Heart of Darkness

by Michael Kimmage
Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic
By Michael Scammell
(Random House, 720 pages, $35)
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Koestler’s journey to anti-communism went through Spain, where he had traveled as a journalist and as a communist. Arrested amid the chaos of the Spanish Civil War, Koestler entered “the twilight world of ideological outcasts and political prisoners,” in Scammell’s words. There he came to feel that charity is “not a petty-bourgeois sentiment but one of the gravitational forces which keeps civilization in its orbit,” in Koestler’s words. This banal insight, when applied to Stalin’s ruthlessness, toppled his faith in Soviet virtue, leading Koestler to Darkness at Noon and to a career of anti-communist advocacy.

In an entry for The God That Failed, a 1949 compendium of autobiographical essays on communism, Koestler chronicled his communist years with such lucidity and eloquence that his essay became a classic of political self-analysis. As the Cold War took shape, Koestler immersed himself in anti-communist conferences and organizations, lending them the luster of his name. Koestler the Cold Warrior sought proximity to the new “‘seat of the Holy Roman Empire,’” as he described Washington, D.C., and for a few years he lived in the U.S.

Koestler traced “the spiritual crisis of the west” — of which communism and fascism were comparably symptomatic — back to the scientific revolution of the 17th century. Not fully secular and not at all pious, Koestler worried less about the conflict between faith and reason than about the divorce between science and culture. For him, modern culture had failed to humanize “the ideology of the Enlightenment,” and too often a harsh Enlightenment ideology was able to dominate Western culture. The first half of the 20th century had registered abuses of political rationality aligned with the Enlightenment. The century’s second half, Koestler feared, might witness a similar abuse of scientific rationality. Thus, he applied the dissolvent of his skepticism to modern science, in book after book, risking ridicule in his explorations of parapsychology and extrasensory perception.

Scammell begins and ends his authorized biography with the double suicide of Koestler and his wife Cynthia. The 78-year-old Koestler was suffering from Parkinson’s disease and leukemia; his younger wife was healthy at the time of his death. This macabre event cast a shadow over Koestler’s overall reputation, as did posthumous revelations of womanizing, including an allegation of rape, which Scammell moderates to “an unfortunate encounter.”

Scammell’s intent is to rescue Koestler from undeserved neglect, to claim him as more than a period-piece anti-communist (or intellectual rogue), and to present his “fusion of autobiography, psychological penetration, and dialectical analysis” as a “unique contribution to 20th-century prose.” Scammell succeeds brilliantly. His research — 20 years of it — is prodigious, his writing is impeccable, and his erudition is proportional to his extraordinary, multifaceted, multilingual subject. This will be the standard Koestler biography.

Scammell’s Koestler is not flawless. At times, the recounting of Koestler’s hectic personal life crowds out the creative work that was Koestler’s lifeblood, and Scammell devotes more critical attention to the later scientific books than to Darkness at Noon or to the essay in The God That Failed. Perhaps Scammell wanted to give the lesser-known Koestler his due and to avoid repetition of the familiar, but precisely because Scammell has written a major book it would have been valuable to have more of the major Koestler in it.

Scammell won considerable acclaim for his 1984 Solzhenitsyn: A Biography. Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Arthur Koestler might seem polar opposites. Born in the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn became a Christian conservative in the Russian mold, a skeptic about progress, about Europe, and about modernity, whereas the cosmopolitan Koestler was always “a leftist at heart,” a seeker of progress, and a European hedonist in his daily life.

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