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The New International, January 1944

Richard Stoker

Books in Review

Significant Failure


From The New International, Vol. X No. 1, January 1944, pp. 29–30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Arrival and Departure
by Arthur Koestler
Macmillan. $2.00

Koestler’s novel begins with the arrival in Lisbon of a refugee, an anti-fascist who is not deterred by his experiences in a concentration camp from continuing the anti-fascist struggle. He tries to enlist in the British army, but during the period of bureaucratic delay in acting upon his application, he falls in love with a refugee who shortly leaves for America. Unable to resolve the dilemma of continuing his political activity in Europe or in emigrating to America, he becomes paralyzed. A psychoanalyst fortuitously and very conveniently appears on the scene and cures him by making the significance of childhood impressions clear to him and by revealing that his interest in the oppressed does not derive from their condition but from his own intimate experience. As soon as he is cured, the psychoanalyst is obligingly withdrawn by a propitious visa to America, and he is confronted by the same alternatives in more explicit form. His own visa to America arrives simultaneously with his acceptance in the British army. Finally, repudiating the revelations of the psychoanalyst, he reaffirms his traditional anti-fascist allegiance – by joining the British army!

Perhaps the novel lacks drama because the alternatives are not significant enough. The moral dilemma is not really so acute that it should result in physical paralysis. “Tut, tut, my boy,” we are inclined to say, “there’s no reason for getting your bowels into an uproar over going to America or to England. You’ll do just as much good by going to America, meeting the girl friend, maybe marrying her, and settling down for a year or two until the draft gets you there also.” It is hard to persuade oneself that one is serving the oppressed by joining imperialism’s battle. The hero’s unequivocal skepticism of his final choice makes his ultimate acceptance of it a non sequitur. The logic of the narrative demands that, since the hero’s cure was effected by psychoanalysis, he follow a course of action – emigration to America and political abstinence – compatible with its findings. But Koestler’s own political loyalties demanded a reaffirmation of the necessity of political action, and he accordingly places his hero in the absurd position of fighting in a hopeless cause that he knows is hopeless.

Koestler’s work is particularly significant as the expression of a relatively large number of exhausted Marxists. These people are the backwash of the revolutionary movement, they are voiceless and without prestige. In Koestler they have found a voice. They had once regarded the Soviet Union as the exemplification of their values, and in repudiating the Stalinist regime they repudiated, so they thought, Marxism as well. They have nowhere attempted to analyze their identification of Stalinism and Marxism. Koestler has acquired, but not earned, the reputation of a profound thinker by merely asserting and not analyzing the identification. Their superficially is nowhere demonstrated more clearly than in Koestler’s limitation of political alternatives to these three, in order of abhorrence: fascism, Stalinism and capitalism. Such an oversimplification does not do justice to the complexity of the political process. Our problems demand more subtle and more sophisticated solutions than can be comprehended within these narrow choices.

But despite the fact that they have been neglectful or superficial in analysis, Koestler and his fellows cannot be lumped together with the worn-out liberals of our time. Unlike the liberals, they are not to be persuaded that all’s right in the Stalinist heaven simply because the Russian armies are destroying the Nazi armies. They are not swayed by the importunities of the political moment, they do not yield to the concerted and organized pressures of Stalinism and its diverse allies. Theirs is a somewhat more profound appreciation of Russia’s rôle than is contained in the pages of the liberal or conservative press. It is more profound because their criticism of Stalinism, though they do not know it or else lack the courage to admit it to themselves, is based on Marxian methods and values.

They cannot become fascists for the same reason that they cannot become Stalinists. And although, by way of test, he tries to make fascism as appealing, as persuasive and as logical as possible, Koestler cannot give it allegiance. Alive as he is to the potentialities of fascism, realizing as he does the urgency of action, Koestler, although with a reluctant heart, joins the imperialist powers as the least of all evils. He realizes, as he puts it, that imperialism is only “tradition decayed” and offers no hope for the realization of his revolutionary values. Koestler might very well ponder the statement of Santayana, that to believe an illusion, not knowing it is an illusion, is pardonable, but to believe in an illusion, knowing it is one, is indefensible. To fight for an illusion on these terms is worse still.

But a thinking person, or a person who makes some pretension to thought, must have some method of understanding society. And so these exhausted Marxists try to go outside the Marxist tradition. They attempt other techniques, and usually find themselves adopting some form of psychoanalysis, which is merely the thorough examination of the inner springs of individual action, the skillful probing into individual motivation. It attempts to relate one’s present activities to an irrelevant past, to show that one is not really struggling against a current evil but against a previous experience, that one does not fight for ideals but against the impressions and personalities that dominated his childhood.

Psychoanalysis may have therapeutic value in mental illness, but it cannot be elevated into an instrument of social analysis or into a social philosophy. Granting its validity within its sphere, it is inadequate in handling social problems because, whatever the reason for one’s activities, however obscure and far removed the motivation, the problems of the day are real just the same, and they would exist regardless of any psychopathic or obsessive interest in them.

Koestler attempts to demonstrate that the reason for fighting is one thing, the outcome another. It is true that the revolutionist, like everybody else, fights with a vision in his heart that action may modify and that force may change in a manner he never could anticipate or approve. But that is one of the risks one must take. It is true that ideas may be perverted, characters may be transformed, and reality may bear little resemblance to vision. That is a commonplace, and one cannot, as Koestler vainly tries to do, build a social philosophy on it.

Koestler’s reputation as a “profound” thinker rests on his recognition of some of the political alternatives of our time, and, paradoxically, on a skepticism of Stalinism, fascism, capitalism and even Marxism itself that is based on Marxism. He has nothing to offer us but the hopeless and confessedly unsatisfactory alternative of capitalism in its Anglo-Saxon form. He has the alternative, though he does not appear to realize it, of re-examining Marxism, studying the Russian Revolution, determining when it was perverted, why it was perverted, and whether the perversion was logically necessary or historically inevitable.

I have treated this book as a political tract, not as a novel. Its value derives from its presentation of ideas and alternatives, not from narrative or character. Its characters are not realized, their individualities are not clear, they are mouthpieces rather than personalities. Koestler has given us an outline of a case study in psychoanalysis, not more exciting or dramatic than can be found in well known Freudian and other studies. The inevitable faint spice of sex and the easily anticipated suggestion of homosexuality that Koestler throws in, do not make the dull story exciting.

This novel is a failure, but, as sometimes happens, it is a failure that is more significant than many successes. It recognizes that the dominant theme of our time is political; it does present, although in truncated form, some of our most significant political alternatives, and it does attempt to probe into the motivation of individual political action. That is a large order, a very large order, and demands greater power than Koestler at this time possesses. The experiences of the next few years will be decisive for Koestler as political man and as artist. What he learns from them will determine his ultimate political and artistic stature.

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