Men are convinced of your arguments, your sincerity, and the seriousness of your efforts only by your death.
On Tuesday, March 1, 1983, Arthur Koestler and his wife, Cynthia, entered their sitting room at 8 Montpelier Square, London, sat down facing each other, he in his favorite leather armchair, she on the couch, and poured themselves their usual drink before dinner. Arthur’s was his favorite brandy, Cynthia’s was scotch. The only difference between this and a thousand similar evenings was the presence on a small table between them of a bottle of wine, a large bottle of Tuinal sleeping tablets, a jar of honey, and some extra wineglasses. Arthur and Cynthia swallowed about half the tablets each, washed them down with wine and honey, then sipped their brandy and scotch. Within half an hour or so they were unconscious, within an hour completely dead, and they remained there, fully clothed, for a day and a half, until their Brazilian maid came to clean the house on Thursday morning.
The suicide was meticulously planned and carried out without a hitch. Several months beforehand Koestler had prepared a handwritten letter. “The purpose of this note is to make it unmistakeably [sic] clear that I intend to commit suicide by taking an overdose of drugs without the knowledge or aid of any other person. The drugs have been legally obtained and hoarded over a considerable period.” The immediate reason for his decision was illness. He was suffering from both Parkinson’s disease and what he called “the slow-killing variety of leukemia.” He had lived with Parkinson’s for about seven years already, but leukemia was the last straw. “I kept the latter a secret even from intimate friends to save them distress. After a more or less steady physical decline over the last years, the process has now reached an acute state with added complications which make it advisable to seek self-deliverance now, before I become technically incapable of making the necessary arrangements.”
“Self-deliverance” was an interesting term for Koestler to use. It echoed the Freitod (literally “free death”) of his native language, German, with quite different connotations than its grisly synonym Selbstmord (“self-murder”) or the more clinical Suizid (“suicide”). It was a form of death with which he was more than familiar, as a Central European Jew who had grown up in the shadow of anti-Semitism and the rise of fascism. Self-deliverance was also the term favored by the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, of which Koestler was vice president, and he had long ago made it clear that he would kill himself rather than suffer a lingering death. In a preface to the society’s controversial Guide to Self-Deliverance he had written: “An unknown country to which the only access leads through a torture chamber is frightening.… The prospect of falling asleep is not only soothing but can make it positively desirable to quit this pain-racked mortal frame and become unborn again.” Noting that animals enter the world and leave it again presumably without pain, he had added: “The conclusion is inescapable. We need midwives to aid us to be born—or at least the assurance that such aid is available. Euthanasia, like obstetrics, is the natural corrective to a biological handicap.”
He had not chosen self-deliverance lightly. The variety of leukemia he suffered from, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, was slow acting, and even in combination with Parkinson’s was not necessarily lethal, and he had waited eight months after his diagnosis before deciding on the final step. He probably made up his mind for good on Sunday, February 27. Koestler hated Sundays. He was fond of quoting Dostoyevsky: “Even if you are in the deepest dungeon, you always know when it is a Sunday.” But the true decision had been made long before, of course.
It was characteristic of Koestler to seek the kind of control over his death that had eluded him in managing his chaotic and crowded life, yet if we regard this death as unavoidably a public act, he failed in one crucial respect, for there was the no small matter of Cynthia. More than twenty years younger than Koestler and in perfect health, Cynthia had no objective reason to die, and so far as we can tell, the decision was not the result of impulse or sudden despair. In a postscript to Koestler’s suicide note, she wrote: “I fear both death and the act of dying that lies ahead of us.… However, I cannot live without Arthur, despite certain inner resources. Double suicide has never appealed to me; but now Arthur’s incurable diseases have reached a stage where there is nothing else to do. Cynthia Koestler.”
Double suicide is a rare and titillating event. One has to go back to a slightly older Central European Jewish writer, Stefan Zweig, and his younger wife, in 1942, for a precedent, and that too was regarded as unnatural and shocking. Cynthia’s death at the comparably young age of fifty-five startled friends and strangers alike. The popular press had a field day: “Author and Wife Found Dead”; “Koestlers in Suicide Pact”; “Anti-Red Crusader and Wife in Suicide Pact”; “Wife’s Tragic Devotion.” It was a sensational end to a life that had already seen more than its share of drama, yet there was a certain aptness to it. For Koestler had lived almost all his life in the public eye, amid the glare of publicity, and was no stranger to the scent of scandal that followed him beyond the grave.
Provocation and controversy were meat and drink to Koestler, elements of a tumultuous life in which he rarely experienced peace or quiet. His pugnacious personality was a lightning rod for strong feelings and extreme opinions, and he reveled in the notoriety they brought him. Like many short men (barely five foot six in his stocking feet), he was incorrigibly competitive and relentlessly combative, quick to take offense and slow to forgive. Hungarian in his temper, German in his industry, Jewish in his intellectual ambition, he was never comfortable in his own skin, doomed to oscillate between arrogance and humility, like one of those mercurial Russians in the novels of Dostoyevsky, whom Koestler so admired and wished to emulate.
But there was another side to Koestler that few beyond his immediate circle got to see, an undisguised vulnerability and painful honesty, a self-conscious shyness and morbid sensitivity, that combined with his boyish exuberance and devil-may-care daring made him a magnet for innumerable women. Mamaine Paget, his second wife, found the combination of his fiery, un-English temperament and extraordinary attentiveness irresistible. To the English novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, who lived with him for a while, he was a noble goblin, addicted to childish jokes, with a “continuous, crackling, almost irritable energy” that made you feel that if you touched him “you would get an electric shock.” Several of the women he was passionately involved with remained his friends for life, and Cynthia, his third wife, demonstrated her devotion in the most dramatic way possible when she chose to die with him. But his chronic promiscuity led other women to detest him, and long after his death he was accused of having once committed rape.
What made Koestler so exhilarating and often so difficult to be around was a form of manic depression that caused him to alternate between demonic glee, with an inflated sense of his own importance, and gloomy humility, powered by chronic self-doubt. He could be reckless and impatient at one moment, totally incapable of controlling his volatile temper, yet generous and tender the next. It’s no wonder he tended to think and write in terms of binaries and antitheses: yogi and commissar, arrival and departure, insight and outlook, lotus and robot. Alcohol (bolstered by Benzedrine and other pep pills) was his drug of choice, rescuing him again and again from the ravages of recurring feelings of inferiority while deepening his dilemmas and getting him into even more trouble.
Despite his urge to be a Casanova, Koestler just as often preferred the company of men, especially those, such as Dylan Thomas, Henry Green, Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre, who shared his disregard for bourgeois niceties. More conventional friends secretly envied or despised his drinking and womanizing, according to temperament, and welcomed or resented his forensic skills, depending on task. In Britain, John Strachey found Koestler “unpardonably brilliant,” Michael Foot called him the “most pulverizing arguer I have ever met, bar none,” and George Orwell regarded him as a staunch ideological friend and loyal ally. In America, he was admired by Mary McCarthy, James Burnham, and Philip Rahv, among others, for his political penetration and dialectical brilliance. Camus described him as “a man of substance” who could be relied upon through thick and thin, and Raymond Aron called Koestler the “greatest of the engaged intellectuals” of the twentieth century.
What these admirers understood was that for Koestler, ideas were never just intellectual playthings but part of his life’s blood, more palpable to him than most of the humans around him. His intellectual nerve endings were so finely tuned that he experienced the onset of fresh ideas like orgasms, and mourned their passing as the end of treasured love affairs. He lived for ideas and was ready to die for them, as he showed when incarcerated in a Spanish jail and a French concentration camp, and he insisted on following the logic of his inspirations wherever they led him—which late in life was to some extremely odd places, including a belief in the possibilities of extrasensory perception and the powers of parapsychology.
Born in Hungary, Koestler fled with his family after World War I to Vienna where he spent his adolescence. After his student years he moved to Palestine and then to Western Europe, and lived for periods of time in France, the Soviet Union, and the United States, “perpetually in search of a country,” in Malraux’s words, before settling uneasily in England. He was a chameleon, a vagabond, and a pilgrim, constantly changing and reinventing himself, inhaling, as it were, the essence of each place he stayed in, while remaining perpetually alien to his surroundings. Never fully Hungarian, not quite Austrian or German, a Jew who had turned away from Judaism, incapable of being French, definitely not an Englishman, and unwilling to accommodate himself even to the melting pot of multicultural America, he wandered the earth like a modern Quixote in search of a spiritual homeland. As a writer he changed languages not once (like Conrad) but twice, first from Hungarian to German, which he continued to write in until the age of thirty-five, and then from German to English. Knowing so many countries so intimately, he was never parochial or narrow-minded. He understood the complex interplay among psychology, culture, and religion and between competing national interests and political systems as few writers before him or since, and despite his Cassandra-like pessimism, he never abandoned his quest for a better life for mankind.
During his long life Koestler investigated a multitude of political movements, religions, and scientific disciplines, from Zionism to Catholicism and even Buddhism, from anti-fascism to communism and anti-communism, from astronomy and evolution to neurobiology and parapsychology. His literary and political odyssey spawned more than thirty books, among them six novels, four autobiographies, four scientific treatises, four volumes of essays, three nonfiction investigations, and innumerable newspaper articles. And yet the sheer bulk and variety of this output, not to speak of its inevitable unevenness, raise questions about its quality and relevance, for in one sense Koestler simply wrote too much, in too many genres. As a journalist, novelist, essayist, autobiographer, and writer of scientific speculations, as all of which he excelled at one time or another, he’s impossible to classify or pigeonhole—and it’s hard to fit him into the conventional college courses that guarantee a writer some portion of popularity. In consequence his reputation has worn more badly than it should have, so that the contemporary biographer has to face the question: Why read Koestler now?
The obvious answer is that Koestler’s justly famous second novel, Darkness at Noon, which has never gone out of print since its first appearance in 1940, is still prized as one of the great books of the twentieth century. In that deeply political and philosophical novel, inspired by the puzzling success of Stalin’s show trials of the l930s, Koestler examined the key problem at the heart of communist and all revolutionary ideology, that of the conflict between individual responsibility and historical necessity and between ends and means, and he enacted the symbolic execution of his former self as a punishment for his sins as a party member. It is a novel of ideas and psychological tension, partaking of the nightmare vision of modernists as varied as Dostoevsky, Conrad, Kafka, Camus, and Thomas Pynchon, and remains Koestler’s literary masterpiece. Together with several essays published in The Yogi and the Commissar, The God That Failed, and The Trail of the Dinosaur, it also constitutes Koestler’s principal contribution to political thought, forming one of the most imaginative and coherently argued indictments of totalitarian ideology and practice available to western readers.
But that’s far from all. Although Koestler has often been tagged as an example of that phenomenon he so dreaded and rejected all his life, the one-book wonder, and although other novels like The Gladiators, Arrival and Departure, Thieves in the Night, and The Age of Longing seem rather dated now, each has passages of imaginative power and intellectual brilliance. The same can be said of the best of his provocative science hooks, The Sleepwalkers, The Act of Creation, and The Ghost in the Machine, to which Koestler brought both a storyteller’s eloquence and his characteristic activism, for his urge there, as in all his fiction and nonfiction, is not just to describe the world, but also to change it.
However, the work that guarantees Koestler’s continuing importance (besides Darkness at Noon) is his literary nonfiction—five autobiographical works and the best of the essays. Alongside Orwell in Britain in the l940s and early ‘50s, he poured forth a stream of inspired commentary on some of the most acute social and political issues of the day, and was initially more prescient than Orwell about the totalitarian forces shaping the modern world. Of the autobiographies, Koestler’s first work in this genre, and in some respects his best, was Dialogue with Death, a piercing memoir about his imprisonment and near execution in civil-war Spain. (Sartre greeted the book as an early example of existentialism.) This was followed three years later by Scum of the Earth, a documentary memoir of his incarceration in a French concentration camp and escape from the invading Germans on the eve of World War II, and also a requiem for the anti-fascist left between the two world wars. “Memoirs of a Tightrope Walker,” the lead essay in The God That Failed, analyzed with unrivaled dialectical verve and penetration his seduction by communism and subsequent disillusionment.
His most ambitious works in this genre were two volumes of straight autobiography, Arrow in the Blue and The Invisible Writing, in which Koestler fashioned a new paradigm for the genre, treating his life and experiences as a prism through which to examine the extraordinary struggle of mid-twentieth-century intellectuals to comprehend (and survive) two world wars, the Great Depression, and the rise of two seemingly irresistible totalitarian movements, fascism and communism. His response to those movements and their value systems took the form of a lifelong interrogation of the problem of individual freedom and the ethics of choice, and the conflict between collective necessity and individual morality, often summarized as the battle between ends and means.
Koestler was a romantic, whose quixotic hopes that some variant of the utopian dream might lead to happiness on earth were constantly being shadowed and undercut by a pessimistic acknowledgment of the realities of human nature. He was also a gambler and a provocateur, taking physical and intellectual risks that led him to exciting and dangerous places, and sometimes to important insights ahead of his time. He was a Zionist in Palestine when it was extremely unfashionable to be a Zionist, and an anti-Zionist when Zionism was in its prime. He was a communist before communism became à la mode for western progressives, and an anticommunist at the flood tide of communist popularity during World War II. Later he was in favor of the Cold War and against McCarthyism; he was against capital punishment and in favor of euthanasia; and he wasn’t afraid to attack the fortress of neo-Darwinism and defend the shaky premises of parapsychology when the intellectual consensus was overwhelmingly against him.
In the words of a French biographer, Koestler was inveterately “a man against,” at his best when challenging truisms, opposing received opinion, and exploring new frontiers, at his worst when pontificating on the obvious. He was often foolish and occasionally cheap, but rarely dishonest and never dull, and the flash of his intellect flickers brilliantly over his best pages.
Late in life, in a burst of self-deprecation, Koestler once referred to himself as the “Casanova of causes,” hinting that while his causes were passionately embraced and worthy of devotion, the act of serving them was psychologically as important as the causes themselves. A close reading of his letters, diaries, and books confirms that view, for Koestler’s quest for enlightenment was not some arid, abstract sort of search, but a deep instinctual urge, powered by personal unhappiness and psychological frustration, which started early in his life and continued to the very end of his days. This is not to devalue its results, which are there for all to see in his books, but it was the cause of causes lurking behind every other cause Koestler espoused and everything he wrote, emblematic of the twentieth century’s own flailings in its search for a workable form of utopia. Koestler was bound to fail in his quest, of course, but the quest itself was the point.