Koestler, Arthur (1905-1983)

views updated May 14 2018

Koestler, Arthur (1905-1983)

World-famous novelist and writer on political, scientific, and philosophical themes who was also interested in parapsychology. He was born in Budapest September 5, 1905, the only son of a Hungarian father and an Austrian mother. He described his early life as "lonely, precocious and neurotic," saying he was "admired for my brains and detested for my character by teachers and schoolfellows alike." Koestler attended the Polytechnic High School in Vienna and studied engineering, then studied science and psychology at the University of Vienna.

As a young man he became a Zionist, and when working as a journalist he joined the Communist party. He was a reporter in Spain during the Civil War, where he was imprisoned as a Communist and was only released after the intervention of the British government. In Paris during World War II, he was arrested and sent to a concentration camp. His prison experiences became the basis of his brilliant but depressing book Darkness at Noon (1940). In this book, as in his contribution to the later symposium The God That Failed: Six Studies in Communism (1949), he expresses his rejection of communism and other totalitarian regimes, which he sees as corrupted by inhuman and cynical power politics. In 1941 Koestler joined the British army and after the war became a British citizen. By 1955 he had ceased to be actively involved in political campaigning.

In addition to his novels Koestler published a series of brilliant questing works concerned with human faculty and destiny in relation to scientific findings. Although it was not widely recognized that he had a long-standing interest in parapsychology, his book The Roots of Coincidence (1972) touches on the question of scientific validation of psychic gifts and states that extrasensory perception might be "the highest manifestation of the integrative potential of living matter," while in The Challenge of Chance, published a year later, Koestler reviews possible connections between parapsychology and quantum physics. However, he maintained a characteristic skepticism, as expressed in a television interview: "I am still skeptical. I've got a split mind about it. I know from personal experience, from intuition, whatever you call it, that these phenomena exist. At the same time, my rational or scientific mind rejects them. And I'm quite happy with that split of the mind."

He participated in three annual international conferences of the Parapsychology Foundation. At the 1972 Amsterdam conference, "Parapsychology and the Sciences," he contributed a paper, "The Perversity of Physics," in which he states: "I do believe that there is a positive, not only a negative rapprochement between those two black sheep: parapsychology and quantum physics. But let us not try to rush things. The great new synthesis in the history of science occurred when each component, which ultimately went into synthesis, was already there and they only needed to be together. I do not think that the time is ripe, but I think there is this affinity between parapsychology and modern physics which is more intuitive than logical, more potential than actual a kind of 'gestalt' affinity."

In the 1974 conference at Geneva, he again discussed parapsychology in relation to quantum physics, stating,

"So there is now a radical wing in parapsychology, a sort of Trotskyite wing, of which I am a member, with Alister Hardy and others, who are trying really radically to break away from causality, not only paying lip service to the rejection of causality, or confining this rejection of causality and determinism to the micro-level, but who really wonder whether a completely new approach, indicated in holism, Jung's synchronicity, and so on, might not be theoretically more promising."

Koestler was also a founding member of the KIB Foundation (later renamed the Koestler Foundation ), a British organization fostering research into unorthodox and paranormal phenomena. He wrote some 35 books.

Koestler died at his London home March 3, 1983, at age 77, in a joint suicide with his third wife, Cynthia Koestler. He had been suffering from leukemia and advanced Parkinson's disease. In his will he included a bequest to a British university for the study of paranormal faculties such as metal bending, telepathy, and healing. The Koestler bequest, equivalent to $600,000, was awarded to the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, to establish the Koestler Chair of Parapsychology. The first occupant was Robert L. Morris of Syracuse University, former president of the Parapsychological Association.

Koestler is generally recognized as one of the most stimulating intellects of the twentieth century. In 1968, at the University of Copenhagen, he was awarded the Sooning Prize for his political and philosophical writings, a prize earlier awarded to Bertrand Russell and Winston Churchill. Koestler was also honored with such awards as Commander of the British Empire and Companion of the Royal Society of Literature.


Atkins, John. Arthur Koestler. N.p., 1956.

Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York: Paragon House, 1991.

Hardy, Aleister C., Arthur Koestler, and Robert Harvie. The Challenge of Chance: A Mass Experiment in Telepathy and Its Unexpected Outcome. New York: Random House, 1973.

Huber, Peter Alfred. Arthur Koestler, Das Literarische Werk. Zürich: Fretz & Wasmuth, 1962.

Koestler, Arthur. The Ghost in the Machine. New York: Macmillan, 1968.

. The Lotus and the Robot. London: Hutchinson, 1960.

. The Roots of Coincidence. London: Hutchinson, 1972.

. The Yogi and the Commissar. New York: Macmillan, 1946.

Webberly, Rob, ed. Astride the Two Cultures: Arthur Koestler at 70. London: Hutchingson, 1975.

Arthur Koestler

views updated May 29 2018

Arthur Koestler

Arthur Koestler (1905-1983) authored one of the 20th century's great political novels, Darkness at Noon, as well as a number of other fictional works and essay collections which explained the ethos of Communism to the West.

The son of a successful businessman and a mother who despised everything Hungarian, Arthur Koestler was born in Budapest on September 5, 1905. Thanks to his mother's insistence on speaking German and a series of German, French, and English governesses, he was rather fluent in four languages by the time he was ten.

He attended the Technische Hochschule in Vienna, where he became an ardent Zionist. In 1925, the year after his father's business failed, he ran away to Palestine, where he worked as a laborer in a commune, an advertising salesman for a Hebrew newspaper in Haifa, an assistant to an architect, a lemonade vendor, and an aide to a land surveyor. After a brief stint as the editor of a paper financed by the German legation in Cairo, he returned to Europe.

There he was named Mid-East correspondent for the Neue Freie Presse (New Free Press) and the Ullstein chain of papers, the biggest in Europe; two years later he became their correspondent in Paris. In 1930 he was recalled to Berlin by the Ullsteins to serve as their science editor, arriving on the very day when the Nazis scored a significant election victory, increasing their representation in the Reichstag from 12 to 107.

As the German centrist parties collapsed, the only strong foe of the Nazis was the Communist Party, and Koestler joined it in 1931. He toured Russia in 1932 and 1933 and, exiled from Germany, spent three years as a wanderer in Vienna, Paris, and London, existing mostly on jobs he did for the party.

In 1936 he was assigned to cover the Spanish Civil War for the New Chronicle of London. The next year he was captured by the rightist Franco (Nationalist) forces and sentenced to death; the intervention of the British government saved his life. He wrote of his experiences in Spain in Spanish Testament, also titled Dialogue with Death, in 1938 and that year left the Communist Party because of the Moscow purge trials. Of this move he wrote, "I went to Communism as one goes to a spring of fresh water, and I left Communism as one clambers out of a poisoned river strewn with the wreckage of flooded cities and the corpses of the drowned."

In 1940 Koestler published his masterwork, Darkness at Noon, one of the finest novels to deal with Communism and a work as acclaimed for its artistic unity and integrity as for its explanation of events which had baffled much of the world. The book clarified the purge trials of 1936-1938 as only an ex-party-member could have clarified them.

The roots of the trials went back to the Russian Revolution of 1917. Although V. I. Lenin was the political and intellectual father of the Communist Party's rise to power, several other men also played major roles: Leon Trotsky, Nikolai Bukharin, Lev Kamenev, Karl Radek, Grigori Zinoviev, and Joseph Stalin. All were members of the Politburo, the ruling board of the party. After Lenin's death in 1924 Stalin gradually assumed more and more power, much to the dismay of the other "Old Bolsheviks," who found their authority increasingly undermined.

On December 1, 1934, Sergei Kirov, a Stalin protegé who headed the Communist Party in Leningrad, was assassinated by a liberal young party member who said he had been influenced by the writings of Zinoviev. Some assert that Stalin himself arranged the murder, but, whatever the circumstances, Stalin used the shooting as a springboard to launch a series of purges to eliminate his potential rivals, which culminated in four major trials.

These were the Trial of the Sixteen in August 1936, in which Zinoviev and Kamenev were found guilty and shot; the Trial of the Seventeen in January 1937, in which Radek and Piatakov, the deputy commissar for heavy industry, were found guilty; the secret trial of Red Army generals in June 1937, in which Marshal Tukhachevsky, the chief of staff, was found guilty and shot; and the Trial of the Twenty-One in March 1938, in which Bukharin and Yagoda, the chief of the secret police, were found guilty and shot.

What especially puzzled the outside world was that so many party leaders pleaded guilty to such bizarre charges as working with the espionage services of Britain, France, Germany, and Japan; plotting to assassinate Stalin; attempting to destroy the U.S.S.R.'s military and economic power; and planning to poison masses of Russian workers.

Nonetheless, plead guilty they did in shockingly abject language, and many non-Russians were convinced that the Soviet state had had a narrow escape. Among them was U.S. Ambassador Joseph E. Davies, who wrote of the Bukharin trial in Mission to Moscow, "All the fundamental weaknesses and vices of human nature—personal ambitions at their worst—are shown up in the proceedings. They disclose the outlines of a plot which came very near to being successful in bringing about the overthrow of the government."

It remained for Koestler and Darkness at Noon to explain what had happened. In his novel, the Old Bolshevik N. S. Rubashov is arrested and taken to prison. He is given a confession to sign admitting to a series of crimes, including trying to poison No. 1 (Stalin), all of which are clearly preposterous. He is interrogated by two men: the first is Ivanov, a former fellow-soldier and, like Rubashov, an ironical intellectual, while the second is Gletkin, an example of what Stalin called the "New Soviet Man." Ivanov is content to accept from the prisoner an admission of his deviations from the party line; for this Ivanov is shot. Gletkin, on the other hand, insists on an unqualified confession to every accusation while wearing Rubashov down physically and psychologically.

The dedicated Communist Rubashov now faces a choice: he can admit nothing and die in silence or he can perform one last service for the party to which he has given his life: confess and die as a traitor, retaining the hope that history will vindicate him. Rubashov chooses the latter course, stigmatizing himself in the courtroom as "criminal" and "low and vile." He is executed.

More than a political novel, Darkness at Noon is an examination of the question of ends and means and of the problem of a position taken by intellectuals which then falls into the hands of non-intellectuals. It is thus far more than journalism or polemics; as George Orwell wrote, "it reaches the stature of tragedy." There are echoes of this novel in Koestler's other works, such as the essay collection The Yogi and the Commissar (1945) and the novel Arrival and Departure (1943), in which the fascist interrogator of the young Communist hero indicates that he knows about the "Rubashov trial."

After World War II Koestler turned increasingly to non-fiction, specializing in essays popularizing ideas in science, philosophy, and psychology, with side-ventures into telepathy and astrology. In his later years he became an official of the British organization EXIT, dedicated to "the right to die with dignity." When he developed both leukemia and Parkinson's disease, he and his third wife, Cynthia, committed suicide together by taking drug overdoses in London on March 3, 1983.

Further Reading

Koestler wrote four autobiographical volumes: Spanish Testament (1938), Scum of the Earth (1941), Arrow in the Blue (1952), and Invisible Writing (1954). Good biographies are Arthur Koestler by Wolfe Mays (1973) and Arthur Koestler by Sidney A. Pearson, Jr. (1978). There are also essays in The Novel Now by Anthony Burgess (1967) and in George Orwell: Critical Essays by George Orwell (1954). □

Koestler, Arthur

views updated May 18 2018


KOESTLER, ARTHUR (1905–1983), author. Born in Budapest and educated in Austria and Germany, Koestler was probably the most cosmopolitan of 20th-century European writers, changing his language from Hungarian to German at the age of 17, and from German to English at the age of 35. In 1926 Koestler went to Palestine, where for three years he was correspondent for a German publisher and a foreign correspondent for German newspapers. He then returned to Europe and in 1931 was the only journalist on board the "Graf Zeppelin" during its Arctic expedition. He joined the Communist Party in the same year and visited the U.S.S.R. during 1932–33, but abandoned the party at the height of the Stalinist purges of 1936–38. This disillusionment was described in a contribution to The God That Failed (1949).

Koestler's revulsion against the inhuman judicial processes of the age was expressed in the novel Darkness at Noon (1940), generally regarded as his best work and as one of the great political novels of the 20th century; it was later adapted for the stage. It tells the story of an old Bolshevik, Rubashov, who is arrested by the Soviet secret police and forced to confess to crimes which he did not commit. The strange psychological inversion which causes the victim to accept and acknowledge the justice of the charges leveled against him, while knowing that the evidence produced is false, provides the core of the novel's interest. During the Spanish Civil War Koestler was in Spain, and in 1937, while reporting the war for the London News Chronicle, he was captured and his Spanish Testament (1937) describes his hundred days in Franco's jails and the commutation of his death sentence to a term of imprisonment. In 1940 he volunteered for the French army and, after the collapse of France, escaped to England and fought with the British.

An interest in the problems of the Jews in Mandatory Palestine was a natural outcome of Koestler's years there during the 1920s. His novel Thieves in the Night (1946) documents the Arab-Jewish conflict during the period before the British withdrawal, when the Jewish underground movements incurred official wrath for their involvement in "illegal immigration" and "terrorism." Though obviously sympathetic to the Zionist cause, Koestler directs a streak of irony at the mixture of religious mysticism and practical socialism which, to his mind, animated the settlers in the kibbutzim. Koestler returned to Ereẓ Israel for a brief visit during the War of Independence in 1948, and his Promise and Fulfillment: Palestine, 191749 (1949) surveys the era of the Mandate and the emergence of the State of Israel. After the establishment of the State, Koestler maintained that the Jews in the Diaspora were left with two choices: immigration to Israel, or total assimilation. He himself opted for the latter.

Koestler's works range from novels on political and ethical problems to polemical essays and autobiography. His rejection of various ideologies, the outcome of a disappointed idealism, led him to probe the workings of modern society and the rise of totalitarian movements, which enslaved men, repressed their individualism, and threatened to destroy the striving for a nobler social and metaphysical order. His books include: the novel Arrival and Departure (1943); The Yogi and the Commissar (1945), a volume of essays; The Age of Longing (1951), a political novel; two volumes of autobiography entitled Arrow in the Blue (1952) and The Invisible Writing (1954); The Sleepwalkers (1959), a history of man's changing vision of the universe; The Lotus and the Robot (1960); The Act of Creation (1964) and a philosophical work, The Ghost in the Machine (1967), both of which constituted a philosophical attack upon the theory of determinism; and Scum of the Earth (1968). In The Thirteenth Tribe (1976), he suggested that European Jewry was largely descended from the *Khazars.

Koestler and his wife committed suicide together.


J.A. Atkins, Arthur Koestler (Eng., 1956); J. Nedava, Arthur Koestler (Eng., 1948); J. Strachey, The Strangled Cry (1960), 1–7 (an Encounter pamphlet).

[Harold Harel Fisch]

Koestler, Arthur

views updated May 23 2018

Koestler, Arthur (1905–83) British novelist and philosopher, b. Hungary. After living in many European capitals during the 1920s and 1930s, he went to Spain as a journalist to cover the Spanish Civil War. Darkness at Noon (1940), Koestler's best-known novel, is a biting indictment of Stalinist totalitarianism. His other novels also embody political themes. He died in a suicide pact with his wife.