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Arthur Koestler’s Centennial Prompts Assessment of Puzzling Intellectual Giant

Posted by kinchendavid on August 30, 2006

Originally published July 8, 2005

by David M. Kinchen
Editor, Huntington News Network

Hinton, WV  –The year 2003 saw a massive outpouring of writing as the world celebrated the centennial of the birth of Eric Arthur Blair, much better known as George Orwell. Christopher Hitchens wrote a best–selling 2002 book entitled “Why Orwell Matters” and everybody was reminded of the importance of the author who lived from 1903 to 1950 and who is most famous for two novels attacking totalitarianism: “Nineteen Eighty–Four” and “Animal Farm.”

The year is more halfway gone and I’m awaiting comparable appreciations of three intellectual giants who were born 100 years ago, in 1905: Jean Paul Sartre, Ayn Rand and Arthur Koestler.

Arthur Koestler at age 75 Arthur Who?

Arthur Koestler (1905–1983) was born to a middle–class Hungarian Jewish family in Budapest. Like his friend Orwell – Koestler wrote a moving obituary/appreciation of Orwell following the British author’s death on Jan. 21, 1950 – Koestler was a journalist, novelist, man of action and intellectual icon.

Both were in Spain at the time of the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939). Spain was a catalyst for Ernest Hemingway (“For Whom the Bell Tolls”) and many others of the turn–of–the–20th Century generation. Both Orwell and Koestler became disillusioned with the left in Spain and wrote movingly of their experiences: “Homage to Catalonia,” by Orwell, “Spanish Testament” and other books by Koestler.

Koestler used his experiences as a prisoner of the Franco forces in Spain to write the novel he’s probably best known for: “Darkness at Noon,” published in 1940 and written in German before he became fluent in English. Daphne Hardy, his girlfriend of the time – Koestler was a legend in his own time for the quantity and quality of his female companions – translated “Darkness at Noon” into English and it has never been out of print. “Darkness,” the suspenseful account of a communist commissar imprisoned and on trial for his life during the Soviet Union show trials in the 1930s, was an obvious influence on Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty–Four.”

In “Why Orwell Matters” Hitchens says Orwell was right about the three big issues of the 20th century–imperialism, fascism, and communism: something almost none of his contemporaries can claim. As a matter of fact, Arthur Koestler was also right about those issues and left the Communist party in 1938 after seven years as an active communist. Orwell flirted with the left, and became an anti–communist during his fighting alongside communists in the Spanish Civil War.

Arthur Koestler biography by David Cesarani Of the two, Koestler ranged wider in his writing. He was an autodidact, although he studied at the University of Vienna for three years. Orwell never attended college, but he was a 1921 graduate of Eton, one of the country’s major Public (i.e. private) prep schools. An Eton education in the 1920s is the equivalent of a college education today.

Koestler anticipated many of today’s writers in his exploration of the so–called “two cultures”: science and the humanities. This subject was mined by Edward O. Wilson and, perhaps most famously by another author born in 1905, C.P. Snow, who is credited with coining the phrase the “two cultures.” British author and intellectual Snow is almost entirely forgotten by what I call a post–Literate age, but his work was very influential in the 1950s and 1960s. He died in 1980. At one time in my life, I devoured every C.P. Snow “Strangers and Brothers” novel I could get my hands on.

Koestler, who became a British citizen in 1945, also anticipated today’s writers on globalization such as Thomas L. Friedman (“The World is Flat,” “The Lexus and the Olive Tree”) and Clyde Prestowitz (“Three Billion New Capitalists”). All told, Koestler wrote six novels, five memoirs, 21 non–fiction books or essay collections and one play. This tally doesn’t include his newspaper and magazine journalism.

David Cesarani in “Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind” (The Free Press, 1998) summing up Koestler writes: “If home connotes a certain kind of sovereignty we are all more or less displaced, our cities and countries locked into transnational associations and economic networks over which we have no control.” Cesarani adds in this useful but often maddingly judgmental biography: “Unlikely as it may seen, Koestler’s apocalypticism is not so far removed from today’s Zeitgeist …Koestler personified a condition that is now too familiar. Globalization has turned us into nomads without having to leave our living–rooms.”

Books by Arthur Koestler Even some of Koestler’s book titles prefigure authors like Friedman: “The Yogi and the Commissar” (1945); “The Lotus and the Robot” (1960). When it came to making a living at writing, Koestler was creative in the extreme. He used his on–the–job–training in sex – so to speak – to contribute articles to a massive encyclopedia of sexology in pre–World War II Germany. He could be said to have anticipated Kinsey and Masters and Johnson!

Koestler also deeply influenced an English teacher in Britain named Gordon Sumner, who devoured everything he could find on Koestler. Sumner, born in 1951 in Newcastle, was to gain fame as Sting – for the bumblebee striped T–shirt he wore – and he named one of The Police’s early albums, “Ghost in the Machine,” after a 1967 Koestler book “The Ghost in the Machine.”

Cesarani states in his biography that Koestler was ambivalent about his Jewish heritage, that Koestler didn’t want to be typecast as just another Central European Jewish intellectual. Many Jews are similarly ambivalent about their heritage, without being a self–hating Jew as Cesarani seems to characterize Koestler–incorrectly, in my view.

After reading “Darkness at Noon” many years ago – I’m rereading it now – I acquired a Koestler book, “The Thirteenth Tribe” (Random House, 1976), which tells the story of the Khazar Empire north of the Caucasus from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea in present–day Ukraine and Russia. The Khazars were a Turkic people whose leaders converted to Judaism about 740 A.D., much to the mystification – and mortification – of newly converted Christians in neighboring countries.

The Khazars were very successful for hundreds of years and, Koestler asserts, blocked the Muslim invasion of Europe through their defeat of invading Muslims from the south. When the Khazar Empire was broken up by Mongol invaders in the 12th and 13th Centuries, Koestler says, its population sent “offshoots” to the west, to Ukraine and Poland and Lithuania, becoming the basis for most of the Ashkenazic Jewish community of Eastern, Central and much of Western Europe (excluding the Sephardic Jews of North Africa, the Middle East, Iran, Spain, Portugal and later Holland).

“The Thirteenth Tribe” generated a firestorm of criticism and became a popular book for Middle Eastern Muslims and anti–Semites of all varieties, Cesarani says. The reason: Koestler’s thesis is that most of European and North and South American Jewry had its origins on the Volga, not the Jordan and were not Semitic at all. By this reasoning, Zionist Jews – virtually all of whom were Ashkenazic in origin – had little or no claim to biblical Palestine, since they weren’t Semites. This assumes that Jews are a race or ethnic group, something I don’t go along with. There are Jews of ethnic Indian (from India) origin and Jews of African (Ethiopian, in particular) origin, just as there are Muslims and Christians of all ethnic groups and races.

I think the critics of “The Thirteenth Tribe” got it wrong: Koestler was writing as much about the clash of civilizations – Christian, Turkic, Jewish, Muslim – as about the origins of European Judaism. In this respect, Koestler anticipated historian Samuel P. Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order,” a 1996 book that also generated a great deal of controversy. Huntington was attacked as racist, among other faults, for daring to tell the truth about militant Islam and other strong beliefs confronting a Europe or North America afraid to be seen as anything less than Politically Correct.

Also, I think Koestler got a kick writing about the fighting Jews of Khazaria. Their enemies described them as being much like the pillagers in the Capital One credit card commercials. Most accounts, including the entry on the Khazars in my 1962 Encyclopedia Britannica, describe Jewish ruling class Khazars as tolerant of Christianity and Islam among their subjects, much like the tolerance of the Ottoman Empire.

Before he became a communist, Koestler spent time in Palestine in the late 1920s and was an ardent Zionist, a faith he abandoned – much as he discarded communism. In “The Thirteenth Tribe” – the reference is to the traditional 12 tribes of ancient Israel – Koestler doesn’t deny the Old Testament so much as update it to the time of the Khazars. Anyone reading “The Thirteenth Tribe” – as opposed to reading about it – will be struck by Koestler’s knowledge of the Bible, which he cites numerous times. He discusses the widespread intermarriage of various ethnic groups during biblical times and later, including the Khazar era.

Cesarani – as well as the excellent Wikipedia entry on Koestler – devotes much space to Arthur Koestler’s love life. He was married three times: to Dorothy Asher from 1935 to 1950, Mamaine Paget from 1950 to 1952 and Cynthia Jefferies from 1965 to 1983. In fact, the suicide of Cynthia Jeffries Koestler at the same time Koestler killed himself, stirred up still more controversy about a man already steeped in notoriety. Although Koestler was suffering from Parkinson’s disease and was an advocate of euthanasia, Cynthia was in her 50s and in good health. During, before and after his marriages, Koestler had countless affairs. Despite his often bullying, cavalier treatment of women, he was never short of female companionship. To paraphrase the Mel Brooks character in “History of the World Part I” : It’s good to be an intellectual in Europe – at least during Koestler’s heyday!

In common with Vladimir Nabokov (“Lolita”, “Pale Fire”, etc.) and Joseph Conrad (“The Heart of Darkness”), Koestler was one of those Europeans who adopted English as a second or third language and became masters of a difficult tongue, even for native speakers of English. Cesarani quotes George Steiner on Koestler and his adoption of English from his native German and Hungarian: “A great writer driven from language to language by social upheaval and war is an appropriate symbol for the age of the refugee.”

Summing up: Arthur Koestler is not only an important figure in 20th Century intellectual history, he’s an outstanding, very readable writer on a wide variety of subjects. We should follow the advice of Ecclesiasticus (Sirach), Chapter 44, Verse 1: “Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.”

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