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Dr. Larry Arnn Concludes His Study of Darkness At Noon As Part Of His Totalitarianism Series

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HH: Today’s Hillsdale Dialogue, the last radio hour of the week originating from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, where I’m going to be involved in a day-long conference on religious liberty with such luminaries as you heard last hour, Archbishop Charles Chaput, Robbie George, wonderful people devoted to the idea of religious liberty. And religious liberty plays a large role, though hidden somewhat, in Darkness At Noon. In this Hillsdale Dialogue this week, I continue our third and final conversation with Dr. Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College, about Arthur Koestler’s novel, Darkness At Noon. Dr. Arnn, of course, the president of Hillsdale College. All things Hillsdale available at Also, all of these dialogues, including the previous two on Darkness At Noon, and all of the Hillsdale Dialogues back four years, are collected at Dr. Arnn, a good Friday to you. How are you, my friend?

LA: I’m very well. I got up early this morning to read Arthur Koestler, and that’s grim and exalting both.

HH: You read the end of it, probably, as I did coming back. Hillsdale does not get involved in politics, but you and I talk politics a little bit. I was driving back from the vice presidential debate in Longwood, Virginia, and finished the book late on Tuesday night. It was so grim. The ending of it is so grim. But since I just brought up the vice presidential debate, did you watch your friend, Mike Pence?

LA: I watched a lot of it, and read about it, and read most of what they said the next morning, yeah. It was interesting. He’s a very stable, reasoning, sober guy, and he’s a good guy. I know him very well and like him. Yeah, so I thought it was an interesting contrast in the debate.

HH: It was. I’ve known Mike Pence a long time, not as long as you and not as well as you, but I kind of expected that. To a certain extent, he gave me exactly what I expected from Mike Pence. And what used to be sort of the norm, and there are even echoes of the 19th Century in his delivery, about, he doesn’t like interrupting or being interrupted, because the debates that you and I covered, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, it was unheard of.

LA: Well, it was, it was seldom and apologized for when it happened. It did happen sometimes. And there’s usually…

HH: Oh, you’re right. Judge Douglas would interject something from the corner, wouldn’t he?

LA: Yeah, that’s right, and then people from the audience, too. But both candidates cautioned their supporters not to do that. And they didn’t do it very much themselves. Lincoln hardly did it at all, and Douglas a little more. And they were, you know, they were mean as all heck to each other, but they kept up the courtesies. (laughing)

HH: (laughing) Kind of like this hour.

LA: Yeah, kind of like this hour. That’s right (laughing).

HH: (laughing) Let’s go to Darkness At Noon. What a wonderful book. I put it down. I made so many notes. But you always try and reduce a book to its essence, and there’s a line by Gletkin, and would you, for the benefit of people, explain, give us the premise of the characters again who have just walked in, you know, the Yinzers from Pittsburgh who just walked in and can’t remember last week? What are we talking about here, Gletkin?

LA: Well, this is the story about the Moscow Show Trials, and it seeks to explain a puzzle, which is why did Stalin’s colleagues, who had been his equals at the moment of the revolution, later confess in public at length to crimes they did not commit, knowing that they would be shot in a dungeon without ceremony after they had made the confessions? And it was suspected, or thought at the time that they had been tortured. In fact, they were not. They were interrogated very sharply, but what Arthur Koestler, or Koestler thinks is that some logic in their own lives and convictions led them to say these things. And they had tremendous reasons not to say them, not just that they knew they were going to be shot without ceremony, not just that they had not committed the crimes to which they confessed, but also that they had to resent Stalin, who had, you know, not only risen above them all, but killed most of them. And this is about, Rubashov is a stand-in for the greatest of these people, the last of these people, who testified at the show trials, a man named Bukharin. And so why did they do this? And the characters are really chiefly three. There are three main characters, and then there are some subordinate characters I’ll list, well, the three main I’ll tell you about and the others, I’ll list. The three main are Rubashov, this man who stands in for Bukharin. His first interrogator is a man named Ivanov, who’s another old maker of the revolution. And he interrogates Rubashov for the first half of the book or so, and you find out that he’s trying to save his life. And then Ivanov is replaced. Also, Ivanov is arrested, and during the course of the book, shot on the testimony of Gletkin, a young, next generation revolutionary who’s referred to consistently by Rubashov as a Neanderthal. And Rubashov thinks that he made, he and Ivanov and their old colleagues, made this young man. And the second interrogation is relentless and sharp. Rubashov is kept up all night, a bright light shining in his eyes. And that, and Gletkin gets him to confess to all these things, a written confession, all but one. And then he breaks him down. And Gletkin’s account of breaking him down in conversations with Ivanov, whom he betrayed and replaced and had executed, is that it’s not logic, in other words, it’s not a rational faculty of the human mind. It’s constitution. You just wear them down. But in my reading of the book…

HH: Yeah. Go ahead.

LA: That’s not what happens, that it’s a combination of wearing him down and, but more than that, it is the, it is the logic of Rubashov’s life. And a great way to read the book is to ask yourself the question all the way through, because I think this is what the book is about, why did Rubashov confess? And you will find, if you examine that question, two alternative views of human nature that are at war with each other in Rubashov’s soul.

HH: Now what you just did was beautiful. I’ve gotten some critiques from my friends that say you allow people not to read the books. And I say no, that’s not true. When we give a summary, and there are some great summarizers out there, Novel Conversations, for example, is a podcast out of Lakewood, Ohio that will summarize a novel just to give you the characters. It’s easier to remember, and it’s better for people to understand the key points. Then they have to go and read if they have not read, or they ought to continue reading. Having had that summary then allows me to say Gletkin is merciless. There is no mercy in him. He is a Neanderthal. But he says something that I wrote in context of 2016 and other elections, Larry Arnn. “The leader of the revolution,” and he’s talking about Number One, Stalin, “the leader of the revolution understood that all depended on one thing, to be the better stayer.” And I thought to myself that really does go to the heart of dictatorship, doesn’t it? You just have to stick around.

LA: The driving question in the Soviet Union that led to the purges of the party elite, and you know, much of the officer corps of the Red Army, was should they do what they went to Russia to do, which was begin a world revolution there and go everywhere? Trotsky was the great advocate of that. And they were, Rubashov describes them all as militant philosophers. And they, and their principles didn’t allow for socialism in one country. It was to be a world revolution. And Stalin had a different idea. And his idea was, the way Gletkin puts the idea, is there’s a world reaction against this. We’ve been wrong about that. We thought once we hoisted our banner somewhere, everybody would rally to us. No, they’re turning against us, and so we have to survive that. And that’s handy for Stalin, because the means of survival are to entrench themselves in the Soviet Union, or Russia, and then to appoint one guy the be all and end all. And so that’s why Stalin killed all his colleagues, the chief reason why. And this, and Gletkin is the spokesperson for Number One. And see, he’s, he understands these arguments. He says no, no, I understand why you wanted to go all over the world, and why you thought things would be different than they are. But he understands that in an academic way. Rubashov had lived that. He had fought for that. He had done rank injustices for that, and he had been imprisoned and tortured for that. And so it was a lot easier for Gletkin to stand apart from all that and judge between the two claims.

HH: And he does make a judgment, and we’ll come back to that judgment. It’s fascinating on so many levels. It’s also beautifully written. I say Arthur Koestler, Dr. Arnn has the correct but frequently forgotten correct pronunciation. It doesn’t matter. Darkness At Noon. Go download it. We’ll be right back. We’re wrapping up our three weeks on it. And then we’ll move on to Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Don’t go anywhere, America.

— – — — –

HH: Mercy is not present in this week’s Hillsdale Dialogue. Mercy is a Christian virtue. It’s a virtue of other world religions as well, and there isn’t any of it at all in Darkness At Noon, the work of Arthur Koestler that Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College and I, are discussing in this week’s Hillsdale Dialogue. All things Hillsdale are available at collects, my gosh, it’s probably 150 of these hours of conversations. Binge listen. A moment, Dr. Arnn, on the beauty of the detail in here. Gletkin is interrogating mercilessly, as I said. There is no mercy here. Rubahov, and he says, finally after he gets an answer he wants, you know, he’s in this glaring light. They used hard methods. Gletkin says does the light disturb you, asked Gletkin suddenly? Rubashov smiled. Gletkin paid cash. That was the mentality of the Neanderthaler. And yet when the blinding light of the lamp became a degree milder, Rubashov felt relief, and even something kindred to gratefulness. I love that line, Gletkin paid cash, Larry Arnn.

LA: Yeah, isn’t it? (laughing) He was, Gletkin is an incredibly stiff person. And his cuffs always make a crinkle or a noise, and everything is exactly correct. And unlike in the typical interrogation, Rubashov is not questioned by teams of people. He’s just one person. And that meant that Gletkin stayed up as long as Rubashov stayed up.

HH: Yup.

LA: And that, says Rubashov, deprived him of the martyr’s reward – victimhood, because he was suffering, too, was Gletkin, and he could just suffer better. And so he comes to regard Gletkin as something like a god, and that is alluded to several times in the narrative. And Gletkin is the god of history of the revolution. He is the revolution incarnate. And he represents some undeniable necessity to Rubashov.

HH: It was, there is an amazing conversation about when Rubashov was abroad, and met with Herr Von Z, a German, obviously, off the old regime. Gletkin understood nothing of guinea pigs. He had never drunk coffee with Herr Von Z. It occurred to Rubashov how haltingly Gletkin had read, how often with the wrong intonation. He was a proletarian origin and had learnt to read and write when already grown up. He would never understand that a conversation beginning with guinea pigs could end God knows where. He would also, though, Gletkin would teach Rubashov what it meant to get a watch when you were nine. It’s a fascinating dialectic between these two.

LA: Yeah, Gletkin is not like Rubashov. He’s not learned. He’s not poetic. He’s not, there’s nothing for him. Rubashov makes the point in his mind that he and Ivanov are different from Gletkin, because they know something outside the revolution. And so they have a sense of humor about it, which Gletkin always calls cynicism. Gletkin, on the other hand, he’s a very emotional man, and he’s very proud. And he has something at stake in this interrogation, because it was always open to Rubashov simply to refuse to say anything, and they would have taken him down in the dungeon and shot him, which they eventually did after the trial. But Gletkin was supposed to produce the trial and the confession. And if he did that, he would rise in the party. And if he didn’t, he’d probably be shot himself. So they’re having a duel for who gets killed. And they both are, well, at least Rubashov understands that. Now about the watch, that’s a very important thing, because what Gletkin knows is he grew up in a little village, he says, and he didn’t get a watch until he was nine years old. No, yeah, he didn’t get a watch until he was in his teens.

HH: Right.

LA: And nobody in the village had a watch. And so when they were trying to run a factory, people wouldn’t come on time. And as they got tired, they’d just go down, lie down and go to sleep. And he says, and see, I don’t think this is at all the cause of it. I think the revolution is wrong about this, but Gletkin says a group of people visited from Manchester near where an industrial center in the north of England, not far from where my wife grew up. And they had 200 years to learn the industrial ways. We had to do it now, and so we had to shoot them.

HH: In 10 years. And that got them to learn. I’ll be right back with Dr. Larry Arnn. Darkness At Noon is on the table on the Hillsdale Dialogue. Stay with us.

— – – – —

HH: We are talking about the crescendo of the book, the interrogation of Rubashov by Gletkin, and then the trial and the account of the trial as it’s read by a daughter to her father, who’s in the way of an apartment. I want to get to that. But first, a word more on Gletkin. “Massive and expressionless, he sat there,” Dr. Arnn, “a brutal embodiment of the state which owed its very existence to the Rubashovs and the Ivanovs, flesh of their flesh grown independent and become insensible.” He also talks about the chimps in the trees laughing at the Neanderthals not realizing that the Neanderthals would last and make them their pets.

LA: Yeah, so that’s right, and that means that the charm and hope of the revolution has been replaced by single focus and by what, by entrenchment, right? They’re not, they’re not ambitious to do anything for a long time, indefinitely, except control everything. That’s all they’re doing. And they know that the people are suffering, and they think that’s good. In that sense, this book is just like 1984. And I want to say a quick word about methodology, and then I want to say what I think is the final question and how it’s answered. First of all, the people who say we don’t make it necessary to read the book, well, there’s lots and lots of books that people should read. If you read a lot, then you should read things that are just fun to read, and you don’t think about them much after you read them. But if a book is worthy of having a dialogue, or a better thing yet, a seminar about, then what you want to do is take it apart and try to see what it means. And that means in class, you don’t really spend a lot of time going over the plot. People are expected to have read the book. And it’s way better if our listeners read the book. But these key passages, right, and we do in this class that I’m teaching right now, we do read passages from the book a lot. And not just I, students have a point to make. They’ll take the passage, and we put it up on a screen sometimes, and we read it aloud, and we think what it means. But of course, this book, in my argument, is very carefully written. And that means that things that recur in it, I’m going to mention three terms now. There’s the term silent partner, and there is the term grammatical fiction, and there’s the term I, the first person singular pronoun. And there’s the term infinite. And in this book, those four terms are synonyms. And Rubashov’s war is between the I, the human being, the person who is connected to the Divine and has a sense of eternity, that is the thing that Rubashov has spent his life crushing. And he’s almost crushed it out in himself, but he can’t quite. And there are two reasons for it. One is, there are these four people. There’s Arlova, his lover, and there’s Richard, a revolutionary we talked about last time, and there’s Little Loewy, another one, and then in the prison, there’s Bogrov. And those are all people that Rubashov in one sense or another betrays and causes their death. And it gets interpreted as to save his own skin. The truth is he could do nothing for them, really. That would be his justification, and he could go on. But it’s his feelings about them, about their worthiness, and about their innocence, and how they were crushed. In other words, his sense of justice, an eternal concept, had made him a counterrevolutionary. And so he wants to talk to that part of himself. He wants to enjoy that part of himself. It’s the whole reason he wants to live in the prison. But of course, he’s been killing that in others.

HH: Yeah.

LA: So that contradiction, he thinks, and in fact, Gletkin appeals to him explicitly about this, and he tells him that there’s an eternal glory available for Rubashov that he can have. But there’s only one way to have it, he says. You have to go and make yourself into a scapegoat. And this is directly compared to Jesus.

HH: Yup.

LA: And he says you have to be thought vile. You have to sacrifice yourself. You have to paint yourself pitch black, which was a rule of prudence of Rubashov earlier in his career. Anything that’s gold has got to shine brightly. And anything that’s black has got to be pitch black, and there can’t be anything in between because the masses can only be educated that way. And then Gletkin says if you do that, then years later, we will recover all of this testimony, and everything you’ve said for yourself. And in that happier later day, you can be immortalized, right? In other words, he’s offering a kind of heaven, an earthly heaven. And Rubashov accepts that. And the complex of things that makes him do it are, above all, he has done this to others, and now he has to pay. In other words, there are two things going on. One, the entrenched, searing habit of destroying every good thing that he has been part of on the one hand, and on the other, the I, the infinite. He keeps saying that the pronoun, I, is a grammatical fiction. There is no such thing, right? Those things are talking to him and saying you did this to Arlova. There’s a really great, we don’t, Bogrov never gets to speak in the thing, and he, in the book. Bogrov is the hero of the Battleship Potemkin, about which Stalin had a movie made in the 20s, a great Russian hero. And Rubashov only hears him go down the hall to his execution, and hears him whimper, and hears the heavy steps. And that is very effecting to him. He’s never seen an execution, although he’s called many. And the passage about this is riveting, and it recalls Aristotle’s account of how we have, we know moral things. And he says we see them through the sense perception. You can see them, right? You can smell them. You can hear them. You can touch them. And so now for the first time, he sees what an execution is like, and he immediately puts Arlova, his lover, and Little Loewy and Richard in the same spot, and he thinks for himself for the first time fully what he has done.

HH: And he has a conscience. He develops a conscience.

LA: And so he has a conscience, right? And conscience is what you’re not to have. There’s an ethics described between Gletkin especially, between Ivanov and Rubashov, but especially between Gletkin and Rubashov. And the ethics is entirely consequential. That means if it works out right, it is right. And if it doesn’t work out right, even if in good faith, even with a great argument, even if most of the time your argument would work out right, not only are you wrong, but you have to be shot for being wrong.

HH: You have to be shot. You have to be erased. You have to confess that you’re wrong.

LA: That ethics destroys humanity. And of course, it does it in the name of a perfect control of nature.

HH: There is also…

LA: And that isn’t a new idea. Herodotus describes the Persians as believing that no one will ever lie, and that what’s illegal to do is illegal to think. So you have in Xerxes a man who thinks he can control everything, right? And this is just a modern scientific, and therefore much more thorough going and much larger example of the same impulse.

HH: Yeah, it’s actually chilling. It’s also prophetic. You’re teaching this in the context of a seminar on totalitarianism, and the inevitability of what the state must become against the backdrop of evolutionary theory. I mean, that is what Koestler is arguing, is that the People’s Republic has to go this way. It has to end up here with Gletkin in charge, because Gletkin is superior to the intellectuals who went first. There is, Dr. Arnn, at the end of this, and I want to make sure we get to this, this odd drop-in. The porter, Wassilij, am I pronouncing that, is that how you would pronounce it, the porter, Wassilij?

LA: Yeah, that’s right.

HH: Okay, “The Porter, Wassilij, lay on his back and thought of the time when Rubashov had been conducted and triumphed through the meetings. After his rescue from the foreigners, and how he had stood leaning on his crutches up on the platform under the red flags and decorations and smiling, and rubbed his glasses on his sleeve while the cheering and shouting never ceased, and the soldiers led him away into the hall called the Praetorium. And they called together the whole band and they clothed him with purple, and they smote him on his head with a reed, and they did not spit upon him. And bowing their knees, worshipped him.” And then his daughter is reading him the show trial, and he’s clearly in despair. He’s also quite clearly a Christian. He keeps quoting Scripture. And he realizes his daughter’s going to kill him under this new regime.

LA: Yeah.

HH: Isn’t this chilling?

LA: Yeah, that’s right, and he is old and alone, and broken down by age, and by the revolution, and the wars he’s fought. And he is living in deadly fear of his daughter, who makes him sign, and she makes him, in just that way they make you do things, right? She’s about to get married, and she can’t get married until they both have a place to live, and there’s a long wait list for a place to live. But if her father were to die, that would fix it. And so she gives him, because once Rubashov is killed, and that’s what they did after these show trials, then they have petitions in all the work places saying execute this person, these mad dogs. They call them mad dogs all the time. Execute this person. And she brings it to him to sign, and that’s his friend, Rubashov, whom he loves, and with whom he fought. And you know, several times, Rubashov is described in the novel as being a man of very great parts, a very courageous, a very wise, very determined…

HH: Incredible leader, warrior.

LA: That’s right. They just loved him, right? And this man loved Rubashov, right? And now he sees him there, and his daughter doesn’t say you have to sign this or you’ll be killed. All she says is they, they back at the workplace, the party officials in the workplace, they wondered if you would sign it. And so he knows what that means.

HH: And he does. We’ll be right back to wrap this up. It’s such a poignant moment. Don’t go anywhere.

—- – – –

HH: Next week, we’re on to Brave New World, the 1932 novel of Aldous Huxley, as opposed to Darkness At Noon. Why did you teach them in this order, Dr. Arnn, to go from 1984 to Darkness At Noon to Brave New World? Why in reverse order?

LA: Two reasons. One is to get the ugliest stuff out of the way so we don’t go home for Christmas in despair.

HH: Oh, very good.

LA: And the second one is the first book is about the party as seen from underneath it. And Darkness At Noon is about the party as seen from the top.

HH: Ah.

LA: And you find out that the view is the same. But it’s, together, by the way, they make a great commentary on tyranny, because one of the great lessons from the classics about tyranny is it doesn’t make tyrants happy, either. And everybody is afraid, right? O’Brien, in 1984, is not afraid, because he has so mortified his soul that he has destroyed this eye that Rubashov is unable to destroy. And remember, O’Brien would be a descendant of Gletkin, right?

HH: Yup. Better.

LA: That’s where they’re going, right?

HH: Stronger and better.

LA: But Gletkin himself has profound reasons to fear. And remember what it is, like Gletkin was tortured, having been gravely wounded, and has a big scar on his head because some object was jutting out of his head for a while. And he was tortured under those circumstances, and he didn’t break. And he is congratulated for that by Ivanov, another very brave soldier who’s lost a leg. And he says I only fainted. I would have broken if I’d stayed awake. And so he mortifies himself as a discipline, as the way you are to live. And that’s what Rubashov has been doing to himself, just less thoroughly than Gletkin.

HH: The last conversation in the book is with the admirable 402, the man in cell 402, a monarchist and a military man who encourages Rubashov before he is executed, you won’t show the white feather. We know you’re the devil of a fellow. Don’t take it ill, technical suggestion of a soldier. Empty your bladder. It’s always better in such cases, and he bemoans the fact he has 18 years more of imprisonment, and he envies you. But Rubashov says you can read and study. It’s an interesting last conversation. And the noblest guy in the book is 402.

LA: That’s right, and when he says you’re the devil of a fellow, at the climax of Rubashov’s interrogation by Gletkin, Rubashov says I see, you want me to play the devil. And so then the word devil comes up again later, and this time as an approbation, right? You’re the devil of a fellow.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And so he does become both what Gletkin wants and what 402, not Hare-lip, what 402 wants. And at the end, you know, you see, at the very end, what he does is he feels his death as adjoining with the infinite.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And you can read that more than one way. But what I think it means is in the end, Arthur Koestler believed that you cannot destroy the human being, and that the human being in touch with the Eternal, if nowhere else, at least at the moment of his death, will be in touch with that.

HH: I have to go back and reread that, because I was so depressed after reading 402. But I have to say you could spend a semester on this book. This is, I’ve been doing the Hillsdale Dialogues with you for four years, mostly about texts I have read at one time or another. I’ve never read Darkness At Noon. This is a magnificent book.

LA: Isn’t it, though?

HH: Yeah.

LA: And people shouldn’t think it’s depressing. I find the closing chapters thrilling, right? It’s a great drama coming to a climax. And everything is explained, and to my eye, very artfully. That is to say it is a wonderful picture of the way things work in nature. You can try, if you want to, to destroy all humanity. But in the end, you couldn’t do that except by killing them all, including yourself.

HH: I just think your students must be enjoying this, and I think this is why people should go to Hillsdale to read books like this in that way. I really do. I just think it’s the complete argument for recovering literature. And how many colleges, what percentage of college students, do you think, will read Darkness At Noon, Larry Arnn?

LA: Well, not very high. Most people have never heard of the book. But I’d also add that to read this book well, you have to read a lot of other books.

HH: Yes.

LA: And you know, we read those, too. And they’re young, and it is amazing how much they learn. But when it works, and it mostly does, they’re going to go on learning for the rest of their lives. And they’re going to live and mature in better lives because of it.

HH: And they’re going to keep looking. And they’re going to keep looking for more books like this. Dr. Larry Arnn of Hillsdale College, thank you.

End of interview.


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