Historical Notes: The Salman Rushdie of the Cold War

IF AMIDST the stock-taking at the century's end one man's life could take us through the age of extremes and personify the travails of millions, that man would be Arthur Koestler. As a writer he chronicled the century, as a man he lived it.

Born into a middle-class Jewish family in Budapest in 1905, he saw the security of bourgeois life swept away by war and revolution. In response to extreme nationalism and anti-Semitism he was drawn to a succession of Utopian ideologies: first Zionism, then Communism. Both promised to normalise the Jewish condition: one by giving the Jews their own country, the other by dissolving ethnic and national identities altogether.

In this sense, Koestler's experience was specific. It was so particular that he played down his Jewishness for fear it would limit his appeal as a writer and political activist. He could not foresee that ethnicity and identity would be universal themes from the late 1960s. His ambivalence towards his origins, his experience of coming from a despised and displaced minority, represents the daily tragedy of people from East Timor to Kosovo.

Zionism proved too parochial for a cosmopolitan Jew like Koestler: assimilation and its corollary, self-hate, had corroded his cultural roots too much to replant them successfully in Israeli soil. Communism also failed him. Although the Soviet Union officially banished anti-Semitism, it was equally repressive of Jewish particularity. The promise of universal salvation became the justification for tyranny and suffering.

Koestler was one of the few intellectuals to challenge Communist doctrine and Soviet power while the Soviet Union was at the height of its popularity. When reading Darkness at Noon (1940) today, it is necessary to recall the attacks it drew from the left. Koestler was the Rushdie of the Cold War. It is easy now to forget the sacrifices made by dissenters when the European intelligentsia was overwhelmingly anti-American, if not pro-Soviet.

From the mid-1950s Koestler wrote about science and attempted to forge a new political philosophy grounded in irrefutable scientific truths. While intellectuals and the public were polarised between the two cultures - science versus the humanities - his success in finding a mass audience was unusual.

Koestler grew up in a society which believed that science and reason would promote the betterment of mankind. By the 1920s, quantum physics and psychoanalysis had shattered the rationalistic understanding of the natural world and human nature. Koestler thus anticipated the estrangement from science that has typified recent decades. In mastering new discoveries and purveying them to a wide audience he blazed the way for the likes of Steven Pinker.

However, his private life was chaotic and he could treat women brutally. This poses the question of how much we can forgive for the sake of genius. In his day, women's voices were muffled and there was a genie morale - a morality that excused geniuses from judgement. Ironically, we are now more inclined to excuse a wife-batterer on account of his disturbed childhood than his brilliance. In Koestler's case there may be a connection.

Modernism, with its penchant for fragmented narratives, multiple perspectives and language games was pioneered by exiles and migrants. The avatars of post- modernism are likewise the location-less thinkers surfing the wave of globalisation.

Koestler's life exemplifies the complex relationship between ethnicity, psychology and creativity which informs culture today. It suggests that a compromised identity may generate violent tension as well as innovation. Koestler's achievements may rank among the glories of cosmopolitanism, but his misdemeanours cast a shadow over the cult of the rootless.

David Cesarani is the author of `Arthur Koestler: the homeless mind' (William Heinemann, pounds 25)

Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific