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Man vs. Machine

The intellectual legacy of Arthur Koestler.

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

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