The Magazine

Man vs. Machine

The intellectual legacy of Arthur Koestler.

Feb 15, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 21 • By ELIZABETH POWERS
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Koestler

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.

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