The Zealot

Arthur Koestler’s manic intellectual career

I cannot recall a book title that was less well-shaped to its subject. Far from being a “skeptic,” Arthur Koestler was a man not merely convinced but actively enthused by practically any intellectual or political or mental scheme that came his way. When he was in the throes of an allegiance, he positively abhorred doubt, which he sometimes called “bellyaching.” If he was ever dubious about anything, one could say in his defense, it was at least about himself. He was periodically paralyzed by self-reproach and insecurity, and once wrote a defensive third-person preface to one of his later novels (The Age of Longing) in which he described its style as modeled on that of a certain “A. Koestler,” whose writing, “lacking in ornament and distinction, is easy to imitate.” The author himself was written off as “a much afflicted scribe of his time, greedy for pleasure, haunted by guilt, who enjoyed a short vogue and was then forgotten, like the rest of them.”

In fact, Koestler succeeded in achieving several things that transcended his own time and made him into what Danilo Kiš called the prototypical Central European intellectual. He was enabled to do them because he believed that the intellectual ought also to be a man of action. He took part in the antifascist struggles of the 1930s and ’40s first as a true-believing Communist and then as an ex-Communist, and out of this synthesis he generated at least one work of nonfiction (Spanish Testament) and one novel (Darkness at Noon), which between them helped redefine the essential struggle as the one against totalitarianism tout court. No other single individual, with the exception of George Orwell—upon whom Koestler had a marked influence—could claim as much. Second, he managed to register practically every phase, emotional and ideological, of diasporic engagement with Zionism. Third, he was able to demonstrate that an individual could make a difference in the battle of the behemoths that constituted the Cold War.

To be born Hungarian and Jewish and German-speaking is to start at a slightly odd angle to the world. For instance, Koestler was unusual in retaining what Michael Scammell calls “fond memories” of the 1919 Communist putsch in Hungary, a botched and bloody business that led many people to actually welcome the advent of the vengeful right as a deliverance. This right was organically hostile to Jewry, but not even that explains Koestler’s nostalgia for Béla Kun, which in any case makes an odd fit with his decision, as a refugee and student in Vienna, to join a nationalist dueling-and-drinking club that effectively molded young Jews into ersatz Germans. Once more his formation and evolution were against the traditional grain: most European Jews were drawn to Palestine by labor and socialist groups, but when Koestler set off for the Holy Land he did so as a consecrated follower of Vladimir Jabotinsky and the so-called Revisionists. Parlaying his fierce journalism from the Middle East into a job with a German newspaper syndicate in Berlin, Koestler was able to interview Einstein and begin a lifelong amateur engagement with science, while keeping up a keen interest in the subject of eugenics: a field that (in 1930s Germany, of all times and all places) he regarded as promising.

The word one might choose to describe this riot of enthusiasms and contradictions would be promiscuous. It would certainly sit very well with Koestler’s private life, which was a hectic, alarming, and sometimes violent blend of alcoholism and satyriasis. Scammell holds retrospective psychology to a minimum but cannot escape noticing Koestler’s flight from an overprotective mother or his keen awareness of his short stature. We have Koestler’s own word for it—in Arrow in the Blue, which I think is the best of his volumes of memoirs—that he habitually felt awkward and uneasy and sometimes an impostor. This book provides persuasive evidence of acute manic depression, combated in one way by sex and booze and in another by devotion to a series of causes. Otto Katz once said to him, “We all have inferiority complexes of various sizes, but yours isn’t a complex—it’s a cathedral.” Koestler liked this remark so much that he included it in his autobiography, thus attaining the status of one who could actually brag about his inferiority complex as if size mattered.

It was often believed in those days that absorption into the historic movement of the working class was the cure for the angst of the petit bourgeois and the deracinated intellectual. This could help explain the utterness of Koestler’s surrender to Communism. Not even a visit to the famine-racked U.S.S.R.—where he traveled around with a completely credulous Langston Hughes—was enough to unpersuade him. He set off for Spain and the civil war as a dedicated agent of the Comintern, and if the Spanish Fascists who arrested him had guessed his true identity, they would have shot him out of hand. Had they done so, they would have unknowingly dealt anticommunism a frightful blow. Koestler’s experience of Franco’s cells in Málaga, with victims dragged to execution almost every night, helped furnish the stark raw material for Darkness at Noon: certainly the best jail book since Victor Serge’s Men in Prison and almost as influential in combating Stalinism as Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Koestler’s decision to abandon Communism almost as soon as he had been freed from Spain—because of the hysterical faking of the Moscow purge trials in 1938—was expressed in such brilliantly diagnostic and dialectical terms that it bears quoting:

It is a logical contradiction when with uncanny regularity the leadership sees itself obliged to undertake more and more bloody operations within the movement, and in the same breath insists that the movement is healthy. Such an accumulation of grave surgical interventions points with much greater likelihood to the existence of a much more serious illness.

To say that Koestler’s zeal replicated itself in the anticommunist cause would be to say the least of it. Scammell takes us once again through the story of the Congress for Cultural Freedom and the CIA, but spends time illustrating what few people understand even now: the CIA’s hold on the financing of intellectual warfare was actually used as a brake on volunteers like Koestler, who were regarded as too vitriolically anti-Soviet and temperamentally hostile to compromise.

Having temporarily abandoned Zionism for Communism, he resumed his engagement by covering (and participating in) the violent birth of Israel, initially taking the side of the Menachem Begin ultranationalists but eventually becoming sickened by the violence of the Zionist right and finally worrying whether there should be a Jewish state at all. Scammell is not quite in his depth here: he conflates the Stern gang and the Irgun and gives superficial treatment (as he also does, bizarrely, to Koestler’s part in producing The God That Failed) to a subsequent book, The Thirteenth Tribe. In this, his last semi-serious work, Koestler suggested that Ashkenazi Jews were actually descended from the lost people of Khazaria, who before vanishing from the northern Caucasus a thousand years ago had somehow opted to Judaize themselves. One implication of that theory was that no authentic Ashkenazi Jewish tie to Palestine could ever be established. “Arthur just rather enjoys betraying his former friends,”I remember Patricia Cockburn snorting when this effort was published in the 1970s.

That might have been unfair—she remembered how her husband, Claud, had sweated to get Koestler out of jail in Spain, only to be rewarded with apostasy—but in his last two decades Koestler abandoned every kind of scruple and objectivity and became successively bewitched by “theories” of levitation, ESP, telepathy, and UFOs. He was enthralled by Timothy Leary and played for a sucker by the paranormal spoon-bender Uri Geller. The sleep of his reason did not even bring forth monsters: poor Koestler simply gave a fair wind and his once-valued imprimatur to a succession of pathetic quacks and mountebanks.

In a noble if melodramatic way, Koestler had once held a sort of dress rehearsal for suicide with Walter Benjamin, as both contemplated being taken alive by the Gestapo. (He kept the pills Benjamin gave him, while the latter swallowed his on the Spanish border a few days later.) By comparison, his own suicide in 1983 was an affair very much lacking in grandeur. His mind and his body were certainly both giving way, but he seems to have allowed or perhaps encouraged his healthy wife, Cynthia, to join him in the extinction. An earlier study by David Cesarani was lurid to the point of sensationalism about Koestler’s callousness toward his wives and other women (to say nothing of other people’s wives). It has been plausibly alleged that in his compulsive seductions—of Simone de Beauvoir, for one—he did not always stop quite short of physical coercion. Scammell does his best to plead extenuation here, but is obviously uncomfortable. Just as many of the people who believe in numinous coincidence and supernatural intervention are secretly hoping to prove that it is they themselves who are the pet of the universe, so many of those who overcompensate for inferiority are possessed of titanic egos and regard other people as necessary but incidental. At least this case is a tragic one when considered as a life story, because it shows us what a noble mind was there o’erthrown.