If Arthur Koestler is remembered today, it is for his riveting novel about the perils of Soviet communism, Darkness at Noon (1940), and perhaps as well for his contribution to the collection of essays by disillusioned Marxists, The God That Failed (1949). There may also be some interest in his work on the sources of creativity, The Act of Creation (1964), but as to his investigations late in life into parapsychology, non-Darwinian evolutionary theory, and the possibility of using therapeutic drugs to end social problems such as war, there is mostly embarrassed silence. This silence would have disappointed Koestler, who had a falling-out with his first biographer, Iain Hamilton, when Hamilton refused to focus on these later interests of his subject.
Michael Scammell’s Koestler is a well-written account of his life and work but does not convey a clear enough sense of what Arthur Koestler was all about. Scammell certainly does not ignore the writer’s later interests, but his biography is at its best when it recounts his earlier years, tracing Koestler’s youth as a deracinated Hungarian Jew through his time as a Zionist, culminating with Koestler’s time as a communist and his break with communism. Perhaps this uneven quality of treatment is simply because the earlier portion was the most interesting or most important part of Koestler’s life. In those years, especially in his masterpiece, Darkness at Noon, Koestler grappled with an ideology and an attitude toward life that in the middle of the twentieth century affected the entire world. His later dabbling in extrasensory perception and his campaign against quarantine restrictions on dogs entering England hardly seem to be in the same league.
There is more to it than that, though. The later stages of Scammell’s book, though as clearly written as what went before, seem increasingly scrappy. There is yet another love affair to chronicle or at least mention, another house Koestler is bought near Naples or Cambridge or in Kent. His failing health is mixed in with making a new friend and his reporting on the famous chess match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. This portion of the biography contains so many different bits of information along these lines that it seems disorganized or lacking in focus. Perhaps the problem is that there is a lack of a sense in the book of what Arthur Koestler’s life meant.
Earlier in the biography, this lack of evaluation seems to be less of an issue. There is a focus at that point having to do with Koestler’s disillusionment with communism and his campaign to reveal its true nature to those in the West still sympathetic to the Soviet Union. It is perhaps this campaign of disillusionment that prompts Scammell to label Koestler a skeptic, incorporating the word into his subtitle. Perhaps what prompts this notion of skepticism is the fact that Koestler typically set himself against orthodoxies, such as the Darwinian orthodoxy in evolution. Scammell spends little time developing or explaining the idea that Koestler was a skeptic, however, which is perhaps understandable because on his own evidence a skeptic was the furthest thing from what Koestler was.
Scammell’s biography reveals a very young man latching onto an extreme form of Zionism, Revisionist Zionism, which was associated with terrorist groups such as the Irgun and the Stern Gang. After that, Koestler drifted into the Communist Party, becoming a defender of the Soviet Union, though never a completely reliable one. (This unreliability caused him to have some trouble publishing one of his early books.)
There was something in Koestler that resisted becoming a true believer, though whether that was a general tendency toward skepticism or just a problem he had with the conflict between communist theory and Soviet reality is not clear. What is clear is that an even larger part of him yearned to be a true believer in some causeany cause. As he put it in one of his autobiographical volumes, in a passage quoted by Scammell, he suffered from “absolutitis”a desire to solve the riddles of the universefrom his earliest years, when he wondered where an arrow shot up into the infinite might go: The thirst for the absolute is a stigma which marks those unable to find satisfaction in the relative world of the now and here. My obsession with the arrow was merely the first phase of the quest. When it proved sterile, the Infinite as a target was replaced by Utopias of one kind and another. It was the same quest, the same all-or-nothing mentality, which drove me to the Promised Land and into the Communist Party. In other ages aspirations of this kind found their natural fulfillment in God.
This hardly sounds like skepticism; it is more a religious feeling, but somehow divorced from orthodox religion. Koestler indeed in his later life was willing to call himself a mystic and...
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