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

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living