He felt like the hero of Darkness at Noon, President Clinton confessed to a friend last January after the Lewinsky scandal broke. One can only surmise that he felt ground down, in the particular way of a political man—in this case, as one set up for a show trial, much like Nicolas Rubashov, the protagonist of Arthur Koestler's 1941 novel. There is something endearing about a president who will risk any literary reference to describe his state of mind, let alone one to a book that, although justly famous in its time—it was Koestler's homage to Stalin's purged—is now not much seen outside of core curriculum reading lists. In this case, however, the allusion may have been even more apt, and gently self-indicting, than Mr. Clinton intended.
What is the book about? Rubashov, former commissar and still notorious dialectician, has been arrested for allegedly conspiring against Number One—something he has not done, though residual compassion for some of the people he's rubbed out has been getting to him of late. We are supposed to be reminded of N. I. Bukharin, the Stalin apologist turned scapegoat, who was executed in 1938 having pathetically confessed to phantom crimes—the man whose fate would inspire George Orwell's character Squealer, in Animal Farm.
Darkness at Noon mainly chronicles how Rubashov is held in prison, undergoing intense interrogation by the GPU, the secret police. The plot of the novel is the unfolding of his despair. He is at the mercy of a murderous organized clique, and also of a kind of organized hysteria. But he is not suffering simply because he is being pushed around. The tragic slant, the real source of his torment, is that he is never sure his accusers aren't right about him. He dreads that his political actions have been immoral because they were ineffectual. He cannot readily explain the difference between the two. Then he wonders if moral doubts are not themselves a kind of political treachery. Hadn't he simply done what was warranted by a scientific grasp of society? Hadn't the Party simply done what was necessary?
Rubashov had assumed that he could find something like ethical ground, and meaning for his life, in social engineering. He had been invested in the belief in historical laws: the crises of capitalist production, the formation of an industrial proletariat, the gradual disappearance of material scarcity, the revolutionary sparks of class consciousness, and so on. To oppose the force of "history" was wrong because it was futile, as self-destructive as opposing gravity.
Though numbed by prison and increasingly cynical about the people who put his back to the wall, Rubashov at first feels inclined to submit to their verdict. He had always fallen back on "materialist" explanations of moral impulses. Communist orthodoxy had consoled him. He concedes this rather bluntly to Ivanov, the subtler of the GPU's interrogators, when he reminisces about his role in the Soviet revolution:
We had descended into the depths, into the formless, anonymous masses, which at all times constituted the substance of history, and we were the first to discover her laws of motion. We had discovered the laws of her inertia, of the slow changing of her molecular structure, and of her sudden eruptions. That was the greatness of our doctrine. The Jacobins were moralists; we were empirics. We dug into the primeval mud of history and there we found her laws. We knew more than ever men have known about mankind; that is why our revolution succeeded.
The tone here is even more revealing than the claim. Consider that word "greatness." Feel Rubashov's pride. Ivanov, in his turn, plays on the link between the Party's moral authority and the prisoner's obvious psychic dependency. Rubashov should confess to being an enemy of the proletariat, Ivanov insists. The individual is a "grammatical fiction." The desire for any transcendent good, one that might keep the Party from warring against its enemies, is an infantile psychic wish: "One may not regard the world as a sort of metaphysical brothel for emotions. That is the first commandment for us. Sympathy, conscience, disgust, despair, repentance, and atonement are for us repellent debauchery. The greatest temptation for the likes of us is: to renounce violence, to make peace with oneself. Most great revolutionaries fell before this temptation, from Spart acus, to Danton and Dostoy evsky; they are the classical form of betrayal of the cause."
But as the novel moves toward its climax, Rubashov becomes distracted by a thought that, though very abstract, takes on a terrible force. Can it be, he asks inwardly, that a scientific knowledge of consequences is, after all, not sufficient ground for an ethical claim—that asking what must inevitably happen is not the same as asking what should happen? Koestler relies on our familiarity with Dostoyevsky's most famous dialogues to frame Rubashov's responses to Ivanov here. Rubashov ventures (not quite cogently) that Rask olnikov, Crime and Punish ment's hero, finds out how "twice two are not four when mathematical units are human beings." Rub ashov can not seem to get out the point he wants to make: that our sense of moral right is strongest from a lonely stance, when we can somehow rid ourselves of an analysis of historical consequences. Just as one does not kill a spent old woman for the sake of a brilliant young career, the Party should not have killed its enemies, real and "objective," for the sake of a proletarian revolution.
Rubashov, it turns out, is tortured by the ghost of Arlova, the secretary who had adored him, served him, and then sacrificed her life to his political rehabilitation. He cannot stop visualizing the curve of her breast. Their lovemaking had put him, if only momentarily, in a space where he had become "absolute," where action had meaning that could not be justified by a calculation of consequences. Because of an earlier connection to Rub ashov, Arlova had been indicted, arrested for participating in one of his intrigues. Rubashov did not come to her defense. She was tried and, at last, executed. ("'You will always be able to do what you like with me,' she had told him—and he did!")
Rubashov's pain becomes physically intolerable. Had he not exploited her servility from the start, the way the Party had exploited his own? For her part, had she not exploited his weakness for control? In purging the old guard, Rub ashov tells Ivan ov gloom ily, the Party was actually bury ing people, a category that seems new to him: "One more makes no difference; everything is buried, the men, their wisdom and their hopes."
In context, Rubashov's sympathy might come across as a kind of elite self-pity. It is never clear that he extends real heart to the masses whose muddy laws he and his comrades had dug up. Yet something like Rubashov's conscience has been set in motion. In creasingly, he wonders whether there may be a "transcendent" source of human good, a position Rubashov long before had dismissed as a religious deception.
In the end, Rubashov does confess, knowing pretty well that he will be executed. But it is clear that he confesses not so much because he wishes to contribute yet again to the moral prestige of the Party, but because he is gripped by an apprehension of his mortality. Little by little, as the torture intensifies, Rubashov loses interest in physical or historical laws. He loses the ambition to justify his existence through worldly achievement, and is instead increasingly overwhelmed by the sadness of human death—itself an absolute after all.
In searching for transcendence, Rubashov comes up short of consolation. One of his last concessions to his interrogator is that religious language remains beyond his reach. If God is just a psychic wish, "a mystical intoxication," he says, is it any the less necessary to fight religion "merely because one had oneself become intoxicated by it?" But in morbid intuitions, Rubashov finds the sources of a curiously sublime freedom. He comes to think of right and wrong like a man who has nothing to lose.
Does Rubashov's trouble get us closer to the truth of Clinton's? There is an impending trial, of course, plotted by zealous political opponents. There is seemingly endless interrogation, in which the accused's guilt is a foregone conclusion. There is a young woman, an office companion, whose love had once been an instructive obsession, but who was left—at a critical moment, and for utilitarian reasons—to her own (rather inadequate) devices. But this is, let us say, a stretch. Nobody dies in Clinton's story.
More fascinating, and what must hurt Clinton so much more, is that much like Rubashov he has made his career trafficking in an elaborate moral pragmatism. He was supposed to be the effective one, the electable one; he was going to change the world for the better with behavioral science, polls, and spin. "The Jacobins were moralists; we were empirics." Had Dick Morris ever defended "triangulation" less eloquently. Now we have Presi dent Clinton down here with the rest of us, caught in a lie, anguishing over sexual climax.
But even more poignant is the way Clinton, in trying to fall back on firmer moral ground, seems all too willing to endorse the orthodoxies that condemn him. At least since his first apology, he has been getting caught on the weak side of a debate framed by his powerful opponents, when he could be on the strong side of a debate framed by his own more subtle intelligence. What else explains—and let us assume this is not spin—the prayer breakfasts, the atonement dinners, the visits by ministers, the ever more calibrated apologies. We boomers who thought he was going to be our president had reason to hope for more than a bow to the sexual discipline of a Doris Day movie.
Nor did Clinton ever have to lie. He could have insisted on a more satisfying context in which to establish truth. He could have made the case for privacy itself, suggesting that people who want to know what goes on behind closed bedroom doors (and even offices sometimes) should read, well, Darkness at Noon. He might have absolutely refused to deny or affirm any stories of any relationships he has had, and dared Congress to impeach him for that. He could have challenged reporters to expose their private lives. Why was this so hard for him?
But then, why did Clinton also not say that he was proud of that brilliant letter he wrote to the ROTC back when he was student? Why has he not declared that opposing the Vietnam War was the privilege of his time, however much he may now feel esteem for the sacrifice and courage of the American men who fought in it? Why has he tried to justify the belated Bosnia and Haiti interventions, which were clearly an augury of a globalist peacekeeping responsibility, as only in America's "national interest"? Why did he allow military leaders to set the terms of debate on homosexuality? Why did he refuse to distinguish marijuana from hard drugs?
Clinton, no doubt, had thought ful reasons for all these maneuvers. But I wonder if he would give the same answers now—or what Rubashov, nearing death, would think of Clinton's equivocation. The point is, we could have used something like conscience from the start, and we may see more conscience in the weeks ahead. Like it or not, Clinton's fight to stay in office, his unsought, inadvertent responsibility to defend private spaces from weird law and a flocking press has become the defining burden of his presidency—not health care, not the Middle East, not NAFTA, not the budget. We can only wish him the serenity of a person with nothing to lose.