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Koestler, Arthur 1905–
A 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, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
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Koestler's gift is bold and fresh, but it is theatrical. He is the declaiming and compelling actor. No one has known better than he when to drop what he is doing and rush to document the latest convulsion. In this fashion, he has run through the political infections of our generation…. How much in his writing is personal experience and how much is an intense imaginative identification with the people he describes is not important; or rather, only the identification is important. It is passionate because it is moral; it is complex because it is at once theatrical and aware of itself….
Koestler is more than a simple reporter. He is intellectually volatile; it is second nature for him to generalize about events; he is politically trained, and likes to be politically bespattered. It is the business of the journalist to interview everything and Koestler is able to interview philosophy, science, economics, history, and to come back with a notebook full of general ideas which are put to dramatic use. (p. 54)
He can easily dazzle us because we have no café conversation and no café writers. We have no skill in playing poker with ideas. We are not trained to pretend that things which are entirely different may (for the pleasure of effect) be assumed to be opposites. We have no eternal students. We have no intelligentsia. These singularities have led Koestler himself to as complete and conventional misreading of English life as any that have been done by Continental writers…. We must assume that our judgment of him will suffer from similar difficulties of contact.
We come nearest to him in Scum of the Earth. This is partly because the book is a personal record of the events at the fall of France where, at last, English experience came close to the experience of the Continent. A second reason is that here Koestler has cleaned his slate and is putting down just what he saw and heard and, with emotion, is pulling down the curtain on a period. This report is alive; it is packed with human beings; it is resilient and almost buoyant. He is in his natural element, or rather in one of his natural elements: anarchy and disillusion. His eyes are skinned for every incident as, somber and sardonic—but not with detachment—he notes down the fates of his friends. This book (and The Gladiators) contains his least opaque writing. (p. 55)
[Spanish Testament is a melodrama: there is,] as in the theater, generalizations, simplifications. The characters wear the makeup of revolution. This writer does not appear to know Spanish history, but he knows current Marxism…. He is in control, and can switch on and off when effects are needed. Sardonic anger, raw humor, and the punctures of anthropological inquiry let the wind out of his hysterical passages at the right moment. All this is good journalism, but … it is slapdash. Koestler was a smatterer, and the only thing of value that emerged was personal: Dialogue with Death. There have been finer, more sensitive, more humane, and more objective accounts of life in Spanish prisons than Koestler's, for Koestler had to be the leading actor, and he writes with one wall of the prison down; but the attempt at a personal revelation is intellectually impressive, and precisely in the study of hysteria which elsewhere in his writing is his least attractive quality. In the end, when the curtain goes down in Spanish Testament we are not entirely convinced or convicted. Perhaps because we have been overconvinced. The impression remains after other books by Koestler. Against ourselves must be put his strongest card: he has had to combat the English unwillingness to face the appalling facts of medieval atrocity on the Continent.
Yet this may not be the explanation of our uneasiness. The source may be literary: Koestler has a voice, an urgent voice, vital, voluble, and lively, above all never boring—a voice, but an arid and mechanical style. On the face of it this is an unkind criticism to make of a displaced writer who is not writing in his own tongue, who has to make shift to write our own and has mastered it. But we suspect that no language is an inconvenience to him; language is a machine; not even in his own language, we feel, has he any love of words or any sense of their precision and grace. (p. 56)
The deficiency is more damaging to Koestler's reporting than to his earliest novels…. We are captured at once in [The Gladiators] by the sardonic vivacity of the author, the raciness of his reporting, his light mastery of the novelist's and historian's material, even by his boyish humor. We also feel a quality which is rare in the melodramas that come after: the sense of the human tragedy and a pity that is truly pitched and moving. That feeling for tragedy is never recovered, and in my opinion The Gladiators is his most impressive book. No personal hatred, no extraneous obsession with persecution or guilt, clutters the running of the narrative, or impedes the growth of the argument…. Success destroys: the revolutions that fail preserve their myth, and to Koestler faith and myth are everything. Another reason for Koestler's excellence in this book is that it has a settled subject, set in the remote past, and history has agreed on it. By gift a reporter, he is a hundred times better in recording what is given than in contriving imaginatively what is not; with him, controversy simply brings out the "old soldier" of the clinics. (pp. 57-8)
We feel the earth under our feet in this book, and whether or not it has the developed qualities of a novel is not important. In fact, it is a collection of brilliantly placed episodes, linked by a commentary; and growing characters are not required. (This is fortunate, because it turns out in his later work that Koestler has little power to create or sustain large characters.) All that is required in this book is that his pictures of people shall have instantaneous physical reality…. (p. 58)
Darkness at Noon is a tour de force, a book terrifying and claustrophobic, an intellectual thriller. The efficiency, the speed, the smooth order of the narrative as it runs fast to its end, are extraordinary…. As a novelist, Koestler has a superb gift for the handling of argument in a living way; he knows when to break off, when to slip into the personal or the small incident, when to digress into the minor character, where to tighten the screw. Rubashov, the accused, makes the pace all through the story; he is an alert, intelligent man—a brain, where Spartacus was passive. And occasionally, like a sudden fragment of sunlight in this gray and horrifying book, horrifying in its grim pistol-barrel logic, moments of human illumination occur in Rubashov. They are moving. But when all praise is given, Darkness at Noon remains a melodrama. (pp. 60-1)
The book is not tragedy. Yet to be destroyed by your own church or by your own beliefs ought to be tragic. It is surely tragic for the young to destroy the old…. But in Darkness at Noon the official killing of Rubashov to serve the collective end fails to reach this high standard. It is a police act, not a tragedy, the end of a case. Koestler could reply that the casuistry of Gletkin & Co. has destroyed the concept of tragedy on the collective plane; but the casuistry is Koestler's. (p. 61)
We have to turn to the greatest of all novels about the revolutionary, Dostoevski's The Possessed, to see that Darkness at Noon is a powerful book, but not an imaginative work of the highest kind. It has the intensity of obsession, the interest of surgery, but no largeness. (p. 62)
The objection to Darkness at Noon is not that it has overstated its case, but that it has stated only a case; the book understates its field of human, psychological, and historical reference…. Darkness at Noon might be called a major act of literary hypnosis. And the argument is so successful and complete that we begin ceasing to believe in its human application the moment we put the book down.
After Darkness at Noon there is a decline. The tight organization of Koestler's gifts goes slack. Disillusion brought his power to a climax, and since then he has descended to nihilism. Arrival and Departure is an attack upon belief itself, due to an unfortunate encounter with psychoanalysis…. More accurately, this book is Koestler's attack upon himself as a member of the small middle-class intelligentsia of the Continent, and it ends by justifying isolation. The Cause has been thrown over and humanity goes with it. Koestler appears to have had a theatrical view of faith; it was a vision, not a bond. By a really crass misreading of Freud the neuroses of the revolutionaries are made to cancel the traditions of humanitarianism, indeed any strivings of the mind. The civilized, the believing and creating mind is dismissed. (pp. 62-3)
Intellectually a rotten book, it has all the old skill in storytelling, the old lack of acceptable characters; an incapacity to describe love—love equals lust, etc.—but a terrifying power to describe torture. The effect is overpowering…. Koestler's atrocities appear to have been taken out of the moral scheme and to have become pornographic. He is like Ivanov in Darkness at Noon, who said that ever since the invention of the steam engine, there has been no normality, only war. A remark that is deeply untrue. There is always normality. Arrival and Departure shows those vices of style—the use of jargon—which have marked his essays, and the psychoanalysis is too voulu for words.
With his last book, Thieves in the Night, Koestler returns to something nearer the mood of The Gladiators, and his ambivalent attitude to violence—and to ends and means—is almost decided. He has come full circle, i.e. he is very nearly prepared to justify violence; or rather he has quite decided to throw out justification. He is among the people whom he really envies and admires, the violent people, the people with grenades in their lorries…. We have the suspicion that the Neanderthalers of Darkness at Noon are being reproduced in the Promised Land. Can it be that the inhabitants of Utopias are always dull and muttonish? (pp. 63-4)
One new quality appears in Thieves in the Night; an interest in landscape. The descriptions of Galilee are imaginative. Koestler's talent has always been for the hard, surprising, physical image that stamps a person, a crowd, a place on the mind; and now he is extending this poetic interest to places. It brings an amenity up to now uncommon in his work. We welcome it, for in his intense and strung-up work there have been no points of rest; the vice of the "dynamic" conception of life is that it does not record the consolations of inertia, and never contemplates a beautiful thing. His attempts consciously to inject beauty have ended in the sentimental.
Thieves in the Night is an improvement on Arrival and Departure but it represents the coarsening and mechanization of a talent. One looks back upon his novels. What is the final impression? They are not novels: they are reports, documentaries, briefs, clinical statements, animated cartoons of a pilgrim's regress from revolution. They are material, formative material: their opponents, as well as their disciples, are formed by them. The effect is hypnotic. It is a paradox that these lively and fast-moving books are, at a second glance, not moving at all. Koestler has fixed them, made them static; it is he with his "case" who is on the move; the story and the people do not move of themselves at all. Our eye is following him and not them.
The result is that, underlying the superficial excitement, a bored sensation of unbelief is built up—why read about people who merely illustrate an argument and are foils for the author? Quickly the people recede before the inevitable half-truths of a magnetizing talker with a good conceit of himself; and while he rarely makes a dull remark, he also rarely makes one that common experience does not flatly contradict. (pp. 66-7)
[The] novels of Koestler are skeletal. They are like the steel frameworks of modern buildings before the bricks go in; and up there shaking all over with the vibration of the thing, is Koestler furiously concentrating on his pneumatic riveter. A guilty figure: he can't quite get over an old wish that it was a machine-gun, and the principle is maddeningly similar. So guilty does he feel that presently he stops work, harangues the crowd below, and the building is never completed. It remains, a stimulus, an incitement to others, an imposing outline against the sky. (pp. 67-8)
V. S. Pritchett, "Koestler: A Guilty Figure" in Harper's (copyright © 1948 by V. S. Pritchett; reprinted by permission of Literistic, Ltd.), Vol. 196, No. 1172, January, 1948 (and reprinted in Arthur Koestler: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Murray A. Sperber, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1977, pp. 53-68).
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Ever since his birth [Arthur Koestler] has lived as it were in the maelstrom of contemporary history, turning in a continual vortex even as he wrote, and with an unerring instinct homing toward the place of trouble which will affect us all very soon. His environment is the whirlpool, and his creativity explodes out of violence.
His virtue, however, is not just restlessness and love of the vortex of contemporary history. It lies in his capacity for entering into what I can only call the conscience of contemporary events. That this is a shifting conscience, which tells him at one time to be on one side or at one place and another at a quite different one, is disconcerting and bitter to his political allies, but it is what really makes for his significance as a man and a writer. Mr. Koestler is a restless instrument who attaches himself to a conflict and gives us a kind of reading of the moral issues involved. He reminds us that the reading may be different at different times. Communism was a better cause in 1933 than it is in 1952.
He also has his own personal problem, which is to discover some center within himself which is not shifting, to which he can attach his values and his faith. His danger is to make a heroic virtue out of the changeability which has made him a public success. The weakness of [Arrow in the Blue, the first volume of Koestler's autobiography] is that he still seems to regard ruthless, analytic honesty as the supreme virtue. When applied to his own personality his rather mechanical self-analysis tends to wither up what is good, and to overemphasize what is erroneous. He analyzes the bad, but he tends to analyze away the good by explaining it in terms of more or less pathological motives.
What is best in him is genuine moral indignation (which he treats here as a kind of illness), a passionate self-identification with the underdog and an infectious love of adventure. (pp. 101-02)
The basic defect of the book is that it is theory-ridden. Not only is it stuffed with ideas which have featured in Mr. Koestler's other books … but also there is a theory as to why Mr. Koestler's mind is laid as wide open to ideologies as his father's was to inventions. The explanation is implicit in his title, Arrow in the Blue…. [He describes how] it occurred to him that:
You could shoot a super-arrow into the blue with a super-force which would carry it beyond the earth's gravity … and on … and on…. there would be nothing to stop it…. [The] infinite as target was replaced by Utopias of one kind or another. It was the same quest and the same all-or-nothing mentality which drove me to the Holy Land and into the Communist party.
[The] book alternates between a narrative of events in which he has participated and passages of self-analysis. Whether as narrator or autopsychologist, the analytic method always triumphs. The reader may feel that Mr. Koestler has altogether too much confidence in a science which is often perilously close to science-fiction, and that he has an almost fatal gift for minting clichés. Since he is certainly at his most trenchant when attacking analytic systems like those of Marx and Freud, it seems strange that he has such confidence in the pattern-fabricating method of describing behavior.
At moments one suspects that Mr. Koestler thinks that a pattern of behavior is the same as an existence, just as he appears to think that the pursuit of a goal is the same as attaining one, and that the "search for principles of law and order in the universe" is "an essentially religious endeavor" (in a passage written to prove that scientists are religious). Nor would it occur to him that one of his most quoted phrases—"Crusader without a Cross"—is strictly meaningless, since a crusader without a cross would not be a crusader. He would be a tourist. The infinity into which the super-arrow is directed by a super-force is a super-vacuum. (pp. 103-04)
The religious, the artists, the poets and the novelists have written about human beings in order to discover a point within human behavior where it acquires an indefinable essence of being, a mystery of life. To Mr. Koestler, though, the pattern is everything, and when he has explained it away the essence has evaporated.
The problem raised by the Koestler pattern of analysis is that it has the effect first of schematizing the behavior of other people until they appear mere abstractions, and lastly (it would seem, from this book) of making Mr. Koestler himself appear entirely "predictable" to the reader, with the result that his real personality disappears into the brickwork patterning, like the Cheshire cat. (p. 104)
Mr. Koestler is penetrating, acute, humorous, fearless, adventurous and often amusing. What he lacks is simply the element of love and this makes his own personality seem a blank in the story of his life. (p. 105)
[Adding] up the whole sum of his autobiography [both Arrow in the Blue and The Invisible Writing], we should recognize that it is a very great achievement to have such a typical case history and to insist so violently on retaining an identity that tries his contemporaries to the point of exasperation. (p. 106)
The true nature of his inner struggle seems covered over by much analytic terminology. At heart Koestler seems to me a religious man in search of penitence, homesick for a communion of saints. And in spite of his courageous self-examination, he does not seem to have discovered that his basic fault is pride. (p. 108)
Stephen Spender, "Koestler's Story of His Fervent Quest for Utopia" (1952) and "In Search of Penitence" (1954), in The New York Times Book Review (© 1952, 1954 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 21, 1952 and October 10, 1954 (and reprinted together as "In Search of Penitence," in Arthur Koestler: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Murray A. Sperber, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1977, pp. 100-08).
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Since it is in the grip of a fixed idea, Darkness at Noon has little of the intellectual fluidity, the richness of absorbed life, the complex interplay between emotion and ideology, that distinguishes the political novel at its best. Though the subject of Koestler's book can be seen as the increasingly problematic nature of all modern politics, it seldom yields itself to the problematic as a mode of feeling or observation. Can one say that a certain kind of commitment to the problematic may itself become a form of ideological fanaticism? If so, that is how to describe Darkness at Noon. For Koestler is the sort of writer who manipulates his characters with a ruthless insistence that they conform to his will, that they illustrate prefabricated themes rather than fulfill their inner possibilities. Only intermittently does he do the novelist's job and, as one might expect, it is then that he is at his best, relaxing his ideological hold—that grim insistence upon the dazzling formula which is all too often a sign of intellectual panic—and letting his imagination work freely. (p. 227)
In the first regard, [Darkness at Noon] is often superb. Confined to one locale, one line of action, one dominating character [Rubashov], it accumulates great dramatic intensity, and … [at times] it reaches a concentrated expression of all the horror of modern politics. (pp. 227-28)
But the novel is crucially flawed, and Rubashov thinned into abstractness, by Koestler's simple and often crude theorizing…. (p. 228)
What appears to be the iron logic in Rubashov's reflections is achieved by a ruthless elimination of complicating alternatives at each point of his argument; Koestler is imitating not any possible version of the Rubashov type but his own self-confirming hypothesis of the "inner necessity" of Rubashov's capitulation. Indeed, it is precisely the apparent rigor of Rubashov's argument which renders Koestler's portrait of him suspect, for it assumes that Rubashov's gradual surrender to Stalinism is a dialectical process within his own thought, a valid deduction from the premises of his political career. But this is manifestly untrue to our sense of human behavior, even the behavior of Bolshevik politicians. Between the assumptions of theory and the conclusions of defeat there must lie a whole middle ground of Rubashov's experience, the gradual destruction of his will and integrity as he takes step after step toward acquiescing to the regime he knows to be vile. By the time of the action described in Darkness at Noon, Rubashov has already been destroyed or has already destroyed himself, and the post hoc rationalizations in which he might be supposed to indulge, and which for Koestler are the heart of his dilemma, would bear little relation to the actual process of his disintegration. (p. 229)
What finally gives Darkness at Noon so "unreal" a quality, and this despite its interludes of brilliant realism, is that Koestler approaches the problem of historical action with a wilful insistence upon an either/or dilemma—either amoral activism or moral passivity. This rigid fascination with absolutes and an equally rigid elimination of any possible choices of action lying between these absolutes, lends his novels the appearance of intellectual clarity, of getting down to "fundamentals"; but the fundamentals prove to be little more than a dazzling phrase and the clarity that of an over-focussed and thereby untrustworthy picture…. [He ignores] the vast preponderance of choices made by men in history, choices that involve a tension between the demands of historical pressure and the demands of moral standards, not to mention a reliance upon the tact of instinctual response. Koestler's method of analysis—which, in his case, is the same as saying, his method of writing a novel—may give a momentary illusion of logical rigour; but it cannot yield a credible portrait of a man thinking or, more important, of a man suffering from the need to rethink ideas that he once had accepted on faith. Rubashov may seem to reason, but he does not breathe…. [Koestler is more] concerned with the phrase than the experience it is supposed to illuminate…. (pp. 230-31)
A major part of his intention in writing Darkness at Noon must surely be to warn against the abstractions of ideology, those abstractions which, if allowed to spawn too freely, tend to dehumanize our lives—yet every line Koestler writes, and one doubts that he can avoid it, is suffused with ideology. (p. 231)
Irving Howe, "Malraux, Silone, Koestler: The Twentieth Century," in his Politics and the Novel (copyright 1957; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1957, pp. 203-34.∗