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.