The Worlds of Arthur Koestler

It is twenty-seven years since DARKNESS AT NOON stamped its indelible imprint. Its author is now in his sixty-fourth year, and his publishers are honoring him with a uniform edition of his works to date. Here Oscar Maudlin reviews the intellectual development of a man whose life has led him back repeatedly to three themes:the consequences of man’s will to transform society; the nature of his place in the world; and his capacity for rational understanding and action.” Mr. Maudlin, Charles Warren Professor of History at Harvard, author of eighteen books, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1952, is at work on a biography of Abraham Lincoln.


PRIDE in their personal powers of discovery all too often prevents intellectuals from learning out of the experience of others. Each generation insists upon its uniqueness, so that there is no cumulative quality to the stock of wisdom. The young men grow old without knowing it. Believing in the continuity of their ideas, they can hardly understand the gap that widens between them and their successors. Meanwhile, the restless aftercomers, incapable of recognizing their proper predecessors, prefer to make their own mistakes and discount the value of secondhand thoughts.

Perhaps that is why Arthur Koestler some fifteen years ago decided to turn away from political themes. He had said all he had to say about these subjects. “Now the errors are atoned, the bitter passion has burnt itself out, Cassandra has gone hoarse — let others carry on.” Although the events of the intervening years have gone a long way toward substantiating his analysis, his withdrawal is comprehensible. Yet it would be unfortunate if his present silence should obscure the clarity of his earlier writings on these issues. Only Ignazio Silone, among living authors, was able as lucidly and as authentically to describe the radicalism of the three decades after 1918. And the young people of the left, would they only listen, have much to learn from that experience.

The Danube Edition in which Macmillan is now reprinting Koestler’s complete works offers the opportunity for a review of his intellectual development. His career mixed action and reflection; it led through the great political and ideological crises of the mid-twentieth century; and it produced an impressive body of writing, utilizing a variety of media. Trained as a scientist, he was a journalist by profession and expressed his ideas through the novel. His books, whether science, fiction, autobiography, or current essays, have in common a respect for learning, a sensitivity to the long-term as against the transient issues, and a dedication to the truth. These are far from commonplace qualities in contemporary literature.

Again and again, the circumstances of Koestler’s life led him back to three engrossing themes: the consequences of man’s will to transform society; the nature of his place in the world; and his capacity for rational understanding and action.

Koestler was twenty-six years old in 1931 when he joined the Communist Party. At the time he was a well-known journalist, foreign editor of B.Z. am Mittag, and one of the stars of Ullstein Verlag, the Berlin publishers. He relinquished it all, although four years earlier he had been close to starvation in Palestine. A romantic Zionist impulse had taken him to the Holy Land in 1926. He had then given up his degree at the Polytechnik and a promising scientific career with as littie hesitation as he later exchanged the perquisites of his editorial office for the Party card.

The alternations of risk and withdrawal, of acceptance and rejection, of hope and disillusion, were more than idiosyncratic. The precocious only child of a prosperous Hungarian Jewish industrialist, Koestler was willful and determined, inclined to undervalue the prizes he could win too easily. Moral indignation, he knew, affected him in a direct physical manner. “I can feel, during an attack, the infusion of adrenalin into the bloodstream, the craving of the muscles, flooded with blood-sugar, for violent action.” Therefore the striving was as important as the goal. Yet the decision to enter the Communist Party and to remain in it for eight years also sprang from an objective appraisal of the chaos into which Europe was sliding in the 1930s. Koestler sought in Communism a means of saving something from the disaster that he felt certain was about to overwhelm the people of the Continent.

Beneath the patina of journalistic toughness characteristic of his early books—Dialogue With Death (1937) and Scum of the Earth (1941)—is an underlying sense of tenderness about the human condition. Both accounts deal with Koestler’s imprisonment, in the first while condemned to death by Franco, in the second while an inmate in a French concentration camp. Yet Koestler writes not as a victim but as a sympathetic observer of the victimization of others. He is therefore blessedly free of self-pity or bathos. Prison is an experience, but it is also a vantage point. It enables the author to look upon man stripped of rights, reduced to elemental helplessness, at his least protected and most exploited. And however much the tough Koestler may wish to stifle the emotion, his heart goes out to men who, having lost all else, achieve dignity in their nakedness. Oppression makes them all equal, revolutionaries, bystanders, and fascists alike.

The Spanish book be dedicated to a little Andalusian peasant with soft, slightly prominent eyes, one of the poor and the humble, executed because he dared to defend a new order which might perhaps one day have taught him to read. A refugee family in the Malaga garden revealed, in the wretched belongings they struggled to save, the permanent misery of the masses of this world. Even the weary shrug of a jailer expressed for Koestler “an entire human philosophy of shame, resignation and apathy. ‘The world’s like that,’ he seemed to be saying, ‘and neither I nor you will ever change it.’ ”

The power of sheer empathy, which later (1957) erupted also in a passionate condemnation of capital punishment, at first took the form of an insistence that will and idea could change the world. When he wrote of Spain, Koestler still believed in the redemptive capacity of revolutionary Communism. But that confidence had ebbed during the Moscow trials. He left the Party in 1938, and the Hitler-Stalin pact completed his disillusionment.

THREE powerful novels between 1939 and 1943 explored the dynamics of the revolutionary process and its consequences for man’s hope of improvement. Arrival and Departure (1943), the third in the trilogy, is the least successful, for it moves beyond the argument of the futility of revolution to an explanation of the motives of the revolutionary, which it discovers in a personal sense of guilt. The other two volumes, The Gladiators (1939) and Darkness at Noon (1941), deal directly with the forces of revolt, the one set in ancient Rome, the other in Moscow of the 1930s.

There were ambiguous elements in The Gladiators, which Koestler started while still a Party member. The revolution Spartacus led went wrong, in the process needlessly sacrificing thousands of innocents. But Koestler could explain the failure within a Marxist framework. Spartacus, ignorant of the social forces involved, drew back from the ruthless suppression of dissidents and therefore condemned himself to defeat. The implication remained that more decisive action might have led to victory.

There could be no such uncertainty about the meaning of Darkness at Noon, which laid bare the dark workings of the Russian Revolution, on which many radicals and liberals had, for decades, fastened their hopes. The campaign of vilification mounted by Stalin’s intellectual hatchetmen against Koestler demonstrated their sensitivity to the novel’s charges, although the truth of its analysis could not be proven until Khrushchev began to reveal some of the secrets of his predecessor’s regime. Every document that has come out of the Soviet Union since then has confirmed the uncanny accuracy of Koestler’s version of the Moscow trials.

Darkness at Noon directs our attention to the ethical problem of revolution. The individual cannot resort to violence, as Spartacus did, simply on the ground that he knows the greater good of the whole society. There would be no end to the use of force thus unleashed. Rubashov, the old revolutionary, understands that the Communist appeal emanates from a whole view of human development. “We dug in the primeval mud of history and there we found her laws.”

But the logical consistency which demanded that the first blow be struck also called into service the police and the torture chamber. The danger remaincd that men might come to divergent conclusions though they started from the same point of departure. Proof could disprove proof, so that to act, it was finally necessary to recur to faith — to axiomatic faith in the rightness of the Party’s reasoning, which validated the use of force. But the men in black, once called into service, made their own demands for continuation of the terror, appealing for justification to the same axiomatic faith. There was no denying the logic by which they argued that the end made necessary the means. That logic unfolded in the brilliant interrogations of the condemned man by his inquisitors, which finally elicited the false confession. Rubashov sacrificed himself because, although he was innocent in actuality, the larger purpose of the Party required his guilt.

Koestler emphasized both the plausibility of this last step and its depravity. He insisted that some means were not justified by any end. Yet in purely rational terms he was unable to break the chain ot logic which led the Party from its premises to its conclusions. Ultimately, his unwillingness to follow stemmed from his inability to regard the life or death of any human being as an abstract occurrence which could be weighed in some mathematical equilibrium of means and ends. He drew back because people were not for him, as they were for Rubashov and the Communists, simply the anonymous masses manipulated by power.

The brutal torture scenes in all Koestler’s novels have been criticized for rhetorical exaggeration and sensationalism. He himself connects these tormented descriptions with the memory of a traumatic tonsillectomy at the age of five; and no doubt his own later prison experiences added to his awareness of fear. Whatever their psychological source, the passages devoted to the beatings and hangings express his empathy with the victims and plead for assurance that men are not things to be used for a political purpose.

UNTIL 1945 the unity of the war against Nazism concealed some of the political implications of the analysis of revolution. But the post-war confrontation between the West and Communism restated the old questions in an uncomfortable form. Koestler had little sympathy for the gradual improvements of parliamentary democracy, and he understood all too well the dangers of Red totalitarianism. His novel The Age of Longing (1951) and the essays in The Trail of the Dinosaur (1955) deal with the profound dilemma of the former revolutionary in the post-war era.

In the novel, Julien, who speaks with the voice of the author, observes the confrontation between Hydie Anderson, the innocent American girl, and Fedya Nikitin, the Red agent. Nikitin is repulsive, not so much because he is the tool of a totalitarian regime as because ot the basic inhumanity of his belief that everyone is a slave of his rellexcs. The Western characters are vulnerable; they operate in a political void and are constantly tempted to surrender their critical faculties in order to creep back into the sheltering womb of the true faith. They are doomed it they yield and plagued by indecision if they do not. The tension produces a neurotic streak in contemporary politics, particularly evident among intellectuals, who are like a sensitive membrane exposed to all the stimuli of events in society. Torn between the poles of the yogi and the commissar, they vacillate between the impulse to withdrawal and contemplation and the desire to act and rule.

The Lotus and the Robot (1961) is the record of Koestler’s fugitive hope that the wisdom of the Orient might contain a clue to the solution of the Westerners’ dilemma. This devastatingly funny account of India and Japan disposes of any such illusion. Koestler is then left with the uncompromising judgment he had already perceived in 1944: “The interregnum of the next decades will be a time of distress and of gnashing of teeth. We shall live in the hollow of the historical wave.” The only tolerable posture is that of the short-term pessimist, convinced of ultimate victory, the nature of which he can only guess. He must apply the brakes while the social drift is downward, but remain ready to fire up the engine as soon as there is a sign of some upward movement.

Why then struggle? “If you don’t believe in a transcendental justice, in ultimate punishment and reward, what prevents you from becoming an opportunist?” asks Father Millet in The Age of Longing. Julien answers. To understand mankind is neither to forgive, nor to yield to illusion, nor to crawl back into any warm bed of faith, but to be able to wait expectantly. “Those who are under the curse of honesty to themselves must remain mangy lone wolves with nowhere to huddle for warmth.”

For almost two decades, while politics has remained for him in the hollow of the wave, Koestler has been seeking warmth in a larger view of mankind. Insight and Outlook (1949), The Sleepwalkers (1959), The Act of Creation (1964), and The Ghost in the Machine (1967) are all, in their various ways, efforts to situate man in a coherent vision of the universe. To do so he ventures boldly to disregard the conventional disciplines within which modern knowledge is compartmentalized. He has the advantage of daring in an era in which scholarship generally asserts its conclusions timidly and tentatively; and he is able enough to deal intelligently with the subject matter of psychology, genetics, aesthetics, and history.

The exposition in these books is not systematic or analytical. Although Koestler is groping toward a comprehensive theory, he does not attempt to prove it in a scientific fashion. The argument is literary; it depends upon parables and analogies and seeks to convince the reader by satisfying descriptions of a whole vision rather than by precision of detail. The wit of his sallies against behaviorist psychology and the absolute certainty with which he writes about much of which scientists are still uncertain cover over some awkward crevices in his theory. But discussion of these matters is not really germane to his purpose.

The fundamental question that occupies Koestler in these books is that distilled from his political works: does man’s schizophrenic nature doom him to destruction? The Ghost in the Machine poses the issue bluntly. Evolution erred in the course of the growth of the human neocortex and left implanted in man a paranoid streak which has repeatedly asserted itself through history. In the past, the resulting disasters were limited and tolerable; they might damage a generation or sweep away a nation, but they did not threaten the existence of the species. Now, however, we arrive at a moment of climax, for unrestrained population growth has upset the ecological balance of the earth and the amassed power of nuclear destruction can incinerate the total achievements of the past.

The Ghost in the Machine pleads for a biochemical discovery that will normalize humanity by improving the coordination among the circuits of the brain, will attenuate conflicts and prevent the blowing of fuses. The breakthrough from maniac to man would permit a rational confrontation with and solution of the earth’s critical problems. The vast inquiry carried through these four volumes has a single objective — the demonstration that such an act of creation as is required for the necessary biochemical discovery is possible. Man’s responses in any given situation arc not simply dictated by external stimuli. Will, knowledge, and conscious effort have a role in the evolutionary process and in all interactions with the environment.

Basic to this conclusion and to the fragments of hope attached to it are a denial and an affirmation. The denial is of utter randomness and accident in the universe, which would leave evolution a totally purposeless and materialistic process. And the affirmation is of the glory and the uniqueness of man in his capacity to adapt to the challenge of changes about him. The hidden source of this consolatory vision, which is perhaps the most in which a sensitive observer of the 1960s can indulge, is thus the same love of man which earlier led Koestler into and beyond radical politics.

Among the illusions Koestler has discarded is the Enlightenment’s unqualified faith in reason. He has enough self-knowledge and understanding of others to know that there are also other springs of men’s actions. In Darkness at Noon, he speculates, “Perhaps reason alone was a defective compass, which led one on such a winding twisted course that the goal finally disappeared in the mist.” In The Age of Longing, he smiles at “Hercules the AtomSmasher, longing for a universe whose laws were the same for the stars and men, and were open to the mind’s understanding.”

Nevertheless, he cannot escape his own faith in rationality. His dismay at psychosomatic politics based on passion, his wish that words be taken seriously, indeed the whole enterprise to locate man’s place in the universe rest on the premise that a coherent order will yield its secrets to man’s understanding. Reason, he knows, is far from governing human behavior. But it should, even if a miracle drug is required to enable it to.

The belief that man had a unique destiny in an orderly, purposeful, and rationally comprehensible universe was Koestler’s legacy from the Central European Jewish world which in a previous generation had produced Freud and Einstein. Koestler’s predecessors, who matured before the end of the nineteenth century, had left behind the traditions of Orthodoxy and could pursue discovery optimistically within the stable institutions of the German and Austrian empires. Koestlcr’s circumstances were different and less fortunate. Further removed from tradition than the nineteenth-century young men, he reached adolescence while Europe spun out of control under the shock of a cataclysmic war. He searched for meaning while he himself suffered from the total disorientation of the society about him.

That time of troubles, in the 1920s and 1930s, left him a commitment and an insatiable yearning. The commitment, to which he has adhered through life, was to the inviolability of man’s dignity. The yearning for some total, utopian, assurance of human security and freedom led him to Communism, and then, after that god failed, to a quest for a magic creative stroke of science that would effect the transformation that revolution had been incapable of achieving.

The alternative, which the course of his life and the character of his times seemed to close off, was a succession of small steps toward more immediate goals. Koestler, like later generations of radicals, was dubious about the worth of such paltry gains. But the tragic effects of efforts at overreaching, demonstrated in his own life and work, suggest that the more moderate alternative might have been more rewarding. The putative revolutionaries of our own time would do well to ponder the choice.