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The 'Casanova of Causes' | The Nation

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The 'Casanova of Causes'

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It is possible to forgive Cesarani his misspellings of Nicola Chiaromante as "Nicolas," of James Fenimore Cooper with an extra "n," and of the philosopher Zeno as "Xeno" (twice: a Greek paradoz?); his risible description of Henry and Clare Boothe Luce as "pillars of the American liberal establishment"; and even his tricking up of a shaky thesis with the usual pomoblab about "marginality," "contingency," "inter-textuality" and "deterritorialised identities"--but not his tin ear for the work itself while he purses prim lips at erotic adventurism; not when he's tone-deaf in the middle of so much symphonic noise. Koestler may have come to distrust "the great nineteenth-century narratives of progress," but every bassoon note of that century's Romantic afflatus resounded in his prose and head. And for all his disenchantment, he'd still maintain:

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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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In the 1930s conversion to the Communist faith was not a fashion or a craze--it was a sincere and spontaneous expression of an optimism born of despair: an abortive revolution of the spirit, a misfired Renaissance, a false dawn of history. To be attracted to the new faith was, I still believe, an honorable error. We were wrong for the right reasons.

I seem alone among my peer group to have kept on reading him through his "pilgrim's regress" into astronomy, ethnology, brain theory, parapsychology and mysticism--The Sleepwalkers, The Act of Creation, The Ghost in the Machine, Drinkers of Infinity, The Case of the Midwife Toad and The Roots of Coincidence. The Kepler material was terrific, and Creation at least contained a lot of jokes. But the more K. disappeared into subatomic particles and "supra-galactic spaces," the less persuasive he became, arguing science by random analogy, citing anecdotes as proofs, picking and choosing among half-grasped experiments on a frantic bias, buying into both neo-Lamarckian fantasies of inherited memory and J.B. Rhine's spoon-bending down at paranormal Duke, infatuated with prime numbers and flatworms, going almost Zen on us with his "holons" and his "hierarchies," prematurely sociobiologizing--instead of Communism, a "cosmic consciousness"; instead of comradeship, a "collective mind" and "disincarnate mental energy"; instead of dialectical materialism, "bisociation," a mating of "matrices" along "integrative gradients"; instead of revolution, self-transcendence and the death wish, better living through modern chemistry and super enzymes (a pill to pacify the limbic "crocodile" in our old reptilian brains).

To his credit, Cesarani slogs through all this, when you know he'd really rather talk some more about the many abortions Koestler foisted on his "masochistic" wives and groupies, the daughter he refused to see, his "pathological need to wander," his "pathological promiscuity" and his "feeble" attempts at suicide--before, of course, fed up with Parkinson's and lymphatic leukemia, he finally succeeded in finishing himself off, taking his much-loved old dog and his much younger last wife with him. But I'm with the Nobel Prize-winning biologist Peter Medawar--no fan of pseudoscience--who declined to discuss astrology at cocktail parties because "I prefer to let sleeping unicorns lie."

Well, then, homelessness: Where's the mystery? He had been raised to expect a secular culture capable not only of assimilating but of embracing and promoting someone with his talents. It should have been possible, in Wittgenstein's Vienna, to listen to Mozart or Schoenberg, read von Hofmannsthal or Herzl, go to a play by Schnitzler, look at Secessionists, consult Freud and consume a Sacher torte. It should have been possible, in Weimar Berlin, to listen to Hindemith and Weill, read Kafka and Rilke, look at Grosz and Dix, go to plays by Brecht and Piscator, and lollygag with Gropius in a Bauhaus. But they kept closing the borders, burning the books, banning the music and killing the thinkers, until there were no more homes, only camps. In this respect Koestler was every bit as "representative" of his generation as he wanted us to think, no matter how much Cesarani needs him to be some singular subspecies. Like most of the left in this century, he didn't believe in God, and who can blame him? He tried Israel and didn't like it: also hardly unique. He would settle in England, where he was at last as safe as Spinoza had been in Amsterdam. Isaiah Berlin once quoted Kant at him: "Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made." I'm sorry this "Casanova of Causes" was personally such a swine, the way I'm sorry Picasso was nasty, brutish and short. But I prefer to remember him as the Pest from Buda, the refugee stormbird, who, almost singlehandedly, got capital punishment abolished in his stepfatherland.

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