Arthur Koestler, 1905-1983

Anne Applebaum has written a superb review of the newly released biography, Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic, by Michael Scammell, in the New York Review of Books. Koestler’s writings, particularly Darkness at Noon and The Sleepwalkers, had an enormous influence on me during my adolescence. He seemed like the ultimate genius polyglot, spanning so many topics with an enviable mastery.

And in some ways he was an intellectual version of Forrest Gump. From Applebaum’s article:

He began his education in the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, at an experimental kindergarten in Budapest. His mother was briefly a patient of Sigmund Freud’s. In interwar Vienna he wound up as the personal secretary of Vladimir Jabotinsky, one of the early leaders of the Zionist movement. Traveling in Soviet Turkmenistan as a young and ardent Communist sympathizer, he ran into Langston Hughes. Fighting in the Spanish civil war, he met W.H. Auden at a “crazy party” in Valencia, before winding up in one of Franco’s prisons. In Weimar Berlin he fell into the circle of the infamous Comintern agent Willi Münzenberg, through whom he met the leading German Communists of the era: Johannes Becher, Hanns Eisler, Bertolt Brecht. Afraid of being caught by the Gestapo while fleeing France, he borrowed suicide pills from Walter Benjamin. He took them several weeks later when it seemed he would be unable to get out of Lisbon, but didn’t die (though Benjamin, denied passage into Spain at the French border, took them and did).

Along the way he had lunch with Thomas Mann, got drunk with Dylan Thomas, made friends with George Orwell, flirted with Mary McCarthy, and lived in Cyril Connolly’s London flat. In 1940, Koestler was released from a French detention camp, partly thanks to the intervention of Harold Nicholson and Noël Coward. In the 1950s, he helped found the Congress for Cultural Freedom, together with Mel Lasky and Sidney Hook. In the 1960s, he took LSD with Timothy Leary. In the 1970s, he was still giving lectures that impressed, among others, the young Salman Rushdie.

It is difficult, in other words, to think of a single important twentieth-century intellectual who did not cross paths with Arthur Koestler, or a single important twentieth-century intellectual movement that Koestler did not either join or oppose. From progressive education and Freudian psychoanalysis through Zionism, communism, and existentialism to psychedelic drugs, parapsychology, and euthanasia, Koestler was fascinated by every philosophical fad, serious and unserious, political and apolitical, of his era.

Brilliant, yes. But also a man who was exceedingly destructive, selfish, narcissistic, cruel and a flagrant misogynist. Even before the news of his suicide (which was tandemed with the suicide of his much younger wife), ugly accounts and unseemly stories emerged. Scammell’s book does not mince with any of these accusations. In his personal life, Koestler was undeniably a monster.

But what struck me most profoundly about Applebaum’s take on the book is the harsh light she shines on Koestler’s legacy: “To put it bluntly, the deadly struggle between communism and anticommunism—the central moral issue of Koestler’s lifetime—not only no longer exists, it no longer evokes much interest.” The big 20th century causes that he fought for and those he fought against are gone. As Applebaum suggests, perhaps it will be some time before his contributions can be seen in a clearer light: “At the moment, he still seems like yesterday’s man, unfashionable and obsolete. His better qualities might eventually be visible to a younger generation, just as an elegantly restored art nouveau table now appeals to collectors and connoisseurs.”

I can’t help but contrast Koestler’s much reduced posthumous position with the cultural contributions of others, many that feel as timely and lively today as they did when they were new. Contexts, ideas, art styles, points of view take on lives of their own, moving up and down on the register of any given culture’s current flash points. For example, interest in Shakespeare has not always been at the high point it is now, nor has fascination for the medieval genius of Josquin des Prez.

Perhaps the poignancy of Koestler’s demise is more pronounced for me because I came of age at a time when what Koestler wrote about mattered. As Applebaum points out:

As for “Darkness at Noon”, it was not just a popular book, it was one of the primary reasons that the Communist Party never came to power in France, a real possibility at the time. Hard though it is for us now to imagine, it was not at all obvious, in 1946 or even 1956, that Western Europe and the United States would remain solidly united for fifty years. Nor did it seem at all inevitable that the West would win the cold war. Along with Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and Victor Kravchenko’s “I Chose Freedom”, “Darkness at Noon” was one of the books that helped turn the tide on the intellectual front line, and ensured that the West prevailed. But unless one understands all of that, the political and literary achievements of Arthur Koestler are, to a contemporary reader, easily outweighed by the extravagance of his sexual and personal transgressions.

Great article, and worthy of the full text read.