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Arthur Koestler

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Arthur Koestler
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Arthur Koestler

Arthur Koestler (September 5, 1905 - March 3, 1983) was a novelist, political activist, and social philosopher. He was the author of many popular books including Arrow in the Blue, (Volume I of his autobiography), The Yogi and the Commissar (another book about Communism), The Sleepwalkers, The Act of Creation, and The Thirteenth Tribe. His most famous work is Darkness at Noon, a novel about the Purges of the Soviet state during the Stalin era.

Contents

Life

Koestler was born in Budapest, Hungary as Artur Kösztler, to a German speaking Hungarian Jewish family. His father, Henrik, was an industrialist and inventor whose investments and ideas often showed a lack of good financial judgement; for example, he invested in a kind of radioactive soap.

He later studied science and psychology at the University of Vienna, where he became involved in Zionism. After college he worked as a news correspondent. From 1926 to 1929 he lived in the British Mandate of Palestine. He joined the Communist Party in 1931, but left it after the Stalinist purges of 1938. He spent this period travelling within the Soviet Union, reaching areas as far flung as Mount Ararat, in the Caucasus and Turkmenistan where he met the black American writer Langston Hughes.

While covering the Spanish Civil War, he was captured and held for several months by the Falangists in Malaga, until the British Foreign Office managed to arrange for his release. He recorded his experiences in Spanish Testament and used them as a part basis for his prison novel Darkness at Noon.

After spending time in a Vichy French detention camp, at Le Vernet, he joined the French Foreign Legion. He then escaped to England and joined the British Army as a member of the British Pioneer Corps between 1941-42, employed by the BBC. He became a British subject in 1945. He returned to France after the war, and there got to know Jean-Paul Sartre, although it appears they never became good friends.

During the post-war period, Koestler anticipated a number of trends by many years. He was amongst the first to experiment (in a laboratory) with LSD, and also advocated nuclear disarmament. He also wrote about Japanese and Indian mysticism in The Lotus and the Robot in 1960. However, just as the Cold War was beginning to accelerate at the end of the 1950s, and Darkness at Noon was gaining popularity, Koestler announced he would be retiring from politics.

He then lived in London, where he made his living writing and lecturing. He was made a CBE in the '70s.

Koestler, an advocate of euthanasia, and suffering from Parkinson's disease, took his own life along with his third wife, Cynthia, in a joint suicide in England.

Koestler's multilingualism

Koestler was fluent in Hungarian, German, English, and French and knew a little Hebrew and Russian. There is some evidence (according to Cesarani) that he had also been exposed to Yiddish through his grandfather who was a speaker. This was partially due to his family life, and constant uprooting, at first due to circumstances and later due to choice. During his life he lived in Hungary, Austria, Germany, Palestine (pre-independence Israel), England, Wales, France and the United States. He also spent a substantial time in the Soviet Union.

Throughout his life Koestler was to work in a variety of languages, though the bulk of his later work was in English. For example Koestler wrote his best known novels in three different languages: the original of The Gladiators was in Hungarian, Darkness at Noon in German (the original has been lost), and Arrival and Departure in English. As a journalist he was to work in German, Hebrew, French and English. He claimed to have produced possibly the first crosswords in Hebrew.

Koestler and women

Always the connoisseur and lover, Koestler was married three times, to Dorothy Asher (1935-50), Mamaine Paget (1950-52), and Cynthia Jefferies (1965-83). He also had a very short fling with notable French thinker Simone de Beauvoir, probably explaining the mutual animosity between Koestler and Jean-Paul Sartre. A 1998 biography claimed that Koestler had beaten and raped several women, including film director Jill Craigie. After protests, a bust of Koestler was removed from display at the University of Edinburgh.

Further controversy has ensued over his suicide pact. Although he was terminally ill, his wife at the time was apparently healthy, and some have claimed Koestler manipulated her into it.

Koestler's journalism

Koestler worked for a variety of newspapers, including Vossische Zeitung (science editor) and B.Z. am Mittag (foreign editor) in the 1920s, as a French language freelancer in the early thirties, and edited Zukunft in the mid thirties, an anti-Nazi, anti-Stalinist German language paper based in Paris.

After his release from captivity in Spain, Koestler worked for the News Chronicle. He would later produce work for various English and American papers including The Sunday Telegraph on a number of his different interests.

Work

Much of Koestler's work was completely out of step with mainstream views. He did not merely arrive at different answers to common questions. Instead, Koestler answered, or tried to answer, important questions that others were not even asking. Some considered this a sign of his true creative genius.

The result of this originality is an uneven set of ideas and conclusions. Some of his, such as his work on creativity, can be appreciated as brilliant. Some ideas challenge us to readjust our thinking in order to grasp their importance. Other ideas are little more than nonsense. But taken as a whole, they are well worth serious consideration.

Koestler and Judaism

Although a lifelong atheist, Koestler's family background was Jewish. Notably, one of his biographers, David Cesarani has picked up on this, and has claimed he deliberately disowned it.

Koestler's book The Thirteenth Tribe advanced the controversial conclusion that European, or Ashkenazi Jews, are not descended from the Israelites of antiquity, but from a group of Khazars, a people in the Caucasus who converted to Judaism in the 8th century and were later forced to move westwards into current Russia, Ukraine and Poland. Koestler stated that part of his intent in writing the book was to defuse anti-Semitism by undermining the identification of European Jews with the Jews of the Bible, rendering anti-Semitic epithets such as "Christ killer" inapplicable. Ironically, Koestler's thesis that Ashkenazi Jews are not Semitic has become an important claim of many anti-Semitic groups. Some Palestinian advocates have adopted this thesis quite eagerly, since they believe identifying most Jews as non-Semitic would seriously undermine their historical claims to the land of Israel. The main thesis of The Thirteenth Tribe has since been debunked by genetic testing; while there has been mixing with various European populations by Ashkenazi Jews over the centuries, there remains a clearly identifiable Middle Eastern genetic element in virtually all Ashkenazim.

Koestler's own view of Israel was that it would never be destroyed, short of a second Shoah. He supported the statehood of Israel, but opposed the idea of a diaspora Jewish culture. In an interview in the London Jewish Chronicle, about the time of Israel's statehood, Koestler asserted that all Jews should either migrate to Israel or else assimilate completely into their local cultures.

Koestler went to Palestine for a period, and lived on a kibbutz. His experiences there were to form the basis of the unfinished Thieves in the Night. Always the controversialist, Koestler proposed ditching the Hebrew alphabet for the Roman.

Koestler and science

Koestler wrote many books on science, and scientific practice. In the words of one cynic, "Koestler loved science, but science didn't love him back". His critiques of science were often reminiscent of post-modernism's, and alienated much of the scientific community. Notably The Case of the Midwife Toad (1971: about the biologist Paul Kammerer, who researched Lamarckian inheritance)

The issue of mysticism, while implicit in his works, carried tremendous weight in his personal life. This was confirmed when he left a substantial part of his own estate to establish the Koestler Institute in the University of Edinburgh dedicated to the study of parapsychological phenomena. His work The Roots of Coincidence also discusses Paul Kammerer, this time in the context of a quantum theory of coincidence or synchronicity, along with the theories of Carl Jung. More controversially he also studied levitation and telepathy.

Koestler and politics

Koestler was involved in a number of political causes in his time, ranging from Zionism and Communism (later Anti-Communism), to campaigns against Capital punishment (particularly hanging) and for voluntary Euthanasia. He was also an early advocate of Nuclear disarmament.

Cultural influence

"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."

Biography

Autobiography in chronological order

The following books also contain some biographical details, The Lotus and the Robot, The God that failed, Von Weissen Nächten und Roten Tagen (experiences in USSR, extremely difficult to get hold of), as do his collections of numerous essays.

Other biographies

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

Koestler bibliography (excluding autobiography)


Contributor

  • Encyclopaedia of Sexual Knowledge (1935)
  • Foreign Correspondent (1939),
  • The Practice of Sex (1940)
  • The God That Failed (1950) (collection of testimonies by ex-Communists)
  • Beyond Reductionism: The Alpbach Symposium. New Perspectives in the Life Sciences (co-editor, 1969)
  • The Challenge of Chance: A Mass Experiment in Telepathy and Its Unexpected Outcome (1973)
  • Life After Death, (co-editor, 1976)
  • Humour and Wit. I: Encyclopedia Britannia. 15th ed. vol. 9.(1983)

External links

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