Arthur Koestler

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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,”...

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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 Noon, Koestler explains that Rubashov is “a synthesis of the lives of a number of men who were victims of the so-called Moscow Trials.” Rubashov’s thinking is closest to that of Nikolai Bukharin, a real purge victim, and Rubashov’s tormentor, Gletkin, had a counterpart of sorts in the actual trial prosecutor Andrei Vishinsky. (Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror, 1968, provides useful details of the real trials.)

Two main theses are argued in Darkness at Noon: that the end does not justify the means, and that the individual ego, the I, is not a mere “grammatical fiction” whose outline is blurred by the sweep of the historical dialectic. The events that cause Rubashov great pain and guilt involve two party workers whose devotion is sacrificed to the law of detours. Little Loewy is the local leader of the dockworkers’ section of the party in Belgium, a likable man whom Rubashov takes to immediately. Little Loewy is a good Communist, but he is ill used by the party and eventually destroyed in an act of expediency. When the party calls for the workers to resist the spreading Nazi menace, Little Loewy’s dockworkers refuse to handle cargoes going out from and coming into Germany.

The crisis comes when five cargo ships from Russia arrive in the port. The workers start to unload these boats until they discover the contents: badly needed materials for the German war effort. The workers strike, the party orders them back to the docks, and most of the workers defect. Two years later, Mussolini ventures into Africa, and again a boycott is called, but this time Rubashov is sent in advance to explain to the dockworkers that more Russian cargo is on its way and the party wants it unloaded. Little Loewy rejects the duplicity, and six days later he hangs himself.

In another tragedy of betrayal, Rubashov abandons his secretary, Arlova, a woman who loves him and with whom he has had an affair. When Arlova’s brother in Russia marries a foreigner, they all come under suspicion, Arlova included. Soon after, she is called back to oblivion in Russia, and all of this happens without a word from Rubashov. As these perfidies run through his mind, Rubashov’s toothache rages intensely. Ivanov senses Rubashov’s human sympathies and lectures him on the revolutionary ethic: But you must allow that we are as convinced that you and they would mean the end of the Revolution as you are of the reverse. That is the essential point. The methods follow by logical deduction. We can’t afford to lose ourselves in political subtleties.

Thus, Rubashov’s allegiance to the law of detours leads him into a moral labyrinth. He fails to heed that small voice that gives dignity to the self in its resistance to the degrading impersonality of all-devouring history and the behaviorist conception of human beings.

Arrival and Departure

In Arrival and Departure, Koestler’s third novel, Peter Slavek, age twenty-two, stows away on a freighter coming from Eastern Europe and washes up in Neutralia (Portugal) in 1940. He is a former Communist who has been tortured by fascists in his home country, and he is faced in Neutralia with four possibilities: reunion with the party, with whom he is disillusioned; joining the fascists, who present themselves as the shapers of the true brave new world; flight to America; or, finally, enlistment with the British, whose culture is maimed but still represents a “brake” on the madness overtaking Europe.

Homeless and confused, Peter meets two women. Dr. Sonia Bolgar, a native of his country and friend of his family, gives him a room and looks after him while she is waiting for the visa that will take her to America. Her lover, Odette, is a young French war widow with whom Peter has a brief affair until Odette leaves for America. Her departure precipitates a psychosomatic paralysis of one of Peter’s legs, symbolic of the paralysis of will brought on by his conflicting urges to follow her and to commit himself again to political action. Sonia, who is an analyst and reduces all behavior to the terms of her profession, leads Peter through a deconstruction of his motives that exposes their origins in childhood guilt feelings. His self-insight cures his paralysis, just as his visa for America is granted. He prepares to leave, but at the last moment he dashes off the ship and joins the British, who parachute him back into his own country in their service.

Much of Arrival and Departure is artistically inert, but it does have a solid point to make. Although Fyodor Dostoevski’s name is never mentioned in Arrival and Departure, the novel is Koestler’s response to Dostoevski’s The Possessed (1871-1872), which depicts revolutionaries as warped personalities, dramatizing their neuroses and grudges in political action. For Koestler, human motives are more complex: “You can explain the messages of the Prophets as epileptical foam and the Sistine Madonna as the projection of an incestuous dream. The method is correct and the picture in itself complete. But beware of the arrogant error of believing that it is the only one.”

Arrival and Departure is, then, a subtle commentary on the motivation of revolutionaries, rejecting any claims to exclusivity by psychoanalysis and psychobiography.

Thieves in the Night

A far more absorbing novel than Arrival and Departure is Thieves in the Night, an account of the establishment of the commune of Ezra’s Tower in Palestine. Many of the events are seen from the perspective of one of the commune’s settlers, a young man named Joseph who was born and educated in England. His father was Jewish, his mother English, and this mixed heritage justifies Koestler’s use of him as a voice to meditate on the Jewish character and the desirability of assimilation. As a novelistic study of a single character, Thieves in the Night is incomplete, but as a depiction of the personal tensions within a commune and as an essay on the international politics wracking Palestine in the period from 1937 to 1939, it is excellent.

The British policy formulated in the 1939 White Paper is exposed in all its cruelty. This policy—perhaps influenced by romantic conceptions of the Arab world—shut down the flow of immigrants into Palestine, leaving the Jews exposed and helpless in Europe. At the novel’s end, Joseph has joined the terrorist movement and is engaged in smuggling Polish Jews off the Romanian cattle boats that are forbidden to unload their homeless cargo. In its musings on terrorism, Thieves in the Night seems to back off from the repudiation of the doctrine that the end justifies the means. Koestler always faced these issues honestly, and Thieves in the Night is as engrossing—and as cogent—in the twenty-first century as it was in 1946.

The Age of Longing

Published in 1951 and set in Paris in the mid-1950’s, The Age of Longing describes a time of spiritual disillusionment and longing for an age of faith. The narrative opens on Bastille Day and focuses on three characters: Hydie, a young American apostate from Catholicism, who kneels on her prie-dieu (prayer desk) and laments,“LET ME BELIEVE IN SOMETHING”; Fedya Nikitin, a security officer with a rigid commissar mentality; and Julien Delattre, poet and former party member.

The relationship between Hydie and Fedya occupies much of the novel, with Hydie’s ache for religious solace played off against Fedya’s unquestioning faith in Communism. Hydie is American, naïve, and innocent; she is seeking experience on which to base faith. Fedya is the son of proletarian revolutionaries from Baku, Azerbaijan, a son of the revolution with the instincts of a true commissar. He seems to have been programmed with party clichés. When the two become lovers, Fedya humiliates Hydie by treating her as a mere collocation of conditioned responses. She then turns against Fedya and, finally understanding his true assignment as a spy, tries to shoot him but botches the job. Regardless of whether their relationship has allegorical significance, the unfeeling commissar is one of Koestler’s most effective characterizations. At one point, Fedya asks a young school friend why she likes him, and the answer is, “Because you are clean and simple and hard like an effigy of ’Our Proletarian Youth’ from a propaganda poster.”

The third main character, Julien Delattre, is in many ways Koestler’s self-portrait. Delattre has given up his allegiance to the “God that failed,” and he tells Hydie that “My generation turned to Marx as one swallows acid drops to fight off nausea.” He finds his mission in warning others about the ideological traps that he has successfully escaped, and one of the best scenes in the novel comes when he takes Hydie to an evening meeting of the Rally for Peace and Progress. The centerpiece of the session is Koestler’s satiric depiction of Jean-Paul Sartre, who appears as the pompous theoretician Professor Pontieux. Author of a fashionable work of postwar despair, “Negation and Position,” Professor Pontieux “can prove everything he believes, and he believes everything he can prove.”

The Age of Longing ends with an image appropriate to its theme. A funeral party is proceeding past the graves of Jean de La Fontaine, Victor Hugo, and others when air-raid sirens start screaming. “The siren wailed, but nobody was sure: it could have meant the Last Judgment, or just another air-raid exercise.”

The Call Girls

More than twenty years passed between the publication of The Age of Longing and that of The Call Girls, Koestler’s last novel. During those two decades, Koestler’s interests had shifted from ideology to science and human behavior. The “call girls” of the title are prominent intellectuals—mostly scientists but including a poet and a priest—nomads of the international conference circuit. Koestler puts them all together in a Swiss mountain setting and sets them to talking about ideas. They have been summoned by one of their members, Nikolai Solovief, a physicist, to consider “approaches to survival” and to send a message to the president of the United States. Unfortunately, the meeting degenerates into a series of uncompromising exchanges between behaviorists and nonbehaviorists. Only Nikolai and Tony, the priest, are able to accommodate themselves to the claims of both reason and faith, and rancor replaces the objective search for truth. The Call Girls is an entertaining exposition of the various options available to those seeking enlightenment today.

Readers of The Ghost in the Machine and Koestler’s work on ESP will recognize in the arguments of Nikolai and Tony those of Koestler himself. Koestler always staged his intellectual dramas in the dress of irreconcilable opposites—the Yogi and the Commissar, ends versus means—and here theprotagonist is clearly spirit and the antagonist matter. His call girls demonstrate that there is still life in this old conflict.


Koestler, Arthur (Vol. 1)