A Casanova of Causes

Arthur Koestler as a Fox of a Writer

By Glenn Altschuler

Published January 20, 2010, issue of January 29, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

KOESTLER: THE LITERARY AND POLITICAL ODYSSEY OF A TWENTIETH-CENTURY SKEPTIC
Michael Scammell
Random House, 689 pages, $35

In 1925, Arthur Koestler, a 20-year-old Hungarian journalist, began to believe that politics was “above all futile” — and that there was “more truth” in philosophy. Zionism, he thought, was the field where he could get the most recognition: “But can’t I also earn fame through literature?” he asked.

It turned out that he could. Published in 1940, his novel “Darkness at Noon,” based on Stalin’s show trials, became a 20th-century classic, demonstrating with stunning force that the fanatical faith of Communists was based on illusions, delusions and lies. A runaway bestseller in the United States, where it has never gone out of print, it brought him fame and fortune.

And, in time, an undeserved reputation as a one-book wonder. In “Koestler,” Michael Scammell, a professor of creative writing and translation at Columbia University and the author of a biography of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, describes Koestler as a fox, to use Isaiah Berlin’s terminology, rather than a hedgehog, and a “peculiarly swift and preternaturally clairvoyant” one, at that.

As author of more than 30 books, including six novels, four autobiographies and four scientific treatises, Koestler did write too many books, Scammell acknowledges, in too many genres to be considered an expert in any field. And yet, as a “Casanova of causes” and a contrarian, he took himself — and his readers — to dangerous and exciting places, as he challenged “settled truths.”

“Koestler” is a splendid biography, especially as it illuminates Koestler’s fascinating personal life. Like Zelig, Koestler seemed always to be at the right place at the right (or pointedly wrong) time. In Palestine in the 1920s, he invented the Hebrew crossword puzzle, defended the Irgun and the Stern Gang (by pen and not sword), and began to articulate his highly controversial view that Diaspora Jews should come home or assimilate.

In civil war-torn Spain in the 1930s, he languished in jail, facing imminent execution as a Communist spy.

When World War II began, he served with the British Pioneer Corps, digging ditches, filling them with oil and setting fire to them to convince German bombers to return home because their targets had already been hit.

And in the 1960s, he hung out with Timothy Leary, experimented with psilocybin, and hallucinated that the Gestapo — or the KGB — “have got me.”

Blasted by Norman Mailer, an expert on the subject, as “an absolute egomaniac, a beast,” Koestler is best understood, Scammell suggests, as a manic-depressive: competitive and combative, and, by turns, demonically gleeful, suffocatingly self-important and gloomily self-doubting.

His shyness, sensitivity and devil-may-care daring made him a magnet for women — but, alas, he rarely treated them well, at least not for very long. Scammell isn’t sure that Koestler raped Jill Craigie, the wife of British Labor leader Michael Foot, but he doesn’t deny that Koestler struck his own wife, Mamaine Paget, more than once.

As an intellectual, Koestler was also “often foolish,” Scammell argues. But he could be prescient. In a spate of ambitious works that fused autobiography, psychological penetration and dialectical analysis, including “Arrow in the Blue,” “Dialogue with Death,” “The Invisible Writing” and “The God That Failed,” Koestler interrogated the problems of individual freedom, the ethics of choice and the totalitarian forces shaping the modern world “with unrivaled dialectical verve and penetration.”

Less persuasive, however, is Scammell’s assertion that Koestler was a skeptic, whose romantic hopes “that some variant of the utopian dream might lead to happiness on earth” were undercut by an awareness of the “realities of human nature.” After all, as Scammell also writes, for Koestler, “the quest itself was the point.”

Koestler is better understood, perhaps, as a serial seeker who associated himself with the neo-Lamarckian claim that acquired characteristics have been inherited, and with the view that ESP, telepathy, clairvoyance and psychokinesis were “the highest manifestation of the integrative potential of living matter.” He also endorsed the theory that the Khazars, a mysterious people from the north Caucasus, made a “substantial, and, in all likelihood, dominant” contribution to the makeup of Eastern European Jews.

Scammell concedes that it might have been better for Koestler to have died in his 40s, as George Orwell did, without sullying his career with treatises on astronomy, evolution, parapsychology and Jewish racial theories.

But now, thanks to “Koestler,” we can decide for ourselves and put in perspective “one of the most versatile and protean writers of the twentieth century.”

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.