The Casanova of Causes

How Arthur Koestler embodied the 20th century.

History is a brutal sieve. Arthur Koestler is remembered now—if at all—for writing Darkness at Noon, a hand grenade of a novel tossed at Joseph Stalin’s Kremlin. Those 200 pages are all we retain of an intellectual nomad who stormed across the 20th century. He seems to have been everywhere, like an angry, book-spewing Zelig. Even a thumbnail summary makes me feel exhausted (deep breath): He grew up in the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, witnessing revolutions and counter-revolutions. He was one of the first Zionist settlers in Palestine. He became a star in the Berlin of Sally Bowles’ cabarets and a rising Adolf Hitler. He was jailed and nearly shot by Gen. Franco. He fled the Nazis through Casablanca, Morocco. He gave Albert Camus a black eye, George Orwell a holiday home, and Soviet communism an enema. He had sex with supermodel twins, took magic mushrooms with Timothy Leary *, and helped create Intelligent Design. Oh—and he was a rapist.

Michael Scammell’s terrific new biography—Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic—scrapes together a contradictory life that amounts to far more than the single novel that keeps him on our bookshelves. George Steiner said of him: “There are men and women who seem to embody the times in which they live. Somehow their biographies take on and make more visible to the rest of us the shape and meaning of the age.” This is truer of Koestler than Scammell knows. He was not a “skeptic” at all. Like the century he embodies, he skipped from one utopian fantasy to another, drinking the dream dry and then tossing it aside with disgust. Yes, he glimpsed darkness at noon—but he always saw another blinding light at 2 p.m. His life is a parable about the dangers of utopianism—and why it will always leave you with a vomit-flecked hangover.

Koestler was a 5-foot-6-inch cocktail of raw nerve endings and neat booze, prone to hurling restaurant tables across the room if you argued with him over dinner. He was born in 1905, and he nearly killed his mother there and then. She was 34—a seriously old age at that time to have your first child. The labor took two agonising days. Koestler liked later to claim his family had flared up from nothing into sudden wealth and then vanished into exile or the gas chambers. It wasn’t true: His mother was from one of the richest Jewish families in Austro-Hungary. But Koestler wanted to deny everything about her, always. She was ill and depressive, and even trips to Sigmund Freud couldn’t iron her out: She said he was “a pervert.” Her sniping rejections of her son—and her abandonment of him for years as she went off on “rest cures”—created in him a sense of guilt and inferiority that became his conjoined twin.

He was a sullen, friendless boy, passively absorbing all the anti-Semitic hatreds of the time and turning them on himself. It was only in his late teens that he found his first true family: He joined the Jewish frat-houses of Vienna. He compared their bouts of drinking and duelling to group therapy, stripping away his shyness. But in his university, Jews were being beaten with sticks by angry mobs howling “Jews out!” Then, one day, a visiting doctor delivered a lecture saying there was a new world waiting for the Jews, to be built in Palestine. It was to be Koestler’s first intellectual intoxication.

The template for all his ideological intoxications begins here, with the promise of a promised land. As he wrote later: “To say that one had ‘seen the light’ is a poor description of the mental rapture which only the convert knows. … The new light seems to pour across the skull. … There is now an answer to every question. Doubts and conflicts are a matter of the tortured past—a past already remote, when one had lived in dismal ignorance in the tasteless, colorless world of those who don’t know.”

He saw the creation of Israel as a cure for his Jewishness, which he regarded as a curse. He raged against the “intelligent monkey face” of Jews with “thick, curved noses, fleshy lips and liquid eyes,” saying they resembled the “masks of archaic reptiles.” Only in their own country—away from the paralyzing ghettos of Europe—could Jews become “normal.” Characteristically, he immediately converted to the most hardcore strain of Zionism available—one preached by Vladimir Jabotinsky, who demanded the immediate bombing of British imperial forces in Palestine and the total ethnic cleansing of Arabs from the river to the sea. The very act of fighting would redeem the “effeminate” Jews.

Koestler charged off to Palestine—but the recoil was immediate. He wrote: “I found myself in a rather dismal and slumlike oasis in the wilderness consisting of wooden huts surrounded by dreary vegetable plots.” He was a frat boy sent to dig cabbage patches for the settlers. They soon rejected him, and he grew bored. “I had gone to Palestine as a young enthusiast,” he said, but instead of the Promised Land, “I had found reality, an extremely complex reality which attracted and repelled me.” He could see that innocent Palestinians lived there and didn’t deserve to be driven out of their homes—but he shunted this aside, saying he would develop “schizophrenia” if he thought about it too much. On a steamship home, he met a girl who told him there was another promised land waiting—and its messiah was named Lenin.

There is a bizarre doubleness to Koestler. He can always see—with clinical precision—why he was wrong to be swept away by the last ideology, even as he is hurtling into the next. He went to the Soviet Union and trained himself not to see. Yes, the starved famine victims lay slumped all around, dying in their millions. Yes, the prisons he glanced at were full of innocents. But he went home and wrote a passionately pro-Soviet book that didn’t mention them once. The Soviet Union promised a Paradise beyond scarcity or pain. That vision, conjured in words, seemed more real to him than the actual country screaming into his ear.

Like so many intellectuals of his generation, he flocked to the Spanish Civil War, an apocalyptic showdown between the left and fascism. When the Republican troops fled from Malaga, he stayed to witness their arrival—a moment of real courage—and was captured. In Franco’s dank cells, he experienced a transformation: He saw the importance of individual freedom for the first time. When he was released, he met with a friend in France who had been held in a Soviet jail—and saw it as an epiphany when he realized her experience under communism was exactly the same as his under the fascists.

He became, in a sudden stride, one of the great left-wing opponents of communism. In a fever, he wrote Darkness at Noon, the story of a senior revolutionary who is jailed and is so convinced by the rightness of the cause that he accepts his own execution—even though he had done nothing. It was the story of the show trials, as told from within. He was describing his own turmoil from the inside. Koestler was always at his best when he was experiencing an ideological collapse: He could, for a moment, be honest and describe things as he experienced them. As France fell to the Nazis, Koestler was detained again and escaped again.

After the war, he played a crucial role in exposing the despicable apologism for Soviet tyranny on much of the European left. He fell out with Jean-Paul Sartre (and slept with Sartre’s lover, too) and damned Bertolt Brecht, who remained silent even after his first wife “disappeared.” But he could only admit so much reality before his need for a world stripped of ambiguity kicked in again. He started to preach an uncritical support for U.S. foreign policy that was almost as simplistic. He scorned those who said Western Europe should be an independent, democratic third force, declaring: “There will either be a Pax Americana or there will be no Pax.” To those who pointed out this “Pax” didn’t look so peaceful when it was toppling democracies in Iran, Guatemala, and Chile, he had no answer but rage.

Yet Koestler is unusual in the history of fanaticism, because he could—at times, and incredibly vividly—diagnose his own fanaticism. He referred to himself as the “Casanova of causes,” wooing them tenderly, bedding them, and then storming out in the morning without leaving his phone number. This may have been due to his brain chemistry. Koestler seems to have been manic-depressive, medicating himself with enough alcohol to stun a mule. It meant he couldn’t stay with a cause for long. Yet even as he ditched Messiahs in his life, he never ditched messianism.

He said he was cursed with “absolutitis”: When a cause didn’t offer him absolute salvation, he would discard it in despair and try to find another with the same promise. The one possibility he never explored for long is the only real answer to suffering—incremental democratic reform. Real improvements in human societies almost always come inch-by-inch, without any grand map of a perfect world. If you demand perfection, you can only be disappointed; if you demand improvement, you can succeed—and build enough hope to fight another day. On the few occasions when he tried this route, Koestler did his best work. He was one of the leaders of the campaign to abolish the death penalty in Britain. He set up an excellent charity to help rehabilitate prisoners. He gave a huge chunk of his income to house refugee writers from the Soviet block.

But he could never be satisfied with improvement—he demanded salvation. In his last few decades, this impulse led him to charge off in a bizarre direction. He became convinced there was a “controlling intelligence” in the universe—and it could be accessed via ESP, levitation, or magic mushrooms. He said Darwinism was wrong, and in its place, he tried to outline a “science” that would prove the universe was planned—anticipating the gibberish of the Christian-fundamentalist right. Then he announced all human beings had irredeemable defects in the brain that could be resolved by putting us all on tablets called “mental stabilizers.” All hope for politics gone, his last promised land lay in a bottle of pills.

In his excellent biography, Scammell tells all this is plain and cool writing that makes Koestler seem all the more feverish. Yet he falters when it comes to dissecting Koestler’s greatest flaw: his abuse of women. Koestler’s first wife got him rescued from Franco’s prisons—but when the Nazis invaded France, he abandoned her and took another woman to safety. Koestler’s second wife was seriously ill—but he still punched her in the head. Koestler’s third wife was only 55 and entirely healthy when he committed suicide after contracting Parkinson’s—but he still let her kill herself with him. Koestler wrote: “Without an element of initial rape, there is no delight.” Jill Craigie—one of Britain’s best feminist writers—revealed after his death that one morning Koestler had pulled her hair, throttled her, and raped her. But Scammell says we need to keep it “in proportion,” and claims “the exercise of male strength to gain sexual satisfaction wasn’t exactly uncommon at that time.” But throttling a woman and forcing her into sex was regarded as a serious crime then. To excuse it is beneath a writer of Scammell’s caliber.

In a century of serial fanaticisms, Arthur Koestler embodied both the disease and the cure. He was a fanatic capable of sobering up, an ideologue who occasionally let reality in through the cracks. He never led us to the promised land—but he did show us why it is a mirage, dragging us away from the real and relentless work of reform.

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Correction, Dec. 21, 2009: This piece originally misspelled Timothy Leary’s name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)