In 1926, at age 21, Koestler abandoned his studies in Vienna, and went to Palestine, drawn by his Zionist convictions and the promise of adventure. He spent a month or two in a kibbutz (a collective farm), but at the end of his probation, he wasn’t accepted into the kibbutz. Later he wrote a novel about kibbutz life, Thieves in the Night.
The kibbutzim might be compared to the utopian-socialist communities that arose in Europe and America around 1830. Koestler says, “The collective settlements stood ideologically on the extreme left, regarded Jabotinsky as a militarist, and his party as a Fascist movement.” American utopian communities like Brook Farm and Fruitlands usually disintegrated after a year or two, but the kibbutzim lasted. Perhaps the kibbutz is the only kind of Communism that has succeeded. Koestler writes,
|Unlike other Utopian experiments... which all have collapsed after a short time, the Palestine communes have succeeded in establishing themselves as stable forms of rural society; in some of the oldest settlements the children now belong to the third native generation. Indeed, the most remarkable thing about the kibbutz is that it has survived.|
Koestler had some fond memories of kibbutz life:
|During those short weeks I had grown very fond of [some members of the kibbutz], and had come under the strange lure of [kibbutz] life. The nature of this attraction is difficult to convey. The [kibbutz] in its early days was a socialist monastery and at the same time a wildly romantic pioneering adventure.
To stand guard in the moonlight with an old rifle at the foot of Mount Gilboa was an experience not easy to forget. Nor the bliss of the peaceful Sabbath mornings when physical rest, the clean shirt from the communal laundry, and the meat at dinner were savored as rare luxuries. Nor the undefinable feeling of growing roots in an untamed spot, and of growing human ties of a quality unknown elsewhere.
Koestler says that, after people lived in a kibbutz for several years, they couldn’t go back to the outside world, they couldn’t live in a competitive, individualistic society.
Koestler believed in Zionism, and in a Jewish State, but he was ambivalent about Judaism as a religion. “Judaism did not attract me,” Koestler writes. “I was brought up in an assimilated environment without roots in Judaic tradition.” Koestler says,
|to light a fire on the Sabbath is sin; but to pay a Gentile servant to commit that sin is accepted orthodox practice. A good deal of the Jewish ritual seemed to consist of such pettifogging practices, and to have degenerated into maneuvers of evasion. The religion of the desert had become a religion of the ghetto.|
Koestler speaks of, “my revulsion against a form of worship which seemed to consist in cheating the Lord and one’s own conscience.” Koestler also objected to the idea that Jews were the Chosen Race:
|Most bewildering of all was the discovery that the saga of the “Chosen Race” seemed to be taken quite literally by traditionalist Jews. They protested against racial discrimination, and affirmed in the same breath their racial superiority based on Jacob’s covenant with God. Since I had learned at the age of six that Hungary was the feather in God’s cap, I had become impatient, and indeed allergic, towards all claims of belonging to a chosen race.|
Did Koestler believe in God? I see no reason to think he was a believer.
Koestler was uncomfortable with Yiddish, which he describes as
|a vernacular composed of medieval German and Hebrew, with Russian, Polish, Lithuanian or Latvian admixtures, according to the region in which it was spoken. This jargon, with its insinuating, lilting sing-song that turned every factual statement into an emotional one, repelled me.1|
His aversion for Hebrew was even stronger than his aversion for Yiddish. Indeed, his aversion for Hebrew was a key factor in his decision to leave Palestine after three years. He left Palestine despite the fact that he had a good job: he was a journalist for the Ullstein company, a German company that published newspapers, magazines, and books. Koestler writes,
|I grew increasingly tired of Palestine.... I had gone to Palestine as a young enthusiast, driven by a romantic impulse. Instead of Utopia, I had found reality; an extremely complex reality which attracted and repelled me, but where the repellent effect, for a simple reason, gradually gained the upper hand.
This reason was the Hebrew language. It was a petrified language which had ceased to develop and been abandoned by the Jews long before the Christian era — in the days of Christ, they spoke Aramaic — and had now been revived by a tour de force. Its archaic structure and vocabulary made it totally unfit to serve as a vehicle for modern thought, to render the shades of feeling and meaning of twentieth-century man.
By making Hebrew their official language, the small Jewish community of Palestine cast itself off not only from Western civilization, but also from its own cultural past. I felt that to undergo the same process would be spiritual suicide for me. Out of loyalty to Zionism, I had acquired Palestinian nationality and a Palestinian passport, a step which few Zionists were willing to take — even Dr. Weizmann only gave up his British passport after he was elected President of Israel. I could renounce European citizen-status, but not European culture....
I knew that while in a Hebrew-language environment I would always remain a stranger; I would at the same time gradually lose touch with European culture. I had left Europe at the age of twenty. Now I was twenty-three and had had my fill of the East.... My mind and spirit were longing for Europe, thirsting for Europe, pining for Europe.2
Many European Jews probably felt as Koestler did — felt more comfortable with Europe than with Palestine, more comfortable with an assimilated life than with a Jewish life. In the 1920s, European Jews weren’t eager to go to Palestine. Koestler says, “Zionism in 1929 had come to a standstill. Immigration had been reduced to a mere trickle.... World Jewry had not responded to the historic opportunity offered by the Balfour Declaration; during the ten years which followed it, less than 100,000 Jews had settled in Palestine.”
One factor limiting Jewish immigration is that the Arabs opposed it, and the British, responding to Arab pressure, restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine. But according to Koestler, European Zionists were ambivalent about going to Palestine. Koestler speaks of, “the old joke: ‘Zionism means one man persuading another man to give money to a third man to go to Palestine’.... To be a Zionist was one thing; to let ‘a boy of good family’ go out into the wilderness among the mosquitoes and Arabs was quite another.”
Koestler’s lively description of Palestine in the 1920s is one of many reasons why his autobiography, Arrow in the Blue, is the best autobiography I’ve read. Koestler strikes a balance between subjective and objective, between his inner life and the external world.
In 1929, at age 24, Koestler left Palestine, and began working for the Ullstein newspapers in Paris. It wasn’t the free and adventurous life that he had in Palestine; in Paris, he worked long hours, he was confined to an office, and his office was often located in a basement.
Koestler spent much time in Paris brothels, and paints a positive picture of them. He refers to them as “Houses,” and he says that the French called them “maisons de tolérance.” He says a “House” resembled a relaxed café, “with leather benches around the wall, tables and chairs.” He says it wasn’t all about sex, as Americans suppose:
|Abundance of opportunity has an automatically neutralizing effect. In the adolescent’s imagination the shared bed of marriage is a scene of permanent voluptuousness; the Anglo-Saxon idea of a Paris House was equally wide of the mark....
Where sex is traded as a commodity, it ceases to be a mystery. The Houses were not an edifying spectacle, but they spelt death to homosexuality, impotence, neurosis, to the stammer and blush, to sexual crime. They helped to keep the nation spiritually sane....
French psycho-analysts still have a hard time making a living. In England and the United States, the majority of the people I know have consulted psychiatrists on one occasion or another; in France, not a single one. There is not even a proper French word for “neurotic”; névrosé is used in a much more specific, clinical sense. The same is true of words such as “hysterical,” “morbid,” and “inhibited”....
Since the closing of the Houses [in 1946], the rate of criminality and venereal disease has of course been on the increase, and there are more prostitutes in Paris than ever before.
In an earlier issue, I said that mass murderers often call themselves “incels,” that is, involuntary celibates.
Koestler’s relations with women were by no means limited to brothels. He had multiple wives, and countless girlfriends. He says that, as a journalist in Paris, his life “revolved around two poles: furious work, and a hectic chase after women.” His pursuit of women was “a phantom chase that lasted some twenty years.... The phantom that I was after is as old as man: victory over loneliness through the perfect physical and spiritual union.”3 Koestler says that his kind of man “never shares a woman’s pillow, not even a prostitute’s, without believing himself in love with her.”
Every relationship eventually proved to be imperfect, and Koestler couldn’t be satisfied with an imperfect relationship because he had “an obsessive thirst for absolute values.” Koestler’s approach to friendship with men was similar: he had “intense and short-lived friendships,” starting with over-valuing his new acquaintance, thinking he was “the true, real ‘knowing one,’” and then the “illusion faded.”
Koestler says he couldn’t be natural with his newspaper colleagues, he could only be natural with his girlfriends.
|At twenty-five I still looked and felt like an adolescent.... My shyness and insecurity were inadequately camouflaged by the dashing manner which I paraded; it did not fit, and it produced a jarring tone which set people’s teeth on edge. I was disliked by most of my colleagues as I had been disliked at school, and had no social contacts with them....
I could only be myself with women whom I loved. [They] brought out what was best in me.... In [their] presence shyness and insecurity vanished, the pose and the smirk and the cramp dissolved; I became relaxed, myself, and nothing else besides.
Busy with his affaires de coeur, Koestler had little time for literary pursuits. Though he was later known for his novels, he didn’t begin writing fiction until he was 30. “Emotion and intuition, dialogue and analysis of character, were all spent in lived relationships.”3B
Koestler’s knowledge of sex was encyclopedic. In 1938, he published, under a pseudonym, The Encyclopedia of Sexual Knowledge, which became a bestseller.
Koestler says that he had a steady income in his Paris period, and when he became a science editor, his income rose and became “not far from the maximum that a German journalist could earn.” In short, Koestler had a successful career as a journalist. “At twenty-two, I had begun ‘to make good’ and to climb the ladder leading to a busy and successful career.”
But these prosperous years were “a period of stagnation” intellectually, and “spiritually empty.” His most fruitful periods were “periods of confinement in prisons and concentration camps, each of which turned into a spiritual blessing.” When we’re successful, we surf along on the waves of the world. Defeat throws us back on our inner resources.
Koestler says that he struggled to achieve personal growth, to find himself, to follow his best self. He quotes Claudel:
Trembling heart, submit to the master —
To him in me who is more than myself.
Koestler says that he feels a bond with Rousseau, who said that his “whole life had been an attempt to be himself and nothing else besides.” Koestler says that “like [Rousseau] I found this task more difficult than any other; like him I had to submit, in middle age, to that something ‘that is more than myself’... ‘It is to our souls what our soul is to our body.’” Jung called this The Self.
After 14 months in Paris, Koestler was promoted to science editor of the Ullstein newspapers; his new base was Berlin. He arrived in Berlin on election day — September 14, 1930. In that election, the Communist vote rose by 40%, the Nazi vote by 800%, the center parties lost ground.
It seemed that Communism was the only alternative to Nazism. The center parties had lost their nerve, while the Communists had confidence and courage. The capitalist economies were in the grip of the Depression; capitalism seemed to be collapsing, it seemed unable to meet the basic needs of the average person.
Meanwhile, the Soviet economy seemed to be advancing; their Five Year Plan was “transforming, by a series of giant strokes, the most backward into the most advanced country in Europe.”4 The Soviet Union had a good reputation; the purges and show trials and famines hadn’t occurred yet. The camps known as the Gulag, in which millions died while working as slaves of the state, were operating in 1930, but were little known in the West. Even Soviet culture was impressive; Koestler admired Soviet writers like Isaac Babel and Mikhail Sholokhov, and Soviet films like Storm Over Asia “were among the most powerful emotional experiences” of Koestler’s life.
Most Western intellectuals were impressed with the Soviet system. Koestler says that only two Western intellectuals were skeptical: H. G. Wells and Bertrand Russell. Wells met with Stalin for three hours in 1934. Wells was a socialist who thought that capitalism was doomed, so he and Stalin had some common ground. Wells realized that Stalin was choosing tyranny over freedom.5 Nonetheless, Stalin’s charm worked its magic; Wells said, “I have never met a man more fair, candid, and honest.”
Bertrand Russell visited the Soviet Union in 1920, and spent an hour with Lenin. He was disappointed by Lenin and by the country.
Like most Western intellectuals, Koestler had a favorable opinion of Communism and of the Soviet Union. Koestler was disappointed that his employer, the Ullstein newspapers, wasn’t standing up to the Nazis. The Ullsteins were firing writers who were Jewish and liberal, and replacing them with non-Jewish writers who were nationalistic. “It frightened me to discover,” Koestler writes, “that [the editors], who were the embodiment of democratic public opinion par excellence, had neither courage nor convictions.”
Koestler read tracts by Engels, Lenin, etc. and found them convincing. Koestler says that Communism was a “closed system” that seemed to explain everything. If you raised an objection, your objection was swiftly dismissed as the product of bourgeois thinking; “objections are invalidated by shifting the argument to the psychological motive behind the objection.” (Likewise, if you object to today’s woke ideology, your objections are dismissed as racist.) A Communist teacher is “calm, paternal and impressive. His superiority, his self-assurance, the radiance of his sincere belief, create a peculiar relationship between the initiate and the potential convert. It is the relationship between the guru and the pupil.”
Koestler says that Western novelists who depicted Communism often depicted the Communist guru/teacher. Sartre’s Age of Reason has a guru named Bruneau, Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle has Mac, Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not has Captain Morgan.6 The attraction of the Communist guru is enhanced by the secrecy that surrounds him; you’re not told his full name or his address. He leads a life that’s mysterious, dangerous, noble. Koestler writes,
|The thrill of being in touch with this secret world is considerable.... Still stronger is the flattering effect of being found worthy of a certain amount of trust, of being permitted to perform minor services for the harassed men who live in such constant danger. Lionel Trilling, in The Middle of the Journey, has written an excellent psychological study of the relations between the militant apostle and the fascinated, hesitating sympathizer.7 This type of relationship explains in part the astonishing conversions of cool-headed State Department careerists like Alger Hiss; of Public School-bred Foreign Office diplomats like Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean.|
For all these reasons — the weakness of the center parties, the apparent failure of capitalism, the high reputation of the Soviet Union, the persuasive power of the guru, the convincing treatises of Communist writers — Koestler joined the German Communist Party at the end of 1931, and went to the Soviet Union in mid-1932. He longed to drive a tractor on a Soviet farm, as he had once longed to till the soil in Palestine. “A new Zion was in sight, on an infinitely larger, all-embracing scale.”
|1.||Arrow in the Blue, Ch. 13 back|
|2.||Ch. 22 back|
|3.||Ch. 26. Koestler makes a literary mistake, speaking of “Flaubert’s Julien Sorel,” who pursues “Madame Renaud.” Julien Sorel is the protagonist of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, and he pursues Madame Rênal. back|
|3B.||Arrow in the Blue, Ch. 26. Koestler wrote most of his novels between the ages of 35 and 45. In his last 30 years, Koestler only wrote one novel. E. M. Forster also stopped writing fiction as he approached middle age. We find the same pattern in the biography of H. G. Wells; Wells wrote more non-fiction than fiction in his last decades. As Chesterton put it, “Mr. Wells is a born storyteller who has sold his birthright for a pot of message.” back|
|4.||Arrow in the Blue, Ch. 30.
As a science editor in Berlin, Koestler was interested in clean energy,
“inventions which tend to exploit natural sources of energy in a clean, direct and elegant manner, by-passing the archaic drudgery of coal-mining, and the wasteful, unhygienic and air-poisoning methods of low-grade combustion. In the visions of a naturalistic technology there is no place for such purgatoria as the stokehold of a steamship, or a mining-shaft; nor for such pariah occupations as the dustman’s or the chimney sweep’s. The energy supply of the future must come from sources purer, closer to nature, and incomparably more powerful than those now used; from solar radiations concentrated by giant parabolic mirrors and stored in tidy heat accumulators; from turbines which suckle energy direct from the great mother of organic life, the ocean; from power-stations fed by the natural movements of rain, river and wind; from the very same radioactive transformations of matter into energy which govern the rise and fall of stars, galaxies and spiral nebulae.”
In 1931, Koestler wrote an article or two about a car that ran on air and water, developed by a man named Erich Graichen.
Evidently some of the first cars built were electric cars, and it wasn’t long before people found ways for electric cars to generate their own electricity. One wonders why these ideas were abandoned, and why gas-powered cars became standard.
|5.||According to Wikipedia, “On 23 July 1934... Wells went to the Soviet Union and interviewed Joseph Stalin for three hours for the New Statesman magazine. He told Stalin how he had seen ‘the happy faces of healthy people’ in contrast with his previous visit to Moscow in 1920. However, he also criticized the lawlessness, class discrimination, state violence, and absence of free expression. Stalin enjoyed the conversation.... As the chairman of the London-based PEN International, which protected the rights of authors to write without being intimidated, Wells hoped by his trip to the USSR to win Stalin over by force of argument. Before he left, he realized that no reform was to happen in the near future.” back|
|6.||To Have and Have Not was published in 1937. At that time, Hemingway had a favorable impression of Communism, perhaps because he had met Communists in Spain and elsewhere, and had heard their arguments.
A Communist could explain everything. Koestler writes, “The mentality of a person who lives inside a closed system of thought... can be summed up in a single formula: He can prove everything he believes, and he believes everything he can prove. The closed system sharpens the faculties of the mind, like an over-efficient grindstone, to a brittle edge; it produces a scholastic, Talmudic, hair-splitting brand of cleverness which affords no protection against committing the crudest imbecilities. People with this mentality are found particularly often among the intelligentsia. I like to call them the ‘clever imbeciles.’” back
|7.||Where did Trilling get his knowledge of this subject? Trilling was a college friend of Whittaker Chambers, who converted to Communism, then defected.
Koestler says that, after World War II, faith in Communism was dead, and there was nothing left to inspire, nothing to inspire the dreams of youth: