Thursday, October 26, 2006

# 8 Darkness at Noon – Arthur Koestler

In his conclusion to Walden, Henry David Thoreau mused,
“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
This description of individualism has morphed and shrunk: we now
say, “He marches to the beat of his own drum,” about a creative character who doesn’t follow societal or group norms.

Thoreau himself was such a character, as was Arthur Koestler, the Hungarian-born author of Darkness at Noon. Published in 1940, this anti-Stalinist novel, in which a political prisoner is compelled to confess bogus counterrevolutionary crimes, is in some ways a companion to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Each an
autodidact, Thoreau and Koestler produced politically conscious literary works that were—and continue to be—internationally influential, and then largely abandoned such endeavors to engage in wide-ranging scientific inquiries. (Each experienced name reversal: the former was born “David Henry”; the latter was born “Kösztler Artúr”—Hungarian surnames traditionally come first).

The now common insertion of “marching” into Thoreau’s pacific phrasing emphasizes drumming’s military aspect. Today's thinkers and leaders still mull over the conception of ideological stepping to a normative rhythm. The present Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, listed this quote in his
“Rules,” which were publicized in The Wall Street Journal: “’History marches to the drum of a clear idea.’ -- W.H. Auden.”

In Africa drumming has for ages
contributed to the “emotional and spiritual preparedness of the population for battle.” In Europe and North America drums signaled troop movements and, before and between battles, instilled uniform precision. This last purpose was fussed over by a Founding Control Freak, George Washington, during the Revolutionary War in 1777:
“The drums and fifes of each are to be collected in the center of it; and a tune for the quick step played, but with such moderation, that the men may step to it with ease; and without dancing along and totally disregarding the music, as too often has been the case.”
Koestler was intimately familiar with the drums of war across Europe during the 1930’s and 1940’s. We might describe him, with Washington’s accompanying fifes in our ears, as both a
whistleblower and a pied piper. As the former, he was from 1931-1938 a Communist until, after witnessing abuse, corruption and death, he turned avidly anti-Communist—Darkness at Noon is one resulting product. As the latter, he called a variety of tunes, years before many others would follow, on topics such as parapsychology, creativity, euthanasia, globalism, and nuclear disarmament.

Drumming isn’t always militaristic; it can be
communicative, and therefore consciousness-raising, or ritualistic and hedonistic, and therefore ecstasy-inducing. One insightful artist encapsulated all these senses while entertaining, confronting and educating contemporary America. Chuck D, the stentorian MC-activist for the hip-hop group Public Enemy, famously intoned “The rhythm, the rebel,” as he launched into “Rebel Without a Pause.” The phrase has become a ubiquitous tagline.

The best drummer the centathlete has ever seen live is
Jeff “Tain” Watts; the first time with Wynton Marsalis in West Palm Beach, the second with Branford Marsalis in Boston. A jazz virtuoso, Watts can cook and swing up-tempo, and he can gracefully punctuate a ballad. During one soft, slow number, the centathlete watched him tap up and down the cymbal stands as well as the sides, rather than the skins, of his drums.

Tapping plays a large role in Darkness at Noon. The political prisoners, unable to speak to each other, communicate throughout the narrative by tapping in code on the walls. One man refuses to divulge his name and is referred to as “Rip Van Winkle.”

Watts
related the origin of his nickname:
JTW: (Laughing) I know. I was in Florida with Wynton. We were driving rental cars from West Palm Beach to Miami and Kenny Kirkland and I were in a car. We drove through one of those outdoor safari things with the drugged up animals, bears and lions and stuff like that. We left there and went past a gas station and it was called Chieftain Gas. And he said, "Chief Tain, oh, Jeff Tain, that's going to be your name." And I was like, "Sure, right." And the rest is that's it.
Watts played with Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland until the latter two joined
Sting for his initial solo albums after the break-up of The Police. Sting is a significant proponent of some of Arthur Koestler’s ideas.

The fourth Police album was inspired by and named after the 1967 Koestler
book, The Ghost in the Machine, which posited that man has a primitive, animalistic brain as well as an advanced, noble brain. As a result of intensified evolution, man has become automated; the detachment of and conflict between his two brains causes violence and war (ex. The Police’s “Demolition Man”). Koestler proposed a “peace pill” or other preventive medicine as the only hope against ongoing destruction.

Koestler became
aware of his musical influence:
"Look at this. Did you ever see a magazine called the New Musical Express? It turns out there is a pop group called The Police - I don't know why they are called that, presumably to distinguish them from the punks - and they've made an album of my essay "The Ghost in the Machine." I didn't know anything about it until my clipping agency sent me a review of the record."
In fact, Sting’s interest in Koestler wasn’t gratuitous or momentary; he wasn’t just making use of an idiosyncratic vocabulary to craft and enhance his pop songs. Consider these comments from an
interview in 1994, 13 years after “The Ghost in the Machine” was recorded, about Amazonian culture:
STING: I think the tendency for us in the West to call such lifestyles primitive, it isn't...couldn't be further from the truth if anything. We're more primitive than they are, in that they know exactly where every artifact in their lives comes from; every tree, where the furniture comes from; every blade of grass; they're responsible for their environment. We, on the other hand, have no idea where this plastic came from, or even how it is made; we have no idea; no. We don't know where the wood came from or the leather for this chair. So we're not as responsible. We tend to be irresponsible and therefore rather primitive.
This is a regurgitation of Koestler’s following
passage:
“Modern man lives isolated in his artificial environment, not because the artificial is evil as such, but because of his lack of comprehension of the forces which make it work - of the principles which relate his gadgets to the forces of nature, to the universal order. It is not central heating which makes his existence ‘unnatural,’ but his refusal to take an interest in the principles behind it. By being entirely dependent on science, yet closing his mind to it, he leads the life of an urban barbarian.”
Sting and The Police were not the only intellectual rock band, just as Koestler was not the only former British novelist (Koestler became a British citizen in 1948) who explored psychopharmacology and post-war society. Jim Morrison named his band “The Doors” after the 1954 book,
The Doors of Perception, by Aldous Huxley.

Whereas Huxley took mescaline and then praised its religious and mystical effects, Koestler took LSD in experiments at Harvard (under Timothy Leary’s direction) and at the University of Michigan, and then
disparaged its benefits:
"I profoundly admire Aldous Huxley, both for his philosophy and uncompromising sincerity. But I disagree with his advocacy of 'the chemical opening of doors into the Other World', and with his belief that drugs can procure 'what Catholic theologians call a gratuitous grace'. Chemically induced hallucinations, delusions and raptures may be frightening or wonderfully gratifying; in either case they are in the nature of confidence tricks played on one's own nervous system."
Before he tripped on acid, Koestler traveled to diverse locales. In the 1920’s, as a Zionist, he worked on a kibbutz in Palestine. In 1931, as a journalist in Germany, he flew on the
Graf Zeppelin expedition of the North Pole.

In 1932, as a Communist in the Soviet Union, he met the American poet, Langston Hughes, as
detailed in The Harvard Crimson:

“Hughes and Koestler met by chance in Ashkhabad in 1932, and it is interesting to compare their accounts of the weeks they spent together in Russian Central Asia. Koestler had come to inspect the accomplishments of the Soviet Five Year Plan in backward areas such as Ashkhabad, while Hughes was enjoying a free vacation at the expense of the Russians after the movie he had come to Russia to make had turned into a fiasco…

“’As I lay on the sheetless bed,’ Koestler writes in The Invisible Writing—‘enveloped by gloom and stench, counting the familiar stains on the wall which crushed bed-bugs leave behind, I heard the sound of a gramophone in the next room.’ It was Hughes, playing Sophie Tucker on his phonograph, not bothering to notice the dirt. While Koestler was disgusted by the filth and unsanitary living habits, and only briefly amused by a local purge trial, Hughes was enjoying lavish Turk hospitality and occasionally reading the voluminous notes Koestler took each day. What Koestler found most everywhere failed to meet his expectations, and Hughes, having none, was mostly satisfied.


”When Koestler described those days in 1953, he apologized, ‘I found it impossible to revive the naive enthusiasm of the period.’ This was not Hughes' way. His enthusiasm stayed fresh because it was for people and things, not ideas, which date faster. While he protested violently against the Scottsboro decision and later against Franco's bombing of Madrid, his protest was not a Party member's but always that of an individual. As he was convinced by the discovery of a swank little restaurant in Tashkent: ‘The system under which the successful live—left or right, capitalist or communist—did not seem to make much difference to that group of people, in every city around the globe, who managed by hook or crook to live well.’”

Langston Hughes was a jazz lover and is now a hip-hop icon, recalling earlier tangents to Tain Watts and Chuck D. Koestler’s influence on music, aside from Sting, is spotty, though his theories crop up in manga and many other cultural forums.

In 1937, as a reporter in the Spanish Civil War, Koestler was captured by Franco’s forces. He expected execution and was
jailed in Seville.

The centathlete once visited that elegant city. On an August night he and a friend attended an expansive outdoor festival on the city’s outskirts. Several bands were playing simultaneously on stages positioned among dozens of stalls serving drinks and food. (One hospitable bartender gave the centathlete, because he was a New Yorker, a beer on the house—it was the only time in his life anywhere such identification got him a freebie. He will return to Spain someday.)

A group similar to
The Gipsy Kings played on one stage. The throng of hundreds became one canal of flamenco dancers; the women upraised their arms, pivoted and stomped, and the men clapped. Everyone knew the words, the steps and the rhythm. A Sevillana said the song was probably two hundred years old. The centathlete felt immersed in vibrant tradition.

Caught up in the moment, he clapped along—but only for a few seconds, as his hands were slapped down because he was hopelessly off-beat and disturbing the nearest dance. Sometimes you shouldn’t clap to the beat of your own drum…

Back to Koestler’s twists and turns. During World War II he was interned for several months in France because he was Jewish. He fled to England and then, after the war, returned to Paris, associating
very closely with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. From 1948-1950 he worked with the CIA and British Intelligence to promote anti-Communism among American and European intellectuals.

Now a disquieting note. A 1998
biographical study alleged that Koestler beat and raped several female acquaintances during the 1950’s, which was subsequently disputed somewhat by a friend of Koestler yet confirmed by one of the victims in her autobiography. These unproven, previously unrevealed crimes apparently took place in a European milieu of celebrity, power politics and libertinism. Koestler never learned of or had to defend himself against the charges, as he committed suicide with his wife (he was terminally ill yet she was healthy) in the manner he had advocated for years, in 1983.

A more recent celebrity, Mike Tyson, still
maintains his innocence for the rape for which he was imprisoned from 1992 to 1995. The centathlete attended Tyson’s first appearance on David Letterman’s Late Show in 1986; the boxer, who had yet to become heavyweight champion, was so timid and soft-spoken that the audience could barely hear him.

Tyson carried the scars of a turbulent, violent
childhood on his rocket-ride to fame and fortune. Koestler, in his early adulthood, witnessed political purges and occupied a veritable death row before he was idolized. History was forced on these very different, overly forceful, historic men.

The centathlon presents books, authors, ideas and actions. This particular running of the course might have been envisioned as a romp among columns and statues—the noble and the ideal of the last century—but even a cursory inspection of such figures reveals smears of mud on the marble. Life and Literature exalt and denigrate each other, making the course ahead even more real.



Coming soon…

Howards End
Appointment in Samarra

2 comments:

gregstclair said...

so it seems like after you post the 100 blogs, you will have tied everything together. I mean EVERYTHING, kind of like string theory attempts to be the ultimate T.O.E. (theory of everything). So if you give it to us here, what will be left to ponder, oh the emptiness...I may be left an empty unpondering hulk leaving me to, "Lead a life of quiet desperation."

The Centathlete said...

Strings, yes! Theories, no!

We're all so specialized in our careers; a little context, a few associations, a little narrative hopefully bring a smile of recognition...