The perils of biography

The Homeless Mind

I’ve just started reading a promising biography of the wide-ranging, often controversial, and certainly neglected Arthur Koestler. The introduction intensifies the impression I had of him as an eclectic, troubled man, with references to alleged rape incidents, and the fact that not only did he commit joint suicide with his wife (which I knew already), but that he did so because he was suffering from a severe illness, while his wife was perfectly healthy. There are hints of controversy around his wife’s consent in this, of which I’ll no doubt discover more towards the end of the book.

I must confess that I have a slightly rosy tint to my image of Koestler, as his book The Roots of Coincidence (along with William Burroughs’ collection of essays The Adding Machine) was one of the interesting founts of stimulating ideas that happened to be in my college library, fuelling my extra-curricula passions that eventually shaped my world.

This bias of affection notwithstanding, I’ve found some of the comments by the biographer, David Cesarani, on Koestler’s childhood slightly annoying. He emphasises Koestler’s predilection for selective memory in his memoirs, one that highlighted the troubled aspects of his childhood in a paradoxically confessional and mythologising self-portrayal "driven by the great autobiographical models of his day, notably Rousseau, Goethe and Nietzsche". As someone who set out to write "a study of Arthur Koestler as a Jew who exemplified the Jewish experience in Europe during the twentieth century", and only later enlarged the scope of his project into a full-blown biography, Cesarani naturally makes much of Koestler’s attempts to downplay his Jewish roots. But he also focuses on his apparently one-dimensional image of his relationship with his mother, which the elder Koestler painted as being one of "unmitigated resentment".

He may have come to hate his mother in adult life, but there are many indications that, like most children, he once loved her as much as he raged against her. The bleak portrait of their relationship was exaggerated to explain and justify his less endearing personal characteristics.

I’ve not read enough about these characteristics to make a rounded judgement, but ultimately my point would be, could I ever make a fully rounded judgement? Cesarani seems to feel that his (admittedly extensive) research qualifies him to do so; but when I glance at the shocking disparity between even the most intimate written accounts of events and feelings I’ve been party to, by myself and others, and the actual realities as experienced, I become as cynical about the authority of biographies as Cesarani is about the authority of Koestler’s autobiography.

The biography implies, probably as a necessary evil, the idea that a linear narrative can help us "understand" a person. A good biography naturally paints a multi-dimensional image of its subject; but it can only barely describe the infinitely complex inter-relations between these dimensions, relations that spiral into paradox as life unfolds, faults becoming assets, virtues degenerating into traps, round and round, all constantly remodelling and revising memory and identity. Cesarani provides documentary evidence of Koestler’s early, later neglected love for his mother, such as fond letters berating her for not writing more often. But he neglects any concession to the textures of these memories to Koestler, concentrating on the "outer" significance of the documents to his own eyes. While I’ve no doubt that Koestler, maybe more than most, mythologised himself, this mythologising, in line with academic tradition, is neatly sectioned off from the emotional realities of Koestler’s inner life, and the complex interplay between myth and reality is neglected in favour of an ostensibly neutral, "objective" spirit of gentle but firm debunking.

When he was four or five he was subjected to a brutal tonsillectomy. It was performed without advance warning and without anaesthetic. While his parents watched in horror he was strapped to a chair. Then, once they were bundled out of the room, the bloody assault commenced. Koestler never forgot the experience. Many years later he wrote with undiminished anguish: ‘These moments of utter loneliness, abandoned by my parents, in the clutches of a hostile and malign power, filled me with a kind of cosmic terror.’

Even this unarguably traumatic memory doesn’t escape critical scrutiny:

[H]is interpretation of other childhood incidents also seems tailored to prefigure his future life story. For example, it seems more likely that he retrospectively attributed to his horrendous tonsillectomy the capacity to empathise with the victims of violence and terror. It helped justify what some critics considered to be a perverse fascination with torture. In like manner, the rather precocious realisation that secure existence was always shadowed by another, threatening world, is more probably an ex post facto reading. The notion of worlds existing in parallel is a concept that accorded with his later speculations on the paranormal.

In addition to the rather patronising view of the conceptions children are capable of forming, even in the face of extreme violence, this view strikes me as dismally simplistic and cold. Koestler’s life is stretched along a line, pinned down, his childhood horror only contactable by his adult self via some cynical need to rationalise a "perverse fascination with torture"—the origin of which, as Koestler’s supposedly "psychologically deterministic" view is dismissed, is rendered rather mysterious. And Koestler’s experience of the "paranormal" is treated with implicit academic disdain; as it only emerged with force in his work late in life, it is seen as temporally isolated, projected back into his personal history to justify his present interests. Again, the pendulum swings all the way back from Koestler’s perceived psychoanalytic over-emphasis on the impact of childhood experience, to a linear, one-dimensional view that this interest in the paranormal just ‘pops up’ at a certain point in life. The author is plainly blind to the fact that initiation—formal or otherwise—into "magical" perceptions, especially synchronicity and its variations through time, space and memory, reconfigures basic ontology into radically different forms than that of the biographer.

When I asked magician Dave Lee about early experiences that led him towards the occult, he said, "The older I get, and the more experienced in magick I get, the more experiences there seem to be in the past. It’s as if history comes into focus." Anyone who has disciplined themselves to keep their magical perceptions working knows this dynamic, where the present unfolds the past, perpetually reforging the self. Like most such magical dynamics, it’s a bit "dodgy"—truth and illusion mix therein, and only painful trials and a keen mind can help navigate the mixture. It’s certainly not the fault of any biographer that they can’t capture this process definitively in writing; and perhaps even admitting it into the scope of biography, however good the intentions of the writer, would unravel the fabric of this interesting but dubious genre beyond manageability. Maybe only artistic impressions of a life can touch these mysteries of memory and identity.

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