[1991 — Commissioned by “Vanity Fair,” unpublished in the transition from Tina Brown to Graydon Carter]
The maid found the bodies in the upstairs sitting-room at the house in Montpelier Square on the morning of March 3, 1983 — the writer Arthur Koestler, author of Darkness at Noon and thirty other volumes of fiction, polemic, inquiry and reportage; and his wife, Cynthia, both of them slumped in comfortable chairs, both of them dead from massive doses of whiskey and Tuinol. “Please do not go upstairs,” a note on the front door had warned, but there were “no suspicious circumstances,” according to police, and no sign of injuries on the day-old corpses: “It was a scene of calmness.” The curtains had been drawn to screen the light of an early London spring. Two wine glasses sat on a coffee table next to a jar of honey and a note, dated June 1982 and addressed “To Whom It May Concern.”
“The purpose of this note is to make it unmistakably clear that I intend to commit suicide by taking an overdose of drugs without the knowledge or aid of any other person,” Koestler had written. “The drugs have been legally obtained and hoarded over a considerable period.” Why Koestler had waited so long to put his plan into action is a matter of conjecture, but to anyone who knew him his suicide was no surprise. For years he had suffered from Parkinson’s disease, and, more recently, from a debilitating form of leukemia. He was “very ill,” according to Pat Kavanagh, his agent at Peters, Fraser and Dunlop in London, “and I should think he found it intolerable.” In the last interview of his life, at the age of 77, Koestler remarked that he meant to die “in harness.”
“No one who knew him anticipated that he would quietly submit to the final removal of his physical and mental faculties,” says Harold Harris, Koestler’s literary executor and probably his closest friend in the months before his death. “Indeed, on the last occasion on which I saw him (Thursday, 24 February 1983) I felt that he might have left it too late. He was unable to stand, his speech was disjointed, and he clearly found it difficult to concentrate on what was being said to him.” At no time had Koestler made a secret of his feelings when it came to the right to die. In 1981, in his capacity as Vice-president of “EXIT,” Britain’s Voluntary Euthanasia Society, he penned a witty and characteristically provocative introduction to the Society’s Guide to Self-Deliverance.
“We tend to be guided by first impressions,” Koestler observed. “An unknown country” — death — “to which the only access leads through a torture chamber is frightening. And vice versa, the prospect of falling peacefully, blissfully asleep is not only soothing but can make it positively desirable to quit this pain-racked mortal frame and become unborn again. For after all, reason tells us — when not choked by panic — that before we were born we were all dead, and that our post-mortem condition is no more frightening than the pre-natal twilight. Only the process of getting unborn makes cowards of us all.”
It was typical of Koestler that his thoughts on the nature of death and dying were advanced as lectures in science. He had trained as a scientist in Vienna in the early 1920s, and science, to the end, remained his deep and truest passion.
“Animals in the wild,” he went on, “unless killed by a predator, seem to die peacefully and without fuss, from old age — I cannot remember a single description to the contrary by a naturalist, ethologist or explorer. The conclusion is inescapable: we need midwives to aid us to be unborn — or at least the assurance that such aid is available. Euthanasia, like obstetrics, is the natural corrective to a biological handicap.”
But what about Cynthia, Koestler’s wife — 55 years old when she died at his side, free of illness and unracked by pain, presumably, of any but the psychic variety? “It is to her that I owe the relative peace and happiness that I enjoyed in the last period of my life,” Koestler remarked in his suicide note — “and never before.” They had been at work on a joint autobiography, a His-and-Hers account of Koestler’s post-Darkness career, and, in a typed addendum to her husband’s farewell, Cynthia regretted that the book would not be completed.
“I should have liked to finish my account of working for Arthur,” she wrote with a terseness and self-effacement that were typical of her character — “a story which began when our paths happened to cross in 1949. However, I cannot live without Arthur, despite certain inner resources.” In the shock of discovery, word spread that Cynthia, too, had been mortally ill, but there is no evidence to support it. There was no reason at all to doubt her word: she couldn’t live if Koestler died. On the Monday morning of their last week on earth she took their dog, David, a much-loved Lhasa Apso, to the vet to have him put down. Her husband needed all her care, Cynthia explained; she had no time for the dog. Harold Harris thinks she probably didn’t make up her mind to kill herself until “late in the day.” He rejects the idea — all their friends do — that the Koestlers died in a suicide “pact.”
“We were amazed,” Harris says. “I’d always imagined Cynthia getting rid of the house in Montpelier Square and being happy in the country with the garden and the dogs.” Pat Kavanagh, who, with her husband, the writer Julian Barnes, spent peaceful days with the Koestlers at Denston, their country place in Sussex, agrees that any “pact” they may have had was concluded at the last moment, “when it was just a question of exactly when, and exactly how.”
“I am absolutely sure that Arthur didn’t want her to die,” says Kavanagh, “that he wanted her to stick around and look after his intellectual legacy, at least. But she wasn’t having it. She’d been through it before, and she’d been left with a rather thin existence. She just wasn’t having it.” In 1937, Cynthia’s father, an Irish surgeon who had emigrated to South Africa, where Cynthia was born, slashed his wrists “during a storm.” Cynthia was ten. She was once quoted as saying that her father’s death was “like the end of the world,” and indeed, after the Koestlers’ suicide, much was made of the difference in their ages. All their friends were troubled by what Julian Barnes calls “the unmentionable, half-spoken question” of Koestler’s responsibility for Cynthia’s actions.
“Did he bully her into it?” asks Barnes. And “if he didn’t bully her into it, why didn’t he bully her out of it?” Because, with hindsight, the evidence that Cynthia’s life had been ebbing with her husband’s was all too apparent.
“She was very helpful to me as an aspirant gardener,” Kavanagh offers by way of example. “And people who are gardeners, I find, remain gardeners forever. It’s in you. And I was sort of surprised, about six months before they died, when she said something that implied she’d lost interest in it. `Oh,’ she said, `I don’t care about it if Arthur’s not going to be here to enjoy it.’ And one wanted to kick oneself afterward. It was such an obvious sign of … what? … her letting go, I suppose.”
Not that a disproportionate concern for “Arthur, “ in itself, would have struck Cynthia’s friends as evidence of something amiss. Koestler called her “Slavey” (when he wasn’t calling her “Angel”), and journalists who passed through London to interview the Great Man were bewildered, to say the least, when he sometimes stopped the conversation in mid-sentence and began to wail in a ludicrous, drawn-out falsetto: “Hoo-ooo-oo! Hoo-oo-ooooo!” This was Cynthia’s summons to appear. Neither she nor her husband found anything peculiar, much less demeaning, about the paging system. The phone might even be ringing in Koestler’s ear; rather than answer it, he would yodel for his wife, and she would materialize in the doorway. She seemed to spend her life permanently on tiptoe.
“Telephone, angel,” Koestler would say.
She was “a shy, nervous, birdlike” woman, in Julian Barnes’s recollection, “capable of seeming in the same day both twenty-five and fifty-five. She moved awkwardly, like an adolescent unhappy with her body, who expects at any moment to knock over a coffee table and be sent to her room for doing so.” The Koestlers had met in Paris after the war, when Arthur was living with Mamaine Paget, the second of his three wives. Cynthia, at 22, had answered an ad in the Herald Tribune calling for secretarial help, and later explained the evaporation of her autonomous existence with the guileless remark that “it had long been my ambition to work for a writer.” For sixteen years until he married her, before and after his divorce from Mamaine, in and out of her own love affairs and travels and jobs and disappointments, Cynthia served as Koestler’s secretary, lover, procurer, cook and only hope of equilibrium.
“Cynthia,” Koestler wrote in his diary one day — “toujours là.” She took his name for social purposes before she won his hand in marriage, though to the end of her life, in a true indication of her view of herself, she signed official correspondence with her maiden name: “Cynthia Jefferies, Secretary to Arthur Koestler.” She lived in terror of being “dropped from his lists” and considered suicide at least once, in 1952, when it looked as though Koestler might be tiring of her. She saw him through all the ups and downs of writing books; nursed him through illness; stood by him in feuds; and while it clearly pained her that her husband suffered from a “persistent and well-nigh pathological streak of promiscuity” — these are Koestler’s own words — she tolerated his love affairs and his incessant cruising with a grace that passes comprehension. Indeed, Cynthia was friendly with most of Koestler’s mistresses. She was the modern feminist’s nightmare, though as with her suicide, so with her character: the surface was deceptive, the pop psychology is way too easy.
“She was absolutely vital to Arthur’s life,” says Ruth West, a protégée of the Koestlers who, for a while, lived in the basement flat of their house in Montpelier Square. “He adored her. And that was that. She had a sort of female thing that she’d worked out in the interest of her own fulfillment. It was a revealed dedication — a way of finding and realizing herself. And without him, she had no purpose in living. They were vital to each other.” West is still bothered by gossip about the Koestlers, and joins a large number of their friends in defending Cynthia’s life as “a kind of a mission,” a step up from secretarial work, certainly, even a contribution to literature.
“I should say that her life was actually elevated by her association with Koestler,” Jane Gunther remarks with an almost forgotten social refinement, and notwithstanding the predictable shrieks of the “Hers”-column feminists (notably Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, who raged in Mademoiselle after Cynthia’s death that Koestler had made her his “creature” — “I think it’s fair to say he killed her”). Even assuming that the Koestlers’ union was the ultimate co-dependent trip, we’re stuck with the fact that Cynthia liked it that way, and that she was spared the “acute or chronic misère en deux” that Koestler had long seen at work in the lives of his friends: “Their marriages were like parcels that had burst open in the mail van, and were precariously held together by bits of string.” Cynthia might have been happy to know (inasmuch as her action furthered one of Koestler’s causes) that her much-publicized decision to end her life resulted in a significant rise in the rate of inquiries and membership applications at EXIT, the Voluntary Euthanasia Society in London.
“In fact,” said Mary Stott, the Society’s chairman, in her 1983 annual report, “we have had almost twice as many new members this year as last.” Mrs. Stott was one of the speakers at the Koestlers’ memorial service at Burlington House in April 1983.
“It is not `requiescat in pace’ that one wants to say to Arthur and Cynthia Koestler,” she concluded, in a line that would have done the Koestlers proud, “but `Greetings, comrade voyagers among the stars.'” In his introduction to the Euthanasia Society’s advisory pamphlet (it has since been withdrawn in England for legal reasons) Koestler made the distinction between the fear of death and the fear of dying; now, in his suicide note, read out to the crowd at Burlington House, he wanted his friends to know that he was leaving “in a peaceful frame of mind, with some timid hopes for a depersonalized after-life beyond due confines of space, time and matter and beyond the limits of our comprehension. This `oceanic feeling’ has often sustained me at difficult moments, and does so now, while I am writing this.”
If the suicides were a shock, if Cynthia’s death had to be counted as a grisly pre-feminist tragedy, the terms of her husband’s will and testament left ’em laughing in the aisles, for Koestler (the genius of Darkness at Noon, scourge of Stalin, lion of anticommunism and self-appointed gadfly of Europe’s postwar intellectual elite) left all of his money to “psychical research” — “the scientific study of paranormal phenomena,” as he carefully spelled it out, “in particular the capacity attributed to some individuals to interact with the external environment by means other than the recognized sensory or motor channels.” In parapsychology this capacity, for lack of a better name, is called “psi” (after the 23rd letter of the Greek alphabet and the symbol for the unknown). Psi is the term the experts use when they want to speak generally, without imputation, about telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, ESP — those “preposterous subjects” that occupied the final years of Koestler’s working life and made him, finally, a “reluctant convert” to the reality of the paranormal.
“He was very, very good about taking up things and, when he’d got to the bottom of them, letting them go,” Pat Kavanagh reflects. As Koestler’s literary agent, Kavanagh had reason to keep up with her client’s eclectic pursuits.
“People offered him huge sums of money to keep writing about things he’d done so well before — books about biology, capital punishment, anticommunism, and so on. But when he was done, he was done. I mean, he retained an interest in everything generally. But his mind was always searching down a new path.” Koestler was “a prince among journalists,” in Bernard Crick’s opinion, “a cosmic reporter … one of the greatest intellectual popularizers of our time.” Anthony Burgess credits Koestler with having “virtually invented” the political novel through Darkness at Noon, his earth-shattering account of the Stalinist purges, probably the finest portrait ever painted of the Bolshevik mind.
“His gift to English literature was a horse’s-mouth authenticity that no one would dream of looking into,” Burgess has written. Koestler himself, for all that Darkness at Noon changed the intellectual outlook of a whole generation and simultaneously made him famous forever, very much resented being chained to the book. He would go to his grave, he complained, as a “People” item in the news magazines: “Arthur (`Darkness at Noon’) Koestler.”
He was born in Budapest in 1905, the only child of an ill-matched, stressed-out couple he once described as “typical Central European Jewish middle middle.” An unhappy childhood, Koestler observed — “and mine was a very unhappy one” — was a “necessary, but not sufficient” condition for a life of creativity. Obsessive by nature, emphatic by temperament, hard-drinking and prone to fits of “depression rock-bottom,” in 1931 he was propelled into the ranks of the German Communist Party by the rise of the Nazis and by a profound distrust (which he never abandoned) of “exacerbated capitalism,” American-style: Koestler spent seven years, rough-and-tumble, in the service of Stalin.
“I became converted because I was ripe for it and lived in a disintegrating society thirsting for faith,” he wrote in The God That Failed, his splendid contribution to the history of the Pink Decade. “To say that one had `seen the light’ is a poor description of the mental rapture which only the convert knows…. The new light seems to pour from all directions across the skull; the whole universe falls into pattern like the stray pieces of a jigsaw puzzle assembled by magic at one stroke. There is now an answer to every question, doubts and conflicts are a matter of the tortured past — a past already remote, when one had lived in dismal ignorance in the tasteless, colorless world of those who don’t know.” But life, from the outset, had a way of throwing curves at Arthur: the cosmos failed to conform to the utopian dialectic.
He had his first experience with the psi-effect as a boy in Vienna, around 1915, when a can of beans blew up behind him for no “apparent” reason and knocked him unconscious to the floor. “The elaborately far-fetched nature” of this event earned Koestler a reputation for “awe-inspiring potentialities” among his parents’ friends, and, in the fading age of Spiritualism, he was in great demand as a table-lifter and amateur clairvoyant. During the communist years, of course, his duty to the Party effectively put the kibosh on any curiosity he might have had about the Other World, but he was already collecting and even soliciting “authentic reports on occult experiences — telepathy, clairvoyance, levitation, etc.,” in his capacity as science editor for the House of Ullstein in Berlin. An early attempt at suicide in 1934 — Koestler was despondent about his writing career and unconsciously antipathetic to Stalin — failed spectacularly when a book, a Soviet account of the Reichstag Trial, toppled from a shelf and crashed on his head just as he prepared to enter eternity. Was it coincidence? Koestler wondered, or just “a case of the Dialectic producing a miracle?” He was never able to write about his encounters with the paranormal without lapsing into a diffident, self-mocking tone. His good friend Brian Inglis, onetime editor of The Spectator and himself the author of numerous books on psychical research, thinks that Koestler was “embarrassed” by psychic phenomena and that he preferred to confine his studies, wherever possible, to the experience of other people.
“He wanted it to be scientific,” Inglis explains. “His goal was simply to establish parapsychology as a scientific discipline.” Despite spooky-silly stories at the time of his death, and more concerted efforts since to downplay the importance of his work (Martin Gardner, the American science writer and professional skeptic, describes Koestler unscientifically as an “active promoter of the paranormal”), his interest in psychical research, like his interest in everything, was sober-minded to a fault — hard-headed, relentless, typically acute.
“I am still skeptical,” Koestler declared in a television interview in 1966. “I know from personal experience, intuition, whatever you call it, I know that these phenomena do exist; at the same time my rational mind — my scientific mind, if you want — rejects them…. I wouldn’t accept ESP if my nose hadn’t been pushed into it, you see what I mean?” During the Spanish Civil War, as a correspondent for leftist newspapers, Koestler had been captured by the forces of General Franco and was sentenced to death as a spy. He sat in jail in Seville for nearly a hundred days, in total isolation, listening to the sobs and screams of his fellow prisoners as they were led away to be shot, not knowing from one minute to the next when his own time would come or what his reaction would be when it did.
“The lesson taught by this kind of experience, when put into words, always appears under the dowdy guise of perennial commonplaces,” Koestler wrote in The God That Failed: “That man is a reality, mankind an abstraction; that men cannot be treated as units in operations of political arithmetic … that the end justifies the means only within very narrow limits; that ethics is not a function of social utility, and charity not a petty-bourgeois sentiment but the gravitational force which keeps civilization in its orbit.” To protect his own sanity, the imprisoned Koestler took to scribbling mathematical formulae on the walls of his cell, and shortly worked out for himself the Euclidean proof that the number of primes is infinite. Numbers were real, Koestler discovered (like Helen Keller at the water-pump). They were pre-existing, “already there” — they did not depend on anyone’s ideas about them. It was “an absolute catharsis,” proof, for Koestler, “that a higher order of reality existed and that it alone invested existence with meaning.” He called it “the reality of the third order” (after the first, which was physical, and the second, conceptual), and believed it held the key to the riddle of the universe:
It contained `occult’ phenomena which could not be apprehended or explained either on the sensory or on the conceptual level, and yet occasionally invaded them like spiritual meteors piercing the primitive’s vaulted sky…. 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.
Koestler resigned his membership in the Communist Party in 1938, at the height of the purges and the Moscow show trials. Rescued from Franco in a trade of prisoners, he went to Paris, and, later, to London, where Darkness at Noon was published in 1940 to a thundering success. As anti-communist man-of-the-minute, the cantankerous darling of the postwar Right, Koestler worked with George Orwell in the League for the Rights of Man, helped found the Congress of Cultural Freedom in Berlin, lectured at Carnegie Hall, and probably did more than anyone else to ensure the success, during the 1950s, of the campaign to abolish capital punishment in England. But in 1954, after the publication of the first two volumes of his autobiography, his divorce from Mamaine Paget and his settling down with Cynthia, he abruptly swore off “political” writing in favor of an ongoing critique of science and psychology and their joint relation to the “glory and predicament” of man.
“The errors are atoned for,” Koestler proclaimed, “the bitter passion has burnt itself out; Cassandra has gone hoarse, and is due for a vocational change.” What looked on the surface to be a complete switch of direction — from “politics” to “science” — was, in reality, just a shift of gears, a step upward, really, on the evolutionary scale of moral thinking.
“We have heard a whole chorus of Nobel laureates assert that matter is merely energy in disguise,” Koestler protested, “that causality is dead, determinism is dead. If that is so, they should be given a public funeral in the olive groves of Academe…. Modern physics has destroyed materialism. Matter evaporates, it runs through the fingers like sand. We have holes in space into which matter vanishes. We have a particle, the tachyon, which appears to travel backwards in time for a brief moment. It’s an Alice-in-Wonderland universe.”
Insight and Outlook (1947) was Koestler’s initial foray into the wilderness of psychology and the creative impulse, an adventure that led him, over the rest of his working life, through studies of the history of cosmology (in The Sleepwalkers), Eastern philosophy (The Lotus and the Robot), the interconnectedness of science and art (The Act of Creation), and the invigorating theory of the Holon (Beyond Reductionism, The Ghost in the Machine). Two of his last four books dealt directly with paranormal investigation, while in Janus: A Summing Up (1978) he put the finishing touches on a career-defining analysis of “the rationalist illusion” — the idea that the human brain, on its own steam, assisted by nothing but technology of its own devising, could solve the riddle of its own existence and give meaning to human endeavor.
“You know,” said Koestler, “if you keep telling man that he is nothing but an overgrown rat, he will start growing whiskers and bite your finger.” Where once he had appeared as the bête noire of totalitarian ideology, he now emerged as a sort of Humanist Avenger, the diehard champion of scientific method but implacable enemy of “scientism,” behaviorism, “rat-o-morphism,” “nothing-but-ism,” “the crude reductionist maxim that what cannot be explained cannot exist.” More and more as he grew older Koestler turned to radical formulations for his answers — the philosopher Stephen Toulmin describes his contribution to science as “the capacity … to put 2 and 1 together and get vingt-et-un” — but when, in The Roots of Coincidence, he came out squarely in favor of the reality of ESP, he stepped into a critical hornet’s nest more furiously hostile than any he had encountered before, including the history of communism in the West.
“Even close friends and admirers found the resulting brew of psychosomatic inference, mystic biology and murky parlor-tricks hard to swallow,” said George Steiner in a tribute to Koestler after his death. “His public stance cut him off from all but an eccentric handful in the very community which he most prized: that of the working scientists, of the Fellows of the Royal Academy whose respect, if not agreement, he ached for.” Koestler had dedicated The Roots of Coincidence to Rosalind Heywood, “catalyst-in-chief,” one of Britain’s psychic grandes dames, former president of the Society for Psychical Research and a particular friend of his own. Normally he had no use for professional or even affectional “psychics.” Gossip was common at the S. P. R., and too much attention was paid there for Koestler’s taste to the issue of “survival” — life after death. He was, above all, never goofy about the afterworld. In 1976 Arnold Toynbee persuaded Koestler to give his thoughts on survival in a collection of afterlife essays, and he wrote rather torturously about “de-individualization” at the moment of death, a “merging into the cosmic consciousness — the island vanishing below the surface to join the sunken continent — or Athman joining Brahman — whichever image you choose.”
Had they known that Koestler was also conducting experiments in levitation in the basement of his house (he called it “Project Daedalus,” and bought a second-hand weighing machine from a London railway station to see if his friends couldn’t “think themselves, or abstract themselves,” into shedding a few pounds), scientists in Britain might have proved even more recalcitrant than they did when he died and left his estate to psi research. Under the terms of his last will, and with Cynthia’s income to bolster the fund, close to a million dollars was set aside to establish a Koestler Chair in Parapsychology, the first of its kind, at a university in Great Britain.
Out of 44 institutions that might have applied for the Koestler grant, only two of them did; of these, because it already had some experience in the field, the University of Edinburgh won.
“Edinburgh got it because it clearly wanted it,” says John Beloff, a former senior lecturer at Edinburgh’s department of psychology, a friend of Koestler’s and one of four executors of the Koestler estate. For fifteen years, long before Koestler died, Beloff had overseen the occasional production at Edinburgh of postgraduate theses with “psychical” themes. He is a one-time president of the Parapsychological Association, the editor of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, and (if there is such a thing) the Grand Old Man of psi. He regards the Koestler bequest as “a Trojan horse,” a willful retaliation against scientism and a deliberate irritant in the academic body.
“Koestler was always a bit odd man out,” Beloff tells me, “always a bit at loggerheads with academics and authorities. We never thought it would be an easy thing to find a Chair.” Negotiations with Oxford and Cambridge (where Koestler’s legacy might normally have been expected to bear lustrous fruit) broke down quickly — in the first case, because Oxford took the view that the study of parapsychology was a waste of time; and, in the case of Cambridge, because Koestler’s executors were worried his money would be used for purposes other than the one he intended. Arthur Ellison, at that time president of the Society for Psychical Research and now emeritus professor of electrical engineering at City University in London, remembers that his own efforts to obtain the grant ended when his colleagues “got cold feet.”
“We set up a small working body of academics from different disciplines,” Ellison recalls. “We included skeptics. We made jolly sure the project was scientific,” but the motion died anyway in the larger councils of the university. It was a bad time generally for parapsychology, the era of Uri Geller and the metal-benders, the moment, more or less, when mediums became “channelers” and “past lives” got popular among boosters of the occult. In 1976 Paul Kurtz, a professor of philosophy at SUNY Buffalo, had founded the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) and persuaded a veritable battalion of phenomenal thinkers (Carl Sagan, B. F. Skinner, and Stephen Jay Gould among them) to join him in debunking the supernatural. Not long after, “the Amazing Randi” — James Randi, the American conjuror — disrupted an experiment in psychokinesis at the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research in St. Louis by planting two professional magicians among the other (honest) subjects. Randi’s claims to have “discredited” psi were somewhat exaggerated (the experiment never got beyond the initial exploratory stages), but his antics won him a MacArthur “genius” award and left parapsychologists with egg on their faces. The days were over when simple card-guessing experiments, or randomly generated tests such as flourished for years at Dr. J. B. Rhine’s parapsychology lab at Duke University, were sufficient to convince anyone of the reality of ESP. Arthur Ellison remembers that the case against the adoption of the Koestler Chair at City University was argued by “a young behaviorist” in the psychology department; he is unhesitating in his condemnation of the “intolerance” he perceives among distinguished scientists.
“They’re as prejudiced as anyone else,” he insists. “What possible objection could there be to an objective, scientific investigation of unexplained phenomena? On the contrary, universities ought to be looking into these things.” No less a personage than Charles, Prince of Wales, felt the same way, and in 1983, in his capacity as Chancellor of the University of Wales at Cardiff, the Prince lobbied actively for adoption of the Koestler grant.
“Why don’t we have a go at taking up this scheme?” Charles inquired with his accustomed earnestness, in a letter to the senate at Cardiff. He was thought at the time to be conducting Ouija-board séances at Kensington Palace and had taken a lot of flack already as “the Man Who Talks to Plants.” The most strenuous encouragement of royalty, however, could not overcome the wavering spirits at Cardiff. If Koestler’s executors opted, rather suddenly, to award the grant to Edinburgh, under John Beloff’s supervision, their explanation couldn’t be faulted: Edinburgh seemed like a safe place to go. Beloff is still despondent when he talks about the problems he faces in his field. A hundred years after the founding of the Society for Psychical Research in London, there is no consensus among scientists about the nature, or even the existence, of psi. There is never likely to be one.
“It’s always been private individuals like Koestler who’ve kept it going,” Beloff remarks. He is retired now — white-haired, classic-featured, almost preternaturally urbane.
“It’s very difficult for government or other public organizations, spending taxpayers’ money, to get into it, because they’ll always have advisors around to tell them it’s nonsense,” Beloff says. “This has meant, of course, that parapsychologists have had a very hazardous life. The people who are in it are really very dedicated individuals. They are prepared to take great risks with their lives.” I asked Beloff what the purpose was — “Why do you bother?” — and he answered wistfully, “To try and persuade the scientific community and the educated public that there are phenomena which are not recognized by official science, and for which we have no theoretical explanation. It’s a step toward keeping people’s minds open. That’s the legacy of Koestler.”
This is not quite the same response I got from Robert L. Morris, Koestler Professor of Parapsychology, who came to Edinburgh from Syracuse University in 1986 and took up his post amid a welter of smart-aleck headlines (“Psychical Research: Ghost of Validity,” “Professor’s Specialty Is Out of This World,” etc.). Born in Pittsburgh in 1942, married with twin daughters, Morris was one of 32 candidates for the new position. He has a Ph.D. from Duke (where he studied with J. B. Rhine) and is recognized by believers and skeptics alike as probably the most level-headed and “science”-minded parapsychologist on the planet. Morris is an expert in “avian social behavior,” out-of-body lore, the psychic connections, if any, between people and machines. He is cold to what Koestler called “parapornography” (mediumship, divination, Tarot cards and the like) but is reported to keep “an open mind about God.” He says that the goal of psychical research is “to understand as much as possible the full range of human communication.”
“There’s a whole set of experiences here that seems hard to explain completely by established means,” Morris affirms. He regards himself as “over 90% persuaded” that psi phenomena are “real.” He won’t commit himself further. “I doubt strong statements of any sort,” he says.
He is sitting at a reassuringly cluttered desk, looking just like a scientist, a taller, stronger, handsomer version of Wally Cox. The Koestler Chair forms part of the larger psychology department at Edinburgh and is housed in what used to be a girls’ school in George Square, far from the wynds and closes of the Royal Mile. The Scottish capital is often called the Athens of the North; it definitely has a reputation for ghosts, but there is nothing even remotely unworldly about Dr. Morris’s lab. The inside looks like any battered academy you can think of — all landings, stairwells, notice-boards, and rest rooms. Every now and then as I wandered through the halls I passed a closed door with a sign that said, “Experiment in progress.” No sounds emerged. After talking with Dr. Morris, I doubt they ever do. He speaks dryly, even-handedly, about “apparent anomalies of behavior and experience,” “currently known explanatory mechanisms,” “organism-environment and organism-organism information and influence flow.”
“It’s a research chair,” Dr. Morris reminds me. One of his students (there are six at the moment, all at the postgraduate level) has completed a doctoral study of “the psychology of magic.” Another is investigating the links between “prior beliefs and the observation of reality” — that is, the limited ability of people to report accurately and without prejudice on their own experience. A lot of Morris’s time is spent wading through the anecdotal material that floods his office, and he is especially interested, like many of his colleagues, in the possibility of fostering psychic activity. There is a notion, gaining ground, of the psi faculty as “a weak signal,” either constantly or intermittently present in human affairs, but normally unable to filter through the noise of life — the “exteroceptive stimulation,” as Dr. Morris calls it, simultaneously giving me a departmental hand-out with some mind-bending examples of what psi is up against: “Somatic and muscular activity; excessive autonomic activity; excessive analytical activity; excessive general mental activity; excessive egocentric striving; and interference by target-irrelevant imagery and mentation.” The lack of psychic ability, in this scenario, can even be regarded as an evolutionary protective mechanism.
“Certainly you don’t need to know what’s going on in the minds of all your friends in New York City,” Dr. Morris observes. The Koestler lab is interested in finding out what happens in the brain of a person who’s “really tuned in.”
“If I sit you down at a computer and ask you to try to direct targets with your mind,” Morris asks, “what’s going on? What do you do when you do that?” He wants to know about “volitional competence,” about “will power,” about “people who are good at wishing for things.” He speaks about personality types: “the passive, laid-back one who doesn’t care very much, who won’t get excited,” and the others, not unknown to ordinary psychology, “who just want all day long.” The Koestler lab conducts training sessions in free-response ESP (the cards and dice of J. B. Rhine were long ago replaced by computer generations) along with courses in “relaxation enhancement,” visual imagery, and “focusing techniques” (a term Morris much prefers to “meditation,” with its suggestion of Eastern mysticism and religion). As for psi itself, Morris cites the challenge of maintaining methodological rigor and still designing a study that has “ecological validity” — a study, in other words, that bears some relation to events as they might really take place in the outside world. This is one of the central problems of psychical research: how to recreate in the lab anything resembling the conditions under which a so-called psychic event might really occur.
“It’s like asking somebody to come in and be charming,” Morris shrugs. “How do you study it? How do you pin it down?” Koestler compared the problem to getting an erection “in the public square, in the presence of skeptical observers.” Morris laughs when I mention it.
“It’s complicated,” he agrees. “A lot of the criticism that comes our way is methodological. A lot of it has to do with the problem of replicability. If there is something going on here, it’s obviously hard to get, or we would have gotten it a long time ago.” He has spent the better part of five years just trying to eliminate the possibilities for fraud. One project under his supervision, still in the incubation stage, is concerned with “the mode and content of discourse between psychic and client.”
“You mean a professional psychic?” I ask, and Morris says he does.
“The most common area of fraud is undoubtedly to be found between client and reader, and not, as you might imagine, in the performance of the more flamboyant magicians.” It is the experience of the overwhelming majority of parapsychologists that anyone who brings a psychic talent to public notice is going to have to “cheat” sooner or later. Morris defends what seems like a preoccupation with the technique of hoax on the grounds that this one fact has been sufficient to discredit psychical research more or less forever in the eyes of established science. He adds for the record that the Koestler lab has “excellent relations with the magic community.”
“You need a good rapport with the people you’re working with,” he argues. “If one of the main tasks of your work is to try to rule out all known means of deception, each and every alternative explanation, it’s going to be hard. You’re up against a lot.” The Koestler lab is extremely wary of “media-attractive people” and has a fixed policy of never employing them in experiments. Dr. Morris, according to Dr. Beloff, “is prepared to settle for the slow grind and modest results.” Beloff himself has a taste for “the exceptionals,” and, you can tell, he wouldn’t mind seeing a few of them in the seat.
“There’s rather a dearth of gifted subjects right now,” Beloff informs me. It’s almost an apology. He is at work on a history of parapsychology and is “more and more convinced,” after a lifetime of study, that there are examples of psi which are “absolutely conclusive.”
“At the present time, the only place where there seems to be anything really strong happening is mainland China,” Beloff says. “I get letters and reports. There are absolutely unbelievable things happening there by western standards. Either they’re deluding themselves in a spectacular way, or there’s something really extraordinary going on.” Beloff’s research persuades him that psychic ability is best observed not on the J. B. Rhine model — that is to say, through random and repeated sampling of subjects in the lab — but precisely in those people with “powerful gifts” who are also the most difficult, and frequently the most dubious, to work with. Brian Inglis, a co-founder with Koestler of the K.I.B. Foundation — “K” for Koestler, “I” for Inglis, and “B” for Instone Bloomfield, the City banker and committed Spiritualist who initially funded the project — told me that parapsychology has gone “way off the track” in its yearning to be accepted by the scientific establishment. Skepticism had been allowed to dictate policy rather than criticize it.
“It’s only recently that people within the study of parapsychology have begun to conclude that the scientific approach isn’t working,” Inglis protested at our last conversation. “Not for the reasons the scientists give. It’s just becoming more and more obvious that psi doesn’t operate according to the laws of science. It’s not within the scientific canon.” After Koestler’s death, the K.I.B. Foundation was renamed directly in his honor, and it functions now, independently of the lab at Edinburgh, as a research center and clearinghouse for ideas that lie “just outside the boundaries of orthodox science”: holism, psychic healing, UFOs — all the things Dr. Morris can’t touch for various reasons. Ruth West, Koestler’s protégée and the Koestler Foundation’s director in London (“We’re the radicals,” she says) agrees with Brian Inglis that too much science is bad for psi.
“Scientists are really going to have to think again when they talk about the nature of reality,” West affirms. She is nicely dressed, fortyish, handsome and vivacious, with red-brown hair she clips in the back and keeps in a small tail.
“Science is wedded to the notion that the only reality is physical reality,” says West. “In the face of psychic or paranormal phenomena, they can say just one of two things. They can say the phenomena don’t really exist, which is the most common explanation; or they can say the phenomena are, or will be, ultimately explainable in physical terms. They can’t get it through their heads that the reality of psychic phenomena may be other than that.” West is proud to report that she’s recently found a metal-bender even “better than Geller.”
“He’s a healer, too,” she proclaims. “He produces oil on his palms when he heals. He has the ability to appear transparent to certain people.” She whoops in delight when she thinks about it.
The day I talked to Ruth West she was dressed to have lunch with the Princess of Wales. Diana is honorary chairman of the CORE Trust, a registered charity that deals with addiction treatment “in a holistic context.” West wants me to know that the interests of the Koestler Foundation (as distinct from the Koestler lab at Edinburgh) range far beyond the bounds of the paranormal. Even so, they always come back to something spooky.
“Corn circles,” West says — “that’s my thing.” She’s talking about the huge, perfectly formed indentations that have appeared inexplicably in wheat fields around England.
“Scratch even the most psychic-minded people and you’ll find the same old materialists underneath,” she complains. “They keep trying to explain how UFOs `come down to earth’ and `form’ the corn circles, instead of thinking that it may have to do with a completely different kind of energy, a different way of affecting the environment.”
“People need to think differently,” West repeats. The explanations of science are never more than material descriptions: “They don’t actually tell us how objects move on their own, how statues weep, or people read minds, or levitate, or bend metal, or dematerialize.” West admits that her work is often frustrating, and she wonders if one day she won’t just say to herself, “Oh, hang it up. There are other problems that need looking at.”
One of them, at the moment, is AIDS. The Koestler Foundation has been working closely with the Immune Development Trust, a non-profit organization concerned with holism and alternative medicine. Over the past year, I.D.T. has opened six clinics to provide alternative care and education on holistic therapies for people with immune disorders, mainly (but not limited to) AIDS. They provide training sessions and support in London hospitals. They are keen on “aromatherapy.” They hope to get Diana involved in their scheme.
“It’s all right for Diana to be seen to favor alternative medicine,” West confides. “She’s young, she’s with it — she’s a `fresher’ member of the royal family. But Charles has had to back away. He’s learned the hard way that he can’t afford to endorse what might be called a `leftist’ approach to the meaning of life.” Since Koestler’s money all went to Edinburgh, and Instone Bloomfield, whom West describes as “our shy retiring banker,” died a few years ago, the Foundation relies for its support entirely on private contributions. West herself has been director since 1980. She read Koestler in school, and was impressed by his attack on materialist and reductionist values.
“I lived in his basement flat,” she recalls, “trying to teach people how to levitate. Arthur really twinkled when he talked about that. Whenever I get the opportunity I try to persuade people around the Dalai Lama to help us get to Lhasa, where the strongest and most convincing reports regarding levitation are coming from.” Tibet is “the kind of place you would find levitators, anyway,” West thinks, “in their natural environment, so to speak.” It’s a place that still has some tradition of “thinking differently” — although Koestler himself rejected the East (and specifically the path of Eastern mysticism) as a panacea for the times.
“Western thought cannot return to a pre-conceptualized state,” he warned, “a vertebrate cannot evolve into an invertebrate.” Having spurned the lure of dogmatic thinking, in science, life and art, he refused to chase warm fuzzies in its stead. He dropped acid once with Timothy Leary, and rejected that as a solution, too.
“I had what is called a very bad trip,” Koestler explained. “A trip can be frightening or gratifying, but in either case, it is a confidence trick played on one’s own nervous system.”
His estate, through royalties and investments, still generates something like forty thousand pounds a year, which is fed directly to the lab at Edinburgh. A full-length biography is due this year (commissioned from Cornell’s Michael Scammell, the biographer of Solzhenitsyn) and “masses” of Koestler’s books, as Harold Harris tells me, are now being published in Eastern Europe. The God That Failed is a particular favorite in what used to be the communist bloc; parts of The Sleepwalkers have recently reappeared as a straightforward biography of Johannes Kepler, while Darkness at Noon and The Roots of Coincidence are always in print. They sell thousands of copies a year around the world.
“I wish he could be here now to see what’s happening,” Pat Kavanagh says, “to see his work rehabilitated in places we never expected.” Kavanagh has a reputation as the toughest literary agent in London, but there’s love in her voice when she talks about Koestler: “To see Darkness at Noon published in places where it was banned before, and where Koestler himself stood under sentence of death….” Her voice trails off: “It’s wonderful. He was a truly, truly marvelous man.” Neither Kavanagh nor Harold Harris will admit to any interest in the paranormal, but they both like to think that Koestler would approve of the way they’ve handled his estate. Edinburgh’s Dr. Morris was invited recently to address the British Psychological Society convention in Bournemouth, a sign that the Koestler Chair of Parapsychology, in Morris’s words, isn’t being “tittered at.”
“It’s really the dressing on the salad, isn’t it,” Morris remarks, “rather than the lettuce.” He sometimes wishes that Koestler had spelled out more specifically the direction the Chair should take, and he thinks that part of his job now is “to establish guidelines” for his successor.
“Are you thinking of leaving?” I ask.
“No, but as they say in Edinburgh, you can disappear under the bus at any time.” He is learning to operate — as Koestler predicted, as all of us do — “in a universe of non-causal interactions, a fuzzy world of wavering contours, replete with little bubbles of indeterminacy.”
“Does there come a point when one has to stop doubting?” Koestler was asked. It was the last interview he ever gave.
“Yes, death,” he said. “But not until.”