Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Koestler's "Darkness at Noon"

Excerpts from Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon (at Amazon or on-line in PDF)

I had heard about the author and this book-- off and on. Recently, I read another review. And then, waiting for bridge partners in the library, I wandered over to the stacks. At eye level on the first shelf I approach? This book! Seemed like Providence, so I picked it up and devoured it soon afterwards. An easy read in terms of style, but some tough concepts. Good stuff; I recommend it!

The old disease, thought Rubashov. Revolutionaries should not think through other people’s minds. Or, perhaps they should? Or even ought to? How can one change the world if one identifies oneself with everybody? How else can one change it? He who understands and forgives—where would he find a motive to act? Where would he not? (23) 

An interesting question: If you relate to people, will you have the passion/motive to work for change? But if you don't relate to people, will you have the knowledge to work for change, effectively?

This also reminds me of Haidt's account of the relevant research-- in particular on the Left's frequent and ironic difficulty with empathy. It also made me wonder, at least briefly, about the Democrats' inability to understand the range of Trump voters-- from supporters to hold-your-nosers-- and comments like HRC's "basket of deplorables". Do they, like Rubashov, wrestle and ultimately refuse to try empathy? It seems more likely that it's more about their orientation than their choices.

The Party’s warm, breathing body appeared to him to be covered with sores—festering sores, bleeding stigmata. When and where in history had there ever been such defective saints?  Whenever had a good cause been worse represented?  If the Party embodied the will of history, then history itself was defective. (58)

This reminded me of Orwell's account of Socialism and Socialists in The Road to Wigan Pier. (I have a review essay on the book, forthcoming in The Independent Review.) Orwell is a devotee of Socialism, but he wonders why it's not gaining more traction, given its obvious (to him) benefits. His primary answer is that Socialists are a mess-- and to the point above, they look down on people (and the people recognize this). 

The passage also reminded me of the Church. One could say the same sorts of things: How can people be so little changed by the Gospel? How can people choose grace and conversion-- and then not allow it to change their lives? How can churches be so messy? How can the Church be such a jacked-up institution? I'm reminded of the quip that the Church is like Noah's Ark: it stunk but it was the best thing going. And of course, working out grace in community-- as modeled by a Triune God-- is at the heart of Christian theology and practice. 

Rubashov has the passion but the appeal is not working. Part of the lack is their failing; part of it is perception; part of it is the enormity of the task. Again, this speaks to the Utopia of Socialism and the Gospel of Jesus. 

The cause of the Party’s defectiveness must be found. All our principles were right, but our results were wrong. This is a diseased century. We diagnosed the disease and its causes with microscopic exactness, but wherever we applied the healing knife a new s ore appeared. Our will was hard and pure, we should have been loved by the people. But they hate us. Why are we so odious and detested? We brought you truth, and in our mouth it sounded a lie. We brought you freedom, and it looks in our hands like a whip. We brought you the living life, and where our voice is heard the trees wither and there is a rustling of dry leaves. We brought you the promise of the future, but our tongue stammered and barked. (59)

As the book wraps up, Rubashov begins to debate the purist/theorist Ivanov-- with the latter's theory and purity leading him to persecute the former as a compromiser. Here, Koestler brings Socialism and Christianity together-- two similar approaches with very different worldviews. One starts with God and the individual-- and then moves to community; the other starts and mostly ends with community-- or really, the State. I'll give just a brief excerpt (160) of a long, climactic discussion (160-163): 

There are only two conceptions of human ethics, and they are at opposite poles. One of them is Christian and humane, declares the individual to be sacrosanct, and asserts that the rules of arithmetic are not to be applied to human units. The other starts from the basic principle that a collective aim justifies all means, and not only allows, but demands, that the individual should in every way be subordinated and sacrificed to the community—which may dispose of it as an experimentation rabbit or a sacrificial lamb. The first conception could be called anti-vivisection morality, the second, vivisection morality. 

Koestler also depicts the likely-in-practice contradiction in Socialism and Progressivism. In theory, the people should progress-- with the help of elites, who know and want what's best for them. But in practice, the perceived progress is halting at best, always too slow for the elite. And so, they maintain control from a spirit of paternalism and a willingness to use public policy in a paternalistic manner (170). 

The amount of individual freedom which a people may conquer and keep, depends on the degree of its political maturity...does not follow a continuous rising curve, as does the growing up of an individual, but that it is governed by more complicated laws.

One complication is that the times change. This makes it even more difficult for the rubes to keep up with the requisite growth. Fortunately, the elites are able to learn such things quickly, justifying their use of force on the unwashed (170-172). 

The maturity of the masses lies in the capacity to recognize their own interests. This, however, presupposes a certain understanding of the process of production and distribution of good...The mistake in socialist theory was to believe that the level of mass-consciousness rose constantly and steadily...Every jump of technical progress leaves the relative intellectual development of the masses a step behind, and thus causes a fall in the political-maturity thermometer.

It's always this way. Sowell describes this as the unconstrained vision of the utopians vs. the constrained vision of the realists. The former's vision is always frustrated, as they strive for its implementation. So they increasingly embrace the State as the means to various ends. With their worldview, their use of the State is ethical (means justify the ends) and practical (they are, you remember, the elites).


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