Michael Scammell notes, at the end of this authorized biography to which he devoted some two decades’ work, that the centenary in 2005 of Arthur Koestler’s birth was “virtually ignored in Britain and the United States.” Yet, after reading this chronicle, the judgment of the Paris satirical newspaper Le Canard enchaîné, in 1981, still seems unchallengeable to me. The newspaper, on publication of the French edition of From Bricks to Babel, an extensive selection of Koestler’s writing, compared his work to a mirror held up to the twentieth century, accompanied by the thoughts of the mirror’s holder. That opinion was delivered before Koestler’s double suicide with his wife Cynthia, in 1983, which contributed significantly to his posthumous disparagement and decline in literary standing. Still, it is hard to evade the conclusion that faults in Koestler were characteristic of the time more than the man, and that however questionable aspects of his life may have been, he faithfully embodied the contradictions of his century.
Koestler was born in Budapest to a family of nonobservant Jews. His mother was Austrian in culture—she had once had an unproductive therapeutic session with Sigmund Freud—and his father Hungarian by assimilation. He came into the world, an only child, just as the first great Russian revolutionary convulsion of the twentieth century sharpened awareness of the critical situation of Eastern European Jewry, anticipating the vigorous relevance in succeeding years of two ideologies promising redemption—Leninism and Zionism—one destined to failure, one to success. Koestler would make his way in a direction opposite from many of his contemporaries. He was first associated with the Jewish national movement, then with the Communist network, before his break with the latter and emergence as a leading anti-Communist author, followed by an ambivalent return to the Zionist struggle. His ultimate conception of Jewish history, however—an unfounded speculation about the historical role of the Khazars, a Turkic tribe of alleged converts to the Mosaic faith—diminished his reputation.
Koestler surrendered to almost every temptation of the modern intellectual, except for fascism. Nevertheless, as he experienced it, participation in Communist militancy was not much different, for the individual adherent, from an affiliation with Nazis or Hungarian fascists that was nullified by his Jewish birth. He was gregarious but seemed bound to exhaust the mental and social opportunities provided by the successive subcultures into which he plunged. He was also lucky in finding a place alongside other more brilliant, and sometimes more calculating, individuals—ranging from the Zionist radical Vladimir Jabotinsky through a roster including the Soviet propaganda agents Willi Münzenberg and Otto Katz, the Marxist aesthete Walter Benjamin, George Orwell, the Sartre-Camus ménage, and, aside from Orwell, the whole leading group of ex- and anti-communist intellectuals, from Ignazio Silone and James Burnham to Irving Kristol.
Koestler’s signature achievement was the 1940 novel Darkness at Noon, in which he imagines the fate of an old Bolshevik defendant in the Stalinist purge trials that had shocked the world only three to four years previously. It has never gone out of print. But Scammell correctly observes that Koestler “wrote too much, in too many genres.” Some of these areas of inquiry, like that of parapsychology no less fantastic than the Khazar inheritance, were never considered respectable. But Koestler was not an academic. He could be described as a seeker, but after what?
As recounted by Scammell, Koestler di- agnosed himself as suffering from an “absolutitis” that made him search for a philosophical mentor and a utopia. Yet the compulsive variety in his writing shows that if he was searching for some answer in his life, he had little capacity to define the problem he so assiduously attempted to solve and no real conception of a goal. His quests for authoritative guidance and a convincing social alternative were vague—he needed little more than a leader and a direction for a personality and career that resembled an endless fireworks display. If Koestler was possessed of a psychological necessity, it was that of continuously making a way for himself.
Koestler gave his first substantial organizational commitment to the Revisionist Zionists, as they were known, led by Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Scammell deals skimpily with the general history of Zionism, but calls Jabotinsky “the hero Arthur had been waiting for” and details Koestler’s entry into Jabotinsky’s ranks from the more sedate Austrian Jewish student milieu. Koestler, whose parents had fled the Red terror and incipient counter-terror in Hungary after the First World War, had been admitted to the Technische Hochschule in Vienna as an aspiring engineer. He was propelled toward Jabotinsky by his outrage at Arab anti-Jewish atrocities in Palestine. But neither scientific instruction nor Jabotinsky’s brand of Zionism kept a permanent hold on him, although throughout his life he would return obsessively to scientific as well as Jewish topics.
He went to Jerusalem in 1926 to assist Jabotinsky’s followers, and there began his trajectory in journalism. Returning to Europe as a functionary of the ultra-Zionist faction, he was sent back to the Middle East as a regular newspaper correspondent. He took citizenship in British-ruled Palestine and his Mideast dispatches in German gained him a public. But Zionism in Palestine and the Hebrew-reading literary community it fostered could not contain his ambitions. In 1929, he went on vacation to Europe, with the intent of changing his mode of existence. At first he worked as a newspaper correspondent in Paris, then in Berlin. And in the rapid disintegration of the Weimar Republic, Koestler was drawn almost inevitably to the Communists.
We should judge Koestler by that which, more than any other thing, defined him to the wider public: his affiliation and disillusion with Communism. His writings on the appeal of Bolshevism, including his contribution to the now-neglected but valuable collection The God That Failed (1950), in which he stood alongside André Gide, Richard Wright, and Stephen Spender, as well as Silone, made him, for twenty years, a figure with which the whole world had to contend. During his ascendancy, Koestler’s writings and activities were followed and studied by the Russian Communist bureaucrats as well as by incalculable numbers of public officials, intellectuals, journalists, professors, and students in the West.
Joining the German Communists in 1932, Koestler had encountered a new array of brilliant (or seemingly brilliant) associates, including the composer Hanns Eisler and the ill-fated radical psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. He had already visited the Soviet Arctic as a non-political correspondent, but soon after entering the Communist organization he was sent to Moscow for propagandist ends. He then went to Paris and became a leading member of a Communist International team that produced antifascist books, events, and slogans for several years following the devastating collapse of German society in the face of Hitlerism.
Koestler’s responsibilities as a propagandist led him to Spain during that country’s 1936–39 civil war, which, as it did for so many other leftists, proved a determining experience in shaping his destiny. Koestler was arrested by the Francoists as a spy (which he was), and his experience in prison, when, with reason, he feared execution, led to the book that first brought him to public attention, Spanish Testament, issued in 1937. The next year, he left the Communist party, writing a resignation letter kept in the Russian archives until after the fall of the Soviet regime.
Willi Münzenberg, Koestler’s boss in the Soviet network, Otto Katz, his immediate supervisor, and Walter Benjamin, his friend, all died tragically—Münzenberg defected and was killed by the Soviet secret police in France in 1940, Katz was hanged in Prague in a subsidiary wave of purge trials in 1953, and, as Scammell avers, the death of Benjamin remains mysterious: possibly suicide, possibly another Soviet-guided murder. Perhaps, Scammell suggests, Koestler should have died younger, too—as Orwell and Camus did—and he might then have avoided the meanderings in “astronomy, evolution, parapsychology and Jewish racial theories” that “sullied his career.” Additionally, the apparent inveiglement of his wife Cynthia into their joint suicide and allegations of rape and other abusive behavior toward the many women in his life exposed an aspect of his personality that Scammell, perhaps predictably in an authorized biography, treats as subsidiary. Stalinist Communists, not so unlike the Nazis, saw themselves as “superhumans,” above ordinary morality, and it is therefore unsurprising to see how aggressively Koestler availed himself of belief in his own superior insights and authority.
For my part, this biography provoked recollections of the effect of my first readings of Darkness at Noon and Orwell’s 1984. Some commentators consider Koestler’s the better book. But Gide, as cited by Scammell, called Koestler a better journalist than novelist. Others have criticized Koestler for excessively psychologizing the victims of Stalin’s purges and transforming a simple and brutal process of police repression into a spiritual apotheosis. When he resigned from the Communist party, Koestler wrote that he would continue to defend the Soviet Union, and he projected a similar dissidence combined with elemental loyalty in his most famous novel. Of course, such devotion had its end.
Darkness at Noon presents the fictional case of the Bolshevik veteran Rubashov, a party leader of the old, intellectual type. He is arrested in the purges and worn down by the arguments of one of his interrogators, Gletkin, a specimen of the new style of unrefined, harsh police officials. In the end Rubashov is convinced, or convinces himself, that surrender and self-abasement will embody the highest form of loyalty to the revolutionary cause to which he has dedicated his life. He confesses to false charges and is executed.
It was long perceived by historians that Rubashov particularly resembled Nikolai I. Bukharin, the last of the major Bolshevik leaders to be publicly humiliated, in 1938, and slain. Scammell states that Rubashov was Koestler’s imagined combination of Bukharin and two other Bolsheviks killed by Stalin: Trotsky and the flamboyant journalist Karl B. Radek. Bukharin, who had collaborated more consistently with Stalin than most others, had attempted to put a positive face on his annihilation by the system he had helped create. But others were not so pliant, and the effects of beatings and drugs combined with a pathetic hope for ultimate forgiveness or escape from the death penalty are simpler and more convincing explanations for the behavior of the accused than sacrifice to a perceived higher principle, i.e. the welfare of the Russian state.
When I first read Darkness at Noon, it and 1984 were, rather amazingly in retrospect, required reading for high school seniors, who could choose one or the other, in the California public education system. I was then of the radical left, but I thought that 1984 was more persuasive in its evocation of the degrading effects of totalitarianism on ordinary people, even the cadres of the state party, than Koestler’s abstract analysis of the philosophical surrender to collective self-destruction. A more recent reading of 1984 and Darkness at Noon reinforced this opinion. Orwell’s protagonist, Winston Smith, is broken by electroshock and Pavlovian reconditioning, not by dialectical argument. But that was the essence of Koestler—who had been a member of the Stalinist intellectual elite, while Orwell was, literally, a volunteer in the revolutionary trenches. As Scammell shows in detail—only occasionally marred by errors that were probably inevitable in a book so crowded with fact and incident—Koestler was always a high-flyer, and sometimes flew too far up, or swooped too low, for his own good.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 28 Number 6 , on page 66
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