Arthur Koestler

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Arthur Koestler

Arthur Koestler (September 5, 1905 - March 3, 1983) was a journalist, 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 (a collection of essays, many dealing with 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.


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.

Arthur Koestler recalls in his memoirs that in the summer of 1935 he "wrote about half of a satirical novel called The Good Soldier Schweik Goes to War Again.... It had been commissioned by Willy Münzenberg [the Comintern's chief propagandist in the West] ... but was vetoed by the Party on the grounds of the book's 'pacifist errors'" (The Invisible Writing: An Autobiography by Arthur Koestler [New York, 1954], p. 283).

While covering the Spanish Civil War, he was captured and held for several months by the Falangists in Málaga, 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 postwar 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 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.


Although Darkness at Noon was a worldwide best seller, much of Koestler's work was in advance of mainstream views. He was a multidisciplinary thinker and did not merely arrive at different answers to common questions, but asked questions that others were not even asking.

The result of this originality is an uneven set of ideas and conclusions. Some of them, such as his work on creativity (Insight and Outlook, Act of Creation) and the history of science (The Sleepwalkers), can be appreciated as brilliant, and challenge us to readjust our thinking in order to grasp their importance. Some of his other theories, pertaining to extra-sensory perception, euthanasia, and the racial origin of Ashkenazi Jews like himself, are more controversial. But taken as a whole, his writings 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 Koestler deliberately disowned his Jewish geneology .

Koestler's book The Thirteenth Tribe advanced the controversial thesis 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 views towards science, and often alienated much of the scientific community, such as Koestler's The Case of the Midwife Toad (1971: about the biologist Paul Kammerer, who researched Lamarckian inheritance)

The subject of mysticism was implicit in his works and carried tremendous weight in his personal life. This was confirmed when he left a substantial part of his 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.


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 obtain), as do his collections of numerous essays.

Other biographies

  • J. Atkins, Arthur Koestler (1956)
  • S.A. Pearson, Arthur Koestler (1978), ISBN 0805766995
  • Iain Hamilton, Koestler – A Biography (1982), ISBN 0025476602
  • George Mikes, Arthur Koestler – The Story of a Friendship (1983), ISBN 0233976124
  • M. Levene, Arthur Koestler (1984), ISBN 080446412X
  • Mamaine Koestler, Living with Koestler (1985), ISBN 0297785311 or ISBN 0312490291
  • David Cesarani, Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind (1998), ISBN 0684867206
  • Christian G. Buckard, Arthur Koestler – Ein extremes Leben 1905–1983 (2004, in German), ISBN 3406521770

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

Koestler bibliography (excluding autobiography)


External links


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