October 2013

Nicholas Vajifdar

The Forgotten Twentieth Century

Summing up Arthur Koestler's Janus: A Summing Up

An exciting moment comes when a thinker pauses toward the end of life to tell us what it all means. (Robert Crumb's Mr. Natural offered the following often convincing answer: "Don't mean sheeit...") Most intellectuals are forced to battle their way to the top by bickering over minutiae. Academics advance their field by publishing in the most prestigious journals; journalists trail current events and dissect them. In both cases, the thinker, to survive as a thinker, may only talk about what others are already talking about. They may have been drawn into the world of fine ideas out of metaphysical wonder or moral indignation, but those feelings turn dull with the arrival of success or under the weight of drudgery and most never resurrect them.

But some keep their eyes on the lodestar. Arthur Koestler was one of these. He not only had no trouble seeing life under the sign of eternity but also seemed to burn so energetically with high purpose that he horribly mistreated those around him with absolutely no compunction. He raped them; he enlisted them in suicide pacts. Pairing his creepy misdeeds with the flavor of his opinions -- which include belief in telepathy, disbelief in "orthodox Darwinism," and belief that the Jews of Europe were not descended from the Jews of Exodus -- the incredible thing is that his books are still for sale at all. Incredible, that is, until you crack one open. Immediately you're confronted with the fact that writing might be more than, or have no relation to, good deeds and common sense.

But what is so good about Koestler's stuff, what allows someone to read it for fun while disagreeing with nearly every conclusion? I think the answer is his metaphors. My sense is that metaphors have acquired a bad reputation among American book reviewers. "Too many metaphors," they write, or "Overreliance on metaphor." To me this is insane. There can never be enough good metaphors, or too few of the bad ones, but thundering against metaphor because of bad attempts is like dismissing music because your neighbor sucks at violin. We should also feel a little sheepish about discarding a technique beloved by Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, the Buddha, Chuang Tzu, and Jesus. Iain McGilchrist, in his masterpiece The Master and His Emissary, suggests that metaphor is part of a way of seeing that's inherently hostile to our mechanical and analytical civilization; that hostility should be its selling point.

The pleasure and power of metaphor is in its ability to incarnate the abstract into the concrete, using common objects to express complex ideas. When the Buddha says his teaching isn't the goal itself but only "a finger pointing at the moon," everyone immediately grasps what he means. There are enough odd phenomena in the physical world that almost any odd idea will have a physical counterpart.

And so, while Koestler may be leading you toward a conclusion that would seem outré on the freakiest of freaky website comment threads, you don't care, because he has such a relentless ability to make you see what he means.

For example, Koestler's definition of art is maybe the best I've ever read. He asserts that there are two planes of existence, the trivial and the tragic. The trivial plane is the stage for paying bills, shopping, working. Most of life takes place on the trivial plane. But sometimes we're swept up into the tragic plane, usually due to some catastrophe, and everything becomes glazed with an awful significance. From the point of view of the tragic plane, the trivial plane is empty and frivolous; from the point of view of the trivial plane, the tragic plane is embarrassing and overwrought. Once we've moved from one plane to the other, we forget why we could have felt the way we used to. "The highest form of human creativity," Koestler writes, "is the endeavor to bridge the gap between the two planes. Both the artist and the scientist are gifted -- or cursed -- with the faculty of perceiving the trivial events of everyday experience sub specie aeternitatis, in the light of eternity…" What I value in this definition of creativity is its emphasis on the subjective being of those who experience the work of art or scientific theory, a surer gauge than cataloguing formal properties or whether it's "interesting." Art has always seemed like a kind of sober drunkenness, or drunken sobriety. Most people probably have wondered whether the feelings they felt while drunk were more or less real than their sober feelings. Koestlerian art joins these seemingly irreconcilable feelings together.

Once I argued that a certain journalist wasn't strictly an intellectual because although he wrote about books and great events and always had a golden quotation available to flesh out one of his ornate sentences, that he actually had no ideas of his own. He had been relying for so long on other people's ideas that he no longer had the ability to think for himself, if he ever did. An intellectual should be the originator of an idea that changes how people look at the world. I still stand by my exclusion of that journalist from the world of intellectuals, but something about my definition seemed off. There is something to be said about thinkers who absorb a huge number of other people's ideas and then present them in such a way that they all seem to spring from some larger idea -- or, in the case of Montaigne, from some primordial chaos that exists beyond and above all human ideas. Koestler fell into this latter category, and Janus represented his attempt to join a lifetime of reading and experience under one larger idea informing them all, which he called the "holon."

The holon, briefly, is his descriptor of the tendency of every part of nature to be both an individual bit and part of a larger whole. I'm not sure he really succeeded in suborning all life under such a lifeless and abstract concept.

Isaiah Berlin famously argued that Tolstoy was a fox who wanted to be a hedgehog -- that is to say, someone who saw the multiplicity of life but wanted to yoke it under a general idea. Koestler, I would argue, was a feeler who wanted to be a thinker. Like Tolstoy, his failed ambition is what made his writing so rewarding.

He concludes Janus with a passage written years before, which he calls "An Agnostic's Credo." It's startling piece of prose describing the "oceanic feeling," and it illustrates Koestler's talent for putting analysis at the service of emotions that most would find too slippery or diffuse to render in plain language. It also shows the power of metaphor. Without metaphor, we are stuck in circumscribed world with nothing to do but point at things and list their most superficial traits. Metaphors give access to the infinite; the triangulation opens up depths in flat places; nothing is only itself anymore. This must be why Koestler finishes his summing up with a metaphorical prose poem about infinity and the unreality of reality.

Koestler begins by positing "three orders of reality," which he became aware of while in solitary confinement in Seville during the Spanish Civil War, a prisoner of the fascists. The first order of reality was the "narrow world of sensory perception," which was enveloped and given significance by the "conceptual world which contained phenomena not directly perceivable, such as atoms, electromagnetic fields or curved space." Transcendent experience, however, "occasionally invaded [the conceptual level] like spiritual meteors piercing the primitive's vaulted sky." His description of the third order of reality should really appear in full:

Just as the conceptual order showed up the illusions and distortions of the senses, so the "third order" revealed that time, space and causality, that the isolation, seperateness and spatio-temporal limitations of the self were merely optical illusions on the next higher level. If illusions of the first type were taken at face value, then the sun was drowning every night in the sea, and a mote in the eye was larger than the moon, and if the conceptual world was mistaken for ultimate reality, the world became an equally absurd tale, told by an idiot or by idiot-electrons which caused little children to be run over by motor cars, and little Andalusian peasants to be shot through the heart, mouth and eyes, without rhyme or reason. Just as one could not feel the pull of a magnet with one's skin, so one could not hope to grasp in cognate terms the nature of ultimate reality. It was a text written in invisible ink; and though one could not read it, the knowledge that it existed was sufficient to alter the texture of one's existence, and make one's actions conform to the text.

I think this whole passage is perfection, one of the top "aha!" moments in any book -- except for the last clause. I don't know what it would mean, to conform to invisible text. Here Koestler the willful man of action pops out his pomaded head. The reason he had such a firm grasp on infinity and the "spatio-temporal limitations of the self" was that he had embraced a series of enthusiasms and lived to see them all fail or be ignored: communism, telepathy, neo-Lamarckism... none of these took. Reading about his bouncing from craze to craze, I almost feel that this most European of men typifies what Europeans most abhor, or wish they could abhor, about Americans. (Nothing is more destructive to American and European stereotypes than reading about actual Europeans and actual Americans.) A great feeler who wanted to be a great thinker, a selfish man who learned that the self is a provincial illusion, Koestler exemplified the fecundity of intellectual contradiction.