Friday, August 26, 2005

Author profile: Arthur Koestler

A few years ago I read an interview in The New York Times with some members of the writing staff of The Simpsons. One of them -- I can’t remember who -- mentioned Arthur Koestler’s book The Act of Creation in passing, as part of a well-articulated point about the conflicting nature of comedy. I subsequently spent years looking for it -- fruitlessly, because it was, of course, out of print. I finally found a used copy online not long ago.

Koestler had a crazy, Cervantes-esque life. He was born into a German-speaking Hungarian Jewish family in 1905. During a stint as a journalist covering the Spanish Civil War, he was captured and held prisoner for several months, an experience which formed the basis for his 1940 novel Darkness at Noon. He became a British subject during WWII and became well-known in the postwar period for his writing, which spanned from politics and science to philosophy and mysticism. He was an early advocate of euthanasia and committed suicide while terminally ill, along with his wife (who was apparently in good health), in 1983.

The Act of Creation is the second in a trilogy (the others being The Sleepwalkers and The Ghost in the Machine) of examinations of life sciences and the human mind, and it’s really, really interesting -- written clearly and engagingly, without impenetrable jargon. Koestler’s basic idea is that there are “matrices” or patterns of thought that govern the human animal, and that the creative act is the “bisociation,” as he puts it, of two (or more) apparently incompatible frames of thought -- the creative act is the working-out of the new matrix. It's informative and enlightening across the board -- Koestler’s great gift is laying out the whys and hows of the creative process has evolved and how ideas can, and must, evolve along with it.

Selected quotes from The Act of Creation:

"The impersonator is two different people at one time. If the result is degrading, the spectator will laugh. If he is led to sympathize or identify himself with the impersonated hero, he will experience that state of split-mindedness known as dramatic illusion, or 'the magic of the stage.'"

"The humorist thrives on deformity; the artist deforms the world to recreate it in his own image."

" a sophisticated audience any joke sounds stale if it is entirely explicit."

"...discovery often means simply the uncovering of something which has always been there but was hidden from the eye by the blinkers of habit."

"...we may distinguish between the biological ripeness of a species to form a new adaptive habit or acquire a new skill, and the ripeness of a culture to make and exploit a new discovery."

Regarding Darwin: "Here is one of the cases where the process of elaboration, verification and confirmation -- the long donkey-work following the brief flash of insight -- is more decisive than the discovery itself."

"...static vision does not exist; there is no seeing without exploring."

"...distrust of words is a trait often found among those who create with their eyes."

"...the tragedian creates illusion, the comedian debunks illusion; the therapist does both."

"Imagination is at once the source of all hope and inspiration but also of frustration -- to forget this is to court despair."

"...the tragedies of science are the slayings of beautiful hypotheses by ugly facts."

"The consumer hopes that by being allowed to share the creator's vision he will gain a deeper and broader view of reality. The producer has an urge to share his own experience with others -- to win accomplices to his malice, partners in understanding, resonance for his emotions."

"Righteous indignation about injustices inflicted on others can generate behavior just as fanatical as the sting of a personal insult. Self-sacrificing devotion to a creed bred ruthless inquisitors -- 'the worst of madmen is a saint run mad.'"

- Spanish Testament (1937)
- The Gladiators (1939)
- Darkness at Noon (1940)
- Arrival and Departure (1943)
- Twilight Bar (1945)
- The Yogi and The Commissar and Other Essays (1945)
- Thieves in the Night (1946)
- The Challenge of Our Time (1948)
- Promise & Fulfillment: Palestine 1917-1949 (1949)
- Insight & Outlook (1949)
- The Age of Longing (1951)
- The Trail of the Dinosaurs and Other Essays (1955)
- Reflections on Hanging (1956)
- The Sleepwalkers (1959) (abridged edition published in 1960 as The Watershed)
- The Lotus and The Robot (1960)
- Control of the Mind (1961)
- Hanged by the Neck (1961)
- Suicide of a Nation? (1963)
- The Act of Creation (1964)
- Studies in Psychology (1965)
- The Ghost in the Machine (1967)
- Drinkers of Infinity: Essays 1955-1967 (1968)
- Beyond Reductionism: New Perspectives in the Life Sciences (1969) (with J. R. Smythies)
- The Case of the Midwife Toad (1971)
- The Call Girls: A Tragicomedy with a Prologue and Epilogue (1972) (play)
- The Roots of Coincidence (1972)
- The Lion and The Ostrich (1973) (pamphlet)
- The Heel of Achilles: Essays 1968-1973 (1974)
- The Thirteenth Tribe (1976)
- Janus: A Summing Up (1978)
- Bricks to Babel: Collected Extracts (1980)

- The Scum of the Earth (1941)
- Arrow in the Blue (1952)
- The Invisible Writing (1954)
- Stranger in the Square (1980) (with Cynthia Koestler)

Contributed to / featured in:
- The God That Failed (1949) (essay) (edited by Richard H. Crossman)
- The Challenge of Chance: A Mass Experiment in Telepathy and Its Unexpected Outcome (1973) (edited by Allister Hardy)
- Life After Death (1976) (co-editor)

Further resources:
Arthur Koestler entry at Wikipedia
Small collection of Koestler writings at the Arthur Koestler Project

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