Skip to main content

Religion & Liberty: Volume 26, Number 4

Utopias denied: Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon at 75

Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, public broadcasting aired a television series titled “Meeting of the Minds,” created, produced, written and starring the multitalented polymath Steve Allen. As a high school student, yours truly monopolized my family’s farmhouse Magnavox each week to witness the panel of historical characters (portrayed by actors) arguing philosophy, history, science and culture in their own words.

One can imagine a similar experience seated across the table from Arthur Koestler, an author whose personal life was as fascinating as it was infuriating. Setting aside the infuriating aspects—not least, the 1983 suicides of the Parkinson’s diseaseand cancer-stricken author and his perfectly healthy and much younger wife— for the purpose of this essay, Koestler found himself in the thick of events as the civilized world collapsed into the disorder of the Spanish Civil War and World War II. No casually detached observer, the Jewish and Hungarian-born Koestler fled Germany and subsequently faced more than once near-certain death for his political beliefs as an inmate of both a Spanish prison and a French concentration camp.

In the world of literature, perhaps only Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn did more to expose the lies and cruelty of 20th-century totalitarianism. As a writer for Cyril Connolly’s Horizon magazine in the early 1940s, Koestler also was one of the first European journalists to alert the continent to the genocide committed by the Nazis, which earned him brickbats from such esteemed British writers as Osbert Sitwell. Koestler’s rejection of communist principles likewise raised the public ire of such writers as George Orwell, who, in short, thought the Hungarian was throwing out the proverbial socialist baby with Joe Stalin’s bathwater.

Koestler launched his career in the late 1930s with a series of novels, plays and memoirs chronicling humanity’s near destruction in its perennial march toward Utopian dreams. His novels constitute an examination of the shortcomings of Marxist and fascist ideologies. This year marks the 75th publication anniversary of the second book of the trilogy, Darkness at Noon (1941), which is more celebrated, perchance unjustly, than The Gladiators (1939), Arrival and Departure (1943) and two later political novels, Thieves in the Night (1946) and The Age of Longing (1951).

Darkness at Noon continues to grab headlines. An original manuscript of the novel was discovered last year in the Zurich Central Library by a doctoral candidate. The published versions English readers know today is a hasty translation made during the early years of World War II. The original manuscript was written in German and was thought to have been lost forever after Koestler abandoned his personal possessions while fleeing Paris in 1940 as the German army invaded. The German-language version of the novel today is actually a translation from the English. We fans of the novel eagerly await a new, carefully translated edition from Koestler’s original manuscript.

What makes Darkness at Noon such an enduring artistic work is Koestler’s firsthand knowledge of his source material. Indeed, Darkness at Noon is an imaginative effort, but unlike The Gladiators—set in the firstcentury B.C. and detailing the failed slave revolution led by Spartacus—and Arrival and Departure—set for the most part in Neutralia, a slightly fictionalized Portugal, during World War II—Koestler’s second novel documents its author’s reasons for abandoning the Communist Party of which he had been a loyal adherent. Koestler explained:

I was twenty-six when I joined the Communist Party, and thirty-three when I left it. The years between had been decisive years, both by the season of life which they filled, and the way they filled it with a single-minded purpose. Never before nor after had life been so brimful of meaning as during those seven years. They had the superiority of a beautiful error over a shabby truth.

Seven years is the span of time for which Jacob tended Laban’s sheep to win Rachel his daughter; “and they seemed unto him but a few days for the love he had for her.” But the morning after the nuptials in the dark tent, he found that he had spent his ardours not on the beautiful Rachel but on the ugly Leah. And he said to Laban: “What is this thou hast done unto me? Wherefore hast though beguiled me?”

One would imagine that he never recovered from the shock of having slept with an illusion. We are told, however, that he did obtain the real bride at the price of another seven years of labour. And again they seemed to him but a few days; for, glory be, man is a stubborn creature. (The Invisible Writing, The Beacon Press, Boston, 1955, p. 392)

Koestler’s description of life “so brimful of meaning” brings to mind William Wordsworth’s lines from “The Prelude”: “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven,” concerning the poet’s experience with another, earlier, failed Utopian coup—the French Revolution. It is likely no coincidence, as the opening chapter of The Age of Longing takes place in France during a Bastille Day celebration.

Darkness at Noon is a fictionalized account of the persecution of Nikolai Bukharin, given the name Nicolas Salmanovitch Rubashov in the novel. The author claimed in The Invisible Writing that it didn’t occur to him until years later that the middle name Salmanovitch explicitly identifies Rubashov as a Jew. Like Bukharin, Rubashov is a Bolshevik arrested by the regime of Josef Stalin during the Soviet Great Purges for alleged counterrevolutionary activities. Koestler brings to bear his familiarity with Stalinist dialectics learned in the Communist Party cell in which he participated during his time working as a science journalist in Germany. This knowledge lends credibility to the dialogue Rubashov conducts with his interrogators, Ivanov and Gletkin. Additionally, Rubashov’s solitary confinement is depicted in a fashion reminiscent of Koestler’s portrayal of his own harrowing internment during the Spanish Civil War, which he documented in his first memoir, Dialogue with Death (1938).

Despite being plagued by guilt for horrific activities committed as a Communist Party apparatchik, Rubashov exhibits saintly, if not Christlike, characteristics. It is not the crimes that he actually committed for the state for which he’s being tried after all, but his recognition that the communist dialectic is a fraud perpetrated upon millions of innocent souls, resulting in many of their meaningless deaths:

How he had raged in the great field of experiment, the Fatherland of the Revolution, the Bastion of Freedom! Gletkin justified everything that happened with the principle that the bastion must be preserved. But what did it look like inside? No, one cannot build Paradise with concrete. The bastion would be preserved, but it no longer had a message, nor an example to give the world. [Stalin’s] regime had besmirched the ideal of the Social state even as some Mediaeval Popes had besmirched the ideal of a Christian Empire. The flag of the Revolution was at half-mast.

It therefore is fitting that Koestler’s followup novel, Arrival and Departure, begins with the protagonist’s arrival in Neutralia aboard a ship named Speranza (Italian for “hope”). It concludes with him avoiding the temptation to emigrate aboard the Hobbesian-sounding Leviathan and parachuting into Hungary to assist routing the Nazis.

Back to Allen’s “Meeting of the Minds.” Imagine Koestler bringing the full weight of his intellect and experiences to a table also occupied by Lenin, Stalin or a raft of other 20th-century totalitarian tyrants. Better yet, witnessing him debate such Marxist literary apologists as George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells or any number of collectivists and redistributionists would be most edifying for the contemporary Occupy Wall Street crowd. Since that fantasy will never become realized, encouraging young people leaning toward socialism—“soft” or otherwise—to read Koestler might bring them to the realization that all utopian goals of egalitarianism result in the substantial sacrifice of liberties they may have taken for granted. And there’s no better Koestler book to begin with than Darkness at Noon.

Bruce Edward Walker, a Michigan-based writer, writes frequently on the arts and other topics for the Acton Institute.


Bruce Edward Walker, a Michigan-based writer, writes frequently on the arts and other topics for the Acton Institute.