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
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

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.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all