Human minds have struggled to cope with the pace of change in modern civilisation. In the first few decades of the twentieth century, our great-grandparents faced world war, genocide, totalitarianism and the looming threat of a nuclear holocaust. Men looked to intellectuals to make sense of things. This was an intimidating responsibility for anyone.
In interesting times, Arthur Koestler’s life was extraordinarily eventful. He witnessed the bloody birth of the state of Israel, was imprisoned by General Franco, escaped the Nazis and became one of the world’s most prominent anti-communists. Along the way he slept with Simone De Beauvoir, punched Albert Camus and did hallucinogens with Timothy Leary. How did he have time to write?
Given all of this activity, and his impressive output, why has Koestler’s reputation declined? Darkness at Noon still lurks on library shelves, but even that is read far less than Orwell and Solzenhitsyn. Not much else has endured. His fictional talents were more limited than the already questionable gifts of the author of 1984, and his novels depended on their global relevance to be successful. As his great themes were those of the age of European totalitarianism much of this relevance has been lost. For all that one might sabre-rattle about Vladimir Putin, we live in different times with different concerns.
Michael Scammell’s thorough, clear and insightful biography gives us to reflect on the importance of the man. It is called The Indispensable Intellectual but might have been more aptly named The Irrepressible Intellectual. Koestler’s restless dynamism propelled him into the middle of events and arguments that defined the age. His life, as much as work, embodied many of its forces and phenomena.
Koestler was, in Scammell’s words, a “Casanova of causes”. He was among the first Zionists struggling to establish Israel but came to lament the violence of his former comrades. He propagandised on behalf of the Soviet Union but then became an energetic anti-communist.
It was an age of extremes. Extreme ideas arose as a response to extreme conditions. Nonetheless, the force of Koestler’s ideology, and his undimmed enthusiasm once he switched allegiances, suggest that there were emotional elements at play. One of his more endearing traits was to diagnose his vices before his biographers could even get around to them. He wrote, Scammell reports, of his desperate utopianism, that “the thirst for the absolute is a stigma which marks those unable to find satisfaction in the relative world of the here and now.” “In other ages,” he observed, “Aspirations of this kind found their natural fulfillment in God.”
It is fashionable to chide Koestler for leaving politics to write on science and, according to mainstream opinion, pseudoscience: Lamarckian evolution, ESP and levitation. I have a perhaps sentimental, perhaps contrarian fondness for parapsychological explorations but even if we are to grant that Koestler’s interest in alternative ideas yielded more heat than light I am inclined towards being sympathetic to the old iconoclast. He was out of his depth, for sure, as an impressionistic mind in a rigorous world, but his search for transcendence, glimpsed elsewhere in his travels to India and experiments with drugs, suggest that unlike some of his liberal contemporaries he knew that freedom was not enough for civilisation. Societies needed a spiritual element and at worst it was better to find it in psi than the Soviet Union.
It was a time in which the Church had been eroded out of all recognition. It was also a time in which communal attachments had been strained and severed. One thinks, of course, of the Jews who had fled Nazi terror but there was a broader dislocation among intellectuals. Auden and Isherwood had left for America, managing, perhaps too neatly, to avoid World War Two. Ezra Pound, on the other side of the intellectual aisle, had moved from America to cultivate the intellectual right in England and then decamped to Italy and descended into mania. Even among people who were not actual exiles, the magnitude of events in Southern, Central and Eastern Europe drew attention from the local to the international, often without the rootedness that offered practical knowledge and perspective.
The nature of family life among intellectuals was also important. While most people were still conservative in standards, there were more permissive attitudes among the cultural elites. Adultery and more open polyamory were considered acceptable and could leave trails of broken marriages, abandoned partners and neglected children.
All of this helped to inspire a heady universalism. Attachment to great causes can blind one to concrete realities. Unwillingness to accept private obligations can make it more difficult to appreciate broader loyalties.
Koestler took this atomised individualism to extremes. Born in Hungary, he lived in Germany, Israel, France, England, America and Austria, without, it seems, really liking any of them. He was, he said, a “European first of all”, but grew tired or disgusted with actual countries. Working through three marriages, none of which he really wanted, he also burned through innumerable affairs. With such a restive approach to “the here and now”, his yearning for grandeur outside of it is to expected.
We must dwell on Koestler’s private life, for it is a deep, rich seam of unpleasantness throughout this slab-sized book. Scammell is more sympathetic than previous biographers, but still the man’s obnoxious antics fill page after page. At his best Koestler could be considerate and generous. He had many friends, and girlfriends, who felt lasting affection. At his worst, however, he was selfish, dishonest and aggressive. This describes us all, perhaps, to greater or lesser extents, but Koestler’s worst was far too bad and he was at it far too much.
He was chronically narcissistic and criminally irresponsible. An avaricious lover, he pursued the objects of his ardour with a predatory relish that extended, in his words, to “an element of initial rape”. These women could be discarded once he had tired of them. If the poor souls got pregnant he would tell them to abort, calling a specialist for Elizabeth Jane Howard, for one, when the novelist loved him and wanted to have his child. He had one daughter, born from the affair he found most tedious, and refused to have anything to do with the girl.
He could be violent. At one point he is reported to have struck Marmaine, his future second wife, with “a stunning blow” – “only the third time”, she wrote, which was, “considering how beserk he goes, surprisingly few”. At this point Marmaine was ill, and chronically underweight, with the asthma that would lead to her death.
Even as a driver, Koestler was irresponsible. Blind drunk (as, to be fair, were many drivers of his time) he roared about Europe and totalled cars as one might wear out shoes. It is incredible that he died at his own hand and not with his fingers wrapped around a steering wheel.
The abiding theme of his eccentric existence was a fear and loathing of personal obligation. He wanted to live according to his own desires, and cared for people and places for as long as they amused him. In this, he was enabled by the idea that as a public intellectual his duties were towards mankind. But mankind is too vast to appreciate without reference to one’s for love for individuals and communities, and too complex to understand through the abstract and inductive.
Koestler’s individualism could be useful. He escaped his toxic adherence to the Communist Party and turned on his former comrades in magnificent style. There is a point at which loyalties to the higher virtues can and should take precedence over loyalties to people. Yet his attachment to his own interests above all others left him unmoored and aimless in later life, both as an intellectual and as a man.
We live in a time of increasing fragmentation. Millions leave their homes and travel across the globe. Relationships are fragile. Religion has been hollowed out. We must protect our roots, however high and wide our branches stretch, or at least bury them in deep soil elsewhere. We must be responsible.
Koestler does not escape this book appearing sympathetic. Nonetheless, he leaves one with a little sympathy. I believe Scammell is right that he was manic depressive, with demons that he could not ward off with drinks and “happy pills”, and without excusing his misdeeds this partly explains them.
I also put down this book with some admiration. Koestler was so animated and industrious when he was in the grip of activistic obsession that one cannot help feeling slothful. He was so willing to endanger or embarrass himself in promoting his ideas that one might feel cowhearted. There is a picture of the man hiding from the Nazis in France: a little shocked, a little scared, but determined to hold his nerve. He wanted to do good, and did some. From the bad we can draw lessons.