Books and Current Essays

The Dark Side of the Enlightenment,  which appeared in July and is now beginning to attract some notice,  is a work of literary and cultural history that suggests, through a series of topical and biographical essays, some intellectual complexities of the period of the European Enlightenment, often called the “Age of Reason”.  Our general view of the Enlightenment (as the term itself suggests) is of rapid strides in moving away from a pre-modern world view based in social custom and revealed religion toward a view governed by philosophical skepticism, rationality, scientific investigation, and increasingly pragmatic and democratic political attitudes.  In general the great thinkers of the Enlightenment abandoned or severely limited the category of the supernatural to pursue Nature itself, capaciously understood.  A list of the most prominent Enlightenment thinkers usually includes such skeptics as Denis Diderot, David Hume, and Voltaire.

However, the “spiritual” and “supernatural” aspirations of traditional Christianity were not as easily dispensed with as were its religious forms, dogmas, and even institutions.  There was accordingly during this period a near mania for occultism,  often fostered by the very institutions (especially Free Masonry) rightly credited with the spread of Enlightenment ideas.  Specific occult interests include magic, cabala, and alchemy.  Two chapters of the book deal with the troubling persistence of miraculous healing in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Other chapters find in the biographies of “Count” Cagliostro (half conman, half social reformer) and Julie de Krüdener (best-selling sentimental novelist and ecstatic Piestist preacher) complicating aspects of “Enlightenment” thought.  The book shows that the Enlightenment had its distinctly darker side.


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The Anti-Communist Manifestos (2009)


One of the fascinating questions of twentieth century history is how Russia was transformed, in the perception of America and western Europe, from an ally in World War II into the arch-enemy of the Cold War. Through John Fleming’s perceptive and moving narrative, we come to understand that the motive force behind this sea-change was, to large extent, literary.

There were many accounts, from the 1930s on, of the scope and horror of crimes committed by the Soviet Empire against its alleged enemies and ordinary citizens. The most widely circulated of these were four books written not by neutral western observers, but by former communists who had intimate and, in some cases, guilty knowledge of those crimes: Out of the Night by Richard Krebs (under the pen name Jan Valtin); Darkness at Noon, a novel, by Arthur Koestler; I Chose Freedom by Victor Kravchenko; and Witness by Whittaker Chambers. These books had enormous influence on public opinion in America and in Europe.

Krebs was a German sailor and hard-knuckled communist organizer in the seaports of northern Europe; Koestler was a Hungarian journalist and intellectual, a genius with a sometimes difficult personality; Kravchenko was a Ukrainian engineer and Soviet official whose horrifying experiences of Soviet industrial life in the 1930s led to his eventual defection from the Soviet lend-lease delegation in Washington; Chambers was an American journalist and underground Communist agent, later an informer and witness against Alger Hiss. Three of these men were agents of the Comintern. All four contemplated suicide, and two achieved it. In their own ways, the four authors were martyrs to an awful truth, which in the end haunted or even destroyed their lives.

Fleming’s account of these books and of the dramatic effects of bestsellerdom on their authors is scholarly, perceptive, and humane. It offers brilliant observations on the nature of Stalinism, on the Spanish Civil War, and on the whole period of the Cold War.

authors

Clockwise from top left: Whittaker Chambers looking shifty; Arthur Koestler courting cancer; Richard Krebs (Jan Valtin) with man's best friend; Victor Kravchenko looking dapper

© John Fleming 2013