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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Koestler

I’m spending a fair amount in the past these days. Not my own but of historical figures – eg the incredible group assembled by Peter Watson in his German Genius; Miklos Banffy’s novels and diaries about life and events in Translyvania andAustro-Hungary in the first few decades of the 20th century (I have just received his diaries); and some portraits of Berlin in the 1920s (by Otto Friedrich and Count Harry Kessler).
One thing it brings home is the exceptional nature of the normality in which I grew up and lived (the last 50 years). Now we face the turmoil which was normal for central Europeans in the first half of the twentieth century and have, I suspect, become so spoiled as to be unable to cope with what the future holds. 

One man perhaps embodies (by his life and open writings) that older generation - and that is Arthur Koestler (born in Hungary in 1905 and died in London in 1983). I have just finished his remarkable biography Koestler – the indispensable intellectual by Michael Scammel. This is a masterly account and analysis of the life of a brilliant polymath, a deep and restless thinker, first, about the political and ethical problems of his time, and, later, about the place of humanity in the universe. He was an ex-Hungarian, an ex-Communist, an ex-Zionist. He was exuberantly "continental", a cosmopolitan, frequently moving homes from one country and even one continent to another; a journalist, a campaigner against capital punishment, a hectoring controversialist, a political novelist, a voluminous autobiographer. He was usually (but not always) selfish, financially generous, arrogant but self-critical, introspective, neurotic, a manic-depressive, mercurial, sparkling, hot-tempered and uninhibited in behaviour, competitive, both repellent and charismatic

His writing made a powerful impact on me in the late 1950s and early 1960s. His book against hanging is one of these rare books (like Zola’s) which changed public policy (it certainly convinced me). And his essay on why we laugh was, for me, the first example of popular science.

Koestler rose from the lowest rung of the journalism profession, to a threadbare starving novelist, and finally to a man of distinction and of letters. While still in his 20s, he was appointed to a senior position in the prestigious Ullstein publishing company - but was sacked in 1932 just after he joined the communist party.
He migrated to
Israel, became a Zionist and lived briefly in a Kibbutz. But later, as he did with Communism (after Stalin's "Show trials"), gave them both up. He was imprisoned by Franco in Spain, the Vichy French in France, barely escaped being caught by the Gestapo there, and served eight months in a British internment camp as a suspected communist agent and alien. He caroused with Albert Camus, Andre Malreaux, Jean Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, and Simone de Beauvoir, to name just a few. He interviewed Albert Einstein and published with Sigmund Freud.
After Stalin's Show trials punctured his utopian ideas about the Communist revolution, Koestler spent the rest of his life in search of the political and philosophical Holy Grail of a revolutionary political system that would not yield to the morally bankrupt "means-ends" calculus of absolute power. And although he never found it, most of his books, including his magnum opus "Darkness at Noon" were spent in search of a solution to this and similar overarching philosophical problems. Here is an interesting article written about his writing by one of his many friends - George Orwell which is, of course, as fresh today as then.

Koestler's intellect range over such a wide range of subjects, that today, being able to do so, would never be though of. He was equally facile in discussing Quantum Physics, Political Science, Psychology or art and Anthropology. It is the depth and breadth of his knowledge that makes Koestler seem like the last of the Twentieth Century Intellectual Renaissance men.
His autobiographical writings (eg The Invisible Writing) probably give the most powerful insights into the first part of the 20th century - but, suddenly, in the mid 1950s, he put politics behind him and turned to science and para-science. You feel that he had lived such an incredible life by the time he turned 50 that he needed to reinvent himself.    

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