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  • Approaching Infinity:Dignity in Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon
  • Roger Berkowitz

In his allegorical novel Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler tells of Rubashov, a founding father of an unnamed Party in an unnamed state.1 Jailed by the current Party leader, "Number One," and pressed to recant his deviationist views, Rubashov resists. At first, he resolves to go to his death to preserve his integrity. Later, Rubashov recognizes that to hold to his own truth when it endangers the goals of political reform is politically irresponsible. He decides to recant.

The aristocratic soldier in the neighboring cell is appalled by Rubashov's self-betrayal. "Honour," the aristocrat insists, "is to live and die for one's belief." Rubashov disagrees with the aristocratic idea of honor and responds that honour is "to be useful without vanity," which provokes his neighbor to erupt: "honour is decency—not usefulness." Rubashov answers: "We have replaced decency by reason" (Koestler, pp. 177–78).

Today, we rationalist readers of Darkness at Noon are left with the question of the competing demands of usefulness and decency, of reason and dignity. Reason makes its arguments in familiar terms: to prevent a genocide, we will bomb the aggressors; in the name of rationalized health care, some will not get the care they need; for reasons of state, some will be tortured. In politics, as Max Weber teaches, rational ends demand a slow, powerful boring through of hard boards (Weber, p. 93).2 Thus reason—and Koestler unfolds reason as calculating rationality in its most Machiavellian garb—requires the willingness to employ sober and rational means to achieve desired ends. In common parlance, the end justifies the means. Against the nostalgia for a politics of decency [End Page 296] and dignity, reason counsels that to make an omelet, you need to break a few eggs.

But what lies behind the opposing claim to decency? What is it that pulls us to resist the claim of reason when reason counsels war, torture, or even bureaucratic neutrality? What, to paraphrase Hannah Arendt, is to be said for the eggs? (Arendt, pp. 270–84).3

We may invoke conscience, duty, and decency. We might invoke civil and human rights. We condemn realpolitik and affirm a Judeo-Christian world order. In short, we invoke the dignity of man and affirm one's humanity as an inalienable core that cannot be breached. The limitations of such invocations are by now clear. At a time of recurrent genocides, democratically sanctioned torture, and suicide bombings of civilians, the stirring claims of the dignity of mankind ring hollow. Yet the collapse of the Western tradition of dignity does not necessitate the loss of dignity itself. The failure to secure dignity on religious or rationalist grounds need not send us fleeing, our eyes covered in horror and our heads between our legs. What is needed is a confrontation with our situation, one that seeks to comprehend both the impulse to affirm an inviolable core to humanity and our failure to do so.

The ambition of Darkness at Noon lies in its bald effort to affirm the truth of human decency even as it recognizes that man's humanity is a bald-faced fiction. When Rubashov teeters on the precipice between reason and decency, his "eye" tooth aches. He rubs his eyeglasses. He steps only on whole squares in the floor, avoiding the cracks. Tooth, glass, and wholeness refer to the problem of the singular "I," an entity so mysterious that Rubashov follows Nietzsche in naming it the "grammatical fiction." What is the "I," the conscience, the self? How is it that the fictional "I" can and must have such an essential role in modern politics? Where, if anywhere, lies the relevance of the "I" for politics?

Darkness at Noon is acclaimed as one of the most important books of the twentieth century—it is number eight on the Modern Library's list of the Hundred Best Novels of the twentieth century. Yet, given its enormous impact, its philosophical ruminations, and its political theme, the novel has garnered surprisingly little academic consideration. It is worth asking, therefore, why Darkness at Noon has not been taken seriously by the academic...


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