Study Guide

Arthur Koestler

Arthur Koestler Essay - Critical Essays


All of Arthur Koestler’s works, both fiction and nonfiction, reveal a struggle to escape from the oppressiveness of nineteenth century positivism and its later offshoots. The Yogi and the Commissar, and Other Essays (1945) sums up the moral paradox of political action. The Yogi, at one extreme, represents a life lived by values that are grounded in idealism. The Yogi scorns utilitarian goals and yields to quietism; his refusal to intervene leads to passive toleration of social evil. The Commissar, committed to dialectical materialism, ignores the shallow ethical concerns of the historically benighted middle class and seeks to function as an instrument of historical progress. History replaces God, and human suffering is seen as an inevitable step toward the ultimate historical synthesis rather than as an element of God’s mysterious purpose. For the Commissar, the end justifies the means, and it is this ethical position that is debated most effectively in The Gladiators, Darkness at Noon, and Arrival and Departure.

In his postscript to the Danube edition of The Gladiators, Koestler points out that these novels form a trilogy “whose leitmotif is the central question of revolutionary ethics and of political ethics in general: the question whether, or to what extent, the end justifies the means.” The question “obsessed” him, he says, during the seven years in which he belonged to the Communist Party and for several years afterward. It was his answer to this question that caused him to break with the party, as he explains eloquently in his essay in The God That Failed. The city built by the rebellious slaves in The Gladiators fails because Spartacus does not carry out the stern measures necessary to ensure the city’s successful continuation. In Darkness at Noon, the old revolutionary Rubashov is depicted as trying to avoid the error Spartacus made, but ending up lost in a maze of moral and ethical complications that destroy him.

Behaviorist psychology is congenial to the materialism of Communist revolutionary ethics, and Koestler attacks its claims heatedly. Indeed, Koestler’s interest in mysticism, the occult, and parapsychology was an attempt to find an escape route from the deadly rationalism that makes humans a mere clockwork orange. As far back as 1931, Koestler was investigating psychometry with as much curiosity as he brought to his journalistic accounts of the exploding universe. His answer to the behaviorists is laid out in The Ghost in the Machine, and it is clearly a theological answer. Koestler implies here that evolution is purposive, hence the theological nature of his understanding of life. A problem remains, however; Koestler argues that the limbic system of the brain is at odds with its neocortex, resulting in irrational decisions much of the time. Humans are thus as likely to speed to their own destruction as they are to their fulfillment. Koestler’s unorthodox answer to humans’ Manichaean internal struggle is deliberate mutation by chemical agents. The same topic is fictionalized quite successfully in The Call Girls.

The Gladiators

Koestler’s first novel, The Gladiators, was written in German and translated into English by Edith Simon (Koestler’s later novels were published in his own English). The source of the novel is the sketchy account—fewer than four thousand words all together—of the Slave War of 73-71 b.c.e. found in Livy, Plutarch, Appian, and Florus. Koestler divides hisnarrative into four books. The first, titled “Rise,” imagines the revolt led by the Thracian gladiator Spartacus and a fat, cruel Gaul named Crixus. They march through Campania looting and adding more defectors to their band. In book 2, “The Law of Detours,” after the destruction of the towns Nola, Suessula, and Calatia, the rebels are twenty thousand strong, or more, and approaching the peak of their power. The unruly faction, however, has spoiled the movement’s idealism by its ransacking of these towns, and Spartacus is faced with a decision: Should he let this group go blindly into a foolhardy battle with the forces of the Roman general Varinius, or should he counsel them and enforce a policy of prudence? In his deliberations he is aided by a wise Essene, a type of the imminent Christ, who tells him that of all God’s curses on man, “the worst curse of all is that he must tread the evil road for the sake of the good and right, that he must make detours and walk crookedly so that he may reach the straight goal.” He further tells Spartacus that for what the leader wants to do now, he needs other counselors.

Despite the Essene’s warning, Spartacus follows the“law of detours.” Later that night, he confers with Crixus, and although no details of their talk are given, it is clear that Crixus is going to lead the lawless to their unwitting deaths in a confrontation with Varinius. This sacrifice of the unruly faction, however justified, is a cynical detour from honor. Later, however, when the Thracian Spartacus, already pressed by food shortages in the Sun State after a double cross by the neighboring city, is faced with a rebellion against his policies by the Celts, he proves to be insufficiently ruthless: He still retains the idealism with which he began the revolution. Koestler sums it up in his 1965 postscript: “Yet he shrinks from taking the last step—the purge by crucifixion of the dissident Celts and the establishment of a ruthless tyranny; and through this refusal he dooms his revolution to defeat.” Book 3, “The Sun State,” recounts the conflicts that lead up to Spartacus’s defeat, and the gladiators’ humiliation and crucifixion are narrated in book 4, “Decline.” Although Koestler’s characters are wooden, The Gladiators is a satisfying historical novel; the milieu is well sketched, and Spartacus’s dilemmas are rendered convincingly.

Darkness at Noon

Darkness at Noon, Koestler’s masterpiece, is the story of an old Bolshevik, Rubashov, who is called before his Communist inquisitors on charges of heresy against the party. He is interrogated first by Ivanov, who is himself executed, and then by Gletkin, and at the end he is killed by the inevitable bullet in the back of the neck. The novel is divided into three sections, one for each hearing Rubashov is given, and a short epilogue titled “The Grammatical Fiction.” In addition to the confrontations between Rubashov and his questioners, there are flashbacks from Rubashov’s past and extracts from his diary; the latter provide occasions for Koestler’s meditations on history. The narrative is tight and fast moving, and its lucid exposition has surely made it one of the most satisfyingly pedagogic novels of all time. Many readers shared the experience of Leslie Fiedler, who referred to Darkness at Noon in his review of The Ghost in the Machine, admitting that “Koestler helped to deliver me from the platitudes of the Thirties, from those organized self-deceptions which, being my first, were especially dear and difficult to escape.”

Speaking of the “historical circumstances” of Darkness at...

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