The Trail of the Dinosaur and Other Essays, by Arthur Koestler
Farewell to Politics
by Hans Meyerhoff
The Trail of the Dinosaur and Other Essays. By Arthur Koestler. Macmillan. 1955. $3.50.
Like everybody else, Koestler is sick and tired of politics. “The errors are atoned for, the bitter passion has burnt itself out; Cassandra has gone hoarse, and is due for a vocational change.” The language is apocalyptic, but the contents of this book are not. Koestler is not, as he would like to believe, the lone prophet crying in the wilderness; he is like the rest of us. His talent has always been to dramatize his own life as if it were the march of history. That is not a negligible talent and fulfills an important public function, but it has its limits. It puts the dramatist into the show; he is one of the actors—and not Cassandra who stood aloof and above the folly of her city.
Insofar as Koestler is one of us, it is easy for us to identify and sympathize; but it is also easy to see that his “insights and outlooks” are common property. The essays collected in the present volume Ça sequel to The Yogi and the Commissar) express current attitudes, sentiments, and ideas; they do not probe beneath the surface of political phenomena; they do not transcend the public forum. They are “timely” in that they are produced and consumed for a timely occasion—for the Sunday magazine of the New York Times, for Life or Look, or some less popular periodical. There is nothing wrong with this; but it is a mistake to believe that Koestler does more than write as an observer of the surface—that he is really the voice of history.
What makes the gesture of farewell so dramatic in Koestler’s case is his long and passionate involvement in politics. Now, after having been so conspicuous a symbol of the political man in our age, he is abdicating in favor of private life. He has got nothing more to say and, even if he had, it wouldn’t do much good anyway. One can sympathize with these two strains of thought which run through Koestler’s essays, because we have seen them operate in ourselves.
After the disaster and disillusionment which followed the First World War, Koestler found himself and his political god in the Communist movement. But Communism turned into Stalinism, the Weimar democracy into the Nazi dictatorship, and the Spanish Civil War—which brought Koestler face to face with death—was but a prelude to more horrible things to come. After his break with Stalinism, Koestler re-entered the political arena with the same passionate intensity as of old, only with the passions now being discharged against “the God that failed”—and he made the most of this opportunity, as the political articles, speeches, and manifestoes collected in this volume testify.
But atonement and rehabilitation seem to have produced but another sense of disillusionment; for as Koestler puts it in defense of Whittaker Chambers: “It is not to be expected that the public should like the runaway priest—even if the church from which he has run away happens to be devoted to worshipping the devil.” Yes, there is a great deal to be said for a spirit of resignation.
And there is a good deal to be said for silence—partly because one has earned the right to be silent, partly because the political vocabulary is exhausted. The deterioration or systematic destruction of political language is surely one of the most conspicuous phenomena of our age. The key terms of political discourse, “left” and “right,” “capitalism” and “socialism,” “democracy” and “totalitarianism,” “freedom-loving” and “peace-loving,” are “rapidly becoming . . . antiquated and meaningless.” Communists defend property rights; reactionaries are staunch defenders of civil liberties—alas, it has become increasingly difficult to orient oneself in the maze and jungle of political verbiage. Words and concepts seem to be used to confuse, rather than to clarify, the issues; to cover, rather than discover, the facts; to conceal, rather than reveal, some truth about men and society.
Koestler is aware of this trend, but unlike Orwell (to whom he devotes an appreciative essay) he does not inquire into its deeper causes. If he had looked farther, I think, he might have discovered that bigger issues are at stake than emotive language and neurotic behavior patterns. Behind the failure of words—or the neurotic response to political symbols—lies a failure of theory. To be sure, politics has become a “science,” but one whose theoretical as well as moral foundations have been in a bad way for quite a while. Political science has become a predominantly technical discipline that trains people for participation in the decision-making processes of government, but not for the questioning of the validity of the decisions themselves. This leaves considerable room for practical politics, but little for a theoretical analysis which would come to terms with the radical changes in the reality of the political situation.
The paucity of political theory is directly related to its distance from political reality. The preoccupation with short-range problems, or piecemeal engineering, may temporarily obscure this distance; but it cannot ultimately assuage the theoretical anxiety which stems from a recognition that one’s whole frame of reference is out of joint. The basic political (or social) manifestations of our age—totalitarianism and terror, anxiety and the escape from freedom, authoritarianism and conformity, alienation and apathy, indoctrination and manipulation, violence, and the overriding desire for security, national, material, or emotional—these and other political phenomena are not, and cannot be, comprehended by traditional concepts. There are serious and searching studies which have shown that these characteristic aspects of the political situation make sense only if they are defined and understood within a context beyond politics. Koestler does not take cognizance of any serious efforts to bring political ideas closer to political reality. Hence his own insights and explanations remain invariably within the domain of persuasive or propagandistic discourse; in short, they do little to purge political language of its notorious deficiencies.
Koestler’s withdrawal from the scene of action is a common phenomenon. Most everybody has kissed politics goodbye and turned to cultivate some sort of private garden. “What’s the use?” is the prevailing mood in theory and practice. Koestler does not ask why, or what factors have contributed to this mood; he does not even attempt to go to the roots of his own withdrawal. He seems to be satisfied with the dramatic exit as such, for he concludes his farewell to politics (as he began) with an apocalyptic vision. It is the familiar specter of the giant mushroom clouds. They now pose, after the end of politics, the final alternative of either following “the trail of the dinosaurs,” or going down on one’s knees and praying for a “spiritual” mutation. “Once we hoped for Utopia; now, in a chastened mood, we can at best hope for a reprieve; pray for time and play for time; for had the dinosaur learned the art of prayer, the only sensible petition for him would have been to go down on his scaly knees and beg ‘Lord give us another chance.’”
That may again be true; but if it is, it is surely time to close our books on politics and read something else. Or, as Freud put it more aptly: “If a man is willing to come to this, he could probably have arrived there by a shorter road.”