A Hungarian ET

Arthur Koestler
February 19, 1999

Joseph Rotblat says Koestler was not so much a Wandering Jew as.

I was never a member of the Arthur Koestler fan club. My direct contact with him was minimal: he telephoned me one day, in the early 1970s, to inquire about Pugwash activities, and soon this developed into a sterile argument. Like most intellectuals in the postwar period, I read his newspaper articles and quite a few of his books. I agreed with some of his public campaigns (eg on capital punishment) and disagreed with many of his scientific and philosophical speculations (eg on the paranormal). But my main dislike and mistrust of Koestler relates to the history of his membership of the Communist Party and later conversion. It contrasted so sharply with my own experience.

Koestler and I were contemporaries (he was three years older), and in many ways our backgrounds were very similar. We both came from Eastern Europe; he being born in Budapest and I in Warsaw. Due to the upheavals of the first world war, I was forced to start working for a living at an early age. It was hard physical labour, poorly paid, and it was natural that I should identify myself with the working class. My political views were (and still are) at the near left of the spectrum, but although I was never a member of a political party, I manifested my protest against the semi-fascist regime in Poland by joining First-of-May demonstrations, which often had bloody endings, with the police shooting into the crowd.

The Communist Party was illegal in Poland in those days, but - partly because of this - many young people from middle-class families were lured into membership of the secret "cells" through which the party operated. During my student days, in the early 1930s, my colleagues kept urging me to join them. Eventually I agreed to come to a meeting of one of the student cells. There were about 15 of us young people, with one somewhat older person, the leader of the cell and our contact with the party. At that time, one of the tasks of cells was to plant pieces of red cloth in prominent places, mainly on roofs of buildings. Although they were promptly removed by the police, this action was considered to be an important symbolic gesture, demonstrating the continuing existence of the party. Our leader presented to us the plan of action, with specific assignments to members. While listening to him it struck me that what he was proposing was rather inept, and so I began to say: "I think it would be better if..." when I was stopped by the leader. "Comrade, you are not here to entertain us with your thoughts, but to carry out the orders from the party transmitted through me." When I recovered from the shock, I got up and left the meeting. Thus came to an end my first and only direct encounter with the Communist Party.

As it happened, this episode coincided in time with Koestler's becoming a member of the Communist Party in Germany, which was then still legal. Koestler was a highly intelligent person and a very keen observer of events around him, as is evident from his hugely successful journalistic career. He was not a party hack, happy to let others do the thinking for him. He had a sharp, critical mind, again evident from his later career. Yet he fully submitted to the totalitarian regime and faithfully followed the party line, even though this line changed radically several times, to suit not the Communist ideology but the national interests of the Soviet Union. Moreover, Koestler had the unique opportunity to note directly the consequences of the Soviet regime. He travelled widely in Russia, Ukraine and several Asian republics and observed at first hand the terrible suffering and exploitation of the people. Twenty years later he described it all, vividly and with much passion. Long before it became known outside, he was aware of Stalin's horrifying methods of dealing with genuine or conjured-up opposition and the shameful trials of veteran leaders, all later described in his books. But with all this experience and knowledge, he stayed a member of the party, and remained active in it, for seven years.

To me this conduct was utterly inexplicable. I could not understand how a man of integrity would, year after year, work for a cause that he knew was wrong. My conclusion was that he had no integrity. Perhaps unfairly, I extended this attitude of mistrust to his political campaigns after his conversion and even to other of his activities.

Any qualms that I had about this were dissolved after reading the very comprehensive biography of Koestler by David Cesarani. What emerges from this massive tome is a picture of a man endowed with a brilliant mind and great literary talent, but also with abominable personal characteristics. Koestler contributed significantly to the intellectual life and political debate in the postwar period; he captivated huge audiences with his writings and speeches, and became an icon for some strata in society. Some even found good words to say about his personality: he was generous, charming, funny, interesting. But the list of negative attributes is very much longer. In one sentence in the book he is described as "intemperate, obsessive, egomaniacal, bullying, petty, selfish, arrogant, lecherous, duplicitous and self-deluding", and the events chronicled by Cesarani fully justify these epithets.

Koestler was odd as well as odious. Highly talented people are often "highly strung" and obnoxious in their personal behaviour; this is tolerated as the price of genius. But this cannot excuse Koestler's excesses, some of which were criminal. In his womanising, he resorted to rape; the book describes the raping of the wife of one of his best friends. This episode came to light just before publication of the book and will come as a shock to many of his admirers. It has already resulted in the removal of Koestler's bust from the foyer of Edinburgh University, after female students threatened to deface it.

Other, less shocking, events described in the book bring out the odd traits in his personality. One is lack of endurance, quickly getting fed up with whatever activity he was pursuing. This was evident from the beginning of his career. Thus, he never completed his university studies in science and engineering. He went to Israel to work on a kind of kibbutz but left after a few months. It was also a feature of his later life: he was a co-founder of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, but resigned from it soon after its formation; he did the same in the anti-hanging campaign. To some extent this was due to his inability to get on with people, but mainly, it seems, to his restlessness, never being able to settle down, feeling an alien even amid his adoring coterie.

Although he presented himself as a champion of democracy he had a tendency towards extremes in his political activities. When, in his early youth, he became an active Zionist, he joined the revisionist party led by Vladimir Jabotinsky, a fascist group that advocated militancy and later was responsible for terrorist acts in Israel. After he resigned from the Communist Party, his anti-Communist campaigns brought him near the unsavoury company of US senator Joe McCarthy; the whole Cultural Freedom Campaign was financed by the CIA.

Koestler played an important role in changing attitudes towards Communist Russia. His novel Darkness at Noon, published in 1940, was one of the first to reveal the horrors of the Stalinist regime. For this he certainly deserved public acclaim, but his extremism led him to become a cold-war warrior. To some extent he is responsible for the myth that the Soviet Union was preparing a military attack on the West, a myth that led to the arms race and the build-up of obscenely huge nuclear arsenals.

Koestler's oddness is particularly evident in his writing on science, which became the major preoccupation in his later years. In this area too he made significant contributions, mainly of a historical nature, with his essays on Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo. But when he went on from this to push his own ideas on the methodology of science, he found himself in conflict with conventional wisdom. His attempts to bridge C. P. Snow's gap of the two cultures, by postulating that science and the arts have the same origin in some magic force, led him to astonishing pronouncements: "I the equation of science with logic and reason I is a blatant popular fallacy. No discovery has ever been made by logical deduction."

Koestler's theories of creation took him further and further away from established positions in science, and eventually to an obsession with parapsychology and extra-sensory perception. One bizarre example is the Daedalus Project, an unsuccessful attempt to prove experimentally the existence of levitation. In his will, Koestler left the bulk of his estate for the foundation of a chair in parapsychology. Several universities in England (Cambridge, Oxford, London) that were approached about setting up the chair rejected the offer, viewing the whole idea as ridiculous. Eventually, the University of Edinburgh accepted the benefaction, and a department of parapsychology was established; this seems to be the only lasting legacy of Koestler's scientific thoughts.

Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind is, in effect, a chronicle of events; a very well-documented, blow-by-blow account of Koestler's life, in which personal habits, domestic quarrels, social contacts, political campaigns, summaries of works, are all narrated in the same breath. However, the last chapter contains the author's own assessment of Koestler.

As a professor of modern Jewish history, Cesarani believes that Koestler's Jewishness is fundamental to understanding the man and his activities, even though Koestler himself, after flirting with Zionism in his early years, was anxious to distance himself from the Jewish community and felt uncomfortable being a Jew. Cesarani sees Koestler as the epitome of the Wandering Jew: "I the classic homeless mind: the emigre in search of roots, the secular sceptic yearning for a faith and a Messiah." And he concludes:

"So Koestler condemned himself to homelessness. All that remained were the ideas he dragged about with him like Job I from place to place. Home finally was mind; home was homelessness; Koestler was the homeless mind."

True perhaps, but some of it may be due to another reason: being Hungarian. The great physicist Enrico Fermi once speculated on the existence of intelligent life on planets of other suns. With the infinite number of stars in the universe, living creatures must have evolved on many planets, and some should have reached a level of technology to enable them to travel to our solar system. If so, he asked, where are they? Leo Szilard gave a prompt reply: "They are among us, but they call themselves Hungarians!" Arthur Koestler's life marks him as an ET - par excellence .

Sir Joseph Rotblat, Nobel laureate, was a founder of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.

Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind

Author - David Cesarani
ISBN - 0 434 11305 0
Publisher - Heinemann
Price - £25.00
Pages - 646

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