Saturday, December 26, 2009

Koestler's Big Week

Arthur Koestler's authorized biography has just been published. To say that I look forward to reading it is a little like saying I look forward to revisiting every tragic event of the 20th century. And Koestler was a particular obsession of mine back in the 1980s, when Michael Scammell began his work and I (like my friend, Amos Elon, and God knows how many others) considered doing a book of my own. Scammell has by all accounts lived up to his reputation as a thoughtful and diligent biographer; and the three major reviews I've read so far suggest a book that treats Koestler's "odyssey," as Scammell calls it, with depth and sympathy. (I should also add that Scammell is a generous writer, who had legal right to deny others access to Koestler's archive and did not deny it to me, at least.)

Still, the three reviews that I've read, this by Louis Menand, this by Christopher Caldwell, and this by Christopher Hitchens, casually repeat persistent ideas about Koestler's later work--books written after 1954, when the last of the memoirs was published--that seem to me sadly mistaken. The three reviews are trenchant and passionate; but to get things this wrong is to misunderstand Koestler's importance--that is, the importance of the early work, too. (Whether the reviewers are simply deriving these views from Scammell's biography, I cannot yet say.)

THE FIRST MISTAKE is that by focusing on the history and philosophy of science until his death, Koestler had "quit politics" (as Menand puts it). The second is that Koestler's book on the putative descent of European Jews from converted Khazars, The Thirteenth Tribe, was either "autodidactic crankiness" or was meant to refute the Christian charge that European Jews were descended from the Judeans "who killed Christ." The third, and most important perhaps, is that his joint suicide with his young and healthy wife Cynthia should be viewed, not against the backdrop of his work--writers are not saints, after all--but as a quasi-private matter, best understood in the context of Koestler's compulsive and at times rapacious womanizing.

This is not the place to go into any of these matters in depth, but a few points urgently need to be made before the arguments of the reviews settle:

First, science and politics. Koestler started his career in journalism as a science writer (he had studied engineering in Vienna) and eventually approached communism, not as fairness to proles, but as a kind of consoling scientific project: the forlorn (and for a student of quantum physics, perverse,) hope of bringing the certainties of engineering to "history." That implication of communism, however, was that human beings should be made means to history's (i.e., the Party's) ends. And it is this very horror that Rubashov, the hero of Darkness at Noon, finally refutes to himself with what can only be called a Kantian religious perception: that the "first-person singular" is not an illusion.

Koestler may have overdone things at times, but this relentless desire to discredit "historical materialism," smug positivism, etc., was the focus of virtually all of Koestler's scientific (and, if you will, pseudo-scientific) work after 1955: from mapping Kepler's Pythagorean "creativity" in the Sleepwalkers, to exposing how biologists cruelly drove a Lamarckian to suicide in The Case of the Midwife Toad, to ridiculing the "behaviorism" of the 1960s in The Call-Girls.

This was hardly weirdness. The claims of parapsychology can "make you hair stand on end," his protagonist says in the Call-Girls; but "they sound a little less preposterous in the light of the equally wild concepts of sub atomic physics," the notion that an electron can be in two places at once, that they can race backward in time, that space has holes in it. "God is dead," he concludes, "but materialism is also dead since matter has become a meaningless word." To say this is quitting politics is like saying the members of Menand's "metaphysical club" had quit politics.

SECOND, THE ZIONISM to which the young Koestler adhered in the 1920s was Jabotinsky's "Revisionism," which had made its claim to Palestine in terms of an historical connection between the descendants of Judeans and ancient land of Israel--a so called "historical right." Koestler made it clear in The Thirteenth Tribe that the morality of Zionism derives from what Jews (and others) have in their brains, not their genes, but he was nevertheless fascinated by the idea of disproving a major tenet of Revisionism on its face, especially since so many Western Jews had mindlessly bought into "historical right" as a serious moral claim. (Hitchens gets this most nearly right, incidentally.)

Think of a lapsed Catholic who had abandoned the dogma, but who is suddenly confronted by evidence that the bones of Christ had been found. Who could resist rubbing it in? Anyway, Koestler knew the question for Jews who left the rabbinic fold was, Which culture do you want? Israel's Hebrew culture, or assimilation into the various cultures of the West? (By the way, Mr. Caldwell, Promise and Fulfilment, Koestler's chronicle of the 1948-9 war, was prophetic in almost every way; you can't quote Leslie Fiedler to dismiss it unless you also tell us what Fielder knew about Israel or, for that matter, what you think Fiedler would have thought of The Weekly Standard.)

As to the relevance of the joint suicide to Koestler's work, finally, I took up this case up at length in The New Yorker back in 1997. For people who care about Koestler's legacy as I do, this last chapter of Koestler's life, rife with pathos, cannot be dismissed as just another instance of his neurotic domination of women. It might be the key to whether his Kantian-mystical-absolute morality worked for him just when he needed it--not at his death, but in his marriage. And who if not Koestler would be pleased to leave us wondering if any writer can be trusted?

7 comments:

Mitchell J. Freedman said...

After reading the links, and the blog post, I am less impressed with Koestler than ever. Koestler strikes me as a political poser who wanted to be Henry Miller, another jerk with an unwarranted literary reputation.

The best anti-communist, but humane writers remain Victor Serge and just underneath Serge, Ignazio Silone. Both men were far less cruel and had a better sense that the uncertainties in life make us less cruel to each other.

Silone has his own demon of possibly being a Fascist informant in Italy in the 1920s during the time he was a member of the Italian Communist Party, though one wonders how much that was bound up with his brother being in trouble and then in a Fascist jail before the brother was executed. Serge, however, remains steadfast and judicious, and a democratic socialist to the end who best understood the human betrayal at the heart of Bolshevism and Stalinism in particular.

Koester's search for a unifying theory and his mysticism, as well his narcissism does seem to infect his work. In a Cold War and post-Cold War world where the assumptions of the Cold War are remain hardened, Koester and even Orwell are more abused by the likes of a Gingrich-Reagan mindset that is antithetical to true freedom of thought, creativity and human kindness. Better to leave most of these anti-Communist players behind for at least the likes of Serge, Silone or Czeslaw Milosz, whose "The Captive Mind" was consciously written to attack apparatchniks as well as corporate middle management.

Eric said...

thought hitchens piece was pretty good: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200912/hitchens-koestler

Anonymous said...

thought chambers piece was pretty good, too:
http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/dec/20/books-koestler-literary-political-odyssey/

Potter said...

What an odyssey- just reading the reviews. I enjoyed Hitchen's comments. I thought I had enough about the marriage after reading all the recent reviews but then found yours, B.A., in the New Yorker from the late 90's (before I noticed it linked here) and it kept me absolutely riveted because you made this so relevant. Koestler was quite something! I would be interested in your thoughts after reading the Scammell book.

gene schulman said...

Well, Mr. Avishai, you have finally answered my question as to whatever happened to your bio of K. I had read both of your essays: Salmagundi, and the New Yorker. As a Koestler fan I was dismayed by your conlusion of K. and Cynthia's suicide.

I despised Cesarani's book, and even more, the reviews you mention of Scammell's book. Hitchens is a fool and the others seem not to have read anything by K., and rely only on Cesarani's knife job.

I thank Scammell for resurrecting K.'s reputation and am pleased with your own sympathy for Koestler, and especially his late writings.

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