Koestler and His Jewish Thesis

September 1, 1999 Topics: Society Tags: IslamismToryIslam

Koestler and His Jewish Thesis

Mini Teaser: A malign biography of a flawed but hugely gifted man.

by Author(s): Neil McInnes

David Cesarani, Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind (New York: Free Press, 1999)

When Arthur Koestler and his wife Cynthia jointly committed suicide in 1983, they left a bequest of about $1.67 million to finance psychic research and study of the paranormal. Universities in Oxford, Cambridge and London refused the money for fear of mockery; it was known that after staying at various Indian ashrams, Koestler had been investigating levitation and had installed a big weighing machine in his front hall because it would be easier to detect the loss of a few pounds than to measure the gap between stockinged feet and the carpet. People said Koestler had committed suicide twice, once by barbiturates, once by ridicule. No matter, Edinburgh University took the money; it had an academic psychologist who was willing to study these arcana. The web home page of the Koestler Foundation and its Koestler Parapsychology Unit explains how they labor on research into Psi (the conventional symbol for the unknown in an equation). Along with the money came the voluminous papers and a bronze bust of the benefactor.

This bust has just been withdrawn from public display because female undergraduates said they "felt uneasy under its gaze." Their unease began when British newspapers ran excerpts from David Cesarani's biography, notably passages denouncing Koestler as "a serial rapist." Actually, he adduces one indubitable victim of Koestler's brutal attentions, but thereafter his "series" consists of unsubstantiated gossip about other supposed cases, without names or evidence.

An authorized biography of Koestler (authorized by the estate, that is) is being written by Michael Scammel and will be published by Faber next year. Writing in the Independent, Bernard Crick, Orwell's biographer, said that for this reason Cesarani was required to sign an undertaking with the Edinburgh University Library that he was not writing a biography of Koestler but a study of how Koestler's Jewish identity affected his life and work. He has come to the conclusion that, although Koestler always denied it and all his critics have missed it, Judaism was the secret core and center of everything Koestler ever did or thought. This has enabled the author to write a full-length biography of over six hundred pages, ostensibly without going back on his undertaking to the Library. Most readers will care nothing about that, but many will marvel at the methods Cesarani uses to reclaim, for causes that Koestler repeatedly disowned, one of the most productive, ingenious, courageous, volcanic and influential personalities of the century.

It is not clear why one would want to reclaim for Judaism or any other respectable cause the scoundrel Cesarani portrays. Even Koestler's old regiment of 1940, the French Foreign Legion, would not wish to reclaim this satyr, serial rapist, wife-beater and drunken, brawling oaf. Cesarani says he was all of those things, habitually. Koestler long ago told us (either directly or in authorized books by his wives and biographers) that he was some of those things, occasionally. So Cesarani's air of revealing unknown scandals is one of the less pleasant features of his book. If one has read the letters of his wife Mamaine (published uncensored after her death as Living with Koestler in 1985), the joint memoirs written with his next wife Cynthia, published in the same year as The Stranger on the Square, the authorized biography by Ian Hamilton, the memoirs of Simone de Beauvoir and her roman clef, Les Mandarins, then one does not learn of a single new turpitude from Cesarani except the unsubstantiated allegation of serial rape.

Perhaps I should add the salacious detail taken from Koestler's diary that, at a time when he was running a "harem" of five girlfriends in London, he was eating three dozen oysters at a sitting and boasting he had got his "potency up to an average of two a day." Like two of his close friends, Bertrand Russell and Albert Camus, he had an extraordinary sexual appetite, plus the personal charm and magnetism required to indulge it. But Koestler was a Casanova, not a Don Juan. That is to say, he did not spurn the women he seduced but wanted to keep them as friends, and did for years, in some cases for decades. He even liked to have two or three past and present lovers at his table at once, a practice others found macabre. As Cesarani concedes, "If Koestler would not let go of ex-wives, mistresses and lovers, they were equally as reluctant to leave him."

Even the reader least sympathetic to this aspect of Koestler's character begins to suspect that Cesarani's paint is laid on with a trowel when, inevitably, he is reminded of achievements that would be quite incompatible with a life of drunken depravity. One such was the friendship of many of the greatest men and women of the age, literally dozens of famous people who sought Koestler's esteem. They were as different as Willi MŸnzenberg, the Comintern propagandist, and Margaret Thatcher, whose party Koestler eventually joined; they included men notoriously difficult to get on with but who always had time for him, like George Orwell and AndrŽ Malraux; and other buddies who ended up enemies for reasons entirely to Koestler's credit, like Sartre and de Beauvoir.

Another such achievement, which Cesarani notices but devalues, is Koestler's extraordinary record of public service. He was one of the most public-spirited men of his day, joining great causes, starting others great or small, shamelessly nagging his rich and powerful friends to do their bit. Finally, there is the achievement of two score books, some of them very long and based on years of research. A few of them are of enduring merit, some of the novels and the autobiographies; others amounted to perverse dabbling in outlandish and unscientific speculation. None of them could have been written by an habitual, dissolute drunk.

Behind all these achievements Cesarani sees a secret explanation:

". . . it is clear that previous commentators and biographers have missed perhaps the most fundamental element of his story: that Koestler was a Jew. Far from being a particularistic observation that leads nowhere, his Jewishness makes him supremely representative of our age. To continue to neglect it is to distort his life and to undervalue his importance."

Of course, Koestler repeatedly denied this, but for Cesarani that just proves his point:

Having turned his back on Israel, Koestler was once again the Wandering Jew. . . . For the harder Koestler tried not to be a Jew, the more he accentuated what it was that set him apart. In the second half of his life the suppression of Jewishness was a conscious act that colored everything else he was or did. The attempt to flee Judaism was the quintessential act of the modern Jew: it was, itself, a badge of identity.

This sounds like an unfalsifiable proposition. Yet Koestler's friends have written to the British papers lately to deny it all the same, saying, for example, that Koestler "was not interested in his own Jewishness and found the subject boring" (Lord Kennet). Cesarani brushes aside such objections: "Koestler's obfuscation of his Jewish past and his Jewish identity deceived many commentators." He concedes that Koestler "renounced his Jewishness and consistently downplayed it thereafter", and that he "decisively rejected the realization of his Jewish identity [and] deliberately cultivated a de-Judaized image." But that is all what Cesarani calls "a smokescreen", which he has no difficulty seeing through to the abiding Jewishness behind it.

When Koestler devoted himself body and soul to a cause like, say, anti-communism, Cesarani says it was because he was "a secular sceptic yearning for a faith and a Messiah." When he had become a communist some years earlier, it had only been because he thought Stalin had solved the Jewish Question. When, later, he took an interest in genetics, it was because of anxiety about his inheritance of Jewish characteristics. When he broke with Zionism, the same causes were at work: "Despite his sniffiness toward Hebrew, his rampant prejudice against all sorts of Jews, and his endless reservations about the Israeli state and society, he had a deep almost desperate yearning to be accepted as a Jew and to belong to the Jews." The "depth" of this yearning is presumably the reason Cesarani cannot produce a shred of evidence for it.

Cesarani's trouble is that he simply refuses to take the secular attitude seriously. It lies at the basis of the modern polity but for him it is just a smokescreen hiding obstinate sectarian convictions. This blank refusal to accept that men and women can actually reason their way to the secular attitude to life has a wide application well beyond Jewishness. One thinks of the conservative historian Albert Sorel accosting his cousin Georges in a Paris street and exclaiming, "What's this I hear, Georges! You've become an atheist?" "Yes Albert, it's true." "But you're still a Catholic, I hope?" Georges (wearily): "Yes, Albert, still a Catholic." Refusing to take your interlocutor's opinions seriously dispenses you from finding answers.

It is worthwhile to look more closely at these sectarian beliefs that are supposed to be so ineradicable, in the present case to ask what is the Judaism for which Koestler is being reclaimed. It is not the faith, the theology. Judaism seldom means that nowadays, even in the Jewish academies, it seems. Jacob Neusner, the author of Judaism in Modern Times (1995), complained in the Times Literary Supplement recently (March 5, 1999) that Judaism today means not religion but the "ethnic culture of the Jews." The religion, he said, has been ethnicized and secularized so that students end up studying "the history of the ethnic group, the Jews." His article was entitled, informatively, "From faith to ethnic belonging: How the modern academy expunges religion from the study of Judaism."

Cesarani is a perfect example. He is a professor of modern Jewish history (at Southampton, England) and he does not seem very interested in religion. Perhaps he just shrank from the enormity of ascribing religious faith to Koestler. At all events, what he is out to detect behind Koestler's secular public front is not private religious feelings, but ethnicity, participation in Jewish folk ways and, connected with that, relations with Zionism. These are quite objective issues that we are all free to discuss, for personal faith and private sentiments hardly come into it.

Cesarani's method is to deny everything Koestler ever said on the subject. He warns us, as a careful biographer should, that his subject's version of his own life "needs to be treated with great caution." In fact, he treats it with total disbelief. Koestler's "doctored version of his life story" tells lies about a supposedly de-Judaized childhood and about his youthful embrace of radical-right Zionism. When Koestler says he disliked Yiddish, Cesarani comments, "Probably untrue." When he says he never encountered anti-Semitism until he went to Vienna university, Cesarani comments, "This is hard to believe." Other such statements are introduced with, "Koestler would have us believe . . ." Koestler's autobiographical writings not only backdate later opinions to earlier years (which is indeed the pche mignonne of all memorialists), but are "full of lies", because "dissembling to himself and others was second nature. His 'autobiography' was perhaps his most stupendous act of deception."

Only a determination to stand Koestler on his head, to make out of him something he said he was not, could prompt so harsh a judgment. In reality, his accounts of a long and adventurous career have stood up to examination, from being instantly thrown off a kibbutz for reason of unsuitability to being down and out in Tel Aviv, from wandering through Stalin's Russia to languishing in Franco's jails awaiting execution, from the fall of France to the crusade against communism, the whole spiced with confessions of his tippling and his rages. Of course he looked after his amour propre; about the night of the one rape of which he was undoubtedly guilty he merely said he took a woman on a pub crawl through Hampstead, end of story.

But there is no reason to put him in a class with, say, a more famous memorialist, Chateaubriand, who was an inveterate, imaginative and repetitive liar, to the point where nothing in the Memoires d'outre-tombe can be believed without independent corroboration (especially if it concerns Napoleon, George Washington, Talleyrand or, above all, Chateaubriand). Incidentally, Chateaubriand, who was an energetic womanizer, handled the sex bit in his memoirs by saying that delicacy forbade mentioning his bonnes fortunes. The twentieth century was not delicate, so we get to know more about Koestler than we need to. And whereas Cesarani says Koestler's achievements were due to his unacknowledged Jewishness, all these turpitudes were due to his rejection of that heritage. That was what made him nomadic, unstable in his personal life, dishonest about his opinions.

More serious even than the intellectual insult of dismissing a man's firmly stated beliefs is the discredit thrown on his political engagement when it is diagnosed as sick messianism. Cesarani evidently thinks Koestler is vulnerable to this sort of amateur psychoanalysis because of the variety of causes he took up with so much enthusiasm. Others might see here evidence of political courage and social responsibility, or at least of the disposition John Grigg detected when he called his 1975 essay on Koestler "The Do-gooder from Seville Gaol." He was an extraordinary activist. From being an exuberant student leader in Vienna, he went on to Zionism, then to communism and then to dedicated anti-communism.

In 1940, barely out of concentration camp, he was pushing a plan to get up to one hundred thousand people out of French camps to the Virgin Islands for the duration of the war. After that war, he donated all his U.S. royalties to the Fund for Intellectual Freedom, which he founded to assist writers who were refugees from the Soviet bloc. He was the eloquent, dynamic and flamboyant moving spirit at the founding of the Congress for Cultural Freedom in Berlin in 1950. Later in that decade, he led a long and determined campaign against hanging, and he deserves much of the credit for the abolition of capital punishment in Britain. He founded the Arthur Koestler Award for literary or artistic work by inmates of British jails, a scheme that has prospered mightily since 1962. He embarrassed many of his British friends by throwing himself into a dog lovers' campaign against the six-month quarantine imposed on dogs that so much as set paw on the Continent. Years after his death, he has won that one: the British government is about to issue dog passports, so that dogs vaccinated against rabies can come straight home from foreign trips. Koestler knew not to worry about embarrassing friends. Those who were embarrassed by his strident "Manichaeism" in Berlin in 1950 (such as Hugh Trevor-Roper and A.J. Ayer) look in retrospect like faint-hearted defectors from a splendid intellectual cause.

Naturally, the Koestlerian cause that Cesarani privileges is Zionism. Here as elsewhere Koestler went to extremes. He began as a missionary for Vladimir Jabotinsky, who urged massive illegal immigration into Palestine to found an anti-socialist Israeli state on both banks of the Jordan. When Koestler said farewell to Zionism in Thieves in the Night (1946), he was understood to be supporting the Irgun faction of militant extremists. More controversial than those radical postures was the line Koestler took once the Israeli state was established: Jews everywhere, he said, now had a clear and compulsory choice, either to emigrate to Israel or to assimilate where they were without reserve or residue. This became known as the Koestler Thesis, and was, maintained Frank Knopfelmacher, "next to Darkness at Noon his most important contribution to politics."

Knopfelmacher, who lived for a time on a kibbutz next to the one that threw Koestler out, said the Koestler Thesis was "far less shocking than it sounded to the Anglo-Jewish communities" of the time, and it would be nice if such a clear choice existed. Unfortunately, it did not:

It is by way of the Jewish lobby alone, which in turn depends on the political influence of a distinctively Jewish and hence unassimilated American Jewish population, that U.S. protection [of Israel] is secured. Thus the assimilation of Jews in North America, the largest and by far the most influential center of the Jewish diaspora, and the survival of Israel have become incompatible.

Prior, I would have thought, to those practical political difficulties (if such they be) arises the question whether Koestler had any right to force Jews to face up to his supposed choice. People who seek to impale you on the horns of a dilemma are often trying to hide the multiple choices that in fact exist between their stark alternatives. In a free society there is a perfect right to adopt any degree, and any combination, of assimilation and Zionism one chooses, and Koestler's dramatic either/or is quite bogus. Isaiah Berlin told him he was being tidy to the point of being totalitarian.

He gave much graver offense to Cesarani by publishing, at age seventy-five, The Thirteenth Tribe: The Khazar Empire and its Heritage (1976). In it, apart from restating the Koestler Thesis in its baldest terms, he drew on reputable historical authorities to write a lively potted history of the Khazars, a Turkic people in the Caucasus who in the ninth century were converted to Judaism. The hordes that swept in from Central Asia soon became ashamed of their spiritual nakedness, and most turned to one or other of the universal religions. The Khazar leaders apparently decided that if they became Christian they would be clients of Byzantium, and if they became Muslim they would be subject to the Caliphate; Judaism was a choice for independence.

As other hordes succeeded them, the Khazars were dispersed. That some of them went with the Magyars into Hungary seems established. What became of the rest? Koestler could not resist the supposition, which had been envisaged by the historians, that most Khazars went via Ukraine to Poland. The conclusion he jumped to was that the Eastern Jewish community was primarily Khazar-Turkish in origin and had no physical connection with Palestine.

When you check Koestler's sources and look at later studies of the question, the historians are much more tentative. D.M. Dunlop, in The History of the Jewish Khazars (1954), said, "But to speak of the Jews of Eastern Europe as descendants of the Khazars seems to involve the Ashkenazim in general, i.e. by far the greater part of the Jewish people in the world today, and would be to go much beyond what our imperfect records show." Peter Golden, in volume one of his Khazar Studies (1980), said, "Further speculation along this line, while interesting, can bear no fruit as long as we have neither sources nor linguistic materials to support it." Moses Shulvass' History of the Jewish People (1982) concludes that the destiny of the Khazar Jews "basically remains an enigma."

In his cautious moments, Koestler would say that the Khazar origin of most European Jews "should at least be regarded as a theory worthy of discussion", but he would soon fall into saying that the Khazar element in Polish Jewry "is substantial, in all likelihood predominant." He concluded, "I am aware of the danger that [this book] may be maliciously misinterpreted as a denial of the State of Israel's right to exist." A visit to Radio Islam's web site will indeed show how the book is still being used today to deny the Jews' links with Palestine and hence the legitimacy of Israel.

Anticipating such arguments, Koestler said Israel was not founded on a hypothesis or on mythology but on international law, the UN decision to partition Palestine in 1947, underpinned by the ethical foundation of a century of Jewish immigration and peaceful pioneering. "The problem of the Khazar infusion a thousand years ago, however fascinating, is irrelevant to modern Israel." Cesarani does not agree, and he assails The Thirteenth Tribe with abuse and misrepresentation. Koestler, he says, made "selective use of facts for a grossly polemical end", namely, the "propaganda objective" of separating the Jews of the diaspora from the Jews of Israel. The book was "risible as scholarship" and was "slaughtered" by the critics (of whom he cites a quite particular selection).

If Cesarani and those critics are incensed by Koestler's adventurous speculations, they should relax: Ernest Renan sold the pass a hundred years before. Renan maintained that the mass conversions to Judaism in Greek and Roman times had already deprived Judaism of any ethnographic meaning, i.e., had severed the physical (but not the spiritual) links with Palestine. Just as the Prophets had predicted, Judaism became a universal religion: "Tout le monde y entrait." Most of the Jews of Gaul and Italy, Renan said, came from these conversions. As for the Jews of the Danube basin and southern Russia, Renan was already pointing at the Khazars: "These regions contain great masses of Jewish populations who probably have little or nothing ethnographically Jewish about them." Later, Max Weber in Ancient Judaism gave the reason for the mass conversions of Hellenist and Roman times, "the great epoch of Jewish proselytism", namely that, regardless of race or nationality, "Jewry attracted people who found their religious satisfaction in the purity of the ethic and the power of the conception of God." These were the facts that, still later, it became urgent to recall in order to counter the absurd Nazi theory of the Jewish "race." In that perspective, Cesarani's arguments are reactionary.

When all is said and done, Koestler's standing with later posterity will depend not on these skirmishes (and certainly not on his "natural philosophy"), but on the novel Darkness at Noon, his 1940 masterpiece. Cesarani makes a predictable discovery about it: "The most important fact about the novel is the one that is least remarked upon in critical studies: the central character . . . Rubashov is a Jew." He deduces this from Rubashov's patronymic, Salmanovitch (Solomonson). This had been pointed out to Koestler, who replied that he had not intended, and had not even noticed, that he had "made my hero a Jew." In line with his policy of disbelieving everything Koestler said, Cesarani says this disclaimer is "improbable", "suspicious", "implausible" and "perverse." As if to show that he is not reducing the novel to ethnicity, Cesarani then makes the large claim, "The final rout of the Soviet imperium in 1989-90 began with the publication of Darkness at Noon"--in 1940! If only it had been so easy.

In fact, French and Italian communist intellectuals dismissed Darkness at Noon as "naive", although the French Communist Party made clumsy, and counterproductive, efforts to limit its sale. It did not discourage recruits. Franois Furet said,

I remember reading Koestler's Darkness at Noon with passion, about 1947, without the reading of it dissuading me from joining the communist party soon afterwards. I admired the fact that the judge and the accused could agree together to serve the same cause, one as executioner, the other as victim. In this philosophical version of the Moscow Trials, I loved to see the march of historical reason--which Koestler on the contrary wanted to denounce as a barbarous cult.

Worse, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in Humanisme et Terreur (1947), actually took the side of Gletkin, Rubashov's interrogator and torturer. Once grant that you are living through an historical revolution, said Merleau-Ponty, and Gletkin's logic is irrefutable: the end justifies the means.

If the Stalinists and their apologists did not believe the moral message of Darkness at Noon, did the author himself always believe it? When, six years later, he published his novel about the struggle for an Israeli state, Thieves in the Night, critics immediately pointed out that his characters were invoking History to justify violence. Had Koestler too gone over to Gletkin's side? He replied that he was defending only limited, carefully calculated violence, but Rubashov had already answered that, by saying that the human factor made such calculation impossible.

Darkness at Noon has been voted one of the hundred best English-language books of the century, which was wrong because it was written in German and translated by Koestler's mistress of the moment, in a version that contains infelicities that the publisher should have weeded out by now. Such quibbles aside, it is a masterpiece, but a masterpiece of fiction, in a class with James Hilton's The White Knight as a depiction of penitentiary psychology. It is not a convincing "contribution to politics" because it did not solve the problem the author set himself, the part of moral expediency in politics, the problem of ends and means when the stakes are high. But then none of us has solved it, as the day's news from Palestine and the Balkans regularly reminds us.

Essay Types: Book Review