Narrative Self-Absolution and Political Tyranny in Moby-Dick and Darkness at Noon.
One must, of course, be mindful of different genres, writers, and narrative voices. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael is at once an older narrator who recounts his younger self, a literary persona within the narrative itself. Koestler, on the other hand, is an author of novels and five autobiographies, but never the narrator of a work of fiction featuring that narrator soberly reflecting on his younger self. Moby-Dick, on the other hand, offers up a self-reflective narrator seeking to "justify to us his total existence" within a novel that "reflect[s] the mind of Ishmael" (Brodtkorb 4, 7) as he ponders how he was "drawn with the rest of the crew by the dark magnetic pull of the captain's monomania" (Bezanson 41). Still, despite the obvious difference between the literary voices of Koestler and Ishmael, Koestler-as-author, in his lament over early Communist identification, is able to identify with Ishmael's self-confessed surrender to, but eventual rejection of, totalitarian impulse. Thus, while modeling Rubashov, the anti-hero of Darkness at Noon, on some critical features of Ahab, Koestler, in his autobiographies, appears to sympathize with Ishmael's rejection of fanaticism and occasionally and self-consciously to assume Ishmael's lighthearted tone. By such means does he foster his own of internal stability and engage the trust of readers. This outlook is consistent with the thought that autobiography, "ostensibly a rehearsal of the completed history of the past, is better understood as a manifestation of some imperative drama of consciousness going forward in the present" (Eakin 57). So minded, I suggest that the political concerns and narrative artistry of Moby-Dick figure in Koestler's dramatization of totalitarianism but that his reluctance to acknowledge the distance between author and narrator of Moby-Dick results in a measure of self-deception given his identifying with Ishmael's--and his own--sense of personal rehabilitation.
The difference between Communism and the free-market capitalism of nineteenth-century whaling provides no obstacle to Koestler's aligning the concerns of Moby-Dick and Stalinism, as argued. Here, too, we evoke James's view that Moby-Dick dramatizes how a "society of free individualism would give birth to totalitarianism and be unable to defend itself against it" (60). In a related vein, Koestler himself intimates that the link between democracy and Communism was inherent in the latter's claim that capitalism was "'a camouflaged form of the dictatorship of the capitalist ruling class' and Fascism 'its overt form,' while 'the class-content' of both regimes was the same" (Invisible 29). (4) From this perspective, which Koestler at one point embraced, the tyranny said to emerge from quasi-democratic settings may have provoked his Cold War reading of totalitarianism in Moby-Dick. And for purposes of perceiving a general alignment of Moby-Dick and Communism in several of Koestler's narratives, we might recall that Communist totalitarianism in some measure perpetuated rather than evaded seemingly corrupt features of capitalism (Koestler, "Soviet Myth"). Nor did Communism, in theory, completely disavow the underlying principle of democratic self-determination. Rather, according to Koestler, the Party pronounced democratic rule as the endgame of a dictatorship that would, with the advent of a hoped-for utopia, surrender its power to the people. Still, "[u]ntil that day you had to play the game--confirm and deny, denounce and recant, eat your words and lick your vomit; it was the price you had to pay for being allowed to continue feeling useful, and thus keep your perverted self-respect" (Koestler, "God" 74). This is, of course, after-the-fact rebuke of a mindset to which Koestler once subscribed enthusiastically. Better late than never, to be sure--but phrased in such manner as to evoke Proverbs 26:11, "As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly." Whether by chance or design, Koestler thus casts himself as reborn and regenerate, liberated, at least to his own satisfaction, from a sinful past.
Koestler was nonetheless a member of the Communist Party from 1931-1938 (Koestler, Invisible 15; "God" 69-70). Relative to his advancing and later recanting Party politics, he in some measure resembles Ishmael, who retrospectively confesses to having surrendered his better judgment to Ahab's manic quest:
I, Ishmael, was one of that crew; my shouts had gone up with the rest; my oath had been welded with theirs; and stronger I shouted, and more did I hammer and clinch my oath, because of the dread in my soul. A wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me; Ahab's quenchless feud seemed mine. (Melville 179)
This is not Ishmael's first disclosure of such guilt, as he earlier admits to having had misgivings about signing aboard a ship without "laying...eyes" on the person who would prove to be the ship's "absolute dictator." Self-imputingly, he thus ponders the frame of mind that checked his inquiry: "But when a man suspects any wrong, it sometimes happens that if he be already involved in the matter, he insensibly strives to cover up his suspicions even from himself. And much this way it was with me. I said nothing, and tried to think nothing" (97). Such is the regret and hindsight of a not-quite-ancient mariner who likely expresses his own apprehension while imagining Starbuck to utter the following words when pondering the execution of Ahab, asleep, in the captain's own quarters: "Aye, and say'st the men have vow'd thy vow; say'st all of us are Ahabs. Great God forbid!" (515). All Ahabs indeed.
Troublesome musing of that order also exists in the way Ishmael concludes "Moby Dick" (ch. 41) with the confession, "For one, I gave myself up to the abandonment of the time and the place" by seeing "naught in that brute but the deadliest ill" (Melville 187). Not that Ishmael is ever in a position to alter the outcome of Ahab's mania through a personal expression of civil or militant disobedience. Starbuck, who significantly outranks Ishmael, falls short in that regard. (5) Still, after-the-fact regret persists, as it is wont to do for persons pondering sins of commission or omission. Thus, when pondering his and others' support of Ahab's "irresistible dictatorship," Ishmael ruminates on "entrenchments" that are "more or less paltry and base" that allow the mind and will of a dictator to assume "supremacy over other men" (147-48). He persists, moreover, in pondering personal shortcoming when generalizing about his nearly fatal errancy, through drowsiness, at the Pequod's helm: "Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee; as for the time it did me" (425). He here recollects, beyond his staring into the fire that melts blubber, how the Pequod, including its crew, was the "material counterpart" of Ahab's "monomaniac [...] soul" (423). Ishmael's identification with that monomania is further evident in his recollection of susceptibility to fanaticism, as embodied in the lunatic Gabriel, by the crew of the Jeroboam: "Nor is the history of fanatics half so striking in respect to the measureless self-deception of the fanatic himself, as his measureless power of deceiving and bedeviling so many others" (315). Because Ishmael, in his own sphere of culpability aboard the Pequod, was among such bedeviled others, it little surprises that he may here, and certainly elsewhere, impose his own introspective self-assessment onto his narration of Ahab's consciousness. For instance, at one point via ostensible omniscient utterance, he accounts for Ahab's recourse to the crew's sordidness to fuel their quasi-romantic participation in his crusade:
The permanent constitutional condition of the manufactured man, thought Ahab, is sordidness. Granting that the White Whale fully incites the hearts of this my savage crew, and playing round their savageness even breeds a certain generous knight-errantism in them, still, while for the love of it they give chase to Moby Dick, they must also have food for their more common, daily appetites. For even the high lifted and chivalric Crusaders of old times were not content to traverse two thousand miles of land to fight for their holy sepulcher, without committing burglaries, picking pockets, and gaining other pious perquisites by the way. (212; emphasis mine)
Key here is the fact that Ishmael has no way of knowing Ahab's innermost musings--hence, "thought Ahab." This narrative ploy may reflect a subconscious effort to discount his and the crew's latent sordidness by having all, via retrospective narration and psychological projection, passively serve Ahab's Machiavellianism. (6) But Ishmael's guilt over his having subscribed to dictatorial decree nonetheless persists; and it further surfaces in the otherwise divine musings of "A Squeeze of the Hand" (ch. 94 ): "for the time I lived as in a musky meadow; I forgot all about our horrible oath; in that inexpressible sperm, I washed my hands and my heart of it" (416). Antipedo baptism, to be sure--but with lingering, participatory guilt over "our [...] oath."
Yet self-castigation, whether overt or subconscious, is elsewhere repressed. The mood and tone of Ishmael more frequently illustrate his authority as an expert of whaling, as in "Pitchpoling" (ch. 84) and "The Grand Armada" (ch. 87), and inspire and reassure readers of his good-heartedness. That is so, for instance, in his claim that "amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm" (Melville 389). Likewise reassuring are the playful tone of "Extracts (Supplied by a Sub-Sub-Librarian)" (xvii); the cleverness of Ishmael's classifying whales as he would books, whether folio, octavo, or duodecimo (137-45); the comparison of a right whale's and a sperm whale's heads to those of Locke and Kant (327); and Ishmael's sexually suggestive utterance, "Of erections, how few are domed like St. Peter's!" (307), as well as in his related barb about "harpooned" (397) brides in "Fast Fish and Loose Fish" (ch. 89). Cheer, jest, and amiability likewise dominate Ishmael's account, in "A Bosom Friend" (ch. 10), "Nightgown" (ch.11), and "Cetology" (ch. 32), among other such chapters. (7) And even when, in a discussion of "savagery," Ishmael admits that "I myself am a savage, owning no allegiance but to the King of the Cannibals" (270), he concludes the chapter with perhaps the most endearing of pronouncements: "With a frigate's anchors for my bridle-bitts and fasces of harpoons for spurs, would I could mount that whale and leap the topmost skies, to see whether the fabled heavens with all their countless tents really lie encamped beyond my mortal sight!" (271). Equally exalting is Ishmael's utterance that "while ponderous planets of unwanting woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness and joy" (389). In such passages resides the prevailing tone of calm and equanimity that dominates Ishmael's point of view and most readers' trust in a narrator who understandably wants his audience to think better of him than he sometimes does of himself. Hardly an unpardonable sin, the effort reflects a predictable feature of a sometime regretful survivor seeking to win over potentially skeptical readers: "And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-fish, too?" (398).
Similarly, Koestler, whose authoritative grasp of a personally superseded Communism, earns the trust of most readers. Granted, he is sometimes as emphatic about his regret, as is Ishmael when confessing that his shout went up with that of the others. For Koestler, such confession occurs dramatically in the opening of his fourth autobiography:
I went to Communism as one goes to a spring of fresh water. PABLO PICASSO I went to Communism as one goes to a spring of fresh water, and I left Communism as one clambers out of a poisoned river strewn with the wreckage of flooded cities and the corpses of the drowned. This, in sum, is my story from 1931-1938 [....] (Koestler, Invisible 15)
Such is Koestler's most dramatic confession, though shielded by the implication of his having been in good company. More frequently he, like Ishmael, casually has readers infer that he is now beyond all that--for example, when he dismisses dialectical materialism, as if retrospective mockery were absolution for a seven-year loyalty to indoctrination and practice:
[T]he Marxist closed system soon learns to superimpose a "class- conscious aspect" on every object and experience he encounters. This mode of perception soon becomes a conditioned reflex. To perceive a duck merely as a duck means to be guilty of bourgeois objectivism; a duck is a fowl destined to fatten the bellies of members of the ruling class and denied to the toiling masses. (Koestler, Arrow 288-89)
The last sentence, sardonic in tone, suggests Koestler's distance from ideological and harmful assumptions he once championed. The same may be said of still another such passage: "Two hours of this dialectical tom-tom and you didn't know whether you were a boy or a girl, and were ready to believe either as soon as the rejected alternative appeared in inverted commas," connoting "ironic inflection"--for example, "the 'revolutionary' past of Trotsky" (Koestler, "God" 56). Here and elsewhere in Koestler's writings, skepticism and post-factum ridicule assuage the anguishing recognition of prior acquiescence and active participation.
Granted, my attention to Koestler's self-exonerating narrative ease is indebted to studies tasking Koestler's reflections, across many works, as being quasi-confessional, self-serving, and lamely penitential for his having, as a propagandist, abetted Stalinism. (8) Existing scholarship also argues that Koestler, across his several autobiographies, posits himself as a "stranger" to his past and as being distinct from a prior "'false personality'" (Handel 307, 309) that grappled with childhood insecurity and later with an errant commitment to Communism. He is even said to make a virtue of vice by locating "integrity" (310) at the heart of a noble ur-self approached, in hindsight, through trial and error:
[O]ne can take full responsibility for his misdeeds in the past, declare himself guilty for having committed them, yet relegate the past self--the executor of these deeds--to a position of being now far removed from and essentially irrelevant to one's conception of what his real self has always been like. It is as if one has formed in his mind an imaginary scale for grading his various selves according to their proximity to the core of his true, real self. (313-14)
Such, then, are the suggestions of past commentators attentive either to Moby-Dick and totalitarianism or to the mere similitude of regeneracy in Koestler's autobiographies. What is new, as we shall now observe, is the suggestion that Darkness at Noon and Koestler's autobiographies resonate with Ahabian dictatorship and with the example of a Melvillean narrator inclined toward exegetical self-revival.
By way of advancing this compatibility of political concern and rehabilitative narrative voice in Moby-Dick and varied writings by Koestler, we might recall that Koestler was fascinated with Moby-Dick. Indeed, he either quotes, references, or parodies the novel in several of his works. For instance, "The Sermon" (Moby-Dick ch. 9) figures significantly in Insight and Outlook (1949), a treatise in which Koestler illustrates how points of collision between seemingly disparate fields of knowledge often comprise unifying territory for creative thinking across the arts and sciences. For Koestler, these moments of cognitive "bisociation" can lead, as well, to a person's transcending life's trivial plane to enter the tragic or historic realm of existence and ethical obligation. Evasion of that calling comprises "THE GUILT OF JONAH," as advanced in Koestler's exegesis of Father Mapple's sermon:
And therein--in his normality, complacency, in his thick-hided triviality and refusal to face the storm, and God, and the corruption of Nineveh; in his turning his back on the tragic essence of life-- therein precisely lies his sin [...]. Melville understood this when, in the great sermon in Moby-Dick, he made his preacher sum up the lesson of Jonah in this unorthodox moral: [...] "Woe to him who seeks to please rather than to appal!" (Koestler, Insight 374-375) (9)
Father Mapple's rendition of Jonah might well have appealed to an ex-Communist who felt the mandate to preach, in his own era, to Communist Nineveh, or to those who would flirt with Soviet ideology. Still, Koestler's identification with Jonah and related biblical persons is less an act of hypocrisy than it is available psychological balm.
More lightheartedly, reference to Moby-Dick surfaces on the dedication page to Koestler's The Yogi and the Commissar (1945), a work that compares, and to some degree seeks to reconcile, the polar worlds of spiritual transcendence and ruthlessly empirical politic. Koestler there quotes, with appropriate acknowledgment, the concluding utterance of the cetology chapter of Moby-Dick, thereby linking himself playfully to Ishmael: "God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draft--nay, but the draft of a draft. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!--Melville, Moby Dick." (10) A related and more extensive appeal to Ishmaelian cheer is conspicuous in one of Koestler's autobiographies, Arrow in the Blue (1952), which features a chapter titled "Through the Polar Night on a Flying Whale" (283-300). Those pages describe his excursion, as journalist, aboard the Graf Zeppelin, a hydrogen-inflated German blimp in which he traversed Soviet Central Asia and the Arctic from July 26-July 30, 1931 (Arrow 275, 291; Scum 153). He refers to the craft as "a good-natured, colossal Moby-Dick of the air" and to its interior as "the belly of the Whale." Readers of Melville will recognize that Koestler's winsome yet highly detailed account of the interior of "the flying whale" (Arrow 283) is indebted to Ishmael's kindred utterances in "A Bower in the Arsacides" and "Measurement of the Whale's Skeleton" (Moby-Dick, ch. 102 and 103). For both Koestler and Ishmael the impact on readers of such playful narration is endearing.
Still, somber reflections about the Artic landscape align Koestler with Ishmael's apprehensions in "The Whiteness of the Whale" (Moby-Dick, ch. 42). Says Koestler, "Of all colours I found white the most depressing when exposed to it continuously and without relief" (Arrow 294). The observation corresponds to Ishmael's ruminations about "the continual sight of the snow-howdashed Andes," or the "driven snow" of the "unbounded prairie," or the morbid "scenery of the Antarctic seas" (Melville 194). More somber, yet, is Koestler's apparent recourse to Ahabian mania to characterize Rubashov's Communism. Vital in this regard is Ishmael's narration in "The Quadrant" (Moby-Dick, ch. 118) of Ahab's disdain for supra-terrestrial guidance. Ahab there throws to the deck and tramples the nautical instrument for measuring the latitude of his ship in relation to the altitude of the sun. Rather than acknowledge a power above--through what Starbuck later calls the "dashed [...] heavenly quadrant" (514), Ahab opts for horizontal guidance achieved through sublunary technology and self-reliant certitude:
Curse thee, thou quadrant! Dashing it to the deck, no longer will I guide my earthly way by thee; the level ship's compass, and the level dead-reckoning, by log and by line; these shall conduct me, and show me my place on the sea. Aye [...] I trample on thee, thou paltry thing that feebly pointest on high; thus I split and destroy thee! (501)
In Darkness at Noon, related nautical imagery and resonance suggest how human self-sufficiency, as manufactured by corrupt logic--that is, by the propagandistic and self-referential reasoning of so-called dialectical materialism--is a faulty guide. Intoning the metaphors of ship, compass, and ballast, Rubashov recalls his prior political allegiance but only now to ponder whether "it did not suit mankind to sail without ballast," since "reason alone was a defective compass, which led one on such a winding, twisted course" (Koestler, Darkness 260). Further, with regard to an imbalanced ship and intellect, Rubashov, in a diary entry, writes, "we had to recur to faith--to axiomatic faith in the rightness of one's own reasoning [...]. We have thrown all ballast overboard; only one anchor holds us: faith in one's self" (100). The Ahabian analogue is all too conspicuous with regard to Ahab's having abandoned guidance above or beyond "level dead-reckoning" (Melville 501). (11)
Communism's kindred jettisoning of any authority higher than the utopian destiny of state sanctified the "precept" that "the end justifies the means" (Koestler, Darkness 260) and that "this end justifies the use of all means, including violence, ruse, treachery, and poison" (Koestler, Yogi 3). Koestler, of course, prides himself on having recanted such precepts and likely expresses as much with symbolism derived from "The Needle" (Moby-Dick, ch. 124), in which Ishmael accounts for the way, several pages earlier in the narrative, the needles of Ahab's compasses spin "round and round" during a typhoon (Melville 513). Ahab thus accounts for the fact that "last night's thunder turned our compasses," and in such manner as to have them point East while the Pequod was as "infallibly going West" (517). The episode involving these "inverted compasses" (518) connotes the fallibility of presumptuous reason and serves as precedent for Koestler's metaphorical renunciation of Communist "consequent logic" (Darkness 260) and pointless dialectics: "we did not know that we were living in a magnetic storm, that our verbal compasses... had become faulty" (Arrow 210). Indeed, the symbols and lessons of Melville's novel appear collectively to guide Koestler, whether through overt or subconscious recall, toward creatively dramatizing the inevitable personal and political wreck of sailing without "ethical ballast" (Darkness 260).
For both Ahab and Rubashov, moreover, such navigation terminates in "'closed systems'" (Koestler, Invisible 234) imper vious to perspective or enlightenment. Koestler may, in that regard, have come to judge Communism much as he surveyed the closed-system politics of Ahab's Pequod, since "It is a basic rule of Communist discipline that, once the Party has decided to adopt a certain line regarding a given problem, all criticism of that decision becomes deviationist sabotage." Demanding "complete unanimity of opinion" (22), Communism, for a retrospective Koestler, embodies the disease of "absolutitis" (Koestler, Arrow 216), afflicting its political leaders and rendering their followers servile. Hence, a retrospective Koestler admits that Communism relinquished capitalism "for a brand-new form of slavery," since the "social progress for which we fought became a progress towards the slave labour camp" (210). Such is the inhumane servitude foreshadowed in "The Quarter-Deck" (Moby-Dick, ch. 36), in which Ahab mesmerizes the harpooners into swearing allegiance. And such, for Koestler, was the "absolute, serene faith" of "Marx and Lenin," exerting kindred "hypnotic power over other people's minds" ("God" 34). That brainwashing, as identified in hindsight by Koestler, contributed to his own "fanatical allegiance to the Party" (Invisible 29). Here resides the confluence of "unconditional obedience" (25) demanded alike by Party politics, quarter-deck sorcery, and what we have observed above as Ishmael's retrospective concern with the capacity of "fanatics" to have the "measureless power of deceiving and bedeviling so many others" (Melville 315), including himself.
In both Moby-Dick and Darkness at Noon, enslavement to a cause is similarly chained to programs of geographical expansionism and messianic nationalism. As documented elsewhere, both Ahab and Ishmael share a messianic fervor linked to nineteenth-century America manifest destiny--that is, to a providential destiny to manifest republican principles across North America and the Western hemisphere. (12) As Ishmael exclaims, "What to that apostolic lancer, Brother Jonathan, is Texas but a Fast-Fish?" and "What at last will Mexico be to the United States? All Loose-Fish" (Melville 398). As pertains to this study, Ahab's and Ishmael's pretentions to redemptive expansionism find a dictatorial analogue in Communist belief in the predestined, classless utopia promised by the "will of History itself" (Koestler, "God" 73), with "history" replacing Judeo-Christian belief in divine providence and destiny--to the point, explains Koestler, that "an aggressive, expansive power with a messianic belief in its own mission will expand as long as a power-vacuum exists" (Invisible 189). (13) Koestler realized that such expansionism, though justified atheistically, had precedent in Scripture, for Rubashov muses how the dream of Communists' approaching "the gates of Utopia" (Darkness 130) found precedent in the Old Testament world view. Such is the context surrounding the tendency of international Communists who, always glamorizing Soviet Russia, inquired about "the exact size of the grapes of Canaan" (62), an inquiry that runs parallel to messianic expansionism in Moby-Dick. There, as the Pequod departs Nantucket, Ishmael revels in Bildad's chanting a hymn by Isaac Watts that evokes the crossing of the Israelites into the land of Canaan (Melville, 104); similarly, Ahab, misappropriating Mosaic identity and wandering, has "for forty years" made "war on the horrors of the deep" (543). Such utterance anticipates Rubashov's musing that revolutionary Communism "had lasted forty years" (Koestler, Darkness 255), as did the hoax played upon Soviet believers in utopia: "For forty years [they] had been driven through the desert, with threats and promises, with imaginary terrors and imaginary rewards. But where was the Promised Land?" (266; cf. Koestler "God" 30). Stated otherwise, where was the atheistic utopia that Communism, with its emphasis on an infallible Party, had substituted for God? (14)
American expansionists justified messianic politics by claiming that they were extending the area of democratic freedom to unenlightened nations. Ahab does so as well when, in his crazed quest to eradicate the source of all evil, he rants about using lightning rods to combat political systems of privilege: "Yet I'll contribute to raise rods on the Himmalehs and Andes, that all the world may be secured; but out on privileges!" (Melville 505). Thence follows universal enlightenment: "Ha, ha, my ship! Thou mightest well be taken now for the sea-chariot of the sun. Ho ho! all ye nations before my prow, I bring the sun to ye! Yoke on the further billows; hallow! a tandem" (516). Still, for all its pretenses to extending democracy, nineteenth-century American expansionism was yoked to the extension of slavery, nullifying the temporary impact of the Missouri Compromise and setting the stage for the Civil War. (15) That contradiction between freedom and servitude appears, as well, in The Gladiators (1939), the first of Koestler's novels following his years as a Communist. He may there develop Ahab's solar locale of utopian reform and the irony of its harboring slavery. Indeed, as interpreted with immense liberty by Koestler, the historical figure of Spartacus, the leader of a slave revolt against Rome (111-71 B.C.) founds "the Sun State." But that perfectionist quest for freedom issues in demands for "unconditional obedience and submission to his authority" (Koestler, Gladiators 171), for the landscape of the Sun State features "crosses [...] on which died those whose lives were forfeited in the interests of common welfare, those who had not been able to submit to the stern laws of freedom" (228). The decrees of Spartacus, as imagined by Koestler, thus come to foreshadow the Communist dilemma of forcing others to "suffer for their own good," since there "must be but one will, the will of the knowing" (283). Spartacus justifies such aberration from a free society with "the law of detours" (175; cf. 227), a rationalization in accord with Ahab's dictatorially redirecting the crew of the Pequod from their original mission and obligations.
As pertains more specifically to correspondences between Moby-Dick and Darkness at Noon, we arrive, beyond intertextual politics and psychological evasion, at a narrative technique featuring exegetical absolution for whatever personal responsibility resides in both Koestler and Ishmael for complicity in their leaders' tyrannical messianism. I approach this suggestion with reference to the opinion of one scholar who discerns in both Rubashov and Koestler guilt for sins of omission and commission (Rees 21). Several examples support this claim as it pertains personally to Koestler, who admits that he made no effort to respond to a plea for help from Otto Katz, a former Communist who was eventually executed by hanging following his Communist show trial (Invisible 405). Koestler also denounced and betrayed to the Party his lover Nadeshda Smirnova. While he never verified her death after reporting her allegedly anti-Party behavior, he suspects the worst (90-107). He also witnessed but never protested the plight of frantic Ukrainian Kulaks, five million of whom were either deported to Siberia or destined to wander in states of forced starvation because they protested "the collectivization of the land" (Koestler, "God" 68; cf. Invisible 55-56, 85, 126). Little surprise that Koestler on at least one occasion admits that Darkness at Noon was, in part, an effort to repay a "crushing debt" (Invisible 365)--in essence, for his having "for seven years found excuses for every stupidity and crime committed under the Marxist banner" ("God" 79).
Still, Koestler may subconsciously unburden himself of that misadventure through appropriation of the biblical narrative of Jacob's being deceived by Laban into sleeping with Leah--ostensibly a reward for Jacob's seven years of labor to gain the hand of Rachel--and then having to work another seven years to wed his true love. Crucially, this self-exonerating exegesis of Koestler's folly comes at the conclusion of his autobiographical essay, "The God That Failed": "I wonder whether [Jacob] ever recovered from the shock of having slept with an illusion. I wonder whether afterwards he believed he had ever believed in it. I wonder whether the happy end of the legend will be repeated [...]" (82). Similarly biblical and self-forgiving, and also at the end of his narrative, is Ishmael: despite having sworn allegiance to Ahab's quest of carnage, he retrospectively deems himself as a messenger of Job, prefacing the novel's epilogue with the Scripture utterance, "'And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.' Job." Equally self-sanctifying is the way he identifies, in that same epilogue, with the events of Jeremiah 31: 15-17, casting himself as kindred to the children of Rachel: "It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan" (Melville 573). Koestler, with a related sense of newfound regeneracy, concludes one of his autobiographies with an "Epilogue" that depicts himself as a survivor of the Party and as a person who has come to be praised by Western intelligentsia and vilified by Nazis and Communists alike (Invisible 430-31). It would appear, then, that the example of Melville's Ishmael guided Koestler toward being a sadder, wiser, and perhaps less culpable man--or even a reformed Jonah preaching, in accord with Father Mapple's admonition, "to sound [...] unwelcome truths in the ears of a wicked Nineveh" (Melville 47). Melvillean and biblical gloss of this order lends added cogency to the opinion of one commentator who more generally surmises that Koestler "insists that the world should recognize his uneasy conscience as the clearest conscience of all," relegating the act of authorship to "self-justification" (Deutscher 98).
Koestler, then--whether in his historical or novelistic writing--shares with Ishmael a retrospective distancing of himself from the past. Guilt nonetheless lingers. Hardly coincidental is the way Ishmael opens his narrative by admitting that he gratuitously joins in funeral marches and is prone, like Cato, suicidally to throw himself upon his sword (Melville 3), references difficult to account for, aside from post-factum unease or psychological instability. Ishmael may also seek to distance himself from the events he describes by denying that his "own unbiased freewill and discriminating judgment" engaged him in the whaling voyage. Rather, "the Fates," along with other influences, "induced me to set about performing the part I did" (7). And more biblically predestinarian is Ishmael's rendering of Moby Dick's destruction of the Pequod as a retributive miracle kindred, through biblical chronology, to the great flood ("the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago" (572), a reference foreshadowed by Ishmael's evoking both Noah's flood and God's punishment of Korah (Numbers 26.10), where "the live ground opened and swallowed them up for ever." Says Ishmael, "Wherein differ the sea and the land, that a miracle upon one is not a miracle upon the other"? (Melville 273-74). (16)
For all that, Ishmael's earlier allusion to "the part I did" intimates regret for his having sworn allegiance to an "absolute dictator" (97). Yet such disheartening self-recognition hardly represents the more pervasively disarming narrative tone evoked by "Call me Ishmael" (3) and numerous pages of ostensibly distanced, objective, and sporadically humane and humorous narrative in such episodes as "The Spouter-Inn" (ch. 3), "A Bosom Friend" (ch. 10), "Nightgown" (ch. 11), "The Ramadan" (ch. 17), "A Squeeze of the Hand" (ch. 94), and "Leg and Arm: The Pequod of Nantucket meets the Samuel Enderby, of London" (ch. 100). Neither Ishmael nor Koestler is quite willing to drown in the sea of complicity. Being but human, and highly literate, each locates in retrospective narration what Starbuck, pondering the new use to be made of Queequeg's burial casket, calls "a life-buoy of a coffin" (525).
I urge, in conclusion, that Melville dramatizes Ishmael's psychological evasion by conveying his narrator's efforts to come to terms with complicity in Ahab's quest. Koestler, on the other hand, appears to have modeled elements of Rubashov's outlook on Ahab's monomania; to have been aware of the similarities between Ishmael's and his own earlier inclination toward totalitarianism; to have sought, like Ishmael, to confess the worst of his past complicity, and to believe, on the whole, that he is now beyond it all. The difference, however, reverts to our initial distinction between authors and narrators. Melville hardly lets Ishmael off the hook. The author of Moby-Dick instead dramatizes, while implicitly distancing himself from, his narrator's anguished tendency toward self-exoneration based on gratuitous survival and post-factum exhortation. This Melville does by having Ishmael deludedly regard himself as a latter-day Jeremiah who has constructed a providential narrative at once signaling God's displeasure with America and the legitimacy of Ishmael's seemingly miraculous survival (Duban, Melville's Major 105-07). Koestler, however, apparently side-stepping the difference between the author and narrator of Moby-Dick, is oblivious to Ishmael's and his own falling-short of authentic conversion, as neither is quite the penitent-mariner type. Ishmael's Jeremiad, despite best intentions, conceptually re-enacts the supposedly providential 1637 massacre of the Pequot Indians (Duban, Melville's Major 135-37), while Koestler remains susceptible to the general account of Whitaker Chambers who, himself possessing keen insight into the psychological plight of ex-Communists, claimed that Party members "are appalled at what they have abetted. They spend the rest of their days trying to explain, usually without great success, the dark clue to their complicity" (13). (17) Such, I conclude, is Koestler's dilemma. Whatever his identification with Melville's Ishmael, he comprehends neither the full extent of his own complicity nor the distance between Melville and his sometimes unreliable narrator.
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(1) On acclaim, see Poulain, Krylova (124-25); on vilification, Koestler (Invisible 430-31). See, for historical overviews of Koestler, Scammell, Koestler; Calder; Levene, Arthur Koestler; Orwell. See also the comprehensive and regrettably unpublished study of Koestler and his fiction by Sperber ("The Uses of Apocalypse").
(2) Duban, "Monoaxiate." See, for an alternate perspective on absolutist thinking in Darkness at Noon, Berkowitz. On the novel's attention to space and identity, see Zocco. On literary and philosophical precedent, compare George and Sutherland.
I quote the first American edition of Darkness at Noon, as translated from a typescript (in German) that Koestler and his companion (Daphne Hardy) left behind during the Nazi occupation of France. Presumed forever lost, the typescript was recently located by a doctoral student (Matthias We[beta]el) as he investigated the papers of the Swiss publisher Emil Oprecht. Koestler biographer Michael Scammel, in a preliminary and necessarily elliptical account of the original German typescript of Darkness at Noon, notes nuanced differences in meaning from the English translation by Daphne Hardy (Scammell, "A Different Darkness at Noon"). As pertains to the current study, those variants are distant in concern from the Melvillean influence I here address, not only with regard to Darkness at Noon, but with attention to Koestler's several autobiographies, all of which he composed in English.
(3) See, as well, on Ishmael's complicity in Ahab's transgressions, my Melville's Major Fiction (141-42). On Moby-Dick and Cold War contexts, see Spanos; Pease (243-75); Spark. As for Koestler's debt to Melville, I have been able to locate only passing reference to points of compatibility--between Billy Budd and Darkness at Noon (Sterne 169), and then to cursory speculation about Koestler's debt to light and dark motifs in Moby-Dick (Griggs).
(4) In Orwell's opinion, "The sin of nearly all left-wingers from 1933 onwards is that they have wanted to be anti-Fascist without being anti-totalitarian" (15).
(5) While Starbuck of course comes to mind for his simultaneously protesting while aiding Ahab's quest (see my "A Pantomime"), Ishmael's regret, like Koestler's, is after-the-fact and hence the focus of this inquiry into narrative point of view. Nonetheless, aligning Ishmael and Starbuck becomes possible if we heed the opinion that Ishmael often "imagines another character to be like himself if only because at all times he is whatever character he reports, even when he reports what logically he could not know" (Brodtkorb 7).
(6) I here concur with Brodtkorb, who suggests that Ishmael's narrative comprises an apologia pro vita sua (1) of a "twice-born" sense of self that "sometimes mocks his once-born self" (8), allowing Ishmael to narrate in such manner as "to justify to us his total existence" (4) and to shift his "mood" (13) and "thereby change self and world" (17). Cf. Wadlington, on Ishmael's "diachronic" (81) identity. As such identity pertains to Ishmael's sometime attraction to, and need for, Ahab, see Pease (273).
(7) See, on humor in Moby-Dick, Rosenberry (93-138) and Mushabac (79-110). For related perceptions about Ishmael's gamesomeness, relative to the reinvention of his own identity and to establishing temperamental compatibility with readers, see Wadlington (74, 87-91, 95-96, 99).
(8) Spender (108); Cesarani (204); Sperber, "Looking Back" (111, 117); Atkins (91-101).
(9) On this dimension of Koestler and Melville, see my "Oceanic Wonder."
(10) Koestler either modified the original, "draught of a draught" (Melville 145), or consulted an edition of Moby-Dick that featured the more contemporary spelling.
(11) See, for the identification of a Goethian context of such concerns in Moby-Dick, my "Level Dead-Reckoning."
(12) See Heimert; my Melville's Major Fiction 85-94. For backgrounds on Manifest Destiny, see Weinberg, Graebner.
(13) On Soviet expansionism and Darkness at Noon, see Stephenson (154).
(14) See, on Communism and biblical utopianism in Darkness at Noon, Cesarani (203). On Rubashov's (and perhaps Koestler's) lingering messianic temperament, see Levene, "Arthur Koestler: On Messiahs." On American messianic nationalism per se, see Tuveson and, for one of the earliest studies of its pertinence for Melville, Gerlach.
(15) See, on expansionism and slavery in Moby-Dick, my Melville's Major Fiction (82-96); cf. Karcher (62-91). For the broader historical context, see Merk.
(16) On Ishmael's miraculous vision, which he defends by appropriating eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Christian apologetics and Jeremiad rhetoric, see my Melville's Major Fiction (117-25, 131-36).
(17) Chambers (391) was familiar with Koestler and at one point quotes Darkness at Noon (391).
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2018|
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