The Yogi and the Commissar, and Twilight Bar, by Arthur Koestler
The Too Ambitious Reporter
by Arthur Koestler.
New York, The Macmillan Company, 1945. 104 pp. $2.00.
The Yogi and the Commissar.
by Arthur Koestler.
New York, The Macmillan Company, 1945. 247 pp. $2.75.
Without a doubt Koestler belongs among the best reporters of our time. He has shown an extraordinary ability to seize and transmit the general feeling and thinking of a whole country during a critical period (civil-war Spain in Dialogue with Death; defeated France in Scum of the Earth). His flair for atmosphere, his sensitivity to fluctuating moods make him the ideal reporter of those events which, though never front-page news, are necessary to the understanding of front-page news. Put into any given country, he acts—or rather reacts—like a thermometer: he will produce that country’s correct temperature after only ten months’ stay.
“The intelligentsia,” confesses Koestler, “is a kind of sensitive porous membrane stretched between media of different properties.” This definition reminds one of Aristotle’s statement that the best medium is a person with an empty mind and an exaggerated sensitivity. But whatever the intelligentsia, taken as a definite class, may have become, it has not yet sunk to the level of mere reactivity. On the other hand, good reporters, if they are really good, do belong in a rather dubious realm between the intellectual and the merely sensitive. Koestler himself is an excellent example. Because of his personal decency and the good fortune he has had to live through this period as a Jewish antifascist, he could over-develop his natural gifts to the point of complete identification, not simply with a given situation, but with a general state of mind. And it is our good luck that Koestler’s trajectory has taken him into the bosom of the intelligentsia, whose destinies he now will share and about whom he will report. The point is that no one who really belonged to this “class” would ever have been able to report it.
Useful as this identification with the intelligentsia may prove for reportage, its more immediate consequences are disconcerting. Koestler has become ambitious, and he has written some rather bad novels and one rather nice play.
Twilight Bar is indeed almost as much “without presumptions” as the author insists. Its four acts deal good-humoredly with two characters who arrive from a star to investigate this poor planet’s situation with regard to happiness; they threaten mankind with immediate death if its quotient of happiness is not raised within three days’ time. This succeeds in frightening people into a state of superlative if slightly childish felicity (the point might have been made here that only children are capable of intense happiness; Koestler does not make it). But finally the two investigators land in jail as “suspicious” strangers. Whereupon everybody grows up again and becomes as unhappy as anyone could possibly be.
The theme and even more the style of this drama remind one of Shaw’s minor plays, except that Shaw’s supreme sense of drama, plot and action is lacking. What is left is wit that springs just as much from a foundation of banality as from the gift for repartee. This suffices, at any rate, to entertain, and makes the play much more enjoyable than Koestler’s tremendously “serious” novels.
The Yogi and the Commissar is by far the most ambitious of Koestler’s books because here he ventures beyond his experiments in bad fiction into something that in appearance only is individual thought. His sensitivity has communicated to him a notion of the fundamental restlessness of modern intellectuals who know that the basis of their mental activity is no longer safe. The trouble here is that Koestler tries to take part in the discussion itself instead of merely reporting its mental climate, with the result that he comes dangerously and—I am sorry to say—ridiculously close to assuming a mission. He talks about freedom, for instance, as though nobody before him had ever taken it seriously. His somewhat innocent emptiness—expressed in contemplations that always move between arbitrary polarities—is the price he, as a good reporter, has to pay for the gift of over-sensitiveness. In his first and final chapters, in which the intellectual is seen eternally swinging between the opposite extremes of “yogi” personal mysticism and “commissar” authoritarian practicality this emptiness is particularly shocking.
All these superficial chapters actually show is that European intellectuals are apparently fed up with the myths of materialism. The remaining chapters, on the other hand, take us back to good and sometimes excellent reportage Thus the essay on the death of the English poet and flyer, Richard Hillary, imparts something of the “mental climate of the war” in which (according to another English poet) they “who lived by honest dreams defend the bad against the worst.” Here are the desperate integrity and that despairing struggle for “some kind of fellowship” of which T. E. Lawrence already gave so eloquent testimony, and which is evidence to what an extent Lawrence’s general attitude toward society, culture and politics anticipated the present generation.
The members of this generation, before the war, still “balanced precariously and with irritability between a despised world they had come out of and a despising world they couldn’t get into”—all the while living under the dangerous illusion that somehow the despised bourgeoisie and the despising labor class were right and at home in this world and only they were out of place. While actually they were the only ones, apparently, to sense that the whole was going to pieces. Then came the war and with it the new pride in not forgetting that it was the bad they had to defend against the worse. Then came death and with it the old and saddening experience that it is Patroclus who gets killed and Thersites who sails safely home. Then, finally, came the shame, the general irrational feeling of humiliation at being alive, at having survived—as though mere survival were already desertion and betrayal.
There are many more pages worth reading. The chapter on Soviet Russia gives some very valuable statistical data on a state of affairs which in its general aspect and implications is only too real. “Scum of the Earth—1942” is a welcome and necessary supplement to the earlier reports on France. And even “Anatomy of a Myth,” though again impaired by superficial brilliancies and naive sophistication, gives a good insight into the sad story of the disillusioning of the European left.