Contrary to Popular Belief

By Thomas, Louisa | Newsweek, January 11, 2010 | Go to article overview

Contrary to Popular Belief


Thomas, Louisa, Newsweek


Byline: Louisa Thomas

Political commentators today tend to celebrate a certain kind of skepticism promoted by Cold War intellectuals, men who counseled a vigorous response to evil while remaining humbled by the persistence of evil lurking in all human effort. As an antidote to the failed utopian schemes and totalitarian ideologies that burned through the 20th century--and as an alternative to the cowboy crusading of George W. Bush--this kind of restrained pragmatism makes sense. But it leaves out men like Arthur Koestler, one of the most influential anticommunists of his day.

Perhaps the current popularity of the chastened outlook explains the title of Michael Scammell's new biography: Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic. As Scammell's fantastic account makes clear, Koestler was hardly a skeptic. He was an impassioned believer who swerved this way and that--Zionism, communism, anticommunism, science, and -pseudoscience--searching for the absolute that would save him (and us all).

Born to an assimilated Jewish family in Central Europe before World War I, Koestler lived in a half dozen countries, spoke several languages, slept around, and wrote some 30 books, including four autobiographies, along with essays and articles on topics as varied as antifascism and ESP.

Koestler's life is marked by paradoxes and ironies. One of them is that he was inspired to write one of the best-known anticommunist novels, Darkness at Noon, by an experience suffered while still technically a communist. Koestler wrote Darkness after emerging from prison in fascist Spain, where he had been suspected of working for the Communist Party (which was true). Upon his release, he quickly became a perceptive, persuasive, and passionate critic of totalitarianism. Moscow's show trials appalled him; Stalin's nonaggression pact with Hitler was the last straw.

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