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True believer.

[Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth Century Skeptic, Michael Scammell, Random House, 720 pages]

AFTER READING Michael Scammell's epic biography of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Harold Harris, Arthur Koestler's literary executor, offered the biographer/ translator exclusive access to Koestler's papers and introductions to his friends and colleagues. Scammell jumped at the chance "to explore the life and writings of this extraordinarily gifted and charismatic individual" and set out on a scholarly trail that seemed to have no end. For 20 years, he worked at the Koestler Archive in Edinburgh, traveled the world, and interviewed countless men and women willing to share memories of the controversial writer.

Having reached his destination at last, Scammell has given us a full report of the discoveries he made along the way. Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic contains fascinating details, many of them previously unknown, about its protagonist's adventures in places and times that read like chapter headings for the 20th century: Palestine under British mandate, Weimar Germany in its death agony, Soviet Russia in the 1930s, Spain during the Civil War, France at the outbreak of World War II, England during wartime, France after Liberation, Israel at birth.

Rather less fascinating are the multiple and graphic accounts of Koestler's notorious misconduct--bouts with the bottle, boorish and predatory behavior, and appalling treatment of women. Scammell offers manic-depression and instances of extraordinary generosity as mitigating factors. But the problem remains: he dwells on Koestler's life at the expense of his work.

Koestler would not be remembered today had he merely made us more aware of the evils of self-indulgence or had he remained in the world of everyday journalism, a world he entered by chance while eking out an existence in Palestine during the late 1920s. Always a thoughtful man, he understood early on that the post-Christian world was haunted by the specter of nihilism. In response, he, like so many other 20thcentury intellectuals, went in search of a new faith.

As Scammell points out, "religious yearnings had been apparent in [Koestler's] work from the start." Born in turn-of-the-century Budapest to a family of assimilated Jews, he remained ambivalent about his Jewishness, primarily because, like Henri Bergson, he did not wish to dissociate himself from the Jews in their times of tribulation. His youthful attraction to Zionism should therefore be understood as a spiritual quest, not an identity crisis.

When Zionism began to lose its religious appeal, Koestler turned to communism: "the God that failed," he and other ex-communists later confessed. While working as an editor for the Ullstein newspaper chain in Berlin, he joined the Communist Party and for several years served what he regarded from the outset as a secular religion. In 1932, he made a pilgrimage to the Red Mecca, the Soviet Union, where he planned to gather material for a book showing how an alleged "anticommunist" had metamorphosed into a communist after viewing firsthand the achievements of the first Five-Year Plan.

Although he observed life in the USSR through communist lenses, Koestler's journalistic instincts and residual honesty began to work a change in him. It was the time of the "terror-famine" in Ukraine. At train stops he saw, but affected to disregard, "infants pitiful and terrifying with limbs like sticks, puffed bellies, big cadaverous heads lolling on thin necks." When party leaders read the propaganda manuscript he dutifully produced, they concluded that he was less than reliable and sent him back to the West.

With Hitler in power in Germany, Koestler joined the emigre community in Paris, where he worked for Willy Munzenberg, the Comintern's propaganda impresario. With Munzenberg's encouragement, he went to Spain, then in the throes of civil war, to obtain evidence of German and Italian intervention on the side of General Franco's Nationalists. He was arrested and imprisoned in Seville. Koestler did not know that he had been sentenced to death, yet neither did he know he had not been. As a result of this "dialogue with death," he experienced what Freud called the "oceanic feeling," a sense of communion with a transcendent reality. His life was never to be the same.

Released in exchange for a captured Nationalist pilot, Koestler resigned from the Communist Party in 1938 and wrote the novel that made him famous, Darkness at Noon. Based upon Soviet purge trials and inspired by Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, the novel tells the story of Nikolai Rubashov, a veteran revolutionary who is caught up in the Terror and persuaded to confess to imaginary crimes as a last service to the Party--if not as just punishment for crimes he did commit in the Party's name.

After breaking with communism, Koestler committed himself with equal fervor to the cause of anticommunism--writing essays, delivering speeches, and debating communists and fellow travelers, most notably French intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the brilliant philosopher who answered Darkness at Noon in Humanism and Terror: An Essay on the Communist Problem. (Scammell unfortunately does not include a detailed analysis of this book, which betrays much about the totalitarian mind.)

Koestler's work for the Congress for Cultural Freedom came at a time, the early 1950s, when his anticommunism had become all-consuming. Secretly funded by the CIA, the CCF waged cultural war on communism, but in the end Koestler's go-for-the-jugular approach to prosecuting that war proved too confrontational for the Agency, which favored a more subtle strategy. He there fore cut his organizational ties, though he continued to contribute to CCF publications such as Encounter. In that magazine's pages, and in a novel entitled The Age of Longing, Koestler testified to his pessimism with regard to a West that, like his fictional American heroine, possessed "no core, no faith, no fixed values."

For all its importance, anticommunism proved to be no more satisfying than communism as a cause for which to live and die. Hoping that he might find light in the East, Koestler set out, late in 1958, on a four-month pilgrimage to India and Japan. But as Scammell reports, he came away disappointed. If anything, he found the two countries to be "spiritually sicker" and "more estranged from a living faith" than the West. It was time, he concluded, to return to his first love. "The pursuit of science in itself," he wrote in his autobiographical Arrow in the Blue, "is never materialistic. It is a search for the principles of law and order in the universe, and as such an essentially religious endeavour."

Scammell devotes most of the final section of his book to Koestler's scientific works. Although he treats them with respect, he shares the majority, but mistaken, view that they represent a falling off from Darkness at Noon and Koestler's autobiographical works. Eyebrows may understandably have been raised by Koestler's effort to revive Lamarckism, but not by his informed questioning of Darwinism or his reflections on the relationship between science and religion. In The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man's Changing Vision of the Universe and The Act of Creation, he argued, quite rightly, that religion was an important aid, not an insuperable barrier, to scientists. The greatest of them, including Johannes Kepler, with whom Koestler identified on a deeply personal level, were religious, though they did not subscribe to any orthodoxy; their faith, like that of Koestler himself, consisted of their acknowledgment of a reality beyond the material and "a belief that there is a harmony of the spheres--that the universe is not a tale told by an idiot."

Scammell would have gained a fuller appreciation of Koestler's scientific work if he had paid closer attention to the parallel lines of inquiry pursued by Michael Polanyi, the brilliant scientist-philosopher (also of Jewish-Hungarian origin) who was Koestler's friend and with whom he had many stimulating discussions concerning science and religion. Even with respect to Koestler's much maligned interest in "the secular mysticism of parapsychology," Polanyi kept an open mind. In his indispensable work, Personal Knowledge, he wrote, with his friend clearly in mind, "the evidence for [extra-sensory perception] is ignored today by scientists in the hope that it will one day find some trivial explanation. In this they may be right, but I respect those too who think they may be wrong."

Among other mysterious phenomena, Koestler was particularly intrigued by coincidences, which he viewed as manifestations of a universal law of nature that operated independently of the recognized laws of causation. A "coincidence" was for him a mystical event, a window through which to glimpse ultimate reality, a proof of universal harmony. That is why, at his death by suicide in 1983--he was suffering from Parkinson's disease and leukemia--he left virtually his entire estate to Edinburgh University to establish a chair in parapsychology.

Koestler had often thought about death, and as he prepared to end his life he embraced Schopenhauer's Buddhistlike view that he would be shedding his individuality and merging with the All. In his suicide note, he wrote of "some timid hopes for a depersonalized after-life beyond due confines of space, time and matter and beyond the limits of our comprehension." One is left to wonder why, in the subtitle to this well-written biography, its author characterizes as a "skeptic" a man who possessed such an irrepressible will to believe.

Lee Congdon is the author of Seeing Red: Hungarian Intellectuals in Exile and the Challenge of Communism and George Kennan: A Writing Life.
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Title Annotation:Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth Century Skeptic
Author:Congdon, Lee
Publication:The American Conservative
Article Type:Book review
Date:Feb 1, 2010
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