In 1999, David Cesarani wrote a biography of Arthur Koestler. Arthur Koestler is now a writer who dimly rings a bell, but in the Cold War he was quite the righteous mandarin, just after George Orwell himself. That status of a man who told the truth about Stalinism was precious to a group that moved right in the seventies and eighties, and defended themselves by the retrospective moral condemnation of Stalinism (that was never accompanied by a retrospective moral condemnation of slaveholding, genocide, and colonial oppression as accomplished by the US – for to point at the U.S. was to engage in moral equivalency and other sins).
Koestler, according to Cesarini, was not a nice guy. For instance, he was a pouncer – he would paw at women, and some women, including Jill Craigie, said he raped them. Think Bill O’Reilly, except more, what is the word, aggressive.
Well, this was too much for the “liberal” NYRB, who set Julian Barnes to the task of defending Koestler from the lowminded and scurrilous Cesarani. The issue is addressed by Barnes like this:
“At the time of Cesarani’s publication, I was rung up by a French journalist checking that I had been a friend of Koestler’s. Yes, in his very last years, I replied. So what do you think, he asked, of this new book which says he was a rapist? Wondering why I had picked up the phone, I replied, rather grimly, that I thought Koestler’s analysis of Soviet communism was unaffected by the news. Yes, but do you feel differently about him, knowing that he raped someone? Well, he is dead, I replied, aware that I was hedging. Yes, but if he was alive, would you think differently of him? Yes, I probably would, I replied.”
It was obvious that the analysis of the Soviet Union, for which he is known, is being downplayed (dubiously, in Barnes opinion) all because he raped some women. The biographer’s job, obviously, is to mention that in a distant footnote. I take up Barnes’ review, old news, because the downplaying of what Koestler is accused of is very characteristic of the downplaying that will inevitably follow the current spate of revelations about shitty men in media. Koestler, in Barnes review, is compared to a rock star, and then is accorded the title of “hedonist” before we come to the knock down and drag em around sex. Just so we are clear that only the close minded would fasten themselves to Koestler’s rapiness, Barnes goes the next step:
“It’s not just the smugness of these judgments; it’s more that, on a level of human understanding, Cesarani so often simply doesn’t get it. It clearly puzzles and disturbs him that despite Koestler’s unconstrained approach to sex, and his bad behavior when drunk, women liked him, enjoyed his company, and remained loyal friends.”
Bad behavior when drunk – a multi-generational, multitudinous excuse.
Michael Scammel, Koestler’s official biographer, finally came out with his version of Koestler in 2010, and it was greeted with relief as nothing like the “opinionated” bio by Cesarini. Here’s a bit from the New Statesman review:
“In 1998, David Cesarani published what Scammell describes as an "opinionated, thinly researched and heavily slanted biography, masquerading as a study of Koestler's Jewishness". That book dwelt heavily, and in prosecutorial fashion, on Koestler's taste for sexual violence. At the time, Cesarani was chided for being a censorious prude, and he certainly overdid it. However much he lamented Koestler's philandering, it is quite clear that when, for example, Koestler and de Beauvoir spent an unsuccessful night together, they were both too plastered to know what they were doing.
Things had settled down, the world had liberalized, and maybe “initial rape” - or not! is distasteful. At least the women don’t like it. Even though, as Julian Barnes puts it, why would they have stuck around? It is almost as if there is a system that is working here, if only there was a name for it.
Scammell himself, however, is more ready than Barnes to jump in with both feet. To apply the Weinstein defense even before Weinstein. For what was at fault was Koestler’s time, not the man:
“So what really happened? Given Craigie’s prominence as the wife of the former leader of the Labour opposition in Parliament and the fact that she had nothing to gain from her confession, the inference has to be that Koestler did behave extremely badly on that occasion, but it is worth trying to set this painful issue in context. The exercise of male strength to gain sexual satisfaction wasn’t exactly uncommon at that time. According to popular belief, it was a man’s prerogative to press his claims by all possible means and a woman’s duty to put up a show of resistance even if she was willing, so the line between consensual and forced sex was often blurred. Koestler had demonstrated similar behavior on his first night with Mamaine (to whom he later apologized and for which she forgave him) and with Simone de Beauvoir, who later described him as rough but never as a rapist, even after she had come to hate him.
He was almost certainly drunk, and he almost certainly behaved like thousands of other men of his generation (and since); he may also have regarded Craigie, who was thrice married and known to have had several affairs, as fair game and likely to welcome his overtures. She obviously didn’t but, like most women of her generation, seems to have responded by pushing the incident to the back of her mind and accommodating herself to it.”
The line, here, of men behaving badly, especially to “fair game”, and using a little of their “male strength”, so that the line between consensual and forced sex was often blurred”, is not a relict of the past. Rather, it is a relict of the past, present and future, one that will inevitably be pulled out as the pushback comes.
It is not only confederate monuments that need to be taken down.