Raging towards Utopia

Neal Ascherson

  • Koestler: The Indispensable Intellectual by Michael Scammell
    Faber, 689 pp, £25.00, February 2010, ISBN 978 0 571 13853 1

Watched from a safe distance, Arthur Koestler’s life was like a Catherine-wheel breaking free from its stake. Leaping and spinning and scattering crowds, emitting fountains of alarming flares and sparks as it bounded in and out of public squares and unexpected back gardens, flinging dazzling light into dim minds, Koestler’s career left scorch marks and illuminations across the 20th century. When it finally stopped and the flames died, the darkness suddenly seemed absolute.

Now he is almost forgotten. Once, all students with a grain of discontent about their world read his books. Many of their university grandchildren, tomorrow’s intellectuals, have never heard of him. Some critics think that this oblivion is to do with the gigantic incorrectness of his personal life, mostly revealed after his death: the accusations of rape, or the charge that he bullied his final wife, Cynthia, into sharing their double suicide in 1983. A better explanation is the change of the times. The whole context in which Koestler fought, survived, preached and rampaged – the epoch of totalitarian dictatorships, millennial mobilisations and total wars – has vanished. And with it have gone (or at least temporarily subsided) the classic moral choices which overshadowed the consciences of so many 20th-century men and women: whether to sacrifice a society’s today for a ‘brighter tomorrow’, whether to ally with the lesser evil to overcome the greater, whether to shed innocent blood as the price of breaking humanity’s chains.

Michael Scammell has devoted more than 20 years of his own life to producing this tremendous, absorbing biography, hoping to restore Koestler and his work to new generations. It was a bold thing to take on. In the first place, Koestler wrote two books – Arrow in the Blue and The Invisible Writing – which are among the most powerful works of autobiography ever composed. To compete with them, or at least to cover again the same events and reactions, was courageous. Second, two other biographies in English already exist: Iain Hamilton’s Koestler: A Biography (1982) and David Cesarani’s Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind (1998). But Scammell has little time for either work. His bibliography dismisses Hamilton’s book as ‘superficial and ill-researched’, and Cesarani’s (the one which attacked Koestler as a serial rapist) as an ‘opinionated, thinly researched and heavily slanted biography, masquerading as a study of Koestler’s Jewishness’.

Scammell is entitled to pass judgment on the research of others. His own is staggering in scale and detail. He had the good fortune to be shown all the wonderfully frank letters and diaries of Mamaine Paget, Koestler’s second wife, by her twin sister, Celia. But he has also found his way into Comintern files, into the sullen reports on Koestler kept by MI5 (‘one third genius, one third blackguard and one third lunatic’), into documentation from the Spanish Civil War, and into the partly unsorted mountain of Koestler papers at Edinburgh University, which holds his correspondence with hundreds of often famous friends and antagonists throughout the world. Scammell seems to have interviewed almost every surviving human being who knew Koestler, and many who died while he was working on the book. He found his way to the very cell in Seville prison where Koestler was held by the Fascists in 1937. He sought out and questioned the Brazilian cleaner who entered the Koestlers’ London flat after their double suicide.

The book is full of ‘psychograms’. Most people who knew Koestler well, not least his many women, felt driven to sketch his extraordinary personality. Koestler himself wrote several mordant self-analyses. Scammell from time to time interjects his own ideas on what – his neglectful mother, his inner conflict over his Jewishness in anti-semitic Central Europe – made Koestler so pugnacious, so insufferably competitive, so tyrannical and ruthless with women and at the same time so passionate in his campaigns against cruelty, injustice and hypocrisy.

Anyone who knew that generation of Central European intellectuals, especially those of Jewish origins, will recognise some of the traits in Koestler’s character. But it seems to me that the roots of his recurrent miseries and explosions are less interesting than the roots of his furious creative energy. He shared with that generation a profound, Hegelian sense of dialectic process. ‘Being’ was also ‘becoming’, or it was nothing. Every context, every person was a seed with a destiny which must be realised.

To put it coarsely, something had to be done about everything. For instance, you could not just ‘be’ a Jew, quietly sitting in Prague or Vienna and enjoying a satisfactory middle-class Jewish existence. To be Jewish was a commandment to do something in order to hurry Jewishness towards its innate destiny (whether that was Zionism or assimilation in race-transcending socialism). It was not enough to be a scientist, when scientific discovery was destined to change the self-perception of the human race: a psychology researcher should let his ‘facts’ blossom into speculation about extrasensory perception or the power of thought to move objects. Abuses like the Soviet show trials, or British capital punishment or even quarantine for pets, contained the seeds of their own contradiction and demanded the instant organisation of campaigns. It wasn’t enough to be comfortably English, when England was destined to become part of a united Europe or perish. A dinner party difference of opinion could not be left unresolved but required Koestler to smash his opponent to a pulp (verbally) until his own correctness was vindicated. And a pretty woman was not there to be admired, but to be instantly besieged and rushed to her destiny in his bed.

This cosmic restlessness, this inability to leave anything as it was, infused Koestler’s whole life with energy. Roughly speaking, that life as described by Scammell falls into four phases. First came the years in which his lust for absolute certainties swept him into fanatical commitments, to extreme Revisionist Zionism and then to Stalinist Communism. In the next phase, the crust of these certainties suddenly gave way and he fell into the horrible underworld of his century: a prisoner of Franco, fearing execution every day, and then a desperate fugitive – a Communist Jew – as the Nazis invaded France in 1940. Profoundly changed by these experiences, Koestler emerged after the war as the most militant European intellectual to denounce Soviet Communism (French admirers credited his masterpiece, the novel Darkness at Noon, with preventing a Communist victory in the 1946 referendum on a new constitution), and his writings – journalism, novels, manifestos and memoirs – made him world famous. In a fourth phase, Koestler – now living mostly in Britain – gradually transferred his energies to science and its wilder frontiers. In a string of popular science books, he examined the intuitive roots of scientific discovery and the mystery of human creativity, and strove obstinately to resurrect Lamarck’s discredited evolutionary theory which held that acquired characteristics could be inherited. Brilliantly written though they were, these books provoked growing dismay among scientists, and by the time he died Koestler’s investigations into parapsychology and levitation were embarrassing many of his old supporters.

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