The 'Casanova of Causes' | The Nation


The 'Casanova of Causes'

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To her biographer, Simone de Beauvoir confided a less than rhapsodic one-night stand, in 1946, with the Hungarian malcontent Arthur Koestler: "One night I got so drunk I let him come home with me. We slept together. It wasn't any good. It didn't mean anything. He was too drunk, so was I. It never happened again. Only that night was real, the rest is how I loathed him." Beauvoir was rather kinder in Force of Circumstance, the third volume of her memoirs, recalling K.'s curiosity and generosity as well as his self-importance: "Touchy, tormented, greedy for human warmth, but cut off from others by his personal obsessions." And rather more ambivalent in that plum-pudding roman à clef, The Mandarins, where her alter ego, Anne, will notice, almost immediately after succumbing to the "Slavic charm" of the Koestler-like Scriassine, "a lot of hate" in those "fiery eyes," and the delusion that "loneliness can be cured by force."

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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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They got around like a virus or the clap, those European intellectuals. Nor did they fail to ideologize their sadness in the sack (Kronstadt! Slansky!). So delirious, in fact, were the bistro behaviors of The Second Sex and Darkness at Noon, not to mention The Myth of Sisyphus, Nausea and Man's Fate, that we are tempted to linger and to wallow. Imagine Jean-Paul Words so drunk over onion soup at Les Halles that he fills up paper napkins with pepper and salt and hides them in his pockets. Or Darkness and Sisyphus getting into a fistfight, not because Camus was having it off with K.'s main squeeze, Mamaine "The Mermaid" Paget, but because Caligula accused Scum of the Earth of cheating to win their wager on who could scuttle the fastest across the Place St. Michel on all fours. Or Being and Nothingness calling off their friendship because Invisible Writing insisted on remaining buddies with Voices of Silence, which oracular Silence, André Malraux, had been pressuring Gallimard to cease publication of No Exit's favorite magazine, Les Temps modernes. And maybe "Mermaid" Paget needs a biography of her own. While The God That Failed was knocking her about--before and after The Stranger ran away with her--Jean-Paul Saint Genet also made a clumsy pass, and so did that Dead Sea Scroll at the Finland Station, Edmund Wilson, while he was still married to The Group.

But if we are to believe David Cesarani's weird book, Beauvoir was luckier than many of K.'s bedmates. What might just as easily have happened is Koestler's inviting himself into her flat, bullying her into batching up an omelet, helping her to towel the plates, grabbing her by her hair or throat, pulling her down to the linoleum, banging her head a couple of times and then raping her, after which explaining: "I thought you had a bit of a yen for me." This is what he did to Jill Craigie, the filmmaker wife of Labor MP Michael Foot. (Craigie died late last year, but not before the details of her interview with Cesarani made headlines in the British tabloids.) And probably what he did to a fair number of other young women in his long career of sexual conquest. It certainly bears a striking resemblance to the "seduction" of Odette by Slavek in his Lisbon novel, Arrival and Departure. More than a user, Koestler was an abuser--of women, alcohol, automobiles and ideas.

This abusiveness--and the evidence is overwhelming that he was an "intemperate, obsessive, egomaniacal, bullying, petty, selfish, arrogant, lecherous, duplicitous and self-deluding" "serial rapist" addicted late in life to "happy pills" (Dexedrine)--is one of two main accusations in a relentless bill of indictment. The other is "the negativity of his Jewishness," by which Cesarani, a professor of modern Jewish history at Southampton University, means more than ambivalence but a denial verging on self-hatred: "At odds with his origins, uneasy with himself and unable to settle because with no clear identity it was not clear where he belonged, he was condemned to a nomadic life-style. Homelessness became his domicile, and his politics were the politics of location and dislocation."

Cesarani can't quite bring himself to link these impeachments--to suggest that Koestler was depraved because he was deracinated; that not only couldn't he stay put geographically or ideologically but also he drank too much, cracked up cars, punched up cops and raped women, all because he was running away from his Jewishness. This would require actually thinking about other homeless Jewish minds in an era that specialized in forcible evictions and what K. himself once called "stepfatherlands." Albert Einstein? Herbert Marcuse? Jacques Derrida and Algeria? Elias Canetti and his mother? It's worth recalling that when Freud finally got permission to leave Vienna in 1938, the Gestapo obliged him to sign a certificate saying that he had been well treated by the authorities. He added a sentence of his own: "I can heartily recommend the Gestapo to anyone."

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