Jews of The Ice Age

Thieves In The Night.
by Arthur Koestler.
New York, Macmillan, 1946. 357 pp. $2.75.

Taken as a piece of analytical reporting on Palestine and as comment on the fate of the Jews, Koestler’s new book is significant and wonderfully readable. Taken as a novel, however, it is not good, and that for simple and even obvious reasons.

The truth is that Koestler has very little real feeling for existence as texture and pattern or for his characters as human beings over and above their assigned roles and settings. Hence as a literary artist he is able to create an air of reality but scarcely the conviction of it. It is mostly the historic Zeitgeist, rather than the irreducible data of the actual behind or beyond it, that engages his imagination. As a novelist he generalizes far more aptly—and with more speed and daring—than he is able to particularize, whereas the medium of fiction demands that an author earn the right to launch generalizations precisely through his capacity to back them up by means of particulars imaginatively conceived and so presented as to brace and enhance our sense of reality.

But is it really worthwhile to go on with this criticism of Koestler in order to demonstrate that he has no great standing as a practitioner of the art of fiction? The fact is that we do not read him for the sake of the specific pleasure that a fine novel gives us; we read his fiction for the same reasons that we read his non-fiction, since in his case the two forms are virtually interchangeable. It is easy enough to show that in this new novel not a few elements are handled with unartistic facility and basic negligence. Still, call it a novel or a report or a dramatized treatise, Thieves in the Night is, to my mind, the best book on the situation of the Jews in Palestine available in English. For Koestler has done what no other writer dealing with that situation has so far succeeded in doing: he has treated the theme of Palestine and the Jewish struggle for survival not as an isolated phenomenon, nor in a philanthropic or goody-goody way, nor from the standpoint of the sectarian Jewish tradition, but as an integral part of the modern world-theme as a whole—the theme of life in “the political ice age,” our life with its vast, ferocious, and ambiguous social struggles, its unrestricted violence and despair, its betrayals and proscription of entire nations and societies. Thus this book engages our total attention, in the same considerable way that Darkness at Noon and Arrival and Departure did. It displays Koestler’s typical virtues to good advantage: his lively temperament, his sense of irony and scepticism modulating the search for secure ideals, and above all his quality of relevance and awareness. It is for this last quality, particularly, that we like Koestler. In this period of the unmistakable loss of vitality in writing it is very rare.

Hence to say that Koestler is not a novelist to the manner born means less in this case than in the case of almost any other writer of fiction now held in popular esteem. Consider a writer like John Steinbeck, for instance. If one says of a novel by Steinbeck that it is without appreciable literary merit one is actually dismissing it in toto, for it certainly offers us nothing else by way of intelligence or relevant meaning. Most of our practising novelists are aware of the age only on a very low level, and their patterns of meaning are tissues of banalities because their power of consciousness is only slightly above that of the mass that reads them. If Koestler, on the other hand, is a novelist mainly of the Zeitgeist, he is at least responsive to its virulence and mindful of its mystifications; and he has developed a psycho-political style that supports his expression for it.

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Of course Koestler is neither a systematic nor a profound thinker. But that is hardly a crime, as some of our avant-garde and left-wing reviewers seem to think. To judge by the notices of Thieves in the Night that have appeared in some of the more advanced journals, these reviewers are bent on discrediting Koestler and dismantling his reputation. They continually over-react to him, as if they imagined that no writer so close to their own standpoint and basic concerns should be encouraged to function unless he sees things exactly the way they see them. His arguments and whatever answers he gives to the questions that baffle us all they examine as if they were dealing with finished theoretical propositions. But Koestler is primarily a journalist, not a theoretician. His arguments are more empirical than rational. He is fond of epigrammatic formulations, romantic contrasts, and coups de théâtre. To be sure, in Thieves in the Night he has no more solved the Jewish problem (who has?) than he solved the problem of the relation between neurosis and revolutionary action in Arrival and Departure. What of it? After all, we look to Koestler for suggestive and pertinent comment, not for ultimate truths.

Also, it is necessary to correct certain misinterpretations of Koestler’s attitude toward the Jewish terrorists in Palestine. In the New Republic Isaac Rosenfeld has accused him of making “a preferential selection of terrorist means,” and, in effect, of accepting the very same “commisar-ethics” which he denounced in his previous books. Now this seems to me entirely unfair. As I read Thieves in the Night, Koestler defends the underground extremists on the ground that they are conducting an unavoidable and just war against the enemies of their people. The action of the novel takes place in 1937-39, when the underground was hitting the Arabs harder than it was hitting the British. Joseph, the hero of the novel, argues as follows: “The Arabs have been waging intermittent tribal war against us for the last three years; if we want to survive we have to retaliate according to their accepted rules. By throwing bombs into Arab markets the Bauman gang performs exactly the same inhuman military duty as the crew of a bomber plane. . . . To throw a handmade bomb in a crowded bazaar needs at least as much courage as to press a button opening a bomb-trap. And yet pilots are called heroes and the Bauman gang are called gangsters and terrorists and what have you.” As for the British, long and painful experience has shown that they won’t listen to persuasion alone. Bauman, the leader of the extremists, contends that if the Zionists are not to be crushed altogether they must treat the British in two ways: “One is persuasion. . . . Two is making a hell of a nuisance of ourselves. Driving each argument home with a bang. . . . A nation of conscientious objectors can’t survive.”

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Now this position can be answered either pragmatically, as, for instance, that terror cannot possibly accomplish the Zionist aim because the combined force of the British and Arabs by far exceeds that of the Jews. Or it can be answered morally, from the point of view of the pacifist, who is against all violence and all war—even just wars. There are other answers, too, but I cannot see where the charge of “commissar-ethics” and of imitating the fascists, no less, is anything but misleading.

Mr. Rosenfeld has confused terror as a tactic applied by the oppressed in their struggle against the oppressors (e.g., the Irish revolutionists, the Russian terrorists of the past century, the anarchists in several countries, and, more recently, the resistance movements in the Nazi-occupied territories) with terror as a system of government such as now prevails in the police-states of Stalin and Franco. But it is impermissible to forget that there is a world of difference between the violence of the underdogs, who fight for their rights no matter by what desperate means, and the violence of the top-dogs defending their status as a ruling elite. What is Joseph’s basic motive in going over to the extremists? “I shall either get a stomach ulcer,” he says to himself, “or join Bauman’s gang. This is the real alternative. One can reach a point of humiliation where violence is the only outlet. If I can’t bite, my wrath will bite into my bowels. That’s why our whole race is ulcerated in the bloodiest literal sense. Fifteen hundred years of impotent anger has gnawed our intestines, sharpened our features and twisted down the corners of our lips.”

There is only one passage in the book that might be cited in support of the charges against Koestler. When Joseph visits the hideout of the terrorists in Jerusalem he is disturbed by the atmosphere of mystic devotion, the armlifting salutes, the oaths of obedience, and the nationalist fanaticism. In the ensuing discussion with Bauman he speaks of his fears and doubts. Bauman’s answer is that “it can’t be done without the paraphernalia. That’s the answer to your quibbling about our opera stuff. Our boys run greater risks than ordinary soldiers. If caught they are not treated as prisoners but tried as criminals. They need discipline; and there is no discipline without a ritual. . . . It is against reason that a man should walk into machine-gun fire because another man tells him to. But soldiering is based on the irrational assumption that he ought to do so. Therefore every army must have its tradition and its myth.” Both Bauman and Joseph are Jewish nationalists faute de mieux, and Bauman’s principal point is that while that sort of thing may be good enough for him, he cannot expect “his boys to die faute de mieux.” Now it seems to me that Koestler, far from preaching a Machiavellian philosophy of politics, is in this passage simply stating the facts of the situation. It is a tragic recognition of the danger inherent in all political action, the danger of the means swallowing the ends. Still, Koestler commits himself to Jewish action in Palestine despite his recognition of this danger. I, for one, would not take it upon myself to condemn him on that account.

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As for the rest, Koestler differs from the Zionists in making it quite clear that the Arabs have a strong case in Palestine, which is not to be refuted by listing the benefits of Jewish colonization. But the Jews cannot afford the luxury of objectivity—“a race which remains objective when its life is at stake will lose it.” It is the British who are mercilessly satirized in the book, for there is neither justice nor basic human need on their side.

Koestler, who is known as the spokesman of disillusioned socialists, is here for once in a position to report favorably on the results of a socialist experiment. Time and again he dwells on the contrast between the frightful results of Russian “socialism” and the achievements of the Jewish communities in Palestine—“In these hundred-odd settlements of ours we have been practicing pure rural communism for over thirty years, have survived all trials without sacrificing a single basic principle, and have transformed a seemingly utopian idea into a small-scale but significant working concern.” Of course, there can be no real comparison between socialism in Russia and in Palestine, if only for the reason that in the latter country the socialists have never been exposed to the temptations bred by the possession of political power. The Jewish communes are nothing more than oases in an area dominated by imperialism. Nevertheless, one cannot but agree with Koestler that this experiment has proven that “under certain conditions a different form of human life could be attained” and that again was “as much as one could hope for.”

Throughout this novel author and hero are closely identified. The fact that Joseph is half-Jewish and half-English can be taken as symbolic of Koestler’s own estrangement from the Jews, his inner distance from them, and his sense of guilt and inferiority in relation to the greater Gentile world. “Since the days of the prophets,” he writes, “self-hatred has been the Jewish form of patriotism.” This, of course, is nothing new, though it has seldom been expressed so openly; and the melodrama of the formulation should not deter us from recognizing its basic truth. There is no need to analyze this feeling of self-hatred psychologically, for that has been done time and again and nothing has come of it. For the Jewish intellectuals in America the danger lies in their tendency to admit this feeling, not in order to enter upon a course of action that commits them more deeply to their own Jewishness, thus releasing them of its guilt and strain, but only in order to make themselves appear more interesting, that is to say, more neurotically complicated and therefore deserving of greater consideration. It is plain that this can only lead to more self-assertiveness of the wrong sort and, in the end, to more self-hatred. No, consciousness, meditation, self-analysis are not enough. The real issue is a political one, and that is the way Koestler approaches it. It is political in the sense that it compels us to ask this question: is it possible for the Jews to convert their self-hatred into a positive force for their own reconstruction? It is hatred of the sickness of his own people that turned the poet Stem into a gunman-messiah. Other Jewish poets and thinkers have followed the path of unconditional idealism and of submission to fate. Koestler is not squeamish. He admires the Jews who have tried to master their fate much more than he can ever admire those who submit to it. That is the deeper meaning of his sympathy with the Jewish terrorists in Palestine.

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