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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.


Paul Klee, mystery man

Some highlights the Sunday Times Book Review:

A new biography about Arthur Koestler, The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic, by Michael Scammell made the cover. Koestler’s work, The Sleepwalkers, was one of the books that launched me during adolescence into a lifelong interest in the philosophy and history of science. (Koestler’s book led me in turn to one of the most seminal books of my teenage years, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn.) Based on the review by Christopher Caldwell, Koestler’s personal life falls into that oft-encountered category of I-wish-I-didn’t-have-to-acknowledge-that-a-brilliant-person-is-a-flaming-jerk-in-real-life (and there are oh so many artists who are cohabiting in that particular domain.)

Here’s a taste:

Scammell’s is an authorized biography and a sympathetic one. But the Koestler he depicts is consistently repugnant — humorless, megalomaniac, violent. Like many people concerned about “humanity,” he was contemptuous of actual humans. He ignored and snubbed his mother (who had pawned her last diamond to pay for his passage to Palestine), and he rebuffed every attempt to arrange a meeting between him and his illegitimate daughter. What made him such a creep? Perhaps alcohol — Koestler threw tables in restaurants and was arrested for drunken driving on many occasions. Perhaps insecurity — he was tormented by his shortness (barely 5 feet 6 inches) and used to stand on tippy-toe at cocktail parties. “We all have inferiority complexes of various sizes,” Koestler’s Communist editor Otto Katz once told him. “But yours isn’t a complex — it’s a cathedral.”

That’s a great line, one that I’ll use again: “Yours isn’t a complex — it’s a cathedral.”

Continuing on a theme of the great ones who aren’t so great in real life: John Simon has reviewed The Bauhaus Group, Six Masters of Modernism by Nicholas Fox Weber. Highlighting the lives of Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Josef and Anni Albers, Weber spends time exposing the personality quirks of Klee:

While helpfully discussing the work of Paul Klee, Weber also makes hay of the painter’s eccentricity. Klee was more involved in communicating with birds and plants than with human beings. He never in his life thought of concealing what was either childlikeness or schizophrenia, and blithely expressed it in his art. His upscale marriage to Lily Stumpf, a doctor’s daughter, provided him not only with an accompanist for his violin playing, but also with her income as a piano teacher when she was not being treated for “nervous disorders.” Paradoxically, this very modern painter seems to have played only Haydn, Mozart, Bach and Beethoven.

Although he was the chief nurturer of their only child, Felix, and passionately involved in cooking, Klee was almost as devoted to Fritz, his beloved cat, to whom “he always sent greetings” in his letters home. “Laundry is the household task I haven’t tried yet,” he once wrote. “If I could take it on, I’d be more universal than Goethe.” Whereas in his favored park walks he would stop to talk to a snake, his class lectures were often incoherent balderdash. But his epistolary accounts of what he cooked or ate were clear and explicit.

Weber dwells on Klee’s sexual ambivalence. His subjects included cross-­dressing and hermaphroditism, dominatrixes and evil androgynes. As he wrote, “When girls wept I thought of pudenda weeping in unison.” In his lectures, he mostly discussed natural phenomena; his first lesson was: draw a tree.

To him, Ravel’s music was coarse, and his friend Hindemith’s “stark.” He ate “more cauliflower than anyone else in history,” considered Americans the only ones ignorant of how to live, frequently spoke a single word instead of a sentence and conducted to the gramophone records the Gropiuses played. Klee’s eyes, Weber writes, “usually were looking upward, as if connecting with the heavenly sphere.” And despite his “belonging to the obscure reaches of the cosmos, two of the essentials of his life — food and art — were of a piece.”

A final debunking of public vs private image, and this one done by the artist himself: Jonathan Dee’s review of J. M. Coetzee third “autobiographical” installment/novel, Summertime. Coetzee lingers in that zone between truth and fiction, personal aggrandizement and self-abnegation, inviting the reader to ask difficult questions.

The vandalism Coetzee commits upon the easily checked facts of his own life ultimately serves to sharpen a question that does seem genuine, and genuinely self-­indicting: Doesn’t being a great artist demand, or at least imply, a certain greatness of spirit as well?

“Consider,” says Julia. “Here we have a man who, in the most intimate of human relations, cannot connect, or can connect only briefly, intermittently. Yet how does he make his living? He makes his living writing reports, expert reports, on intimate human experience. Because that is what novels are about — isn’t it? — intimate experience. . . . Doesn’t that strike you as odd?”

Yes and no. The gap between the life we live and the one of our imagination can be gynormous. Not a requirement for genius but certainly a common (and very human) shortfall.