Arthur Koestler

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Arthur Koestler

Born Kösztler Artúr
5 September 1905
Died 3 March 1983
Occupation Novelist, Essayist, Journalist
Nationality Hungarian, French, British
Ethnicity Jewish/Hungarian
Citizenship Naturalized British subject
Writing period 1934-1984
Subjects Politics, Philosophy, Psychology, Parapsychology, Science
Notable work(s) Darkness at Noon
Notable award(s) Sonning Prize (1968)
CBE (1972)

Arthur Koestler CBE (September 5, 1905, BudapestMarch 3, 1983, London) was a Jewish-Hungarian polymath author who became a naturalized British subject. In 1931, he joined the Communist Party, but left the party seven years later, after emigrating to the United Kingdom. By the late 1940s, he was one of the most recognized and outspoken British anti-communists. He wrote numerous books, of which the most famous is the novel Darkness at Noon about the Great Purge in the Soviet Union, an indictment of Stalinism.


[edit] Life

He was born Kösztler Artúr (Hungarian names have the surname first) in Budapest, Austria-Hungary, to a German-speaking Hungarian family of Ashkenazi Jewish descent. His father, Henrik, was a prosperous start-up industrialist and inventor. His great business success was a "health" soap, which substituted conventional soaps based on animal fats (scarce during the WWI). Henrik's mineral soaps were thought to have health qualities thanks to their weak radioactivity, which in those times was considered curative. When Artur was 14, his family moved to Vienna. It was at this age which he had a "mystical experience", which perhaps gave rise to his later interest in the paranormal.[1]

Koestler studied science and psychology at the University of Vienna, where he became President of a Zionist student fraternity. A month before he was due to finish his studies, he burnt his matriculation book and did not take his final examinations but made "aliyah" to Israel (then a British Mandate). From 1926 to 1929 he lived in the British Mandate of Palestine, firstly in a kibbutz in the Jezreel Valley ("Heftzibah"), and later in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where he almost starved. He left Palestine for Paris as a correspondent to the Ullstein-Verlag group of German newspapers. A year later he became science editor for Ullstein based in Berlin; a highlight of that post was membership in a 1931 Zeppelin expedition to the North Pole.

He joined the Communist Party of Germany in 1931, but left it after the Moscow trials of 1938. During this period he traveled extensively in the Soviet Union and climbed Mount Ararat in Turkey. In Turkmenistan, he met the Black American writer Langston Hughes. He worked also for the Komintern propaganda services and went three times to Spain, as correspondent of the British paper News Chronicle. During the Spanish Civil War, he was captured after the takeover of Málaga in 1937 by Francoists and sentenced to death, but later exchanged so he could return to the United Kingdom. His Spanish experience and the Moscow trials turned him into an anti-Communist.[2] The account of his Spanish experience was told in Spanish Testament.

In his memoir The Invisible Writing, Koestler recalls that during the summer of 1935 he "wrote about half of" a sequel to the satirical novel The Good Soldier Schweik, "called The Good Soldier Schweik Goes to War Again. It had been commissioned by Willi Münzenberg [the Comintern's chief propagandist in the West] ... but was vetoed by the Party on the grounds of the book's 'pacifist errors' ..." (p. 283).

Soon after the outbreak of World War II, the French authorities detained him for several months as a resident alien in Vernet Internment Camp[3] in the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains. Upon his release, he joined the French Foreign Legion. He eventually escaped to England via Morocco and Portugal. In England, he served in the British Army as a member of the Pioneer Corps, 1941-42, then worked for the BBC. He became a British subject in 1945, and returned to France after the war, where he rubbed shoulders with the set gravitating around Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir (one of the characters in de Beauvoir's novel The Mandarins is believed to be based on Koestler).

Koestler returned to London and spent the rest of his life writing and lecturing. In June 1950, Koestler attended and delivered the keynote address at a conference of anti-Communist intellectuals in Berlin that led to the founding of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. He was made a Commander in the Order of the British Empire in the 1970s.

In 1983, suffering from Parkinson's disease and leukemia, Koestler purposefully committed joint suicide with his third wife, Cynthia, by taking an overdose of drugs, in keeping with his beliefs as a member of the Hemlock Society. He had long been an advocate of voluntary euthanasia, and in 1981 had become vice president of EXIT (now the United Kingdom's Voluntary Euthanasia Society).

[edit] Speaking out against Nazi atrocities during World War II

During the Second World War, Koestler continually spoke out against the atrocities of the Nazi regime in Germany — his Central European Jewish family background made him particularly involved in a way that many British and United States politicians were not. Witnessing firsthand the growth of extremist tendencies in the region no doubt added to his resolve.

Koestler and a minority of writers and public figures believed that if they sufficiently described the horrors being committed in Europe in news media and public meetings, the West would be spurred to action. Despite their efforts, these protests often fell on deaf ears. Capturing their frustration, Koestler called these people "the screamers". In 1944, he wrote:

We, the screamers, have been at it now for about ten years. We started on the night when the epileptic van der Lubbe set fire to the German Parliament; we said that if you don't quench those flames at once, they will spread all over the world; you thought we were maniacs. At present we have the mania of trying to tell you about the killing — by hot steam, mass-electrocution, and live burial — of the total Jewish population of Europe. So far three million have died. It is the greatest mass killing in recorded history; and it goes on daily, hourly, as regularly as the ticking of your watch. I have photographs before me on the desk while I am writing this, and that accounts for my emotion and bitterness.[4]

Despite these frustrations, Koestler and "the screamers" continued their campaign until the late stages of the war.

[edit] Multilingualism

In addition to his mother tongue German, and the Hungarian of his homeland, Koestler became fluent in English, and French, and knew some Hebrew and Russian. His biographer David Cesarani claims there is some evidence that Koestler may have picked up some Yiddish from his grandfather. Koestler's multilingualism was principally due to his having resided, worked, or studied in Hungary, Austria, Germany, Palestine (pre-1948 Israel), the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and France, all by 40 years of age.

Though he wrote the bulk of his later work in English, Koestler wrote his best-known novels in three different languages: The Gladiators in Hungarian, Darkness at Noon in German (although the original is now lost), and Arrival and Departure in English. His journalism was written in German, Hebrew, French and English, and he even produced the first Hebrew language crossword puzzles and wrote the sketches for the first Hebrew cabaret ("HaMatateh").

[edit] Women

Koestler was married successively to Dorothy Asher (1935–50), to Mamaine Paget (1950–52), and to Cynthia Jefferies (1965–83). He also conducted a very short liaison with French writer Simone de Beauvoir.

Biographer David Cesarani, in his Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind (1998)[page number needed], claimed that Koestler beat and raped several women, including film director Jill Craigie, wife of Michael Foot. The resulting protests led to the removal of a bust of Koestler from public display at the University of Edinburgh.

Craige biographer[5], Carl Rollyson, said: “It is clear from my research that there is no doubt the rape happened.

“She told a couple of very close friends at the time. I called Ronald Neame in Beverly Hills and he did not realise this was a subject of controversy in Britain. He said, ‘In that case, yes. I have told nobody about it all these years, not even my wife.’ He went on to talk about how Jill had confided in him, asking what should she do and how she should handle it.

“Essentially he told her to keep it in confidence, not to tell anyone and absolutely not to go to the police because the repercussions for Michael [Foot]’s public figure were too horrendous.”

“I also talk about the challenge that was mounted by, among other people, Scammell. But when I asked him if he maintains that this rape didn’t occur, he said, ‘On balance I believe the evidence shows that it did occur’. He has changed his mind.”[6]

[edit] Honours

Koestler received the Sonning Prize from the University of Copenhagen, and an honorary doctorate from Queen's University, Ontario, in 1968. In 1972 he was appointed CBE, and in 1974 a companion of the Royal Society of Literature.[7]

[edit] Mixed legacy

Just as Darkness at Noon was selling well during the Cold War of the 1940s and '50s, Koestler announced his retirement from politics. Much of what he wrote thereafter revealed him as a multidisciplinary thinker[who?] whose work anticipated a number of trends by many years[who?]. He was among the first to experiment with LSD (in a laboratory). He also wrote about Japanese and Indian mysticism in The Lotus and the Robot (1960).

This originality resulted in an uneven set of ideas and conclusions. Topics covered by his works include creativity (Insight and Outlook, Act of Creation) and the history of science (The Sleepwalkers). In Act of Creation, he reported on Foerster's syndrome, the phenomenon of compulsive punning. Some of his other pursuits, such as his interest in the paranormal, his support for euthanasia, his theory of the origin of Ashkenazi Jews like himself, and his disagreement with Darwinism, are more controversial.

[edit] Politics

Koestler was involved in a number of political causes during his life, from Zionism and communism to anti-communism, voluntary euthanasia, and campaigns against capital punishment, particularly hanging. He was also an early advocate of nuclear disarmament.

[edit] Journalism

Until the bestseller status of Darkness at Noon made him financially comfortable, Koestler often earned his living as a journalist and foreign correspondent, trading on his ability to write quickly in several languages, and to acquire with facility a working knowledge of a new language. He wrote for a variety of newspapers, including Vossische Zeitung (science editor) and B.Z. am Mittag (foreign editor) in the 1920s. In the early 1930s, he worked for the Ullstein publishing group in Berlin and did freelance writing for the French press.

While covering the Spanish Civil War, in 1937, he was captured ; held for several months under sentence of death by the Falangists in Málaga, until the British Foreign Office negotiated his release. His Spanish Testament records these experiences, which he soon transformed into his classic prison novel Darkness at Noon. After his release from Spanish detention, Koestler worked for the News Chronicle, then edited Die Zukunft with Willi Münzenberg, an anti-Nazi, anti-Stalinist German language paper based in Paris, founded in 1938. During and after World War II, he wrote for a number of British and American papers, including The Sunday Telegraph, on various subjects. He was a frequent contributor to Encounter, one of the most influential periodicals of the Cold War period.

[edit] Paranormal and scientific interests

During the last 30 years of his life, Koestler wrote extensively on science and scientific practice. The post-modernist scepticism colouring much of this writing tended to alienate most of the scientific community[citation needed]. A case in point is his 1971 book The Case of the Midwife Toad about the biologist Paul Kammerer, who claimed to find experimental support for Lamarckian inheritance.

Koestler's trilogy culminating with The Ghost in the Machine and later Janus: A Summing Up bridges concepts of reductionism and holism with his systemic theory of Open Hierarchical Systems. Holons in a Holarchy have the dual tendency of integration and development and out of balance they tend to a pathology. He included his concept of Bisociation that became a profound basis for others' work on creativity and James Papez/Paul McLean's Schizophysiology to explain the often irrational behaviour of humans as part of Open Hierarchical Systems[citation needed].

Mysticism and a fascination with the paranormal imbued much of his later work, and greatly influenced his personal life. For some years following his death a Koestler Society in London promoted investigation of these and related subjects. He left a substantial part of his estate to establish the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at the University of Edinburgh dedicated to the study of paranormal phenomena. His The Roots of Coincidence makes an overview of the scientific research around telepathy and psychokinesis and compares it with the advances in quantum physics at that time. It mentions yet another line of unconventional research by Paul Kammerer, the theory of coincidence or synchronicity. He also presents critically the related writings of Carl Jung. More controversial were Koestler's studies of levitation and telepathy. Koestler had joined the SPR in 1950, but perhaps did not publicise this interest for fear of ridicule.[3]

[edit] Judaism

Although a lifelong atheist, Koestler's ancestry was Jewish. His biographer David Cesarani claimed that Koestler deliberately disowned his Jewish ancestry.

When Koestler resided in Palestine during the 1920s, he lived in a kibbutz. This experience provided background for his novel Thieves in the Night.

He supported the statehood of Israel, but remarked that the Balfour Declaration of 1917 amounted to "one nation solemnly promising to a second nation the country of a third."[8] However, he opposed a diaspora Jewish culture: In an interview published in the London Jewish Chronicle around the time of Israel's founding, Koestler maintained that all Jews should either migrate to Israel or else assimilate completely into their local cultures.(See "Judah at the Crossroads" in The Trail of the Dinosaur collection of essays.) As for Jewish culture in Israel, Koestler proposed that Israel drop the Hebrew alphabet for the Roman.[citation needed]

Koestler's book The Thirteenth Tribe (1976) advanced the controversial thesis that Ashkenazi Jews are not descended from the Israelites of antiquity, but from the Khazars, a Turkic people in the Caucasus who converted to Judaism in the 8th century and were later forced to move westwards into present-day Russia, Ukraine and Poland. Koestler stated that part of his intent in writing The Thirteenth Tribe was to defuse anti-Semitism by undermining the identification of European Jews with Biblical Jews, with the hope of rendering anti-Semitic epithets such as "Christ killers" inapplicable. Ironically, Koestler's thesis that Ashkenazi Jews are not Semitic has become an important claim of many anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist groups.

[edit] Hallucinogens

In November, 1960, Koestler participated in Timothy Leary's early experiments with psilocybin at Harvard. According to fellow participant Charles Olson, Koestler was distressed by the effects of the drug and isolated himself in an unfurnished bedroom in the Cambridge house Leary used for his project. Koestler again experimented with psilocybin at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, comparing this trip to Walt Disney's Fantasia.

In Return Trip to Nirvana, published in the Sunday Telegraph in 1967, Koestler wrote about the drug culture and his own experiences with hallucinogens. The article also challenged the defence of drugs in Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception:

[edit] Cultural influence and references

In his younger days, the singer Sting was an avid reader of Koestler. His band of the time, The Police, were to name one of their albums Ghost in the Machine after one of Koestler's books. Their album Synchronicity was also inspired by Koestler's The Roots of Coincidence, which discusses Carl Jung's theory of the same name. Koestler knew little about the burgeoning New Wave (music) scene, and is alleged to have said:

Look at this. Did you ever see a magazine called the New Musical Express? It turns out there is a pop group called The Police — I don't know why they are called that, presumably to distinguish them from the punks — and they've made an album of my essay The Ghost in the Machine. I didn't know anything about it until my clipping agency sent me a review of the record.[9]

Koestler bequeathed money for the The Koestler Trust, which helps prison inmates and detained psychiatric patients to express themselves creatively, as a means to rehabilitation. He also left money to endow the chair of parapsychology at the University of Edinburgh.

In April 2005, gypsy folk-rock band A Hawk and a Hacksaw released the album Darkness at Noon, named after Koestler's book.

The main character of Alex Proyas's science fiction film Knowing is named John Koestler (played by Nicolas Cage)

[edit] Books

  • 1980. Bricks to Babel. Random House, ISBN 0-394-51897-7. This 1980 anthology of passages from many of his books, described as "A selection from 50 years of his writings, chosen and with new commentary by the author", is a comprehensive introduction to Koestler's writing and thought.

[edit] Fiction

[edit] Drama

[edit] Autobiography

The books The Lotus and the Robot, The God that Failed, and Von weissen Nächten und roten Tagen, as well as his numerous essays, all contain autobiographical information.

[edit] Other non-fiction

[edit] Writings as a contributor

[edit] Biographies of Koestler

Langston Hughes's autobiography also documents their meeting in Turkestan during the Soviet era.

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ Fortean Times
  2. ^ Conte, Rafael (April 1, 1988). "Arthur Koestler, cinco años después" (in Spanish). El País. Retrieved on 2008-10-22. 
  3. ^ a b Arthur Koestler, Fortean Times
  4. ^ "On Disbelieving Atrocities", New York Times Magazine, January 1944 and reprinted in The Yogi and the Commissar, Macmillan (1945), pp. 88-92.
  5. ^ Rollyson, Carl (August 1, 2004) [2004] (in English) (Hardcover). To Be a Woman:The life of Jill Craigie (first ed.). Arum Press. pp. 288. ISBN 97818541909354. 
  6. ^ The Sunday Times: Craigie biography offers new evidence of Koestler’s rape. July 6, 2003
  7. ^ Kevin McCarron, ‘Koestler, Arthur (1905–1983)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 16 Feb 2008
  8. ^ Arthur Koestler, Promise and Fulfilment: Palestine 1917-1919 (New York: Macmillan, 1949, p. 22)
  9. ^ Cesarani, David (1999) Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind. Free Press.

[edit] External links

NAME Koestler, Arthur
DATE OF BIRTH 5 September 1905
PLACE OF BIRTH Budapest, Hungary
DATE OF DEATH 3 March 1983
PLACE OF DEATH London, England
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