January 23, 2000
Like most other wars, the Cold War had its heroes: Orwell, Camus, Chambers, Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, among others. One of those others was Arthur Koestler, author of “Darkness at Noon,” co-author of “The God That Failed,” and co-founder of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Anti-communism was always an honorable cause, though not always honorably conducted, either by politicians or intellectuals. Koestler is one of those who gave anti-communism a good name.
Koestler was born in 1905 and grew up in Budapest and Vienna. At the university he was a lukewarm engineering student and an ardent Zionist. In his last year, on an impulse, he dropped his studies and travelled to Palestine, joining a kibbutz at first and then drifting around the cities. A Vienna friend got him a job as Middle East correspondent for a German newspaper chain. Koestler was a spectacularly successful journalist and rose rapidly in the organization. But around the same time he joined the Communist Party, and a little overzealous recruiting among his colleagues got him fired.
Adrift again, he travelled to the Soviet Union to write a book about the workers’ paradise. He began to be disillusioned by the government’s cruelty, incompetence, and deceit, but he suppressed his doubts and wrote a pro-Soviet propaganda tract. Then in 1933, the Nazis consolidated their power in Germany. The Communist Party fled or went underground; Koestler went into exile in Paris.
There he worked for Willi Munzenberg, the legendary Communist propaganda organizer. To make ends meet, the always prolific Koestler also wrote the first of several popular sex manuals, the “Encyclopedia of Sexual Knowledge” (though unfortunately, he never got any royalties).
When the Spanish Civil War began in 1936, Koestler went as a journalist into Fascist territory, secretly writing propaganda for Munzenberg. He was found out and imprisoned for several months, expecting every night to go before the incessant firing squads, as nearly all his fellow-prisoners did. But he was released in a prisoner exchange. The book he wrote about this experience, “Spanish Testament,” made his name in England.
He had seen too much in Spain to remain a Communist. But he was still eager to fight Fascism, so he returned to Paris and worked on a variety of propaganda activities. When the Germans invaded in 1939, he was once again interned for some months. Once again, after his release he wrote a widely praised book, “The Scum of the Earth.”
Around the same time, his great novel appeared. “Darkness at Noon,” based on the Moscow show trials of the ‘30s, is the story of Rubashov, an old Bolshevik, arrested on false charges but gradually persuaded to confess, out of loyalty to the Party. The squalor of Stalinism is unforgettably exposed; but even more important, the argument between revolutionary expediency and traditional morality is superbly dramatized.
The prestige of Communism among intellectuals never fully recovered from “Darkness at Noon,” and the novel probably played a part in preventing a Communist victory in the 1946 French elections -- which, had it occurred, would have turned the Cold War dangerously warm. A splendid book of essays, “The Yogi and the Commissar” (1945), delivered further lethal blows to Stalinism while at the same time trying to work out a socialist humanism, much as Orwell and Camus were doing. His anti-communist coup de grace was “The God That Failed” (1950), a collection of memoirs by disenchanted Party members or sympathizers, including Andre Gide, Ignazio Silone, Stephen Spender, and Richard Wright. Koestler instigated and contributed the lead essay to this tremendously influential book. He was also present at the creation of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which, despite occasional false steps (like accepting a secret CIA subsidy), did yeoman work discrediting Stalinist ideology.
More novels, essays, and memoirs followed, notably two marvellously vivid and witty autobiographical volumes: “Arrow in the Blue” (1952) and “The Invisible Writing” (1954). Koestler also made extensive efforts to aid exiled writers and spearheaded a successful campaign to end capital punishment in England. But by the late ‘50s, he was tired of politics. His early interest in the sciences revived, now colored by the conviction that materialism, mechanism, determinism, and behaviorism had gravely weakened the West’s resistance to totalitarian ideologies. Though largely self-taught, he wrote several fascinating books about psychology, cosmology, evolution, and the life sciences, encouraging and publicizing important new theoretical trends. Eventually he took up parapsychology and, ornery to the end, left his entire estate to finance research on the subject. His last political cause was voluntary euthanasia, about which he wrote an excellent pamphlet that deserves to be republished in this Age of Kevorkian. In 1983 he (and his wife) put this preaching into practice.
It was an exceptionally full life, and to all appearances an admirable one. Naturally, it was just a matter of time before some biographer looked behind the appearances. David Cesarani is a professor of modern Jewish history in Southampton, England. He set out to write a study of Koestler’s Zionism, which became this full-length biography. From his earliest days, Koestler’s Jewishness was a key -- the key, according to Cesarani -- to his personality. He revisited Israel in later life, considered settling there, and wrote several extremely controversial books and essays on the subject. Whether or not Jewishness is as central to Koestler’s life and work as Cesarani insists -- every specialist should be forgiven a little exaggeration on behalf of his own subject -- it was clearly worth emphasizing.
More debatable is Cesarani’s attention to Koestler’s personal life. Koestler’s unpublished diaries, notebooks, and correspondence chronicle a life of heavy drinking and constant womanizing. Cesarani transcribes this record in great detail, with much disapproving comment. Disapproval is of course warranted; but a biographer’s censoriousness inevitably arouses a certain sympathy for his subject. And Koestler was no mere lothario: nearly all his ex-wives and lovers remained close friends. Two of Cesarani’s charges, though, are plausible and disturbing: the rape of a friend’s wife, and the apparent absence of any attempt to dissuade his own wife, younger and healthier than he, from joining him in their double suicide.
If true, these were dark deeds. And Koestler’s frequent drunkenness and promiscuity undeniably cast a pall. But otherwise, it was a luminous life in a dark time.