Don’t retire this book! Although Arthur Koestler’s The Age of Longing was published in 1951 – officially making it 65 this year – it’s far too invigoratingly fresh to remove from the anti-Marxist workforce. In fact, the message delivered by Koestler in this novel couldn’t be more relevant than in our contemporary political environment.
Koestler’s penultimate endeavor in literary fiction and the final entry in his quartet of political novels on the inherent dangers of collectivism, The Age of Longing revisits the religious theme prevalent in the author’s first novel, The Gladiators, but subdued or nonexistent in Darkness at Noon and Arrival and Departure. A fifth novel, 1946’s Thieves in the Night, details the political landscape of post-World War II Palestine, which falls outside the convenient rubric of the present conversation – as does The Call Girls, a novel he wrote and published 22 years after The Age of Longing.
Compared to his previous novels and works of journalism, The Age of Longing received short-shrift upon its publication. Since then, it has been granted only brief critical consideration – if at all, considering it’s the only Koestler novel not granted its own Wikipedia entry. This is unfortunate, as this novel-of-ideas is a corker, positing the only salvation of humanity from the allure of collectivism is religious faith.
David Cesarani, author of the biography Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind (1998), noted the novel “a political act, a Cold War novel par excellence…. It was designed to influence public opinion and government officials in the USA, in much the same way that Thieves in the Night had helped to shape both popular and official opinion about the Palestinian crisis.”
As mentioned above, religion as a vaccine against communism and tonic against its most egregious usurpation of personal freedoms first found voice in Koestler’s debut novel, The Gladiators. This 1939 novel is set in the first century before Christ, concluding that the Roman slave revolt led by Spartacus failed in part due to the lack of a coherent spiritual faith that finally found its footing after the death of Christ 100 years later.
The Age of Longing echoes the title of W.H. Auden’s long poem The Age of Anxiety, published in 1948, which was a previous attempt to label the post-World War II era. Both writers recognized a prevalent spiritual and political vacuum in the West after defeating the Axis powers. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that both writers famously advocated communist principles in the 1930s, which they subsequently abandoned. The devastation of much of the civilized world and the horrors of the battlefields and concentration camps had led many political leaders and popular thinkers to assume they could never be repeated to such an extent. Auden, capturing the zeitgeist, observed that “Lies and lethargies police the world / In its periods of peace.”
Koestler’s novel, set in the very near future of the decade in which it was written, warns that a lack of will toward confronting humanity’s depravity would result in Western civilization’s inevitable demise at the hands of a largely unopposed invasion, conducted by an empire given the ironic name the Free Commonwealth but presumably the Soviet Union. The date of the novel is given as 195-, an undetermined time when the novel predicts Europe will acquiesce to communist rule by the Free Commonwealth. As the main characters – stand-ins for the French intelligentsia at the time – bicker in their cafes and salons, Koestler’s French politicians quietly move their families to estates purchased in countries too remote to be on the invaders’ immediate radar.
Cesarani notes that three of the novel’s characters are based on characters drawn from real life. “The first, Julien Delattre, is a limping veteran of the Spanish Civil War with a touch of Camus and Malraux.” The quarrelsome nature of the character Boris, writes Cesarani, resembles Koestler. “Professor Vardi is a Viennese Jewish intellectual whose ‘rabbinical pathos’ and taste for sweet vermouth identify him as [Austrian-French novelist] Manes Sperber.” According to Cesarani:
Julian Delattre puts into words Koestler’s fundamental analysis of what he saw as the crisis afflicting Western Europe in the late 1940s. Secularization and rationalism had cut people off from a belief in God or the afterlife. Society had become the new deity and mankind the plaything of secular ideologies. “The only, the one and only hope of preventing this is the emergence of a new transcendental faith which would deflect people’s energies from the ‘social field’ to the cosmic field – which would re-establish direct transactions between man and the universe and would act as a brake on the motors of expediency. In other words: the emergence of a new religion, of a cosmic loyalty with a doctrine acceptable to twentieth century man.”
Readers will note the similarity between the quote above and the denouement of The Gladiators. Readers familiar with the Acton Institute will note as well Delattre’s characterization of 20th century humanity’s fascination with the “social field” in contrast to the “cosmic field,” which directly foreshadows Acton’s mission to promote free-markets and virtuous societies over the liberty-abrogating agendas and platitudes of the social-justice crowds.
To this reader, there’s also a doppelganger for French philosopher and communist apologist Jean-Paul Sartre (not coincidentally the author of a 1946 novel titled The Age of Reason) as represented by the character Professor Pontieux. The African-American singer and communist agitator Paul Robeson also makes a fictional appearance as a speaker at the comically depicted Rally for Peace and Progress.
Central to Koestler’s story is the romance between Hydie and Fedya Nikitin, a Free Commonwealth spy compiling a list of French intellectuals for either execution or reeducation. What Hydie seemingly admires most about Nikitin is his passion for the Soviet cause, which borders if not surpasses the faith she once held in Roman Catholicism.
Hydie, an American, was schooled in an English convent in the Cotswolds where her New World ways of expressing herself earn condescending opprobrium from a French nun. She tells Hydie: “You will never make a good catho-lique, little one…. Good catho-liques do not grow in sky-scrapers. They grow only in Latin countries, among the vineyards.”
The nun’s initial disapproving manner and xenophobic attitude toward Americans squelches any future opportunity to correct Hydie’s misguided notions concerning the Crucifixion and the forgiveness of humanity’s sins. As Hydie’s aunt, the Mother Superior of the convent, tells Hydie’s father, the nuns discouraged the young woman’s ambition to become a saint: “‘She would make a rotten saint … and we have taken care to drive that idea out of her head. What we need are crusaders, not saints, and fortunately that is more in my niece Clodagh’s line.’ She always referred to the girl by her second, Irish name.”
The ennui exhibited by the French intelligentsia is broken momentarily by Mathilda Pontieux (Simone Beauvoir perhaps?) who declaims false equivalencies between Free Commonwealth communism and American racism as well as Nazi occupation and the American liberation of France. She tells a young American diplomat: “[Y]ou are a Negro-baiting, half-civilized nation ruled by bankers and gangs, whereas your opponents have abolished capitalism and have at least some ideas in their heads.”
The Commonwealth’s Hero of Culture, Leontiev, also is central to the story – a man who has squandered his literary talents as a scribbler of mere communist propaganda. When, finally freed from his communist masters upon learning of the death of his wife back home, Leontiev expresses his true feelings, only to realize the French intelligentsia are little more than useful idiots for the communist cause.
As Comanche, a French bureaucrat, informs Hydie:
Now the source of all political libido is faith, and its object is the New Jerusalem, the Kingdom of Heaven, the Lost Paradise, Utopia, what have you. Therefore each time a god dies there is trouble in History. People feel that they have been cheated by his promises, left with a dud cheque in their pocket; and they will run after every charlatan who promises to cash it. The last time a god died was on July 14, 1789, the day when the Bastille was stormed. On that day the Holy Trinity was replaced by the three-word slogan which you find written over our town halls and post offices. … The People have been deprived of their only knowledge, or the illusion, whichever you like, of having an immortal soul. Their faith is dead, their kingdom is dead, only the longing remains…. So the people, the masses, mill around with that irksome feeling of having an uncashed cheque in their pockets and whoever tells them ‘Oyez, oyez, the Kingdom is just around the corner, in the second street to the left,’ can do with them what he likes. The more they feel that itch, the easier it is to get them. If you tell them that their kingdom stinks of corpses, they will answer you that it has always been their favourite scent. No argument or treatment can cure them, until the dead god is replaced by a new, more up-to-date one. Have you got one up your sleeve?
Koestler’s anti-collectivist fiction and nonfiction resonates and deserves reconsideration and reevaluation in the present, even 65 years after the publication of The Age of Longing. Because demagogues and their followers are still promising earthly utopias if only we willingly or by force forfeit our freedoms.