The making of a monster

Who becomes a torturer and how? Is it merely the sick and depraved, the callous and cruel? A friend urged me to read Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler’s 1941 tale of a communist revolutionary caught up in Stalin’s purges of the 1930s. A passage is worth quoting.

Gletkin is a committed idealist, a pure communist, committed sincerely to an ethic where the collective aim justifies all means and demands that the individual be subordinated to the community. When we meet him, he’s a prison interrogator, engaged in the intimidation and tormenting of our protagonist, an aged revolutionary leader, now imprisoned for the purpose of a show trial.

Through Gletkin we see the easy shift from a principled idealist to a principled monster.

“Several years ago,” said Gletkin after a while, “a little peasant was brought to me to be cross-examined. It was in the provinces, at the time when we still believed in the flower-garden theory, as you call it. Cross-examinations were conducted in a very gentlemanly way. The peasant had buried his crops; it was the beginningof the collectivization of the land. I kept strictly to the prescribed etiquette. I explained to him in a friendly way that we needed the corn to feed the growing city population and for export, in order to build up our industries; so would he please tell me where he haad hidden his crops. The peasant had his head drawn into his shoulders when he was brought into my room, expecting a beating. I knew his kind; I am myself country-born. When, instead of beating him, I began to reason with him, to talk to him as an equal and call him ‘citizen,’ he took me for a half-wit. I saw it in his eyes. …I held strictly to the regulations; it never even occurred to me that there were other methods…”

“The third hearing of my man took place at two o’clock at night; I had previously worked for eighteen hours on end. He had been woken up; he was drunk with sleep and frightened; he betrayed himself. From that time I cross-examined my people chiefly at night… Once a woman complained that she had been kept standing outside my room the whole night, awaiting her turn. Her legs were shaking and she was completely tired out; in the middle of the hearing she fell asleep. I woke her up; she went on talking, in a sleepy mumbling voice, without fully realizing what she was saying, and fell asleep again. I woke her once more, and she admitted everything and signed the statement without reading it, in order that I should let her sleep.

…That the wife had been kept waiting on her feet the whole night was due to the carelessness of my sergeant; from then onwards I encouraged carelessness of that kind; stubborn cases had to stand upright on one spot for as long as forty-eight hours. After that the wax had melted out of their ears, and one could talk to them…”

…”My colleagues had similar experiences. It was the only possible way to obtain results. The regulations were observed; not a prisoner was actually touched. But it happened that they had to witness — so to speak accidentally — the execution of their fellow prisoners. The effect of such scenes is partly mental, partly physical. Another example: there are showers and baths for reasons of hygiene. That in winter the heating and hot-water pipes did not always function, was due to technical difficulties; and the duration of the baths depended on the attendants. Sometimes, again, the heating and hot-water apparatus functioned all too well; that equally depended on the attendants. They were all old comrades; it was not necessary to give them detailed instructions; they understood what was at stake.”

I wonder if this the transformation witnessed at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, different only in the ideal pursued?

Koestler’s a fascinating man. George Orwell penned this essay on the author.

5 thoughts on “The making of a monster

  1. Orwell notes, in the essay you link, that almost no good writing on Totalitarianism had come out of Britain, since (he reasons) no author had experienced it himself.

    I’m not sure if Orwell experienced life under one of these systems, but he surely broke that mould with 1984, an imperious book, where of course, perhaps to make up for his lack of ‘experience’, was competely fictional yet incredibly resonant.

    I thought you were going to make links to the Zimbabwean torturing; surely there are parallels there too?

  2. I don’t follow these things closely, but was there torture at Guantanamo? My sense was that the prisoners there were treated pretty well, except that they were in prison, without ordinary legal processes justifying their being there. At Abu Ghraib, I don’t think the miscreants were “principled idealists” gone bad, such working-class jerks under a lot of pressure who got out of hand. I don’t there are any Arthur Koestler characters here.

  3. I’d like to know something about Gletkin’s childhood. I’m not convinced that anyone could make “the easy shift from a principled idealist to a principled monster” without being abused or neglected &/or deprived of some aspect of moral education.

    In all probability the "principled idealist" was merely the mask for the "principled monster" awaiting the right conditions to emerge.

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