Man of the Century
Koestler: A Biography.
by Iain Hamilton.
Macmillan. 398 pp. $19.95.
Arthur Koestler is seventy-seven years old now, almost as old as the century in which he has participated so ardently that he is certain to be remembered as one of its representative men. The things he has done and suffered illustrate our time almost too vividly. He has wandered in exile and lived in many places. He has embraced Communism and after that become one of its most articulate opponents. He has been one of fascism’s victims and democracy’s champions. A writer, he has been forced to change languages as well as homelands. An intellectual, he has straddled the “two cultures” by writing novels as well as scientific works. A public man, he has been no stranger to private griefs, having attempted suicide more than once. The sheer range and diversity of Koestler’s life are illustrated by the hundreds of people whose help Iain Hamilton acknowledges in preparing this book, among them T.S. Eliot, Menachem Begin, E.M. Forster, Harry Truman, Konrad Lorenz, and Richard Nixon.
To write a boring biography of a man like Koestler would seem difficult, but Iain Hamilton has done his best. Hamilton is, among other things, a poet, but the book is drearily prosaic for long stretches. An excess of detail alternates with curious omissions—Koestler’s tangled friendship with Walter Benjamin is not even mentioned, for example, and Hamilton has next to nothing to say about the French philosopher Merleau-Ponty’s attempt in 1947 to discredit Koestler’s novel, Darkness at Noon, a crucial event in the political-intellectual history of the postwar era. Still, if this is not the definitive biography of Koestler, it does at least set forth in orderly fashion the landmarks of an unusually eventful life.
Arthur Koestler was born in Budapest in 1905 into an assimilated Jewish family. His own assimilationism took the form not merely of indifference to things Jewish, but of an active determination to make the Jews exactly like other people—so much so that they would disappear as Jews. In practice, and all his life Koestler has labored fiercely to erase all differences between his theories and his practices, this meant that Koestler, the assimilationist, paradoxically embraced not only Zionism but the extreme version of it propounded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, since this was the one that promised to normalize the Jews in the most thorough manner. In 1926, at the age of twenty-one, Koestler left Vienna, where he was studying engineering and science, and tried to settle in Palestine. Although he gave it up after a few months, he soon went back and stayed until 1929, this time as a correspondent for the Ullstein newspaper chain.
Koestler’s rise in the Ullstein hierarchy was unusually rapid. Journalism turned out to be the ideal medium for his genius at simplifying—sometimes oversimplifying—the most abstruse matters (Koestler’s only real rival as a popularizer is H.G. Wells). As a newspaperman, he educated not only others but himself, and almost simultaneously discovered two of his great passions, science and Communism.
Koestler had been working on and off for Ullstein for several years, both as a science editor and as a political correspondent, when, on December 31, 1931, he applied for membership in the German Communist party. The same quest for certainty which underlay his fascination with science and the laws of the universe was obviously also at work in his fascination with what he understood to be Marx’s laws of society. Having joined the party, Koestler, typically enough, was not content to be a mere foot soldier, but insisted on journeying to the Soviet Union to see the revolution at first hand.
Whatever misgivings the young Koestler may have felt in the workers’ paradise—and there were some, which he explained away on grounds of Russian backwardness—were shelved temporarily by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Koestler, naturally, took off for Spain at once (with press credentials supplied by the Hungarian newspaper Pester Lloyd), and within a few months was captured, imprisoned, and very nearly executed by Franco’s forces (he had decided to investigate conditions on the fascist side). But if the conduct of the fascists came as no surprise, the brutality of the Communists did. Like Orwell, whose experiences in the Spanish Civil War paralleled his own, Koestler grew increasingly disillusioned as he watched the Communists manipulate the War for their own purposes and ruthlessly eradicate all independent leftist activity. By the time the war was over, Koestler could never again be a Communist, though his actual break with the party was a long and painful process.
By 1941 however, the break was complete, as is obvious from the book he published that year, Darkness at Noon, the novel about Stalin’s purge trials which made him famous. Koestler used that fame as a weapon against Soviet Communism. In the 40’s and 50’s, his labors to shore up the faltering will of the West can only be described as heroic. Traveling, lecturing, writing, and debating in Europe as well as the United States, he tirelessly instructed the democracies on the nature of Soviet totalitarianism and, as usual, not only spoke but acted—Koestler was perhaps the single most important force behind the formation of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. It is hard today to remember—but one does not forget with impunity—the heavy price, in loneliness, slander, ostracism, that was exacted from ex-Communists like Koestler who told the truth about Communism in those years.
In the 50’s, Koestler bade farewell to politics, but hardly to combat and polemics. His new enemy was science in its reductionist mode, with particular emphasis on its seemingly incurable tendency to understand—or rather misunderstand—higher things in terms of lower things. Now his targets were no longer Stalin and his successors, but B.F. Skinner and his fellow behaviorists. Although he turned out a whole series of books on everything from the history of astronomy to the roots of coincidence, Koestler’s triumphs were fewer and more ambiguous in the field of science than they had been in the field of politics.
With Koestler’s turn to (and on) science, the biographer’s interest in his subject seems to wane as well. Less than a third of the book is devoted to Koestler’s life after 1956. Hamilton’s failure to do justice to the later Koestler is, however, easier to condone than his failure adequately to portray either Koestler’s nature or the cast of his mind.
So far as the first goes, one sympathizes with the biographer: Koestler is clearly one of those people who are difficult to know, the proverbial bundle of contradictions in whom shyness and arrogance, rudeness and delicacy coexist uneasily. But if Koestler’s innermost self remains hidden, even after some 30 books, the landscape of his mind is far more accessible, to the reader if not to his biographer, if only because Koestler has expressed himself on almost every subject under the sun.
The first quality of Koestler’s mind to strike us is his intellectual courage. Even when that courage turns into mere rashness, as it sometimes does, it compels admiration, because Koestler so often does us the favor of uttering publicly what many have entertained privately. (His flirtation with Lamarckianism provides a good example.) Koestler never fears ridicule; indeed, he sometimes seems to court it.
This independence of mind explains not only why Koestler could not remain in the Communist party but why, after quitting, he became so resolute and outspoken a foe. But why did he join in the first place? Probably because there is a certain affinity between Koestler’s mind and that of Marx himself: he too is more eager to change the world than to understand it, and he too suffers from the illusion that where problems exist, solutions cannot be far behind.
Koestler’s thinking can be disappointing because it manifests a nervous impatience that is injurious to thought as such. He sometimes misunderstands because he understands too quickly, reducing complex questions to formulas, and then jumping, almost literally it seems, to conclusions. His thinking about the Jewish problem furnishes perhaps the saddest example of these flaws of mind.
Koestler apparently had no Jewish education at all, and no appreciation of the richness of the Jewish tradition (not to speak of its claim to embody the truth). But growing up as he did in this century and in Central Europe, he was bound to come into contact with the most virulent kind of anti-Semitism. His response was typical: something had to be done immediately, and he did it, becoming a fervent Zionist overnight on, so to speak, logical grounds alone. The Jews were hated because they had no country—therefore they must get a country.
Koestler seriously believed that with the establishment of a Jewish state, the Jewish question would not simply be ameliorated but would vanish: Jews would decide either to live there, or to abandon their Jewishness. Thus it made perfect sense that when part of Palestine became Israel he not only lost interest in the fledgling state, but went even further. Having argued that there was no longer any compelling reason for modern Jews to remain Jews, he next proceeded to argue, in effect, that they were never Jewish in the first place. (In The Thirteenth Tribe, Koestler tried to demonstrate that modern Jews are descended not from the ancient Jews but from a Russian tribe, the Khazars, who converted to Judaism in the early Middle Ages.)
Since Hamilton shares many of Koestler’s prejudices—going so far as to dismiss Yiddish as a “medieval language”—he cannot be expected to see that Koestler’s failure to do justice to the intricacies of the Jewish problem is a specific case of a more general failure in Koestler’s political thought and theorizing. Koestler tends to think that all human problems are susceptible of solution by rational tinkering, a habit of mind that once led him in all seriousness to search for a pill that would cure human self-destructiveness. When he speculates about political matters Koestler is always intense and frequently dazzling, but a certain crudeness often vitiates his forcefulness.
In this respect, his celebrated essay on The Yogi and the Commissar comes to mind. Many of my generation greeted it at the time (1945) as the first and last word on the perplexing relationship between means and ends in political life, only to discover later that it has nothing at all memorable to say about what may be a more serious political problem, the relationship among competing ends and the need to give priority to some of them at the expense of others.
As a teacher of politics, Koestler can disappoint in other ways as well. Too often his tone is that of the autodidact reinventing the wheel. He gives the impression of having read more widely than deeply, of arguing too hotly to be fully persuasive, and of being a bit cold toward the human heart. This last is especially true of Koestler’s fiction, which is overly schematic, and too insistent on making and scoring points. In addition, he has never been able to depict women convincingly in his novels, and has admitted as much in one of his disarmingly candid autobiographical self-assessments.
The great exception to all these reservations is Darkness at Noon. The novel did more than simply expose the inner workings of Communism; it showed how Communism corrupts the soul of victim and victimizer alike. In his delineation of the bizarre logic whereby the old Bolshevik, Rubashov, the novel’s protagonist, assents to his own destruction, Koestler gave the first plausible explanation of the psychological processes at work behind the great purge trials—a spectacle which had mystified observers in the West.
When one thinks of this great accomplishment, one is reminded once more how much Arthur Koestler has taught us all, and not only in that distinguished novel. He deserves our gratitude.