

Koestler explores why men who would put their lives on the line for a cause would confess (rather absurdly) to betraying it? The answer is essentially that the ends justifies the means and that loyalty to the party and its purposes comes before even one's own life. If the party needs you to confess to crimes you haven't committed in order to further the revolutionary cause and concede power to it, then you do it.

It's a rather scary totalitarianism, one that affects not only one's actions but one's very thoughts and one's very conceptions of history. And it seems, unfortunately, not all that far apart from realities even today. I'm reminded of the troubles in Iran, where old guard revolutionaries are now being rounded up by the current leaders and made to confess their crimes against the regime, even as the regime seems to be betraying some of the principles on which it was founded. I'm reminded of certain experiences growing up, wherein even suggesting that X or Y may not be the proper way to accomplish something would have been seen as rebellion (akin to questioning the Party, in Koestler's book and thus breaking apart unity), leading one to remain silent in the face of wrongdoing by superiors. I'm reminded, sadly, even in some ways of the U.S. fight against terrorism, especially in the former administration, where citizens have been told, in a sense, that the ends justifies the means, as the government ignores certain rules set out in the nation's constitution. Koestler's book serves as a warning against such thinking. Those who live by it are likely to end up its victim. Rather, we should, as Koestler writes, quoting the Bible, let our Yea be Yea, our No, No--aim to be decent (righteous in all acts), rather than clever (duplicitous to serve a moral end).

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