Michael Scammell, Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic

Arthur Koestler, Individualist

Michael Scammell, Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic New York: Random House, 2009.

Arthur Koestler authored dozens of books but one in particular provides the main reason to pay attention to him. Even if he cannot be seen as a reliably prescient and stalwart opponent of the twentieth century’s devastating trinity of fascism, totalitarianism and Stalinism, as his contemporary and acquaintance George Orwell can, Koestler was a vigorous foe of the first beast, risking his life in Spain because of it, and vociferously countered the others once he realized one of his gods had failed. However, after he rejected communism he embraced other illusionary cure-alls for humanity’s suffering. Even if Koestler made several miscalculations, his biographer Michael Scammell believes he learned faster than many of his fellow leftists, at least until he surrendered critical thinking in favor of transparent wishful-thinking. (Incidentally, Koestler’s interactions of varying degrees of intimacy with other prominent authors and philosophers of the first half of the twentieth century expose the startling smallness, in more sense than one, of the intellectual world.) In his hefty Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic Scammell cannot fully account for his subject’s choices; instead, he thoroughly presents the man in his messy and confounding complexity.

Koestler is one of those writers, like Norman Mailer, who did his literary reputation disservice by publishing as much as he did. He might be best known for Darkness at Noon (1941), but wrote more than thirty books, including novels, autobiographies, scientific works and pseudo-scientific excursions. With the novel he set an artistic example he couldn’t again match. Scammell, who deems the little-read Thieves in the Night (1946) to be Koestler’s second best novel, concedes that “the sheer bulk and variety of this output, not to speak of its inevitable unevenness, raise questions about its quality and relevance, for in one sense Koestler simply wrote too much, in too many genres.” Still, his best work ranks with those by Joseph Conrad, Franz Kafka and Albert Camus, in Scammell’s estimation. Paul Berman groups Koestler with Camus and Orwell, and in The New Republic claims “in the 1940s these three men were the greatest writers anywhere in the world on totalitarian themes.” This is no small accomplishment, whether judged in literary or political terms. (Here’s another impressive achievement: Koestler, who died in 1983, did not change literary languages once, as Conrad did; he did it twice, shifting from Hungarian to German while still young and then from German to English while in his mid-thirties.)

If Koestler has a claim to historical importance beyond authorship of one great novel, then this might be it: “Koestler was the only significant writer to stare death in the face in Spain and return to write about it.” Yes, writers such Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, W.H. Auden and others traveled there and wrote about the civil war, and Orwell and André Malraux actually fought (and still others like Julian Bell and Christopher Caudwell perished), but only Koestler sat in a cell expecting execution and survived to transmute that experience into fiction. When Koestler was arrested, he was first taken to Málaga Prison; he was soon transferred to the Central Prison in Seville. “Málaga was the first of at least a dozen cells that Koestler was to occupy over the next five years, marking the start of a precipitous descent into the twilight world of ideological outcasts and political prisoners that would define his outlook for the rest of his life,” Scammell writes. Koestler was later incarcerated in a Vichy concentration camp. His imprisonment in Spain, where daily he heard other inmates being killed, made him a committed foe of capital punishment and led to what Scammell calls “his successful campaign to end the death sentence in Britain some twenty years later.”

Koestler joined the National Campaign for the Abolition of Capital Punishment in 1955 and published Reflections on Hanging the following year. “Outright abolition came only in 1970, but it was generally agreed that Koestler’s book, and the campaign he started, were hugely influential in altering the climate of opinion and making it possible,” according to Scammell. (In France, the book came out in 1957 and included Camus’s essay “Reflections on the Guillotine.”) Koestler’s opposition to the death penalty prompted this explanation of his outlook:

People say: “He used to want to save humanity. Now a dozen souls are enough.” It’s true. To snatch a single man from the gallows is very gratifying. It’s the whole point of my life’s path. I don’t believe that the end justifies the means. I don’t believe that an individual is the result of a crowd of a million divided by a million. I don’t believe any more in humanity. I believe in the individual.

His turn from “humanity” (and a dogma advocating its perfection through social engineering) toward unique human beings may have made him more humane (at least in his outlook), but his “life’s path” eventually took him to some strange places. Scammell, who clearly admires Koestler, repeatedly lauds him for being ahead of both his peers and his times in his early arrivals at the right positions. In taking a critical view of the Soviet Union in the late 1930s, “he had gone far ahead of most leftists in his thinking.” As late as 1938, when he was writing The Gladiators (which was published the following year), Koestler was “still confused in his attitude toward revolution and its aftermath, ” but by the time he was working on Darkness at Noon, he “had gone far ahead of most leftists in his thinking” by adopting a staunch anti-Communist position. In his efforts to avert a third world war from occurring in an atomic age, Koestler urged “psychological disarmament,” meaning freedom of communication and movement across border of the Cold War blocs. “As usual Koestler was light years ahead of his time: It wasn’t until the 1950s and ’60s that this idea became popular.” It also wasn’t until the 1950s that protest marches and demonstrations – such as those Koestler called for in order to permit Jewish immigration to Palestine and to promote the formation of a nation for Jews there – became popular either. Koestler decided to donate his royalties from the play adapted from his magnum opus Darkness at Noon to refugee intellectuals fleeing Eastern Europe. “As usual, Koestler [was] out in front of his confrères,” Scammell asserts. “Funds and organizations to help Eastern Bloc writers would proliferate some ten to fifteen years hence, but in 1950 they were unheard of.” Koestler developed an interest in Eastern spiritual practices, which led to travels in India and Japan, which he chronicles in The Lotus and the Robot (1961). Of Koestler’s research, Scammell observes: “In this he was also ahead of the curve.” He sounds this refrain again when discussing Koestler’s advocacy, in 1979, of a “United States of Europe” complete with a European flag, a European currency and a European government. “Again he was far ahead of both the Labor and Conservative parties in Britain, and as usual out of step with both.”

Despite what he vaunts as Koestler’s multiple instances of profound foresight, Scammell can’t help but bemoan his many failures of critical vision. “Maybe it would have been better for Koestler if he had died in his forties, like his friends Orwell (later canonized as ‘St. George’ in the eyes of millions of admirers) and Camus, and acquired an aura of martyrdom, instead of sullying his career with speculations about astronomy, evolution, parapsychology, and Jewish racial theories.” Scammell attempts, rather unsuccessfully, to couch Koestler’s confidence in the spoon-bending “mentalist” Uri Geller, his preference for what later would be called intelligent design over Darwinian science, and his subscription to discredited postulations about ethnicity, among other eccentricities and misjudgments, to a kind of skepticism. He habitually challenged orthodoxies, whether political or scientific. He refused to endorse unthinkingly the conventional view or go along with the majority for its own sake. Besides, if something hadn’t been disproved, perhaps it had merit after all, or so the thinking goes. This kind of skepticism amounts to self-granted permission to believe any wild thing, and in the latter half of his like, Koestler exercised it. It might have taken a kind of courage to do so, but it also made him easy to mock.

Scammell, like many who knew Koestler, speculates about the psychological impetuses for the writer’s beliefs and behavior. Koestler’s shortness, for instance, determined his personality at least to some degree, Scammell insistently repeats. “Like many short men (barely five foot six in his stocking feet), he was incorrigibly competitive and relentlessly combative, quick to take offense and slow to forgive.” In this respect, Koestler resembled his father, who also “made up with energy and determination what he lacked in physical stature.” While Koestler’s “work discipline was exemplary,” he could also be rather obstreperous. Scammell notes “the perverse delight he took in breaking rules and causing scandals.” Furthermore, “discussion rarely remained discussion with him,” Scammell reports. “It was transformed into a gladiatorial struggle, in which the goal was to wrestle your opponent to the metaphorical floor and pin him there with your conclusions.” Sometimes the floor onto which he tried to knock his disputants was not metaphorical. “His chronic insecurity and the temper tantrums of the spoiled brat were never far from the surface: moments of genuine sincerity and tenderness could morph with lightening and frightening speed into assertive arrogance, leading to offensive preening and prancing, and all to often to the fisticuffs that invariably got him into trouble (and often led to excessive feelings of guilt and remorse afterward).” Here again, he recalls Mailer. Koestler’s friend Manès Sperber spied “the paradox at the heart of his character” – a boastfulness and predilection for “provoking antipathy” coupled with sensitivity and insecurity. Another associate, Otto Katz, an editor Koestler worked with in Paris in the 1930s, told him: “We all have inferiority complexes of various sizes, but yours isn’t a complex – it’s a cathedral.” Koestler liked the line well enough to include it in a memoir. Still another colleague, Cyril Connolly, editor of the magazine Horizon, helped him overcome the “self-doubt and insecurity” that preyed on him during his early days of literary life in England, where the peripatetic Koestler eventually settled after stints in several counties on the Continent as well as time in Palestine and the United States. Nonetheless, in Scammell’s view, Koestler remained “an egotistical, mercurial, and unpredictable perfectionist” whose relentless demands made him difficult if not impossible to live with (though one of his three wives evidently found it impossible to live without him).

Koestler’s intensity also manifested itself in tempestuous intellectual entanglements. New ideas caused Koestler an almost sexual excitement, Scammell says. “His intellectual nerve endings were so finely tuned that he experienced the onset of fresh ideas like orgasms, and mourned their passing as the end of treasured love affairs.” Koestler called himself the “Casanova of causes,” and he indubitably was a promiscuous thinker. Scammell portrays Koestler as a fiercely passionate lover who repeatedly grows dissatisfied with each successive partner. In retrospect he recognizes all the flaws he couldn’t see in the heat of early ardor but still craves the giddy feeling that sparked the infatuation and seeks it again and again. According to Scammell, “no one has better conveyed than he the emotional intensity of conversion to a new creed, and there is little doubt that this is how he experienced it.”

Despite his mental leapfrogging from one platform to another, Koestler did make what St. George called “the familiar dilemma of ends and means” a steady theme of his work. “Should man be a subject and an end, or should he be an object and an instrument?” Scammell rhetorically asks when outlining the political and philosophical debate Koestler joined. “For Koestler, the former obviously took priority.” Such arguments had personal aspects for Koestler, who was licentious in a literal as well as intellectual sense. Sonia Brownell (who worked with Connolly at Horizon and later married Orwell) visited Paris in the summer of 1947, when Koestler was there. She began an affair with the Marxist philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, one of Koestler’s chief opponents in arguments over idealism and materialism. In response to Koestler’s The Yogi and the Commissar (a collection of essays from 1945 that first appeared in France in 1946), Merleau-Ponty contended (in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes) that World War II conclusively demonstrated that humanity could not survive on a capitalist basis and that though both communism and capitalism used violence the former aimed to end economic exploitation while the latter sought to perpetuate it. During the war, Brownell had had an affair with Koestler that had led to an abortion. She revealed the incident to Merleau-Ponty and to only a couple of other people, according to Hilary Spurling’s biography of Brownell, whose description of Koestler as a sadist may have influenced Merleau-Ponty’s opinion. Camus sided with Koestler; he also had a fling with Mamaine Paget, Koestler’s lover at the time (and later his second wife). Camus rejected Simone de Beauvoir when she offered to sleep with him. Koestler did sleep with Beauvoir, once. And he remained friends with Camus after learning of his dalliance with Paget. Beauvoir, however, turned against Koestler, claiming his hatred of communism put him on the side of reactionaries.

Whether for purely personal or disinterestedly ideological reasons, Koestler did find himself isolated. By the 1950s, the European and American left rejected his claim to still be a socialist; they, like Beauvoir, accused him of selling out to the right. The right, in contrast, didn’t dispute his self-identification as a socialist. As a leftist anti-Communist convert, the former Communist lacked allies. This left him in a situation similar to the one faced by Budd Schulberg, his neighbor in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in the early 1950s. Schulberg had also grown disenchanted with the Communist Party, to which he belonged from 1937 to 1940. He outraged his ex-comrades by testifying as a cooperating witness on Hollywood’s Communists to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Though he considered himself a resolute anti-fascist, for naming names he lost friends on the left. All the same, he was the top American contributor to Koestler’s Fund for Intellectual Freedom, giving ten percent of his royalties to it and trying (and failing) to interest friends like Mailer.

Koestler was inconsistent in his ends/means stand. This resulted in making excuses for terrorism. He believed the Irgun (the successor movement to the Zionist Revisionists he’d supported in his twenties) deserved some credit for driving the British from Palestine. The Stern Gang, which had ties to the Irgun, assassinated Lord Moyne, Britain’s colonial secretary, and, according to Koestler, “without terror the British would never have cleared out of Palestine.” He praised “the boys who got themselves hanged by the British while being called fascists and thugs by the official representatives of their own people.” As Scammell phrases it: “In an extension of the message of Thieves in the Night, he argued that ‘ruthlessness was essential for human progress’ and that the end could justify the means at decisive moments in history. He compared the Irgun to the IRA during the Easter Rising and saw it as a catalyst for human progress.” Koestler tries to defend what looks like wobbliness on the ends/means issue in Promise and Fulfilment (1949), which Scammell calls “one of the liveliest and freshest accounts of Israel’s war for independence ever written.” Scammell explains Koestler’s attempt at nuance: “He had always held that the dilemma of ends and means was at the core of the human predicament … and the problem admitted no permanent solution. The end could justify the means only ‘within very narrow limits.’ The ‘arsenic of ruthlessness, injected in very small doses,’ was ‘a stimulant to the social body.’ In large quantities it was ‘a deadly poison.’” In the USSR, there was too much of it; in Israel, just enough.

If Darkness at Noon depicts a man’s mental contortions as he convinces himself to believe something a part of him knows he should not – in that case the idea that hoped-for ends of the Russian Revolution could justify Stalin’s brutal means or, more generally, that unjust acts can somehow create a just society – then Koestler had plenty of material to work with as someone suffering from “absolutitis,” the condition he diagnosed in himself. “The thirst for the absolute is a stigma which marks those unable to find satisfaction in the relative world of the now and here,” Koestler writes in Arrow in the Blue (1952), one of his autobiographies. It set him, over and over, on searches for new faiths. After Zionism came “the verifiable achievements of the scientific revolution.” Communism followed. Later still, extrasensory perception and other non-verifiable mysticism seduced him. His love affairs with various causes and concepts prompted one ideological costume change after another. “Like all the roles he was to fill subsequently in his life, it fitted him only in part,” Scammell says of Koestler’s newfound pride as a Jewish fraternity member during his university days in Vienna, “but it appealed irresistibly to his romantic nature. He was learning to try things on and wear them for a while, before moving to another role.” Though this might make Koestler seem superficial – and some peers during his Zionist phase thought he was – his biographer regards it as important for Koestler’s development as an author. “For the rest of his life he would find himself playing roles of one kind or another, and learning also to observe his behavior from outside, the mark of a burgeoning writer.”

Writing sixty-five years earlier than Scammell, Orwell remarked on the tendency to locate the reasons for rebelliousness in troubled mental states, something Koestler himself was prone to do. “Of course it is true in many cases, and it may be true in all cases, that revolutionary activity is the result of personal maladjustment,” Orwell writes. “Those who struggle against society are, on the whole, those who have reason to dislike it, and normal healthy people are not more attracted by violence and illegality than they are by war.” (In Darkness at Noon, Nicolas Salmanovitch Rubashov, the former commissar who persuades himself, out of party loyalty, to confess to the manufactured crimes for which he stands accused, comes to a somewhat similar realization. “We have a surprising number of defectives in the Party,” he thinks. “Either it is because of the circumstances under which we work – or the movement itself promotes a selection of defectives….”) Even so, Orwell recognizes, this doesn’t necessarily undermine the causes misfits adopt. “Actions have results, irrespective of their motives.… History has to move in a certain direction, even if it has to be pushed that way by neurotics.”

Orwell identifies weaknesses in Koestler, but not because of neuroses or outlandish propositions. Indeed, when Orwell was writing in 1944, Koestler had yet to embrace the crack-pot notions of his later years. Instead, Orwell faults Koestler for his treatment of his principal conundrum and for not fully thinking through its implications. “Revolutions always go wrong – that is the main theme,” Orwell writes. “It is on the question of why they go wrong that he falters.” He summarizes the problem Koestler ponders with characteristic concision: “You can achieve nothing unless you are willing to use force and cunning, but in using them you pervert your original aims.” The result of this conclusion is that nothing can be done: No action can make life better, and any effort for improvement might only make it worse. Orwell judges Koestler’s self-described status as a “short-term pessimist” as tantamount to that of a hedonist who anticipates immediate catastrophe but expects everything to work out in the long run.

Orwell reveals some pessimism of his own in his essay on Koestler. “Since about 1930 the world has given no reason for optimism whatever,” he writes. “Nothing is in sight except a welter of lies, hatred, cruelty and ignorance….” Yet he resists it and tries to avoid the trap he believes snared Koestler. While he might not think an earthly paradise possible, or even definitely desirable, Orwell holds onto the idea that some move toward amelioration can be made even if all problems can’t be solved. “Perhaps some degree of suffering is ineradicable from human life, perhaps the choice before Man is always a choice of evils, perhaps even the aim of Socialism is not to make the world perfect but to make it better.” Here’s the kicker: “All revolutions are failures, but they are not all the same failure.”

In his own way Koestler did commit the same failure again and again. After each god he backed couldn’t come through, he’d latch onto another one instead of rejecting the mental framework that allows for panacean faith. Perhaps Scammell offers reasonable explanations for Koestler’s successive commitments to absolute solutions, but as Orwell argues, they don’t automatically validate or invalidate given beliefs or causes, which can have merit (or not) regardless of adherents’ motivations. Certainly Koestler’s gradual incapacity to discriminate between sense and nonsense calls his judgment into question (as does the double suicide in 1983 with his still healthy younger wife, Cynthia Koestler). Despite Orwell, when considering a person’s life, motivations do matter, even if they can’t be determined with precision. Koestler offers a curious reminder of the wisdom of Andre Gide’s plea (which Mailer adopted as a personal motto): “Please don’t understand me too quickly.” With Koestler, there’s no chance of that, and his ultimate inscrutability reads as a tribute to irreducible individuality, the kind of thing he attempted to articulate in his more lucid period and did express in his masterpiece.

John G. Rodwan, Jr., author of the essay collection Fighters & Writers, lives in Portland, Oregon.


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