Man vs. Machine
The intellectual legacy of Arthur Koestler.
Feb 15, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 21 • By ELIZABETH POWERS
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
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.