He was a sleepwalker, who talked
by gershon hepner
incessantly about himself,
and took a lot of paths which forked.
His books are mainly on the shelf,
appearing to us to be less
about their subject than the man
who wrote them. Yet about the mess
that Europe would become his fan
would blow the shit, describing gods
that failed and darkness that at noon
crept up, defying all the odds
that Marxists thought were opportune.
Although he may have been a rapist,
admirers of his books attempted
to find excuses like a Papist
excusing Catholics who’re tempted,
and gain their absolution by
supporting the ideas they share.
This sleeping dog I think should lie
with all his lies, for all I care,
because he put himself above
his mother, lovers, friends and Jews.
His writings I find hard to love,
because they call for “I accuse.”
How strange that Walter Benjamin
once shared his morphine with him, to
integrity a lot more kin,
Though both died as Jews shouldn’t do,
Walter’s sad death would create,
I think, a tragedy can’t
be compensated, but not rate
this way death of the dilettante.
The price he paid for his rejection
of Jewish hallmarks was the starkness
of his own death, with diselection
by fellow Jews who left the darkness.
Christopher Caldwell reviews Michael Scammell’s “Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth Skeptic” (“Man of Darkness, ” NYT Book Review, December 27,2009) :
No other writer of the 20th century had Arthur Koestler’s knack for doing odd things, crossing paths with important people and being present when disaster struck. As a 27-year-old Communist he spent the famine winter of 1932-33 in Khar¬kov, amid millions of starving Ukrainians. Rushing southward through France ahead of the invading Nazi armies in 1940, he ran into the philosopher Walter Benjamin, who shared with him half the morphine tablets Benjamin would use, weeks later, to commit suicide. The Harvard drug guru Timothy Leary gave Koestler psilocybin in the mid-1960s, and Margaret Thatcher solicited his advice in her 1979 election campaign. Simone de Beauvoir slept with him but came to hate him, and in a fictional portrait described a blazing intelligence and a personality capable of sweeping people off their feet. Yet, although he wrote more than 30 books, Koestler is today known primarily, perhaps exclusively, as the author of “Darkness at Noon, ” his gripping short novel of Stalinist coercion. The biographer Michael Scammell wants to put Koestler’s multifaceted intelligence back on display and to show that something more than frivolity or opportunism lay behind his ever-shifting preoccupations and allegiances. As a source of information, “Koestler, ” the work of two decades, will never be surpassed. As an argument for the man’s importance, however, it must contend with the eccentricity of Koestler’s preoccupations and — although Scammell does not always seem to realize it — his vices.
Born in Budapest in 1905, Koestler grew up, he later said, “admired for my brains and detested for my character by teachers and schoolfellows alike.” His parents came from the cultured Jewish milieu of the Hapsburg twilight. They were at home in Vienna as well as Budapest, and financially well off until they were wiped out in the 1920s. Koestler’s Jewishness is a puzzle. He was a passionate Zionist, but his estimate of his Jewish contemporaries was low, almost anti-Semitic: they hadn’t “a single spark of true Bildung [cultivation], in Goethe’s sense of the word, ” he complained. His hero was the dashing Zeev Jabotinsky, whose Revisionist Zionism would flow into the hard-line Irgun group in the 1940s. Jabotinsky’s machismo offered Koestler, as Scammell insightfully puts it, “freedom from all those traits considered the hallmarks of a Jew.” Forsaking his education, Koestler moved to Palestine. Allergic to the hard physical labor it took to make the desert bloom, Koestler didn’t last long. Before he left Palestine, though, he had proved himself a brilliant, versatile and indefatigable journalist, and when he returned to Europe, he was swept away by a new enthusiasm. He became a Communist. He traveled to the Soviet Union, posing as a “bourgeois” journalist undergoing a conversion, and closed his eyes to teeming beggars there, not to mention the famine. The Party needed Koestler in Paris, where he worked for the arch-¬propagandist Willi Münzenberg. He promoted the Communist line in his journalism and books, particularly once the Spanish Civil War started….
The last hundred pages of Scammell’s book have an epilogue-y feel. In the mid-1950s Koestler fell out of love with international politics. He refused to make a public show of support for either the Hungarian uprising of 1956 or Israel in the 1967 war. It was now science that fascinated him. No previous biographer has been able to pivot with Koestler at this point, but Scammell, a first-class paraphraser, is up to the task. Some of Koestler’s late work is impressive: “The Sleepwalkers” is an account of the pioneers of modern astronomy that Thomas Kuhn credited with having anticipated the ideas in his classic, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” But there is a consistent note of autodidactic crankiness, too. Koestler’s enthusiasms included Lamarckian evolution, telepathy and ESP, a theory of creation that we would call intelligent design, levitation and the belief — laid out in his late book “The Thirteenth Tribe” — that Ashkenazi Jews are descended from the Khazars of the North Caucasus….
Scammell’s is an authorized biography and a sympathetic one. But the Koestler he depicts is consistently repugnant — humorless, megalomaniac, violent. Like many people concerned about “humanity, ” he was contemptuous of actual humans. He ignored and snubbed his mother (who had pawned her last diamond to pay for his passage to Palestine) , and he rebuffed every attempt to arrange a meeting between him and his illegitimate daughter. What made him such a creep? Perhaps alcohol — Koestler threw tables in restaurants and was arrested for drunken driving on many occasions. Perhaps insecurity — he was tormented by his shortness (barely 5 feet 6 inches) and used to stand on tippy-toe at cocktail parties. “We all have inferiority complexes of various sizes, ” Koestler’s Communist editor Otto Katz once told him. “But yours isn’t a complex — it’s a cathedral.”
In the late 1990s, Jill Craigie, the wife of the Labour politician Michael Foot, told Cesarani that Koestler had raped her decades earlier. The scandal that resulted when Cesarani’s own Koestler biography was published embroiled Scammell, who had defended Koestler in 1995 against an allegation of attempted rape made by Foot. Scammell argues here that “the exercise of male strength to gain sexual satisfaction wasn’t exactly uncommon at that time” and that “Craigie’s story and Cesarani’s embellishment of it have left a stain on Koestler’s reputation far larger than he deserves.” He is wrong. Posterity has let Koestler off lightly. Every scrap of evidence that Scammell himself has so impartially gathered argues in favor of crediting Craigie’s story. Bertrand Russell’s wife claimed Koestler tried to rape her, too. “Without an element of initial rape, ” Koestler wrote the woman who would be his second wife, “there is no delight.” One girlfriend called him “an odd mixture of consideration, thoughtfulness and extraordinary brutality.” Certain aspects of Koestler’s sexism — in particular, his expectation that his girlfriends serve him as stenographers and maids — are indeed mitigated by the era in which he lived. His pattern of predation and violence, though, is a vice of a different order. It shocked those who encountered it.
Cyril Connolly was right to see Koestler as a journalist of genius. In this Koestler can be likened to the three contemporaries — Albert Camus, Whittaker Chambers and George Orwell — who were his closest allies. If Koestler had a wider intellectual range than they, however, he had a narrower artistic one. It is a strange thing that this person known to the world primarily as a novelist can fairly be said not to have had a literary bone in his body. The critic Leslie Fiedler once remarked that “Promise and Fulfillment, ” Koestler’s 1949 book about Israel, should be filed “under K for Koestler, not I for Israel.” The point can be made more generally: In print as in life, he was driven by ego, not principle. His subject was himself. And yet, at a moment when the ghastliness of Soviet Communism was still invisible to a lot of thinking people, this apparently conscienceless man awakened the conscience of the West.