The 'Casanova of Causes' | The Nation


The 'Casanova of Causes'

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Still, Jewish self-hatred is an odd charge to level against the ex-Zionist, ex-Communist and original Cold Warrior, perhaps our pre-eminent parajournalist of totalitarianism and surely the ultimate waffle on the twentieth-century grid--with score marks on his thick hide to prove it from Hitler, Franco and Stalin--who made no secret of his origins in four autobiographies. Who worked part time for the Jewish National Fund and joined a Jewish dueling fraternity at the University of Vienna. Who accompanied the Zionist firebrand Vladimir Jabotinsky on a speaking tour of Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1924 and then to the World Zionist Congress in 1925. Who dropped out of college and shipped off to Palestine in 1926, where for the next three years he flunked kibbutzing, sought in Tel Aviv to start a cabaret, settled in Jerusalem to string for publications in Budapest and Cairo, concocted the first Hebrew crossword puzzle and covered the Middle East for the Ullstein newspaper chain, until they promoted him to Paris. Who returned in 1944 after writing one novel, Arrival and Departure (1943), which even Cesarani admits is "almost the only work of fiction published in Britain during the war, or even after the war, to register the catastrophe" of the Holocaust, to research another, Thieves in the Night (1946), that endorsed Stern Gang terrorism. And who made one last 1948 trip to the fledgling State of Israel, where, like so many other Revisionists, he seemed to hate almost everything about Ben-Gurion's "totalitarian Lilliput," including the fact that his jeep was commandeered at gunpoint by Moshe Dayan's 89th Battalion, after which he published an account, Promise and Fulfillment (1949), that called quits to his love affair with the Promised Land--although he would have gone back in 1967, at Teddy Kollek's personal request, if not for the Six-Day War. According to Cesarani:

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John Leonard
John Leonard, the TV critic for New York magazine, a commentator on CBS Sunday Morning and book critic for The Nation...

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Once Koestler had decisively rejected the realisation of his Jewish identity through Zionism he deliberately cultivated a cosmopolitan, de-Judaised image in his autobiographical writing. The break with Jewishness and Zionism, which is flagged at the end of Promise and Fulfillment, began a process of repression that inflected all his subsequent activities.

Which repression would explain why, for instance, he was so ulterior as to fail to mention that he was Jewish in a 1961 speech to the Royal Society of Literature--about a trip to India and Japan! But not, perhaps, his motivation in taking time off from his chats with Kingsley Amis about ESP to write The Thirteenth Tribe (1976). This eccentric foray into Jewish history argued--from scraps of the tenth-century Arab geographer Muqaddasi and the Byzantine historian Constantine Porphyrogenitus; dialogues in The Kuzari, a dreamy theological tract by the Jewish poet/philosopher of Moorish Spain, Judah Halevi; conflicting reports by sundry Hebrew, Persian, Syrian and Armenian sources; and meditations on such fragments by modern scholars like Toynbee, Bury, Dunlop and the perplexed Hungarian Marxist Antal Bartha--that the Jews of Eastern Europe were actually Khazars, descended from a Caucasian tribe of Turkish stock that thrived more than a thousand years ago between the Black Sea and the Caspian, whose king, court and military caste inexplicably converted to Judaism in AD 740 and then, 200 years and a Russian invasion later, vanished into the speculative mists. Those mists, insisted Koestler, were Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, Crimea and Ukraine. Thus the primary victims of the Holocaust weren't really Jewish, at least genetically. So much for a Chosen People.

Some of us took The Thirteenth Tribe to be on a par with Koestler's other enthusiasms of the raffish seventies, like levitation, psychokinesis, catastrophism, Tories and canines. But Cesarani sees a more sinister subtext--"a deep, personal reason for this bizarre exercise":

he was prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to prove that he was not a Jew, or at least a Jew of the 'seed of Abraham.' Koestler could not simply renounce Judaism: he was not a believing Jew and, in any case, saw Jewishness as more than a mere creed--it was a national identity. Indeed, it was even more than that: it was a package of acquired characteristics, a racial type. Given his geneticist convictions the only way he could emancipate himself from the 'seed of Abraham' was by tracing his lineage to the loins of the Khazar tribesmen.

Well, maybe. On the other hand, maybe not. "There is nothing more easily falsified than the unconscious," Italo Calvino has explained. Cesarani only got into the private papers at the Edinburgh Library by promising to write a book about "Koestler's Jewish identity and themes in his life and work." So he has to blow this bagpipe every other chapter or look like a magpie. But imagine his surprise at all that date-rape stuff--and the commensurate dismay of Michael Scammell, whose authorized biography, as yet unfinished, is now pre-empted. Likewise pre-empted, one supposes, are the revelations about Koestler's activities as a Comintern agent in Spain and elsewhere, as faithfully recorded in the suddenly leaky archives of the KGB. Of another famous renegade, the Rilke-reading translator of Bambi, Whittaker Chambers, Koestler himself would remark: "Such peculiar birds are found only in the tree of the revolution."

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