“Darkness at Noon” and “The Captive Mind”

Darkness at Noon (1940) is not a polemic, as I had anticipated.  I read somewhere else–Christopher Hitchens may have said it in his memoir, Hitch-22–that Koestler gave many of the best lines to Gletkin, Rubashov’s brutal interrogator and avatar of Stalinism.  Gletkin, though he stretches reason to its limits, nevertheless gets Rubashov broadly right–the latter does have objections to the direction in which Number One (the Stalin stand-in) is taking the revolutionary ideology, and therefore Rubashov is a criminal in the eyes of the state.  Yet for some reason–Gletkin says self-importance, an intellectual’s exceptionalism and vanity, and the reader is led to agree–Rubashov, an inventor of the ideology to which he will soon fall victim, is blind to this logic.  Gletkin is the source of the book’s power: by its end, he convinces Rubashov, and more important, convinces the non-communist or even anticommunist reader, that Rubashov has no other choice but to participate in his own demise.  Koestler, a onetime Party member, conveys the intractability of Stalinism through Gletkin, not his “hero” Rubashov.  For all those, myself included, who find it difficult to understand why so many otherwise intelligent and free-thinking minds were corrupted and co-opted by the Stalinist state and the Stalinist mindset, Darkness at Noon may be the best answer.

The other early (1953) masterpiece of Stalinist psychology is Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind, about Communist Poland.  Milosz’s book is nonfiction, and is subtler than Koestler’s–a closer and more comprehensive look at what Stalinism does to intellectuals caught in its orbit.  It is an elegant argument: Milosz’s invocation of the Islamic notion of “Ketman,” a term for living an orthodox public life as a means to divert attention from one’s heretical beliefs, explains both how Eastern European intellectuals survived in an atmosphere of suspicion and betrayal, and, at the same time, the competition this atmosphere created.  By keeping their “true selves” hidden from view, intellectuals participated in an elaborate show in which they tried to outdo one another in acting like sincere, and fervent, members of the Party.  Such was the attraction of this deadly game that it became an end in itself–the game was a test of intelligence and cleverness, which to certain intellectuals were the qualities that mattered most.

Like Koestler, then, Milosz captured a fundamental aspect of the Stalinist intellectual: the pride the intellectual took in thinking of himself as an important catalyst in the fulfillment of Marx’s historical vision, and, at the same time, the pride he took in styling himself a subversive, one who secretly clung to the traditional literature and culture obliterated by Stalin’s decrees.  This was an impossible situation, and, as both Koestler and Milosz saw, one that originated in the vanity of the intellectual.  Eastern European intellectuals living under Stalinism looked down on their counterparts in the West, who possessed the freedom to live one coherent life, had no need for the game of Ketman, and therefore lived simpler, less treacherous, less ironic lives.  Like Rubashov, Milosz’s subjects thought they could beat Stalinism at its own game–they thought they could say one thing but think another.  But Koestler and Milosz shows just the opposite: prominent Polish intellectuals were, like Rubashov, entirely in thrall to their murderous overseers, domestic and in Moscow.  They became the latest versions of Lenin’s “useful idiots”–Stalinism played on their self-importance and turned them, with their ostensible approval, into servants of the cause.

In these two books one can discern the basis of much of Tony Judt’s work, most obviously Past Imperfect, his screed against postwar fellow-traveling French intellectuals.  As in Eastern Europe, so it was in France, though with less on the line.  Again, it was paradoxically the self-importance of the intellectual–in Judt’s book, the Western European intellectual–that made him a target for Stalinist pressure and co-optation.  Sartre and likeminded intellectuals, fulminating in the pages of Les Temps Modernes, saw in the Bolsheviks the apotheosis of the relevant, world-changing intellectual, and partly as a result threw their support behind Stalin.  By allying themselves with a greater power, they thought could demonstrate their own self-worth.  They felt, though, somewhat like Milosz’s Polish intellectuals, that they could maintain some distance–though, notably, not a critical distance–from the Communist Party; they thought that they could, Ketman-like, hold fast to their intellectual independence.  The point of Darkness at Noon and The Captive Mind is that the idea of the independent intellectual is itself useful to Stalinism.  In Koestler, the intellectual becomes fodder for the show trials, evidence to the proletariat of the pointy-headed enemy perpetually lurking within the state.  In Milosz, the intellectual thinks he is independent in his private life, and therefore joins the public life of Communism with greater enthusiasm than could otherwise be expected.  Thus life becomes a game for the intellectual, but he does not understand that it is a game inevitably won by Moscow.  (Even when Communism fails, the intellectual has already been destroyed.)

A final thought on The Captive Mind, and again about the trouble later generations have in trying to put themselves in the place of those living under Soviet Communism: Milosz captures, like only a poet can (though Marshall Berman does the same in Everything Solid Melts Into Air), the aesthetic experience of cities, and more specifically what he calls the “feeling of potentiality” that descends upon you as you walk though a city, surrounded by a diversity and immensity of people, activity, and architecture–and the emotional and even erotic tinge of this experience.  This is commonplace in the urban West, but was nonexistent in the gray, brutal cities of Eastern Europe under Communism.  And as a feeling that one can still comprehend, it may represent a starting point for understanding what Communism meant for the daily life of those living in its shadow.


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