The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic
by Michael Scammell
Random House, 720 pp., $35
According to Iain Hamilton, his first biographer, Arthur Koestler was a man of “disquieting intellectual passion,” which led to an “alarming readiness to deal with many of the disagreeable aspects of the age which had not yet impinged fully on the English consciousness.”
Not only Englishmen were disturbed by Koestler. His searing novel Darkness at Noon (1940) exposed the moral depravity of communism at a time when many in the West were still enraptured with the Soviet experiment. Portraying an individual enmeshed in the Stalinist purges and show trials of the 1930s—deeply imbuing them, as one admirer put it, with “the smell and taste of blood”—it was among the first and most powerful shots fired in the Cold War. The French edition, entitled Le Zéro et l’Infini, had a devastating effect on the postwar fortunes of the French Communist party.
In the late 1940s Koestler was practically a one-man crusade against the continuing Soviet threat, with further novels, political essays, and other anti-Communist advocacy. He was a major mover behind the Congress for Cultural Freedom conference in Berlin in 1950. His indictment of communism was all the more convincing since he was not only an intensely readable writer but had also served in the ranks of the party. As George Orwell wrote, leftwingers wanted to be antifascist but not antitotalitarian. Perhaps it was the bitter battles with his intellectual cohort—fellow travelers in England and France (Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir) or New York liberals (he intuitively grasped Whittaker Chambers’s innocence)—that led Koestler to give up political writing in the 1950s. “The bitter passion has burnt itself out,” he wrote in The Trail of the Dinosaur (1955). “Cassandra has gone hoarse, and is due for a vocational change.” Turning to science and social anthropology, here, too, Koestler was ahead of the curve of contemporary interests, and equally passionate. With works like The Sleepwalkers (1959), The Act of Creation (1964), and The Ghost in the Machine (1967), his cultural impact continued to be great.
It has been noted that his political and nonpolitical writing deals with the same enemy: closed intellectual systems that, for some purported good, reduce the individual to “higher” ends, whether those of the state, the organism, or the species. Nonetheless, many of the subjects Koestler pursued—parapsychology, in particular—had earlier admirers scratching their heads. When Koestler, debilitated by Parkinson’s disease and leukemia, died a suicide in 1983, his importance was widely acknowledged; but it is not surprising that a man whose writings encompassed Palestine, the Bolshevik mind, the pusillanimity of French intellectuals, the mind-body split, telepathy, the nature of artistic and scientific creativity, Eastern mysticism, Jewish assimilation, hanging, and euthanasia would have his detractors.
The absolute plunge in Koestler’s reputation since his death, however, was indicated by the absence of any major commemoration in 2005 on the centenary of his birth. It is not simply the case that Koestler addressed specific historical events that no longer resonate. Just the opposite. The decline in his reputation is a function of the continuing reign of political commissars against whom Koestler directed his disquieting passion.
This claim requires a little background, both of Koestler and of the complex genesis of this new biography.
Arthur Koestler was born into an assimilated Jewish family (spelling its name Köstler) in 1905 in Budapest, when that city was part of the
Hapsburg empire. The two volumes of his autobiography record his uncanny ability to be present at some of the signal political events of the 20th century. He witnessed the celebration of Hungarian independence in 1919 and, six months later, the hundred-day Communist dictatorship of Béla Kún. While a student of engineering in Vienna in the early ’20s he came under the influence of the Zionist Vladimir Jabotinsky and traveled to Palestine. Though his kibbutz labors were unsuccessful and his Zionist enthusiasms shortlived, the four years he spent in the Middle East marked the start of his career in journalism. Returning to Europe in 1929, on the eve of the Great Depression, he worked in Paris for the Ullstein newspapers. He arrived in Berlin, as a science journalist for Ullstein, on the day of the 1930 Reichstag elections.
Like many intellectuals in the early 1930s, Koestler saw in the Soviet Union the model of the future, became a member of the Communist party, and traveled to the promised land at the height of the forced collectivization. Ignoring the appalling evidence of mass starvation, he penned a laudatory account. Unable to return to Germany, he next worked hand-in-glove with Willi Münzenberg in Paris on Popular Front activities, went to Spain during the Civil War (again to serve the Soviets’ plans for political domination of Western European governments), was imprisoned and nearly executed. His release was orchestrated by the Münzenberg circle. Two years later he returned to France on the eve of the fall to the Germans, and was interned in a French concentration camp for six months (an experience chronicled in Scum of the Earth in 1941). By then he had renounced his party membership and begun the writings that would blight, if not kill, the romance of Western intellectuals with communism.
It is not surprising that, over the course of such a peripatetic, eventful life, the brilliant, complicated Koestler would also manage to fascinate and seduce many women who were remarkable in their own right. And it is this aspect of his life that has had such a negative effect on his reputation, and also compromised this new biography. Around 1985 Michael Scammell was asked by the Koestler estate to write an authorized biography and was given unrestricted access to the Koestler archives at the University of Edinburgh. According to Scammell, because of other commitments he did not begin the project until the end of 1988, five years after Koestler’s death. By this time David Cesarani, a British scholar, had received permission to access the archives for research on a book about Koestler’s Jewishness; the result was Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind (1998). Julian Barnes, in the New York Review of Books, accused Cesarani of “tomb-robbing,” of unauthorized use of “a previously uncontaminated archive” by broadening his project (as per Cesarani’s preface) into “an account of Koestler the man and his achievements as a whole.” In other words, an unauthorized biography.
What most exercised Barnes was Cesarani’s portrayal of Koestler as a serial abuser of women; indeed, as “a serial rapist.” Cesarani’s most damaging evidence was the claim of filmmaker Jill Craigie—wife of the British Labour leader Michael Foot, who had once written that Koestler was the greatest foreign novelist in English since Joseph Conrad—that she had been raped by Koestler in 1952 after a day of pub crawling. This revelation became journalistic fodder, and in short order, a bronze bust of Koestler on display at the University of Edinburgh was removed because female students felt “uneasy” after learning that Koestler (according to a BBC news report) had “beaten and raped several women.” Michael Foot seems to have been gobsmacked when Craigie began to spread the tale in 1995, after which he dutifully backed up his wife. The charge has since taken on a life of its own. Carl Rollyson’s 2005 biography of Craigie repeats the rape accusation, adding further details to Cesarani’s account.
Unlike Whoopi Goldberg, I would not hazard a guess as to whether this was a “rape-rape.” There seems to have been something pathological about Koestler’s desire for sexual conquest, but the brutal attack recounted by Cesarani is different and also (so it seems to me) out of character for Koestler. It is hard to judge from this distance whether Koestler’s womanizing represented a particularly egregious example of the sexual philandering of the bien-pensant class at mid-century, and earlier. It is known that he refused to have children, and the number of abortions he seems to have forced on his wives and other long-term partners makes for sickening reading.
In Koestler’s defense, however, we have to be suspicious of the source of the charge. Jill Craigie was a lifelong socialist, as was Michael Foot, an experienced streetfighter whose Labour manifesto in 1983 has been called “the longest suicide note in history.” In contrast, Koestler had met and even admired Margaret Thatcher. Craigie was also a feminist, and her story fits into a narrative that has become familiar since 1976, when Virginia Woolf’s autobiographical account, “Sketch of the Past,” first appeared in print. Writing in 1939 Woolf accused one of her half-brothers of sexual molestation. Feminists have simply run with this accusation, even though Nigel Nicolson (among others) warned that Woolf’s claims were far-fetched. For feminists, however, truth is beside the point: Sexual abuse is simply too good a tool with which to bash conservatives, upholders of the so-called patriarchal order, or to punish apostates like Koestler. After all, statues and portraits of Sartre and Bertolt Brecht, notorious serial abusers, still stand in prominent places without objections from sensitive female students.
Julian Barnes ended his evisceration of Cesarani by lamenting the spoiling effect his book would have on Scammell’s authorized biography which, according to Barnes, would appear in 2001. Well, here we are, at the beginning of 2010, and Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic has finally seen the light of day. Scammell is a translator and the author of a well-received biography of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, but the ghost of Cesarani hovers over this volume. In his epilogue Scammell discusses the decline in Koestler’s reputation and wonders about the impact not only of his suicide but also that of his younger wife. By this he means not simply the ethical issue of whether Koestler should have sought to prevent the suicide of the apparently healthy Cynthia—since her death vitiated Koestler’s advocacy of suicide as an honorable way of leaving the world—but whether, had Cynthia lived on, she might have protected and shepherded Koestler’s legacy, as had Sonia Orwell (or, in another case, Leonard Woolf).
I suspect that Scammell is somewhat uneasy about his role in the mixed-up fortunes of Koestler’s afterlife. He is also in the unenviable position of writing about a man whose own record of his experiences and opinions makes for thrilling reading. Though Scammell
writes fluently, a chronicle that runs to over 600 pages, with a year-by-year accounting of people, places, and events, necessarily squeezes the juice out of Koestler’s life. Such fact-filled modern biographies tend to reduce the stature of their subjects to more ordinary dimensions; still, Scammell does justice to the fullness of Koestler’s activities. He has also drawn on many sources, including Koestler’s prescient journalism from Palestine in the 1920s. Many books now support Koestler’s accounts, or fill out the range of his activities, whether it is Soviet justice, Palestine, or the interesting figure of Willi Münzenberg. And Scammell ably defends Koestler against the rape charge. (We learn, for example, that Craigie and Foot attended Koestler’s 70th birthday party in 1975.)
Still, it must be asked whether most readers under 35 know what the Popular Front was all about, have heard of The God That Failed, or even recognize the erstwhile implications of the term “bourgeois.” The Congress for Cultural Freedom, the Comintern, and the like march by in quick succession. What gets lost is a larger picture, particularly of the intellectual heritage that spawned the 20th century’s ideological mudslinging. David Cesarani claimed that Koestler belongs “in the great tradition of Enlightenment Jews from Solomon Maimon, Heine to Freud,” which led to such dubious assertions as this: “Koestler’s homelessness, beginning with his estrangement from Jewish tradition, may explain his confused personal morality as much as the legendary virility of the Hungarian male.” Scammell eschews the Jewish angle—indeed, any particular angle at all.
If the number of books still in print is any indication, Koestler lives. Clearly, a new approach to this fascinating and provocative figure is required, one that would bring the two halves of his writing life together. Koestler himself thought he was a walking contradiction, struggling between ideals of action and contemplation, and the titles of some of his works bear this out: The Yogi and the Commissar, The Lotus and the Robot, Arrival and Departure. But such antitheses are not just personal to Koestler but are very much part of the Western intellectual inheritance. Koestler’s animus against the rigid net of rational explanation is prefigured in Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther and in the writings of the German Romantics. He stopped writing in German with Darkness at Noon and he may have lost sight of this background when writing Arrow in the Blue (1952), the first volume of his autobiography. But there may be another reason for Koestler’s failure to connect himself and his work to a larger German tradition, the one that produced not only Goethe but also Marx. Koestler was unusual among Central European intellectuals in not being a product of the classical Gymnasium or the traditional university. In high school he was on a science track, and later studied engineering at the University of Vienna, which made him a first-rate science explicator but which may also have obscured for him the extent of the influence of European humanism. Koestler’s rejection of a state for Jews in Israel had much to do with the Hebrew language which, he believed, cut Jews off from the European cultural past.
“Skeptic” is not what I would call Arthur Koestler. He was often pessimistic, because he believed humans possessed an aberrant gene that would lead us to destruction. Yet he never gave up fighting for what he believed would be improvements in the human lot: He even endowed a fund for prisoner art, still thriving in England as the Koestler Trust. His major legacy was to warn us of the commissars, a warning no less urgent today than when Darkness at Noon was published 70 years ago.
Elizabeth Powers blogs at http://goethetc.blogspot.com.