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A Drinker of Infinity

from the magazine

A Drinker of Infinity

Arthur Koestler’s life and work embodied the existential dilemmas of our age. Spring 2007
Arts and Culture

Someone who had known Arthur Koestler told me a little story about him. Koestler was playing Scrabble with his wife, and he put the word vince down on the board.

“Arthur,” said his wife, “what does ‘vince’ mean?”

Koestler, who never lost his strong Hungarian accent but whose mastery of English was such that he was undoubtedly one of the twentieth century’s great prose writers in the language, replied (one can just imagine with what light in his eyes): “To vince is to flinch slightly viz pain.”

How many people could
define a word in their first
language with such elegant precision, let alone in their fourth, and moreover combine it with such irresistibly wicked humor? One can see in this trifling incident how being with anyone less brilliant than Arthur Koestler must have seemed intolerably dull to any woman who had been in love with him.

As it happens, Koestler’s relations with women now have more to do with his reputation than does anything that he ever wrote. Since the 1998 publication of David Cesarani’s
biographical study, Koestler’s name has been synonymous with rape, possibly serial in nature, and the abuse of women. I tested this association on several friends with literary interests: though none had read
Cesarani’s book, in each case, the first thought on hearing Koestler’s name was of rape. It is doubtful whether any biography has ever affected the reputation of an author more profoundly than did Cesarani’s; and its effect is proof, if we needed any, that books have an influence far beyond their actual readership.

Cesarani is a serious scholar, not a man to manufacture sensational claims for non-scholarly purposes; and, in fact, his widely publicized
revelations, which came as
a considerable shock, receive a kind of confirmation from
a scene in Koestler’s novel Arrival and Departure, published in 1943.

The book is at least partly autobiographical. Its protagonist (hero would be too positive a word) is Peter Slavek, a young refugee and former Communist militant from an unnamed Balkan country now under Nazi occupation. Slavek arrives in the capital of a neutral country—clearly Lisbon, Portugal—from which he hopes to reach England and enlist in the British forces, the only ones still fighting the Nazis at that time. Koestler himself reached England from Portugal with the same idea in mind, and his description of Lisbon’s wartime atmosphere clearly draws on firsthand experience.

While in Lisbon, Slavek falls in love with, or forms an infatuation for, Odette, a young French refugee awaiting a visa for America. Odette has taken no notice of Slavek, but one day she visits a friend’s apartment, where the Balkan refugee is temporarily staying. The friend is absent, so Slavek and Odette are alone. There follows a scene that suggests that Koestler was as personally acquainted with rape as he was with the fervid atmosphere of wartime Lisbon.

Slavek declares his love for Odette; she rejects him and prepares to leave. “He jerked himself to his feet, reached the door almost in one jump and got hold of her as she was passing into the hall,” Koestler writes. Then the author says of Slavek that he was doing what several rapists have told me that they sought to do—protect their victims: “As if the door were a death-trap and she were in danger of falling into it, [he] pressed her against him with a protecting gesture, while with his foot he kicked the door shut.” Odette struggles, but “her very struggling,” Koestler writes, makes Slavek’s grip “close tighter around her, like the noose of a trap”—not the activity of an agent but the operation of a mechanical contrivance.

The situation calms a little, and Slavek realizes that he should have let his arms drop with embarrassment, but then “she began struggling again in renewed fury, and this automatically made him tighten his grip.” Koestler describes Slavek as more terrified than Odette.

Then comes the actual rape:

She struggled breathlessly, hammering her fists against his breast . . . God, how unreasonable she was. . . . All he wanted was to make her understand that he didn’t want anything from her. . . . By her furious struggling she caused him to press her back, step by step, from the door. His lips babbled senseless words that were meant to calm; but now it was too late, the flames leapt up, enveloping him
. . . . With blind eyes he fell as they stumbled against a couch . . . [and he] rammed his knee against her legs, felt them give way and a second later her whole body go limp.

After it is all over, Odette cries. Slavek takes her hand, and feels encouraged when she does not withdraw it to explain and justify his actions: “You know, I am not so sure that you will always regret it, although for the moment you are still angry with me.” Then he contrives to blur the distinction between voluntary and coerced sexual relations: “Nowadays things often start this way, the end at the beginning I mean. In the old days people had to wait years before they were allowed to go to bed and then found out that they didn’t really like each other, it had all been a mirage of their glands. If you start the other way round you won’t need to find out whether you really care.”

Odette’s reply absolves Slavek of any need to feel remorse: “The whole point is that if you knock a woman about for long enough and get on her nerves and wear her down, there comes a moment when she suddenly feels how silly all this struggling and kicking is, so much ado about nothing.” Sexual intercourse, then, has no more moral significance than urination or any other physiological function. “You probably think what an irresistible seducer you are, while in fact all you did was get her to this zero level where she says—after all, why not?” And to confirm the Slavek-Odette-Koestler theory, Slavek and Odette go on to have a short and intense love affair.

Koestler’s description of a rape seems to be from the inside; and if Cesarani is right, it gives us the very model of Koestler’s conduct and experience. He might even have
suffered from (if “suffered from” is quite the right phrase) what psychiatrists call “coercive paraphilia”: sexual excitement brought on by the act of physical subjugation, a pompous name sometimes being the nearest that medical science
can come to an explanation. Slavek’s argument, of course, is virtually a rapist’s charter. But the uncomfortable fact is that some of the women whom Koestler abused remained friends with him for the rest of their lives. It would take an entire book fully to explore all the evasions in the passage that I have quoted, as well as the social and psychological questions that it raises.

There is much more to Koestler, of course, than sexual perversity, even if it is
difficult nowadays to read anything that he wrote
without first donning rape-tinted spectacles. Arrival and Departure is not just about Slavek’s love life: it passionately engages with the most important political questions of the day.

For example, the book gave the most graphic description until then published of the gassing of the Jews in Eastern Europe, not as isolated massacres, but as part of a deliberate genocidal policy; and it drew an explicit comparison—now banal and commonplace, but then brave and arresting—between Hitler and Stalin, pointing out their similarities, despite their enmity. Meeting an intelligent Nazi agent called Bernard, Slavek asks him why the Nazis, so anti-Communist, nevertheless copied Soviet methods “to a considerable extent.” Bernard replies:

There is of course a certain affinity between your ex-fatherland and ours. Both are governed by authoritarian state bureaucracies on a collectivist basis; both are streamlined police states run by economic planning, the one-party system and scientific terror. . . . It is a phase of history as inevitable as was the spreading of the feudal, and later of the capitalist, system. Our two countries are merely the forerunners of the post-individualist, post-liberal era.

To have written this passage at a time when books praising our gallant Soviet allies poured forth from the press—when even conservatives, always very few among the intelligentsia, had replaced their visceral hatred of the Soviet Union with admiration—was an act of considerable courage.

Koestler’s reputation as a writer had declined well before Cesarani’s revelations. He had become an author of the kind one encounters during late adolescence or early adulthood, whom one catches like the literary equivalent of glandular fever, but to whom, once read, one develops a lifelong immunity. Once one of the world’s most famous authors, he became as dated as the youthful fashions of three decades ago.

There were several reasons for this. By 1980, if not before, the burning political issues of his early adulthood—Communism, the rise of fascism, and the establishment of a Zionist state—were of less concern to new generations of readers. Many regarded Koestler’s subsequent obsessions—Indian mysticism, Lamarckian biology, non-reductionist science, and parapsychology—as bizarre or even dotty, the symptoms of a mind that had lost its way. In his will, he endowed a chair in parapsychology at Edinburgh University. He regarded telepathy and precognition as established facts, largely because of the now-discredited experiments of J. B. Rhine at Duke University. He began to collect examples of startling
coincidences, as if they could tell us something about noncausal relations between events. Like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle before him, he seemed to the public to have traveled from serious authorship to spiritualist crankdom.

The penultimate nail in the coffin of his reputation, before Cesarani’s revelations, was his double suicide with his wife, who was 20 years younger, in 1983. While he had both severe Parkinson’s disease (causing a decline in his mental powers) and leukemia (from which he was soon to die, in any case), his wife, who swallowed a fatal dose of barbiturates with him, was in perfect health. Many believed—without adequate evidence—that Koestler had bullied his wife into ending her life with him.

This was the second double suicide of a great Central European writer of adopted British citizenship and his wife—the first being that of Stefan and Lotte Zweig. But whereas Zweig killed himself in despair at the state of the world, Koestler killed himself in despair at the state of his health—no doubt a commentary on the direction, not wholly bad, in which the world had moved in the intervening 40 years. But it suggested great egotism and cast doubt on the sincerity, or at least disinterestedness, of all Koestler’s previous commitments.

Koestler does not deserve such summary dismissal, for if any figure could claim to have encapsulated in his own life—and recorded—the political, intellectual, and emotional tribulations of the twentieth century, it is he.

He was born in Budapest in 1905 to assimilated Jewish parents. His father was a businessman who failed most of the time but who occasionally hit the jackpot: immediately
before and during the first half of World War I, he made a
fortune (soon lost) by manufacturing and selling soap that contained radium. Radioactivity was then a recently discovered phenomenon, and many believed the rays to be life-enhancing and disease-curing.

Koestler’s father spent the rest of his days dreaming of a new product that would restore his fortune at a stroke; and,
in a sense, the young Arthur shared this kind of illusion but transposed it to the intellectual, political, philosophical, and spiritual spheres. As a young man, Koestler saw in radical Zionism the answer to his existential problems, though he had no religious belief or cultural or philosophical affinities with Judaism (much later, moreover, he wrote a book still cited by anti-Zionists, The Thirteenth Tribe, which claims that most Jews are not of Semitic origin but descendants of the Khazars, a Turkic tribe that converted to Judaism). Then Koestler converted to orthodox Marxist Communism, followed by a stage of crusading anti-Communism, itself replaced by a prolonged search for a spiritualism founded on evidence and rational inference. Koestler was not a man to do things by philosophical halves: he was a drinker of infinity, to quote the title of one of his books.

Young Arthur, gifted scientifically and mathematically, studied engineering in Vienna but did not graduate. Instead, the ardent Zionist went off to Palestine to live on a kibbutz. He did not last long; his
personality ultimately would not allow absorption into a collective enterprise. On the verge of starvation, he was saved by a fortuitous appointment as the Palestine correspondent of the Ullstein Trust, the largest German newspaper group, which later assigned him to its Paris office. He then moved to Germany, where he served as the science editor of one newspaper and foreign editor of
another, among other exploits flying in a zeppelin to the North Pole via Soviet Russia.

Koestler joined the Communist Party, later explaining that it seemed the only viable alternative to Hitler, but this led Ullstein to sack him. Returning to Paris after traveling in the Soviet Union, he wrote political propaganda under Comintern direction until the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, when a British liberal newspaper assigned him to visit Franco’s headquarters. Denounced as a Communist, he managed to escape, but Franco’s forces captured him during a subsequent trip to Spain and sentenced him to death. An international campaign secured his release. Koestler’s years as a Comintern agent—in which he,
the most egotistical of men, willingly subjected himself
to the Party’s discipline on the grounds that it represented
the sole judge of transcendent truth—gave him unparalleled insight into the psychology
of Party members suddenly accused of counterrevolu-tionary treason.

He then lived in France, breaking for good with the Communist Party over the show trials. When war broke out in 1939, the French government arrested him in Paris for being a potentially hostile alien and imprisoned him in a concentration camp; a second international campaign won his freedom. Fearing rearrest, he joined the French Foreign Legion and managed, by a very circuitous route, to reach Lisbon. From there, he flew—illegally—to London, where he again found himself imprisoned, this time for six weeks. In his prison cell, he corrected the proofs of Darkness at Noon, which would be his most famous book.

Released from prison, he at once joined the British army, which, he said, had a salutary effect upon his life. “I found myself transformed from a member of the grey, piteous crowd of refugees—the scum of earth—into a best-selling author,” he wrote. “This is a dangerous experience for any writer, but before it could turn my head I was also transformed into Private No. 13805661 in 251 Company Pioneer Corps, which was not given to lionizing intellectuals.” It says something of Koestler’s life until then that he called the three years he spent in blitzed London, where he survived a close bombing, “among the most uneventful (I almost said peaceful) of my life.”

By the age of 37, Koestler had traveled widely; spoke Hungarian, German, French, Russian, and English fluently, as well as some Hebrew (having invented the Hebrew crossword while in Palestine); had been imprisoned several times, including under sentence of death; had been a Zionist, a Communist, and an anti-Communist; and had written books in Hungarian, German, and English. Shortly after arriving in England, he knew and was friendly with its most prominent writers and intellectuals: George Orwell, Cyril Connolly, Dylan Thomas, Bertrand Russell, Alfred Ayer, and many others.

Koestler wrote Darkness at Noon in German while living in Paris, expecting at any moment to face arrest. It is the story of Rubashov, a Bolshevik intellectual modeled largely on Nikolai Bukharin, the economist and darling of the Party who wound up executed after a 1938 Moscow show trial.

At the time of the book’s publication in 1940, and for a long time afterward, the public confession of many old Bolsheviks to self-evidently absurd crimes that carried the death penalty—for example, that from the very beginning of their careers they had served foreign intelligence services—mystified many in the West. How had Communist officials obtained these confessions? Did the Russians have some extremely sophisticated and secret technique of interrogation, unknown in the West?

Of course, some in the West, Communists and ardent fellow travelers, believed that the trials were fair and that the
confessions were unforced and entirely veridical. Among the most influential was a prominent British lawyer, D. N. Pritt, who actually wrote a book testifying to the Moscow trials’ fairness. As late as 1972, a fellow medical student, at the time a fierce Maoist, tried to convince me that the trials were genuine by lending me transcripts of the proceedings.

So Koestler’s imaginary reconstruction of how Rubashov was persuaded to confess, to which he brought his own intimate knowledge of how people thought and acted who had made the Party their whole life, was entirely new and original. Koestler’s solution to the puzzle was that Rubashov, and those like him, confessed not because of any physical torture (though Rubashov is deprived of sleep, a technique that interrogators did use in obtaining confessions) but because it was logical for them to do so. All their adult lives, they had believed that the end justified the means; moreover, and crucially, they had delegated to the Party the exclusive right to judge both end and means. Who were they, then, to object when the Party decided that it needed to sacrifice them, irrespective of whether they were guilty of anything?

Koestler is sufficiently sophisticated a novelist not
to make Rubashov wholly admirable. Indeed, the Communist has failed to intervene on behalf of his own secretary, Arlova, with whom he has
had a love affair, when she
is accused of preposterous crimes. He reasons that his life is worth more to the cause than hers.

Koestler has the aristocratic Rubashov interrogated by a proletarian functionary named Gletkin. The climax comes when Gletkin argues that Rubashov’s private dissent from the Party line must, logically and objectively, lead to civil war and possibly to the destruction of the dictatorship of the proletariat and that, therefore, his confession “is the last service the Party will require of you.”

“Comrade Rubashov, I hope that you have understood the task which the Party has set you.”

It was the first time that Gletkin called Rubashov “Comrade.” Rubashov raised his head quickly. He felt a hot wave
rising in him, against which he was helpless. His chin shook slightly while he was putting on his pince-nez.

“I understand.”

Here, the pince-nez symbolize the last remnant of a more refined civilization (Chekhov wore them, for example), defeated by a cruder, more ruthless way of life. It is a subtle point that Koestler is making: Rubashov is both beneficiary and destroyer of the old civilization and is himself destroyed by the offspring of his own destructiveness.

Some on the right have unfairly criticized Koestler, claiming that Darkness at Noon implies that subtle argumentation, rather than crude torture, obtained the confessions at the Moscow trials. But nowhere in the book does Koestler suggest that harsher methods to obtain confessions did not play a role—quite the contrary—or that the methods used in Rubashov’s case characterized every case. Rather, his novel is philosophical, plausibly pointing to the terrible logical and practical consequences of the belief that the ends justify the means, when those ends have been preordained by authority, whether of history, the great leader, or even God.

Darkness at Noon was probably the most influential anti-Communist book ever published, more important (in practice) even than Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty-Four. Koestler’s standing to write it was undisputed. It is true that it had little resonance in Britain, where it first appeared; and though it sold better in the United States, Communists had even less chance of success there than in Britain, so it again had muted influence. It was in France where the book’s influence was decisive: there, after the war, a race took place between the publisher’s printing presses and the capacity
of the extremely powerful Communist Party to buy up and destroy copies as they reached the bookshops. This censorship drive was an important reason why a French referendum on a new constitution, which would have given a preponderant government role to the strongest of the many political parties (then the Communists), went down to defeat. By trying to silence Koestler’s book, the Communists revealed themselves as dictators in the making.

After the publication of The God That Failed—containing six essays by prominent intellectuals, including himself, who had been Communists but had become disillusioned to the point of fierce enmity toward their former ideal—and after his participation in the Congress for Cultural Freedom in Berlin in 1950, Koestler shifted his interest. The question of Communism seemed settled beyond reasonable doubt, though in practice it needed still to be defeated. Henceforth, his attention turned to science and its compatibility (or otherwise) with what one might call mystical or spiritual modes of thought.

He did not leave the practical world behind entirely. He became an ardent campaigner both against the death penalty and in favor of euthanasia (by no means an uncommon combination). His feeling against the death penalty, expressed with characteristic force in his book Reflections on Hanging, no doubt arose from his contact with its implementation in Franco’s prison. It was also his prison experiences that gave him a lifelong interest in the welfare of prisoners and led him to establish the annual Koestler Prizes, awarded to British prisoners who had produced the best literary and artistic work in the previous year. This imaginative and wholly laudable initiative has led to the reverence shown
for Koestler’s name in British prisons, at least by the better-informed inmates.

Koestler’s account of his internment in a Spanish prison, published first as the second half of Spanish Testament and then as the whole of Dialogue with Death (in my opinion, his greatest book), uncovers a layer of being far deeper than the political. His depiction of the way those condemned to death were taken away to execution is unforgettable:

I had gone to sleep, and I woke up shortly before midnight. In the black silence of the prison, charged with the nightmares of thirteen hundred sleeping men, I heard the murmured prayer of a priest and the ringing of the sanctus bell.

Then a cell door . . . was opened, and a name was softly called out. “Qué?”—What is the matter—asked a sleepy voice, and the priest’s voice grew clearer and the bell rang louder.

And now the drowsy man understood. At first he only groaned; then in a dull voice he called for help: “Socorro, socorro.

The same scene is enacted at another cell:

Again, “Qué?” And again the prayer and the bell. This one sobbed and whimpered like a child. Then he cried out for his mother: “Madre, madre!

And again: “Madre, madre!

And in his description of the last man removed for execution that night, Koestler subtly indicates the complete inadequacy of political ideology in the face of the mysteries of life and death:

They went to the next cell. . . . He asked no questions. While the priest prayed, he began in a low voice to sing the “Marseillaise.” But after a few bars his voice broke, and he too sobbed. They marched him off.

And then there was silence again.

No revolutionary triumphalism here, with heroes gladly going to their death in the knowledge that the cause will ultimately triumph.

Throughout Dialogue with Death, Koestler raises profound existential questions. He becomes almost mystical, foreshadowing his later interests; after his release, he dreams of the Seville prison. “Often when I wake at night I am homesick for my cell in the death-house . . . and I feel I have never been so free as I was then.” He continues:

This is a very curious feeling indeed. We lived an unusual life. . . . The constant nearness of death weighed us down and at the same time gave us a feeling of weightless floating. We were without responsibility. Most of us were not afraid of death, only of the act of dying; and there were times when we overcame even this fear. At such moments we were free—men without shadows, dismissed from the ranks of the mortal; it was the most complete experience of freedom that can be granted a man.

The man who wrote those words was not likely to remain a Communist (as he was when he wrote them). Indeed, it is clear that his initial attraction to Communism must have been religious—not that he saw it as the best doctrine with which to oppose Hitler, as he claimed in his subsequent self-justification, or that it represented for him a supposedly pure, rational philosophy. When Koestler saw what Communism wrought, both materially and in men’s souls, he realized that it could never answer his religious needs.

While he had those needs, he was sufficiently a man of the Enlightenment not to be able to subscribe to any traditional religion. In the 1960s, after all, he produced massive histories of science that commanded the respect of prominent scientists; yet he could not believe that science, at least as then practiced, contained all the answers that he sought. In his novel The Age of Longing, Koestler describes the plight of Hydie, a lapsed Catholic:

Oh, if only she could go back to the infinite comfort of father confessors and mother superiors, of a well-ordered hierarchy which promised punishment and reward, and
furnished the world with
justice and meaning. If only she could go back! But she was under the curse of reason, which
rejected whatever might quench her thirst, without abolishing the urge; which rejected the answer without abolishing the question. For the place of
God had become vacant, and there was a draught blowing through the world as in an empty flat before the new tenants have arrived.

Precisely Koestler’s own predicament, and that of modern man. It is no wonder that, a few years later, he went
to India and Japan to seek the mystical wisdom of Hinduism and Zen Buddhism, or that he sought evidence of man’s
non-materiality in experiments to prove the reality of extrasensory perception, only a short step from full-blown spiritualism.

Koestler was fully aware, from an early age, of the contradictions in his own character, which helps make him one of the great autobiographers of the last century. In Arrow in the Blue, the first volume of his autobiography, he sums himself up as an adolescent: “The youth of sixteen that I was, with the plastered-down hair, and the fatuous smirk, at once arrogant and sheepish, was emotionally seasick: greedy for pleasure, haunted by guilt, torn between feelings of inferiority and superiority, between the need for contemplative solitude and the frustrated urge for gregariousness.”

And at the end of The Invisible Writing, the second volume, Koestler says: “The contradictions between sensitivity and callousness, integrity and shadiness, egomania and self-sacrifice which appear in every chapter [of the autobiography] would never add up to a
credible character in a novel; but this is not a novel. . . . The seemingly paradoxical can be resolved only by holding the figure against the background of his time, by taking into account both the historian’s and the psychologist’s approach.”

It is precisely because Koestler’s life and work so deeply instantiate the existential dilemmas of our age that he is a fascinating figure, unjustly neglected, and too often dismissed as a sexual psychopath. He was not a naturally good man (far from it), but he was struggling toward the good by the light and authority of his own intellect; unfortunately, as Hume tells us, reason is the slave of the passions, and Koestler was an exceptionally passionate man.

Once I happened to find two first editions, very cheap, of Koestler’s books in a secondhand bookshop that I haunt. “Ah,” said the bookshop owner, “The Age of Longing and Dialogue with Death: a complete summary of human life, when you come to think of it.”

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