“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 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. The individual stood under the sign of economic fatality, a wheel in a clockwork which had been wound up for all eternity and could not be stopped or influenced – and the Party demanded that the wheel should revolt against the clockwork and change its course. There was somewhere an error in the calculation; the equation did not work out.” P208
We all are the imperfect vessels of ideas that have come before; works of art and literature that the masters perfected long before we were born, who we dare to impersonate in the attempts to add value to that which is already complete. I learned about “Darkness at Noon” after doing some research into Ray Bradbury’s novel “Fahrenheit 451”. While “Fahrenheit” is a dystopian, cartoonish impression of a future totalitarian America, “Darkness” is a fictionalized account of Stalin’s Soviet Union.
Therein lies its power. Though the account is fiction, it could have happened; it did happen actually, millions of times. Because it is about the execution of one who was a party leader who rebelled against Stalin’s random brutality and was killed for it. But not before he was asked for a final surrender to a revolution that had given him nothing and taken everything. A revolution that did not think its role was, in fact, to make lives better. Its role was to upend the system; to prepare the way for something that would come after. Something, of course, that never came after – that can never come after, because brutality, blood and self-denial are not adequate conditioners to the soil from which a civilization might grow.
This novel is extremely well-written, conveying the inner struggle of a Party leader who worked for revolution; who believed in the denial of self, in the idea that the ‘ends justifies the means’, in what Rubashov – the protagonist – says many times in the novel, repeated by his torturer to him at the end, “…For us the question of subjective good faith is of no interest. He who is wrong must pay; he who is in the right will be absolved. That was our law…” The idea that the ‘right’ will triumph and the ‘wrong’ will be punished, the insecurity that forced Rubashov to admit that Stalin might be right and that he might be wrong and that only history would prove who was, ‘absolving’ them – as it were. Ideas which in the end forced Rubashov to deny his own beliefs and experiences and in the twilight of his life, after his torturers had exacted their revenge, made him publicly sacrifice his mind to the party a final time, into eternity.
On a personal note, for me who has worked so hard to advance the idea of human freedom, I am always astonished by man’s ability to endure suffering; and other men’s impetus to compel it.
“Don’t listen. I will tell you in time when they are coming… What would you do if you were pardoned? Rubashov thought it over. Then he tapped: ‘Study astronomy’.”
To all the would-be commies out there, I beseech you. Read this book, and then study astronomy.