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Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind [Hardcover]

David Cesarani
2.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

28 Oct 1998
Arthur Koestler is one of the intellectual beacons of the 20th century. Along with Russell, Sartre, Malraux, Camus and Orwell, he helped to shape the world of ideas in which we live. As a Central European Jew born at the beginning of the century, Koestler is very much a product of the time, place and circumstances of his birth. As the century progressed, he espoused Communism, Zionism and eventually turned to science to make sense of the chaos of the century. But far from being a dry intellectual, Koestler loved the high life and particularly the women and cars which accompanied it. Using new source material, and enjoying full access to the Koestler estate, David Cesarini re-examines Koestler's writings in the context of his life and loves, paying particular attention to his treatment of friends and lovers. Koestler was a great womanizer and found partners devoted to him, none more so than his last wife, Cynthia, with whom he controversially committed joint suicide in 1983.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: William Heinemann Ltd; First Edition edition (28 Oct 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0434113050
  • ISBN-13: 978-0434113057
  • Product Dimensions: 23 x 15.4 x 5.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 2.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 997,249 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

Should we judge the work by the man, or vice versa? Ezra Pound was a Fascist and an anti-Semite; he was also a good poet. Arthur Koestler was a remarkable man, in his failings as much as his virtues, and David Cesarani's new biography pulls no punches in examining this dichotomy.

Koestler was born in Budapest in 1905 to Jewish parents. In his adult years he courted Zionism, socialism, anti-communism, and from the 1960s onward, science and the paranormal, crossing ideological frontiers as frequently as geographical ones. He wrote his best work before he was 40--Darkness at Noon, Scum of the Earth and Arrival and Departure --and its bravery in expressing a disillusionment with Soviet communism was considerable; George Orwell certainly owed him a debt when he wrote Nineteen Eighty-four. His later work increasingly invited, and received, ridicule. And that is where Koestler has stood for years now, as a majorly minor writer. Cesarani's intention is to reclaim Koestler in the light of his Jewishness, which he believes has been neglected, not least by the writer himself.

However, the strongest personality to emerge from this book is not the anti-communist, or the Jew, but the misogynist bully, who was almost certainly a rapist and possibly a serial one. Muscular of mind and body, Koestler drank, drove, crashed and cavorted as though his soul depended on it. Yet when it suited him he was stimulating and exciting company, as numerous friends attest. So where is the man?

Koestler was an intellectual, a mainly continental affliction, whose skill lay as an assimilator, rather than an originator, of ideas. Malcolm Muggeridge described him as "all antennae and no head". In allowing the contradictions of the man to issue forth in such detail Cesarani runs the risk of obscuring the main tenet of his thesis, but these questions are as relevant as they are awkward; consider the moral arbiters of Bill Clinton today. Whichever way, this is a provocative and searching book, which will not leave you unmoved.--David Vincent

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
By Michael
While it's nice to see he's not completely forgotten, it would have been great if the author had stuck to biography instead of moral condemnation for incidents unproved, and behaviour in conformity with the social standards of his time. Imagine if we had to rummage through the diaries of all the literary, or for that matter, philosophical, musical, etc greats in search of un-PC behaviour, and on finding something does does not conform to today's illiberalist notions of correct social behaviour, condemning their characters, and possibly even their work as a result. Imagine if we not only used their diaries, but took as statements of fact ANYTHING recorded by anyone who once knew the artist. We would have to eliminate much of our favourite music and art from Koestler's generation and before. We must judge these individuals by what was politically correct in THEIR day, not ours, and we generally do this if the artists behaved themselves, and didn't attack what we hold dear.

That is part of the reason why this book is not an objective study. In his life, Koestler upset a large number of people from many different social groupings, be they communists, fascists, nazis, Indians (his assessment of Gandhi), death penalty supporters, Darwinists, scientists from various fields who opposed his views, the French, the English sometimes, many others, but perhaps most importantly, the Jewish people. His attitude in Promise and Fulfillment plus supporting essays he wrote a bit later were unforgivable for many Jewish people, and he crowned it all much later with The Thirteenth Tribe, which proposes the theory that many Jews of Eastern European origin are in fact Caucasians.
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65 of 72 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The politcally-correct biographer 7 Jun 2000
By Drew Wilson - Published on
A book of judgment. Author David Cesarini brings his own prejudices to the biography, which is essentially a politically-correct indictment of Koestler.
Cesarini apparently rummaged through the Koestler archives and selected any evidence of AK's behavior, beginning in the early 20th century, that is clearly unacceptable when judged by the illiberal PC standards of today.
In countless pages, the author describes Koestler's affairs and one night stands, drunken episodes and -- what Cesarini consistently condemns -- male chauvinism.
The author moans constantly about Koestler's girlfriends and wives having to cook, clean, do menial chores or do dictation. But Cesarini, like most in the narrow-minded politically correct camp, fails to understand that Koestler is a man of his time and it was typical for European women born in the early 1900s to assume a traditional role.
The book smells of PC stuff, which is a pity because Koestler is arguably the one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century who remains a mystery.
Cesarini had many opportunities to push PC into the background and focus on Koestler's character. For example, the chance of a fascinating glimpse of Koestler is when Cesarini begins to describe a lunch AK had with B.F. Skinner, an arch intellectual nemesis in the later years. But that's passed over in one sentence.
But the height of irresponsibility comes when Cesarini refers to Koestler as a "serial rapist." Is that a legal phrase? A psychiatric diagnosis? What does it mean? Is it based on opinions or facts? If he has facts, where are they? Certainly not in the book. Apparently the accusation is based on one interview in the book. But recounting an alleged rape today, which the woman says took place decades ago, and implying that it is the truth after the accused has been dead for nearly 20 years, is shoddy journalism. Facts are something that Cesarini discards if they get in the way of his real agenda, which eventually emerges. Cesarini tries to paint Koestler as an immoral character, then explain the character defect by suggesting it results from a rejection of his Jewishness.
That theme plays throughout but it really has little to do with one of the most brilliant thinkers of the 20th century. AK's Jewishness may be important, but it is certainly not the most important thing about AK.
Koestler, it seemed, his whole life was trying to find a harmonious balance between what he would call integration and self-assertion, on both the collective and individual levels. Cesarini fails to understand that AK did not limit his concerns to one religion or individual, for example, but encompassed religion in general and the individual in general and the struggle for co-existence between the two. As the world changes from two big opposing Blocs to a vast mosaic of often dangerously nationalistic entities, Koestler's ideas may form the groundwork for others to build on.
An undercurrent of envy also exists. Koestler was an intellectual who counterbalanced thinking and writing with exuberant action. All his books grappled with the theme of contradiction between two poles: thought and action, ideal and real, tragic and trivial, mysticism and science. There are no Koestlers anymore. Western intellectuals today are typically academics (like Cesarini), who are pretty much comfortably seated in the armchair with a book. Their envy of other intellectuals who passionately pursue women, drink and adventure is understandable.
The redeeming facet of the book is that it does contain a collection of personal incidents that were never made public before. Like the time Koestler raced Camus on all fours on a Paris street. The raw material from the archives, given a less-biased, less politically-correct treatment, would have made a superb biography.
Cesarini's book stands as a prime example of the salad bar approach to biography, where the author picks and chooses only specific components of a person's life and makes a dish tailored to his own narrow agenda.
20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Until more starts appearing on Koestler, the best for now 30 Jan 2001
By R Bell - Published on
Koestler is the lost prophet of the 20th Century.In fact I only know much about him, thanks to my late father who was a fan (and curiously was born and died five years later than Koestler). He explored such areas as LSD, eastern religion, voluntary euthanasia and nuclear disarmament years before most people... He was caught up in many of the ideological causes of the age- Communism and later anti-Communism, Zionism, the movements against capital punishment and nuclear weaponry (although curiously he espoused abortion), as well as rubbing shoulders with a number of well-known people from different countries. No way do I agree with everything he said, but he has been written off because he alienated certain people. His writings about science for example, contain many controversies, but at the same time they contain many home truths.
I would recommend Cesarani's biography, for the simple reason there is so little on Koestler now, and his books are mostly out of print. It is heavy going at times, and there is a slight self-righteous tone going through the book. Koestler did do and say some objectionable things (wife beating for example and bullying), but then again so have many "great people". Winston Churchill for example said and did far worse things. Cesarani is right to point out Koestler's tendency to neglect his Jewish roots, but he overplays this theme since he repeats it through the book (partially because Cesarani is a Jewish historian). Most interesting in this book is Koestler's life which touched on many important events, many places and ideologies and which is an incredible life by any standards.
We need to re-examine Koestler, I think for many of the reasons above. Here are some books I recommend by him.
Darkness at Noon (novel)- about Soviet show trials. A classic of its time.
The Case of the Midwife Toad (out of print)- about the virtual character assassination of the scientist Kammerer and his startling experiments about evolution.
The Ghost in the Machine - Like Synchronicity, this gave its name to an album by The Police, and talks about the uncomfortable idea that the human brain may have dangerous self-destructive flaws in it, and that modern psychology (of that time of course) may have to reassess itself.
I would also recommend his essays such as Drinkers of Infinity, and The Heel of Achilles.
35 of 47 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The light that faded 10 July 2000
By Jonathan Kay - Published on
Just 40 years ago, he was considered one of Europe's great literary minds, and one of Zionism's most prominent intellectual stewards. Yet today, his reputation lies in such tatters that we need a new biography just to remind us that he wrote five novels aside from Darkness at Noon, as well as countless influential pieces of non-fiction.
What makes Arthur Koestler's fall into obscurity doubly surprising is that his intellectual trajectory ran alongside that of George Orwell, an author who couldn't be farther from obscurity if he were alive and writing today.
The similarities are startling: Both writers were leftists who awakened to the evils of jackboot ideology in war-torn Spain; both returned from the fight against Franco to denounce the propagandism of Europe's Russophilic intelligentsia; and both are remembered best by signature dystopic masterpieces in which they laid bare the frightening psychological engine at the heart of totalitarianism.
And yet Orwell's reputation is still strong despite a career cut short by illness in 1950, while Koestler's star faded long before his death 33 years later. So, why? This is one of the many interesting questions that David Cesarani raises in his dry, but methodically rendered biography, Arthur Koestler, The Homeless Mind (Random House, $45).
The pink decade of the '30s ended less than 60 years ago, but by post-Soviet lights, it seems more like centuries. Still, it is worth revisiting, if only to enjoy the highly charged political writing of the period. While modern authors and literary critics fight their culture wars over such issues as multiculturalism and feminism, mid-century antecedents such as George Orwell, Albert Camus, Arthur Koestler, and Andre Gide wrote their great works in the shadow of real wars. Millions of lives actually were up for grabs in their struggle to disabuse Europe's Communists and fellow travellers of totalitarian sympathies. Between the publication of Darkness at Noon in 1940, and his abandonment of political writing in 1955, no author did more to further this effort than Arthur Koestler.
But, as Cesarani illustrates in his rigidly chronological account of the writer's life, anti-communism was just one of the monomaniacal phases that filled Koestler's 78 years. As a young journalist, he moved from Zionism to Marxism to communism to anti-communism. He then picked up with anti-communism as a novelist, shifted into anti-revolutionism, and then adopted full-blown anti-rationalism. He flirted again with Zionism after the Second World War, then launched himself into chest-thumping Cold War jingoism, and finally retreated full time into his cranky obsession with science, psychology, and the mysticism that had suffused his life's work.
From a literary point of view, however, Koestler's only works of enduring value came between Darkness at Noon and The God That Failed in 1950. Before this period, his writing consisted largely of straightforward reportage and boilerplate left-wing propaganda. Afterward, when the battle for the West's most influential minds had already been largely won, his writing became sententious and sophomoric.
Unfortunately, Cesarani does not concentrate his efforts on that jewel of a decade sandwiched in between. Arthur Koestler's early meanderings through Palestine and Europe are all recounted with abundant, and often excessive, detail. At many points, whole pages are devoted to endless descriptions of marginal figures who flitted through Koestler's life. Yet where more interesting details are concerned -- Koestler's many fantastic domestic disputes and episodes of continental debauch, for instance -- Cesarani errs on the side of stinginess. How much better the book would have been if the author had trimmed some of the dry factual tinder to make room for full-bloomed treatment of Koestler's more intriguing adventures!
On the other hand, Cesarani does not flinch from describing Koestler's many faults -- especially the author's despicable attitude toward women. As episode after episode reveals, Koestler was a pathological adulterer, a misogynist, and, on several occasions, an unrepentant date-rapist. He was also a hopelessly self-destructive, vain, arrogant, and self-pitying man who marred each of his important relationships with disgraceful, drunken rows. In other words, he was in every way the psychological antipode to the ascetic, sober, humble "Burma Sergeant" who authored 1984 and Animal Farm.
Moreover, as with all egomaniacs, Koestler had the tendency to externalize his most obnoxious qualities. In his autobiographical works, Arrow in the Blue and The Invisible Writing, Koestler alternated between attributing his antisocial pathologies to dubious childhood traumas, and explaining them away by casting himself as the protagonist and victim of some redemptive cosmic journey.
What is odd in Cesarani's biography is that at the same time that he catalogues Koestler's many flaws, he seems anxious to claim him as one who "exemplified the Jewish experience in Europe during the twentieth century." In the book's early pages, especially, Cesarani eagerly traces each of Koestler's important life decisions to some profound but unspoken Judaic or Zionist impulse. The effort is hardly convincing, but even if it were, the reader is left wondering why anyone would want to claim this dissolute bully as one of their own.
But it was not just because Koestler was so disgusting in his personal life that his reputation has suffered. Unlike Orwell, who rejected doctrinaire communism in favour of democratic socialism, Koestler saw the socialist experiment as naive and anachronistic (and he said as much in the rather condescending obituary he wrote for Orwell). Although Koestler was quite positively against communism, he had no concrete vision of what should replace it. It was this intellectual failing that would ultimately nudge Koestler into useless teleological utopianism.
As with the life it describes, this biography fades into melancholy in its final chapter. Koestler died under bad circumstances -- a successful suicide attempt ending a nervous and itinerant life full of many attempts that were not. In a final Pharaonic gesture that cemented his reputation for cruel selfishness, he even convinced his perfectly healthy wife to accompany him into death. Sad to say, but it was an emblematic end to the life of the brilliant but despicable man who gave the world Darkness at Noon.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars This is a non-review, but you should read it 3 Jan 2013
By Libris Vermis - Published on
I have not read this book; I am writing this to urge potential buyers to read Drew Wilson's "The politcally-correct biographer" review from June, 2000, and then to check out Michael Scammell's more recent (2009) biography, "Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic" before purchasing. Scammell's is evidently more even-handed; Koestler was no saint (and given his brilliance and his tortured childhood, no one could reasonably expect him to be), but neither was he the monster that Cesarani apparently tries to make him. These days, the wise "consumer of ideas" greets any product of academe with extreme dubiousness.

You should also read "'Michael" Michael"'s April 2008 review, 3rd-to-last paragraph at least, for some insight into Koestler's actual relationships with the women in his life (as opposed to the PC squit ladled up by Cesarani).

BTW, my interest in Koestler was re-piqued a few months ago, and I have just finished re-reading his (currently)undeservedly obscure "The Sleepwalkers." I am totally buzzed, as I never could have been as a callow (or perhaps just too-busy) undergrad in the early 70's(required reading for a History of Ideas general-studies class, as I recall). His main thesis (among many, and they are all well argued) is that the three main path-clearers in "the swerve" to the modern conception of the universe - Copernicus, Kepler & Galileo - had completely different obsessions than the discoveries for which they are famous. Thus they were sleepwalking.

I plan to write a review that will do the book justice when I find the time, but in the meantime, if you have any interest at all in astronomy, cosmology, physics, and the history of ideas, you owe it to yourself to get a copy of The Sleepwalkers (and note: buy it, don't borrow from your library, as you will want to constantly underline and comment). You will also be astonished at the breadth & depth of Koestler's interests and knowledge - to name only one, this was the mid-50's, when the quantum revolution had barely percolated out to all the realms of science, let alone to the larger intellectual community or popular audiences, but he seems to have had a good grasp of it. He was truly one of 20C's great renaissance men.
5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Kostler needs a better "Boswell" 22 Sep 2007
By Prometheus - Published on
Koestler was the one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century, and one of its profoundest writers.

Unfortunately, Cesarani is neither great nor profound. He is a narrow-minded, wretched hack who does a politically correct hatchet job on Koestler, besmirching his reputation as the giant that he was. The biographer brings his notorious reputation as a character assassin to his greater subject. He is also a borish scribbler who dangerously considers freedom of speech to be "a relic of 18th-century liberalism".

Kostler needs a better "Boswell" than this petty mouse that would toss into the ashbin 300 years of hard won freedoms. Koestler writings were about those freedoms and the dangers stooges, such as Cesarani and other fellow travelers, muster against those freedoms.
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