Neglected Arthur Koestler was a man of the century

The Argument

An anti-totalitarian hero, he was an abrasive pioneer of much of the 1900s intellectual substance.

November 21, 1999|By Jonathan R. Cohen | Jonathan R. Cohen,Special to the Sun

A controversial biography of the nearly forgotten writer and social critic Arthur Koestler will soon be out, just in time make sure Koestler's name is added to the list of the most important people of the 20th century.

The book is controversial because of charges that its author, British historian David Ceasarini, fraudulently gained access to Koestler's literary estate. There is also the matter of Ceasarini's claim -- without much supporting evidence -- that Koestler was a serial rapist.

But if "Arthur Koestler, The Homeless Mind" (Free Press, 656 pp. $30) has its problems, and it does -- among them a clunky and repetitive style -- it deserves credit, too. It reminds us how important a role this intellectual adventurer played in some of the most crucial events of the 20th century.

His words and deeds stand as an uncanny reflection of the ideas and movements that have shaped our world.

Born in Hungary to Jewish parents in 1905 and educated in Austria, Koestler was a true man of Middle Europe: a brooding, complicated, brilliant bundle of intense energy. Seducing women, undertaking dangerous reporting assignments, getting into drunken brawls with the likes of Sartre and Camus, Koestler was a force of nature, a Zelig-like figure shaping history on the scene as events unfolded.

In describing Koestler's perpetual motion, Ceasrini writes stiffly of "the post-modern experience," the "exhaustion of modernity" and other fuzzy concepts. Koestler himself was far more vivid. In his highly esteemed 1952 autobiography, "Arrow in the Blue," he explained his ideological and sexual restlessness as a case of "emotional measles" that turned him into a "Casanova of Causes" in matters of politics and women alike.

The tales of his youthful adventuring are epic, and they set the pattern for a life of unending quests. In 1925 he dropped out of the University of Vienna, where he led a notorious Jewish student drinking society, Unitas, to become a Zionist pioneer in the early years of the British Mandate.

Unable to make a living off the land, he ended up broke but ambitious in Paris. As a rising young journalist for Germany's Ullstein press, he managed to be the exclusive reporter on the Graf Zepplin's dramatic 1931 exploration of the Arctic Circle. Later, he supported himself by writing bogus sex studies and manuals -- early forerunners of the "Kinsey Report" and the "Joy of Sex."

More noteworthy were his exposes of Nazi Germany at a time when most of the world preferred to appease Hitler rather than face the truth. In the famous "Brown Book," he documented the Nazi's role in the Reichstag fire of 1933.

Falsely blamed on the Communists, it was the pretext for Hitler declaring a dictatorship.

At substantial personal risk, Koestler repeatedly got behind the Fascist lines in the Spanish Civil War to report how Germany was far from neutral in its support of Franco. "Scum of the Earth" is his first-hand account of capture and incarceration in the concentration camps for Spanish leftists. A major literary event when it was published, it is still regarded as a classic work. Koestler also was among the first to disseminate eyewitness accounts of the Nazi death camps smuggled to the West from Switzerland in 1943.

Koestler is best remembered, however, as a former spy and propagandist for the Communist International, who renounced communism well before other leading public figures. He was among the first and most successful in unmasking the Soviet Union as Nazi Germany's evil twin.

His most famous work among scores of books and articles is "Darkness at Noon." Written in 1940, seven years before George Orwell's "Animal Farm," it delivered a searing, irrefutable account of Stalin's purge trials. Unlike with the treatment of Orwell's masterworks by many left-wing critics, there was no mistaking Koestler's depiction of the Soviet Union for England or the United States.

Soviet sympathizers could not diffuse the power of "Darkness at Noon's" indictment through the devious trick of moral equivalency that plagues Orwell's legacy to this day.

Had Koestler's career ended with "Darkness at Noon," it would have been enough to rank him among the most influential men of his time. It was that important. But there is more to his story that tracks the odd twists and turns of the 20th Century right up to the present.

As with his involvement with communism, Koestler's complicated personal relationship with Israel and Judaism reflected a set of broadly shared and disturbing complications.

As a young man, Koestler was something of a protege of the great Zionist Vladimir Jabotinsky. Through the early part of his life, his writings about the struggle to build a Jewish state in Palestine helped sway public opinion in support of Israel. Yet he was famously ambivalent about Jews and Judaism, often to the point of outright anti-Semitism.

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