come_to_think (come_to_think) wrote,

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Arthur Koestler

Reading:  Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic, by Michael Scammell (2009)

Bought & read because Arthur Koestler has been a tall figure in my intellectual landscape since he & George Orwell cured me of fellowtraveling in my adolescence (early 1950s).  I have returned frequently to his many autobiographical books as well as Darkness at Noon, Arrival and Departure, Thieves in the Night, and (an oddity of mine, it turns out) The Age of Longing.  I did not, however, keep up with him in his move to philosophy and science during his later years (except for The Sleepwalkers).  Thus, this book rounds out my acquaintance with him, both in filling in what he left out in his own extensive accounts, and in describing the sometimes crazy excursions he made after I stopped reading him.

The process is often distressing.  Scammell is skeptical of accusations that Koestler was a "serial rapist", but abundantly documents that he treated his women meanly & had far more of them than he deserved.  I am sentimental about sex, and the news that someone got laid (whether in fact or in fiction) regularly improves my opinion of the human race; but in this book, for the first time, I got tired of hearing about it.  Of course, one must remember that such behavior is prompted by some widespread vileness in human nature, that in his times & places society largely seconded that vileness, and that fame greatly increases the temptation to indulge in it.  (The same can be said about his record as a serial drunken driver --- he spent a good deal of time in prison, but not, alas, for that.)  Koestler seems to have gotten his start on abusing women in a poisonous relation with his mother.

As I have hinted, I was disappointed to learn that The Age of Longing was not numbered among Koestler's best works, and that he himself regarded it as a failure.  I have found it immensely instructive (even more so than Darkness at Noon) and in parts beautiful.  I first read it in my undergraduate years, when its frank description of the hero's impotence with a whore caused it to be passed around at Caltech.  True, its satire on the atmosphere of the early Cold War makes it a period piece; but I trust the author, as in all his work, to have rendered faithfully the kinds of arguments people were having in that milieu, and that is always valuable, because we all tend to forget how silly we can be.  Also, his vignettes of various characters & situations have for me an intense charm.  I am grateful to Scammell for quelling my suspicion that the book had been subsidized by the CIA, with which Koestler turns out to have been on bad terms at the time.

Scammell is unsympathetic with Koestler's late dalliances with parapsychology & other such stuff with the stink of superstition about it, and I am more so.  They seem to be due to the same cause as his many services to decency: disillusion with the murderous cults of reason that arose from the French Revolution & its sequelae.  Koestler traces them back to the conflict between Kepler the mystic and Galileo the scientist.  There is some irony to that.  Galileo (we learn from The Sleepwalkers) called Kepler a crackpot.  He was right about that; but Kepler was right about the orbit of Mars being an ellipse (pretty near), and if you are doing astronomy, being right about the orbit of Mars is more important than being right about who is a crackpot.  Koestler took Kepler's side (indeed, even identified with him: "K = K") and blamed Galileo's tactlessness for starting off science on a collision course with religion.  Newton, on the other hand, kept his eye on the ball.  He extracted Kepler's three laws of planetary motion from his mass of gaudy nonsense, combined them with Galileo's astronomical discoveries & insights into mechanics, and thus --- after inventing the necessary mathematics --- provided a beautiful and useful theory, all without bothering to insult any bishops.  With that synthesis in hand, it was rather desperate of Koestler to inscribe "Back to Kepler!" on his banner.  There are plenty of cogent reasons for being skeptical about claims to scientific rigor in political theory, without disturbing Kepler of his rest.  A temperate discussion may be found in "The Case Against Intellect", Chapter VI in The House of Intellect by Jacques Barzun (1959).

For all that, he did a lot of good and brightened my life.
Tags: crackpot, koestler, science, sexism
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