Arthur Koestler

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Koestler, Arthur (Vol. 8)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1624

Koestler, Arthur 1905–

Hungarian-born British novelist, essayist, journalist, and historian, Koestler reflects in his works a concern with politics, ethics, philosophy, history, and psychology. His Art of Creation explores the creative/destructive dichotomy of human nature, a continuing theme throughout his work. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

[The] Koestler of Darkness at Noon is a genuinely great imaginative writer who has changed the direction of the flow of thought on political matters, and it is as such that he will live and continue to be read;… he is not a scientist, though he has had some good ideas in the tradition of what Germans call nature-philosophy, and he is not nearly critical or tough-minded enough to be a creative philosopher. Nevertheless, Koestler has been accepted as a scientific philosopher by a number of serious and able scientists…. I believe that the real trouble with Arthur Koestler is that he writes and acts as if he thought that the high inspirational origin of a theory and the sheer intensity of the conviction with which it is held to be true are somehow evidence of its authenticity…. [Quite the opposite,] in science we are taught, or come painfully to learn, that to fall in love with a hypothesis is one of the roads to ruin…. Sometimes one can watch the inspirational elements in Koestler taking over from, and damaging, his thought…. (p. 22)

Koestler is … a superbly accomplished journalist. He is an enormously intelligent man with a truly amazing power to apprehend knowledge and grasp the gist of quite difficult theories. Above all, he is a master at telling a story. One story that seems to attract him is that of the brilliant genius, the true original, who is cold-shouldered and misunderstood by the Establishment. This is an important element of the high-romantic view of scholarship; another is that the "creativity and pathology of the human mind are, after all, two sides of the same medal." Or, alternatively, that genius and insanity are somehow cognate.

I very much doubt if either opinion would stand up to critical scrutiny. Nearly all great geniuses are recognized in their own lifetimes, but of course we tend to remember only the exceptions. Moreover, high genius is distinguished by a high, clear sanity that casts its light all around it. In the absence of any conceivable "control experiment," we cannot say for certain, though we may very well surmise, that Nietzsche and Schumann, for instance, would have risen to even greater heights if their minds had been unclouded by manic or depressive tendencies.

Koestler is a great campaigner, too. Very often I have got the impression from his writings that, where they should by rights be cool and deeply analytical, they are, in reality, Koestler's part in a dialogue with an unseen disputant—someone who takes a bit of convincing and needs all of Koestler's considerable persuasive powers. (pp. 22, 24)

Peter Medawar, "Doing the Honors," in Saturday Review (© 1976 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), March 6, 1976, pp. 22, 24.

The comparatively sudden appearance of large communities of Jews in Eastern Europe during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries is generally attributed to the migration eastward, because of discrimination and persecution, of Jews from France, England, and Germany. In The Thirteenth Tribe, Arthur Koestler argues that this theory has been accepted primarily because of a lack of any alternative explanation….

The Thirteenth Tribe, a study of the Khazars, attempts to prove that the majority of modern Jewry … is in fact descended from this Turkic tribe that settled in the Caucasus in the sixth century, built up an empire in the seventh and eighth centuries that preserved Eastern Europe from the advances of Islam and defended Byzantium from the ravages of the nomadic peoples of the steppe, and converted to Judaism in the eighth century. (p. 1248)

Despite the intriguing nature of the thesis put forth by Koestler, it has no firmer factual foundation than the theory it seeks to supplant, and the manner in which it is presented does incalculable harm. Historical accuracy is discarded where it impairs the symmetry of his argument; and, in an attempt, one presumes, to attract a popular mass audience, Koestler abandons the dispassionate and exact language of his earlier works for clichés. Phrases such as "no news is good news in history," "the Khazars had their fingers in many historic pies," "it was good psychology" abound. The reader is also confused by the endless use of twentieth century terminology to describe Khazar society: Koestler discusses the influence of the Khazar princesses on Byzantine "haute couture" and the Khazar's "Brains Trust." What could have made a fascinating and thought-provoking article was instead stretched to book length through the introduction of extraneous and misleading information and a great many unnecessary asides. The result is a work that has neither the value of a well-executed, honest piece of scholarship nor the emotional appeal of a polemic—only the earmarks of a poorly researched and hastily written book. (p. 1249)

Jane Majeski, "Chutzpah," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1976, 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), November 12, 1976, pp. 1248-49.

Arthur Koestler has long been depersonalizing himself; he has now achieved practically complete self-extinction. Twenty years ago he drew the conclusion that only two choices were possible for Jews: to abandon their Jewishness (or what passed for it) and to assimilate into the mainstream of the nations in which they found themselves—or go to Israel. For himself, he sewed leather patches on the elbows of his worn-out cardigans and became (he thought) a true-blue Englishman. But the transition from Jewish-Hungarian exile to John Bull elicited only nods of pity from the Jewish community….

In the process, he came across some marginal references to the Khazar Jews of medieval Russia, especially those references that depicted their descendants as being of non-Semitic origin, of being not really Jews at all, but a mongrel mixture of dubious origins and with no racial, moral, juridical, or even theological right to "return" to the Holy Land. He persuaded himself, in short, that neither he nor the Jews of East Europe were Jews at all, as the world understood that term….

In this tortured effort to come to grips with the problem—it must be stressed, it is largely his problem—he takes tortuous routes to unravel bits and pieces about the Khazars, some of it real, much of it fanciful, and most of it—sheer speculation. (p. 69)

In the eighth century (740 AD) the king of the Khazars (and his court) "embraced the Jewish faith, and Judaism became the state religion of the Khazars." Thus Koestler writes in his opening statement on the subject [in The Thirteenth Tribe] except that he is a hasty "historian," contradicting even this early in his text (page 15) what he had written a page earlier, namely, that this Jewish state had achieved "the peak of its power from the seventh to the tenth centuries AD." How this "Jewish state" achieved "the peak of its power" a hundred years before its birth is not further elucidated.

The history of the Jewish Khazars is known to both scholars and informed readers…. [There] is … historical evidence, gleaned from early correspondence, travelers' observations, philosophical dissertations …, plus much other relevant material from Arabic and Hebrew sources [to prove the existence of a Jewish state in Southern Russia].

But Koestler is not content with the evidence; he must concoct a theory to suit his own notions that the overwhelming majority of the world Jewish community are not authentic Jews at all. They, he argues without a shred of genuine authority for his vagrant opinions, are not Semites, but stem in toto from their Turko-pagan ancestors of the Middle Ages who, when dispersed in the thirteenth century, provided the bulk of the "Jewish" populations in Poland and Lithuania.

This concoction is so fanciful it has been repudiated by every known scholar in the field. (pp. 69-70)

So, the question remains: What is Koestler up to? Ever since the publication of his fictional account of why the Old Bolsheviks at the "Moscow Trials" of 1936-8 confessed (Darkness at Noon), he has been engaged in an intellectual adventure that has led him to speculate on such recondite subjects as parapsychology, and to flirt with the discredited theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics (The Case of the Midwife Toad). In these endeavors vox populi (actually the voice of the popular critics) has been kind to him, while the professionals (the scholars) have tended to dismiss him as an often irresponsible amateur. But so long as his rhetoric did not seriously affect the lives and fortunes of an entire people—as is the present case—one could pass it off as trivial. With The Thirteenth Tribe, however, we are confronted with a situation where the informed scholar disdains to take him on … for fear of sullying his own credentials….

[Thousands] of people who never read a word about the ancient Jewish kingdom of the Khazars, who never heard of Yehuda Halevi, who never looked into the subject at all, will be beguiled (and misinformed) about a chapter in Jewish life that needs understanding. Such books have been written, good books, brave books, scholarly books—but The Thirteenth Tribe is not one of them. It is a book that when it doesn't insult the intelligence, helps in the eternal defamation of a people which seems helpless before the kind of plain and fancy ignorance deployed by the uninformed "critics" of the daily press who have combined to catapult this misguided nonsense onto the best-seller lists of the popular book media. And that is a shame. (p. 71)

Max Geltman, "Koestler's Contortions," in Midstream (copyright © 1977 by The Theodor Herzl Foundation, Inc.), February, 1977, pp. 69-71.

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Koestler, Arthur (Vol. 6)