Koestlerkampf

A.J. Ayer

  • Koestler by Iain Hamilton
    Secker, 397 pp, £12.00, April 1982, ISBN 0 436 19191 1

It is not easy to see what purpose this book is meant to serve. Koestler himself has written two excellent works of autobiography, An Arrow in the Blue and The Invisible Writing, and two others, The Spanish Testament and Scum of the Earth, of which the main interest is autobiographical. Mr Hamilton admits to drawing heavily upon these works, but does no more than summarise their contents in a less forceful style than Koestler’s own. His prolongation of the story beyond the year 1940, where Koestler abandons it, is mainly devoted to Koestler’s politics, with some side-glances at his scientific and philosophical pretensions. It throws little further light upon his character and apart from diffusing an aura of reverence makes no attempt to assess his contribution to literature.[*]

Yet this is to give us Hamlet without the prince. Darkness at Noon, which was first published in 1941, is one of the most talented, besides being one of the most influential, novels of this century. Mr Hamilton simply takes it as read. All that he tells us is that it was originally written in German, that it was translated into English by Daphne Hardy, an English sculptress who was living with Koestler at the time, that she invented its English title, that it enjoyed a great success in France when it was translated soon after the war as Le Zéro et l’Infini, and that it was dramatised in 1951 by an American called Sidney Kingsley, with whom Koestler quarrelled, to the point of bringing a lawsuit which Kingsley regrettably won. He does not subject it to any literary criticism, or even try to assess its plausibility as an explanation of the Moscow trials. Koestler’s first novel The Gladiators, published in 1939 at about the time of his break with Communism, and retelling the story of Spartacus, does not have the brilliance of Darkness at Noon: but it is still a powerful work. Mr Hamilton pays it no more attention than he does The Call-Girls, a feeble satire which came out in 1972.

He does summarise the plot of Arrival and Departure, published in 1943, and dealing with the decision of a foreign ex-Communist, as it might be Koestler himself, to become a British agent, but is then content to quote the mixed reactions of contemporary critics, including that of George Orwell, which was mainly unfavourable. I don’t know whether Mr Hamilton ever met Orwell, but if he did he should have known better than to foist an ‘unrelenting masochism’ upon him.

Mr Hamilton does tell the story of Koestler’s life, from his birth in Budapest, his upbringing in Vienna, his early Zionism, his work in Paris and Berlin for the Ullstein press, his augmenting his income by the pseudonymous compilation of sexual manuals for the profit of a rapacious cousin, his conversion to Communism, his journalism in the Spanish Civil War, his briefly operative marriage to a woman who did much to secure his release from imprisonment in Malaga, where he had been trapped by Franco’s forces, his disillusionment with Communism, his internment in France at the outbreak of the Second World War, which gave him the material for Scum of the Earth, his escape to England and a mistaken spell of internment, his service in the Pioneer Corps, to his acceptance as a writer, the ambivalence of his Zionism, the force of his anti-Communism, his second and third marriages, and his continuing struggle to make his mark as a philosopher of science and a comprehensive sage.

Most of this material is taken from Koestler’s writings. Mr Hamilton has, however, been allowed to make use of an edited version of the letters which Koestler’s second wife, Mamaine Paget, wrote to her twin sister Celia. Their affair began in 1944, they were married in 1948, as soon as Koestler was able to change his separation from his first wife into a divorce, and they remained together only until 1951, when Mamaine decided that she could put up with him no longer, but stayed on affectionate terms until 1954, when their divorce was shortly followed by Mamaine’s death. For the most part, the letters reveal him at his worst: vain, drunken, quarrelsome, sulky and, above all, inconsiderate. Having known him for more than forty years, I can vouch for his having a more attractive side. If one went only by this portrait, one would give Koestler credit for energy and courage, but his ability to inspire devotion would be unintelligible.

Mr Hamilton devotes an inordinate amount of time to the first meeting of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which took place in 1950 in the Western sector of Berlin. The Congress for Cultural Freedom, which met rarely and to little obvious purpose, was mainly a device for channelling money from the CIA to a group of journals, notably Encounter in England and Preuves in France, which were designed to provide a liberal antidote to such intellectual appeal as Communism was still thought to possess. On the whole, they did their work well and I was surprised by the furore which developed when what I had always taken to be the open secret of their dependence on the CIA was officially divulged. As for the inaugural meeting of the Congress, it was conducted, mainly by former Communists, on a painfully hysterical note which Koestler most prominently struck. Hugh Trevor-Roper and I disliked the proceedings and made a largely ineffectual attempt to tone them down. In the unlikely event of his reading this book, the staunchly Conservative Hugh will be amused by its reference to ‘the quibbling of those Liberals and Socialists who had had second thoughts on their return from Berlin’.

The coolness which developed between Koestler and myself as the result of this episode was not of very long duration. I still remember with pleasure his inviting me to Wembley in 1953 to watch the unexpected triumph of the Hungarian football eleven over England. The Hungarians played such marvellous football that I could not begrudge them their victory and I found it endearing to watch his native patriotism overcoming his ideology.

Since, to the small extent that I figure in this book, I appear as a hostile witness, I should like to express my admiration for the campaign which Koestler conducted in the late Fifties against capital punishment. This admiration did not extend to an article published in the Observer in 1961 or thereabouts, where he bracketed me with Gilbert Ryle as a ‘behaviourist of logic’, almost certainly without having read Ryle’s The Concept of Mind, or any relevant work of my own. When I protested, he replied in a mildly offensive way that he had read a piece which I had written about football and I did not think the argument worth pursuing. Since he subsequently published a book entitled The Ghost in the Machine I assume that he eventually got round to reading Ryle, though I do not know how much attention he has paid to the more recent work of philosophers like David Armstrong and Donald Davidson, who identify mental with neural events. I may add that although the acceptance of physicalism, in one form or another, is widespread among contemporary philosophers, with some notable exceptions, such as that of Karl Popper, I myself have still not been converted to it.

Koestler’s most ambitious work in the domain of the philosophy of science is The Act of Creation, which appeared in 1964. It relied very much on the all-purpose concept of ‘bisociation’, which Koestler had introduced in his Insight and Outlook, published in 1949, and employed primarily as a basis for a theory of humour. The Act of Creation was very roughly handled by Sir Peter Medawar in a long article in the New Statesman. Having reread Medawar’s review and his rejoinder to Koestler’s letter of protest, I cannot agree with Mr Hamilton’s insinuation that Medawar’s strictures exhibited a prejudice against the intrusion of an amateur into his field rather than a rational assessment of Koestler’s mistakes.

For the past twelve years or so Koestler has chiefly been entangled in the thickets of paranormal psychology. Mr Hamilton neither shares nor approves of this interest and does little more than give a list of works which I, too, must confess that I have not read. This is not to imply that I think there is bound to be nothing in them. Undoubtedly there are phenomena in this area that call for investigation. Indeed, I strongly recommend the late Profesor C. D. Broad’s Lectures on Psychical Research. Many years ago, Koestler told me that he aspired to become ‘the Darwin of the 20th century’. I did not laugh at him then and do not now. Nevertheless I think he showed a lack of self-knowledge. He has proved himself to be a man of exceptional gifts, but his mind has displayed a religious rather than a scientific bent.

[*] Koestler’s Bricks to Babel, selected writings with comments by the author, has recently been issued in paperback by Picador (697 pp., £3.95, 7 May, 0 330 26676 4).