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Koestler, Arthur

Category: Writer

Arthur Koestler by Lewis Morley
Toned bromide print, 1961

Arthur Koestler, (1905 –1983) was a Hungarian-British author and journalist. He was an extremely clever intellectual man, fluent in Hungarian [his native tongue], German, Hebrew, French, English and Russian.  Koestler wrote several major novels, two volumes of autobiographical works, two volumes of reportage, a major work on the history of science, several volumes of essays and a considerable body of other writing and articles on subjects as varied as genetics, euthanasia, Eastern mysticism, neurology, chess, evolution, psychology, the ‘paranormal’ and more.  Mysticism and a fascination with the spiritual imbued much of his later work. Koestler was also known for his interest in extrasensory perception, psychokinesis and telepathy.

And his door to perception was opened by a form of torture and it stayed open.   In 1937 he went to Loyalist Spain as a war correspondent of News Chronicle but was captured by the Nationalist rebels. From February until June, he was imprisoned under sentence of death. He was eventually exchanged for a 'high value' Nationalist prisoner held by the Loyalists, the wife of one of Franco's ace fighter pilots. He is one of the few authors to have been sentenced to death and witnessed death row. It is at this time that he had his most profound spiritual experiences brought on principally by fear and terror.

He also appears to have had a near death experience.  After the outbreak of World War II, Koestler was detained for several months in Le Vernet Internment Camp among other 'undesirable aliens', mostly refugees. They released him in early 1940 due to strong British pressure. While waiting to gain passage on a ship out of Lisbon to England, he heard a false report that the ship on which his then lover Daphne Hardy was travelling had sunk, and that she had died. He attempted suicide, but survived.

He tried drugs and rejected them [although they did have an effect] . In early 1960, on his way back from a conference in San Francisco, he interrupted his journey at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where some experimental research was going on with hallucinogens. He tried psilocybin and had a "bad trip". Later, when he arrived at Harvard to see Timothy Leary he experimented with LSD, but was not enthusiastic about that experience either.  In "Return Trip to Nirvana", published in the Sunday Telegraph in 1967, Koestler wrote about the drug culture and his own experiences with hallucinogens and he challenged the defence of drug use in books such as  Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception.

What appears to have kept his door open - largely to inspiration and wisdom  - was sex and sex in massive quantities. He failed at marriage, had little interest in children, but was driven by the excitement of ‘love in its first flush’ – illicit passion!  So making love is high on the list of spiritual methods.  He liked being ‘in love’ [like Goethe].  From a woman’s point of view I suspect he was totally fascinating and a disaster.  Most women are motivated by a desire for children and a safe secure home and Koestler was not interested in any of these.  His whole life was spent in insecurity, and it drove some of his best work.

There have been some very unpleasant things said about Koestler after he died and his undoubted sexual ‘promiscuity’.  Books and unsubstantiated reports after his death accuse him of “engaging in numerous sexual affairs and generally treating the women in his life badly”.  But women are not stupid, which is what the male writers of these reports seem to forget.  They don’t stay with a man who ill treats them unless they actually love him, or are dependent on him for emotional and financial support, and in the latter case one could argue, who then is ‘using’ who.

British feminist writer Jill Craigie claimed that she had been one of his ‘victims’ in 1951. But [and here I am speaking as a woman] many woman who subsequently find out they are just one of numerous other women, often get very upset that they were not as  ‘special’ as they thought they were – or were told they were.  Men have a habit of declaring undying love and devotion when they have really enjoyed the sex.  They are not being dishonest, at the time that’s how they feel.  It is just that they change their minds later, when logic comes back and emotion takes a back seat.  If you don’t want to get burnt you should not play with fire and Koestler was fire.

Koestler even wrote a sex encyclopaedia  published to great success under the title The Encyclopœdia of Sexual Knowledge under the pseudonyms [and this is hilarious]  of "Drs. A. Costler, A. Willy, and Others". 

He did have numerous affairs, but what marks all of them out is that he remained friends with the women he had affairs with.  Apart it seems from Jill Craigie.  This is not in accordance at all with the fiction invented by his detractors.  So let us look at some examples.  His primary school education started at an experimental private kindergarten founded by Laura Striker. Her daughter Eva Striker later became Koestler's lover, and they remained friends all his life.  In 1935 he married Dorothy Ascher, a fellow Communist activist but they separated amicably in 1937..


Daphne Hardy

In 1939 he met and formed an attachment to the British sculptor Daphne Hardy. They lived together in Paris.  She joined Koestler in London in 1943, but they parted company a few months later. They remained good friends until Koestler's death.

In August 1945, Koestler returned to England from Palestine, Mamaine Paget, whom he had started to see before going out to Palestine, was waiting for him.  In July 1949, he commenced work on the first volume of his autobiography, Arrow in the Blue.   He hired a new part-time secretary, Cynthia Jefferies.  She eventually became his third wife.  Having reached agreement with his first wife, Dorothy, for an amicable divorce, their marriage was annulled on 15 December 1949. This cleared the way for his marriage to Mamaine Paget, which took place on 15 April 1950 at the British Consulate in Paris.


Mamaine Paget

In August 1952, his marriage to Mamaine collapsed. They separated but remained close until her sudden and unexpected death in June 1954.  On 13 April 1955, Janine Graetz, with whom Koestler had an on-off relationship over a period of years, gave birth to his daughter. She was called Cristina, and despite repeated attempts by Janine to persuade him to show some interest in her, Koestler had almost no contact with his daughter throughout his life.

Early in 1956 he arranged for Cynthia to have an illegal abortion.  In 1965 he married Cynthia in New York, and moved to California.

His marriages only last about two years, his affairs last a lifetime.  He clearly loved women, but he did not like marriage or children and this is presumably why feminists do not like him.

Koestler wanted excitement, change, passion – high emotion, adventure.  His life was based on constant overload.  In effect emotional overload was his principle mechanism of life and inspiration.  It amazes me he lasted as long as he did. 

Most of Koestler’s life was filled with incident and extraordinary events.  His childhood was spent in affluent circumstances. The Koestlers lived in spacious, well-furnished, rented apartments in various predominantly Jewish districts of Budapest. During Arthur's early years they employed a cook/housekeeper as well as a foreign governess. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 deprived his father of foreign suppliers, and his business collapsed. Facing destitution, the family moved temporarily to a boarding house in Vienna. Arthur witnessed the short-lived Hungarian Bolshevik Revolution of 1919, the temporary occupation of Budapest by the Romanian Army, and the White Terror under the right-wing regime of Admiral Horthy.

On 1 April 1926, Koestler went to Palestine, where he lived and worked.  In 1931 he joined the Communist Party of Germany .  In September 1933 he went to Paris and for the next two years was active in anti-Fascist movements; he wrote propaganda under the direction of Willy Muenzenberg, the Comintern's chief propaganda director in the West.  Much of his communist sympathies were a reaction to the fascist threat. One of his later essays, titled "On Disbelieving Atrocities" was about Nazi atrocities against the Jews.

In 1938, he resigned from the Communist Party,  disillusioned by Stalinism, [which he eventually regarded as a greater threat than fascism] and started work on a new novel that in 1941 was published in London with the title Darkness at Noon, an anti-totalitarian work. It was published in 1940 and gained him international fame. Darkness at Noon was one of the most influential anti-Soviet books ever written. Its influence in Europe on Communists and sympathisers and, indirectly, on the outcomes of elected governments, was substantial.

Arriving in England without an entry permit, Koestler was imprisoned by the British pending examination of his case. He was still in prison when his book Darkness at Noon was published in early 1941. Immediately upon release, he volunteered for army service. While awaiting his call-up papers he wrote Scum of the Earth (January–March 1941), the first book he wrote in English. For the next twelve months, he served in the Pioneer Corps.

In December 1944, he travelled to Palestine where he had a clandestine meeting with Menachem Begin; the head of the Irgun terrorist organisation, who was wanted by the British armed forces and had a £500 bounty on his head. Koestler tried to persuade him to abandon militant attacks and accept a two-state solution for Palestine, but failed. Many years later, Koestler wrote in his memoirs: “When the meeting was over, I realised how naïve I had been to imagine that my arguments would have even the slightest influence.”

And so I could go on.  He was a Duracell bunny of a man in everything he did.

Arthur Koestler and Cynthia few months before their suicide

Early in 1976 Koestler was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. The trembling of his hand made writing progressively more difficult. In 1978 he published Janus: A Summing Up, a book which I have used extensively as it is just that – a very good summing up of what he believed or knew. Two years later, in 1980, he was diagnosed also with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia. Walking and writing became an effort and Koestler's physical condition visibly deteriorated, but he kept on working.

In his capacity as Vice President of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, later renamed Exit, he wrote a pamphlet on suicide, outlining the case both for and against, with a section dealing specifically with how best to do it. Koestler and Cynthia killed themselves on the evening of 1 March 1983.

“I wish my friends to know that I am leaving their company in a peaceful frame of mind, with some timid hopes for a de-personalised after-life beyond due confines of space, time and matter and beyond the limits of our comprehension. This 'oceanic feeling' has often sustained me at difficult moments, and does so now, while I am writing this.

Koestler left the bulk of his estate, about £1 million, to found a chair in parapsychology at a university in Britain. The Trustees of the Estate had great difficulty finding a university willing to establish such a chair. Eventually, the Trustees reached agreement with Edinburgh University.

There is one further somewhat bizarre source of Koestler's inspiration - he was a chain smoker - see smoke inhalation.

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