Arthur Koestler

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Koestler, Arthur (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Koestler, Arthur 1905–

A Hungarian-born British novelist and essayist, Koestler employs the concepts of philosophy, psychology, politics, and natural science to work toward an idealistic world-view. His novels, especially Darkness at Noon, concern the corruption of socialistic ideologies by power. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Koestler frightened us not just because he brought in the freezing wind of totalitarian experience in Europe; he used his third language with as much confidence as Conrad; he virtually invented the 'political novel'; his intellectuality was ferocious, earnest, not just a donnish game. He humbled the British, who had taken neither ideas nor politics seriously; his gift to English literature was a horse's-mouth authenticity that no one would dream of looking into. And yet that phase of his career which these three books [Thieves in the Night, The Gladiators, and The Yogi and the Commissar] celebrate has a strong smell of failure about it. He has, I think, recognized that a novel like The Gladiators and an essay like The Yogi and the Commissar are too much rooted in a stage of personal development to strike with that perennially fresh surprise we expect from a true work of art or a piece of genuinely creative thinking. We who were never European Communists have missed the prisons and the concentration camps (we apologize to Mr. Koestler for that), but we have also been unshaken by the failure of a Utopian revolution. Mr. Koestler quotes Pascal almost with surprise: 'Man is neither angel nor brute, and his misery is that he who would act the angel acts the brute.' If one had never had a Utopian faith one could never be disappointed, nor, in The Gladiators, could one see what all the fuss was about.

Thieves in the Night is about the Jewish settlement of Ezra's Tower. Its theme, Koestler reminds us, is 'the ethics of survival. If power corrupts, the reverse is also true: persecution corrupts the victim, though perhaps in subtler and more tragic ways'. The book is not a mere morality illustrating this; it is a genuine novel smelling of a sharply observed Palestine, the characters totally credible, and 'the peaceful growth of Ezra's Tower', rising above the terrorism and savagery and injustice, the sort of symbol a novelist thanks God for. But The Gladiators, which is about Spartacus and his slaves' revolt, fails for several reasons. Koestler is not sure whether he wants to bring ancient history to life or, by using a technique of alienation, merely allegorize the dilemma of the modern revolutionary leader. The slaves' City of the Sun is, if we want a lesson on ends and means, not so compelling as Animal Farm (though we must remember that Orwell had the advantage of having read Koestler): it is not so simple, not sufficiently a blackboard drawing. At the same time it is not sufficiently a work of the historical imagination. And Spartacus, if we are to take him as a modern revolutionary, is incredibly unaware of the dilemma of power. Can we, then, take him as an ancient liberator of the oppressed, fired by an Essene vision? If we can, the allegory collapses.

Very occasionally in his novels (Darkness at Noon is the obvious, and magnificent, example), Koestler achieves a balance of the literary and the didactic, which, like Plato's horses, want to pull different ways. In his essays one is sometimes fascinated by a self-defeating desire to use images to clarify an intellectual thesis: as in a metaphysical poem, the image takes over; the conceit has to be worked out to the limit in a compulsive literary lust: the lesson is choked in the foliage. Nothing is more admirable, in The Yogi and the Commissar , than the presentation of the Commissar (who believes in Change from Without) at the infra-red end of the spectrum, and the Yogi (who 'believes that the End is unpredictable and that the Means alone count') at the ultra-violet. But the image is deployed with such powerful consistency that our shock at reading...

(The entire section is 1,681 words.)