Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Arthur Koestler at 100

One of the twentieth century’s leading intellectuals, Arthur Koestler was born in Budapest in 1905. He was raised in an upper-middle-class Jewish family, whose fortunes were ruined by World War I. Then the young Arthur was cast on the turbulent waters of an uncertain world.

As the Chinese say he had "lucky eyes," having witnessed many of he century’s most memorable events, some of them quite dangerous. He attended the fall of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy in 1918, and its succession, first by a democratic regime and then by the Communist experiment of Bela Kuhn. He undertook higher education in Austria in the 1920s, the creative era of the Vienna circle, Karl Kraus, the later days of Freud, and so forth. He interrupted this period with a Zionist interlude in mandate Palestine. A journalist in Berlin in the early thirties, he became a committed Communist--an experience that led to a year in the Soviet Union. With the Nazi rise to power, he fled to Paris where he joined the antifascist propaganda effort of the thuggish Communist Willy Muenzenberg. He then covered the Spanish civil war for several newspapers, gradually shedding his Communist allegiance. With the German occupation of France, he was briefly interned, but made his way to England. Like Karl Popper, Ernst Gombrich and other Central Europeans, he became truly British by choice.

Arthur Koestler documented his adventurous life in a number of autobiographical books, beginning with Arrow in the Blue (1952). He gained enormous credibility by his fortitude in times of trouble, through hunger in Haifa, jailing in Spain under a sentence of death, and internment in France.

Nowadays, most people, assuming that they recognize the name at all, will say that Koestler wrote a novel called Darkness at Noon, first published in England in 1940. This powerful work is indeed important, though it does not begin to exhaust the scope of Koestler’s contribution to his unhappy century, and indeed to the new one, whose character has not yet been established.

What is the background of Koestler’s novel? It is rooted in the Stalin’s Great Purge. In August 1935 the dictator’s henchmen arrested and the Old Bolsheviks Zinoviev and Kamenev. At their trials they confessed to crimes they could not possibly have committed. The following year the purge was massively renewed, with more victims and more smoothly managed procedures. This frightful development evoked two different responses. On the one hand, the fellow travelers, unwilling to give up their illusions about the Soviet Union, went along, playing their assigned role as useful idiots and saying that the victims of the trials must be guilty. Others, less gullible, began to harbor doubts and openly express them.

To be sure, Stalin’s persecutions were not without precedent. In 1917, under Lenin, Feliks Dzhershinsky had established the Cheka, a kind of Soviet gestapo to root out the "enemies of the state." In 1991 Dzherzhinsky’s statue was toppled from its pedestal. Now in 2005, the image of the persecutor is back, in the form of a bust. Some matters in Russia seem perennial.

Still Stalin’s purges posed questions that needed to be answered. Assuming that these notable Communist victims of the purges were not guilty, how had they been induced to offer abject confessions?

Except for occasional flashbacks, Darkness at Noon takes place entirely in a Soviet prison. Its hero is an Old Bolshevik named Rubashov, a fictional compound of Radek, Trotsky and one or two others. Rubashov is a convinced believer of the Communist theory of history, focused on the inevitable victory of the proletariat and the establishment of an earthly utopia. All this must be accomplished though with the guidance of the Party, which is infallible. Harried by sleep deprivation and relentless interrogation, Rubashov comes to accept the monstrous proposition that he must offer one last sacrifice for the Party. He signs the confession that has been drafted in his name, and is killed.

Encountering some criticisms, Koestler indicated that the psychological profile presented in his book was not intended to cover every instance of false confession—only those that were the most puzzling, the breakdown of the tough old Communists. When I first read Darkness at Noon in 1949, I was seeking a way out of the political leftism inculcated in me by my parents. The book was a powerful solvent. Today I find the book depressing, but in its time it accomplished important work.

Koestler had been a Communist since the beginning of the thirties. He had spent a year in the Soviet Union (1932-33). Later he indicated that Marxism appealed to him as a system; besides, he was in love with the Five Year Plan! Such enthusiasms were not unusual. At the beginning of the world Depression many intellectuals fell for the appeal of Communism. The menace of Nazism added another factor. Gradually, though, doubts began to accumulate, and by 1939 Koestler’s illusions had fallen away.

After World War II, Koestler threw himself into the anti-Communist movement. With R.H.S Crossman he edited The God That Failed, a collection of accounts of involvement with Communism and disillusionment by Louis Fischer, Andre Gide, Ignazio Silone, Stephen Spender, Richard Wright, and Koestler himself.

Today, it is fashionable in some circles to decry the ex-Communists. Alger Hiss, whose espionage is thoroughly proved, is preferred to Whitaker Chambers. And for “progressives” the director Elia Kazan remains a figure of derision.

After the dust had settled in the Cold War, Koestler turned his attention to science, an old love dating back to his work as a science journalist in Berlin in the early 1930s. Of the dozen or so books he produced in this vein, the one that impressed me most is The Act of Creation, a 1964 work of some 750 pages which addresses the still mysterious theme of human creativity. In a nutshell Koestler shows how in some instances “two and two can make five.” That is, by bringing together two phenomena not previously linked, a new whole emerges that is greater than the sum of its parts. This process of conjunction is termed "bisociation."

The book also illuminates the even more mysterious problem of humor, which has been addressed by some major thinkers but without much success. Koestler holds that bisociation is the key. Here is a sample. Two Brooklyn housewives are talking over the fence. One confides, "I had to take Sammy to the psychiatrist yesterday." The other housewife: "What on earth for?" The mother: "Well it seems that Sammy has an unresolved Oedipus complex." The other: "Oedipus shmedipus! So long as he loves his mother." In this joke two realms meet with hilarious results—everyday wisdom, based on family solidarity, and the sophisticated theory of psychoanalysis.

In my view Koestler’s greatest work, The Act of Creation, has not yet received its due.


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