Can a rapist be a great man?

Can a man be both a rapist and a person of acknowledged greatness? The question has been asked about the film director Roman Polanski, who stands accused of being both a paedophile (in the technical sense) and a rapist, since the young girl in question was only 12 years old at the time.

            But it is also asked about another towering giant of literature and politics, the writer Arthur Koestler.

     The Hungarian-born Koestler became a world-famous writer and political thinker: it is said he did more to discredit the Soviet Union and international Communism than “Reagan, Thatcher and Pope John Paul II put together”.

             A former Communist, Koestler’s classic novel “Darkness at Noon” and his confessional text, “The God that Failed” unmasked Soviet Communism as a network of lies, persecution and mass killings. Marxism never recovered from his onslaughts.

      Yet it is evident from biographies and letters that have emerged since his death in 1983 that Arthur Koestler’s attitude to women was brutal. Most discreditable is a sexual assault he made on Jill Craigie, the wife of the British Labour leader Michael Foot.

          Jill Craigie described, in detail, her encounter with Koestler, after an ill-advised country pub-crawl. He made a pass at her, which she rebuffed. He then forced himself on her, pulling her hair, and banging her head against the ground as he coerced her into sex. That was her version, which first came to light in 1998: but Koestler’s latest biographer, Michael Scammell,  has doubted the late Ms Craigie’s word, asking why she waited over twenty years to tell her story?

     But women do keep quiet about a sexual assault, perhaps because they are ashamed, or they don’t want to embarrass a husband, partner, or children. Or they don’t want to revive a horrible experience. That doesn’t mean the account isn’t true.

     There is plenty of evidence that Koestler was violent with other women. One sometime girlfriend, Janetta, said that an encounter with Koestler always ended up with some form of brutality – he would lose his temper and “slap” women.

            When she was aloof to his approaches, he wrote to a friend: “For the first time in my life I felt it would be worthwhile to hang, or do 20 years in jail for killing a woman.”

     He expounded his theory about sexual seduction to his second wife: “Without an element of initial rape, there is no delight.”

     Though married three times, Koestler had many extra-marital affairs, and actually stayed married to his first wife as a deliberate ploy to discourage various mistresses – at one point he was running four of them concurrently – from seeking to marry him.

            Women either “loved him or hated him”: the feminist Simone de Beauvoir seems to have done both. She found him “detestable” and yet, she went to bed with him, when he “pestered and pestered and pestered her”. Talk about sleeping with the enemy!

           Koestler despised female “bluestockings”, and although faithless to his wives, he still expected a wife to “devote her time to typing, cooking and looking after her husband’s needs, and give up all idea of a separate career.”

             He was also adamant about not fathering children, and forbade wives and mistresses to get pregnant – or hounded them into abortions. One determined woman got away with it, and despite his protests, continued with a pregnancy and gave birth to his daughter.

        A dreadful man? A male chauvinist of the most odious kind? You could say that. Yet, his defenders say he had many redeeming traits. He was financially generous, brave in politics, suffered imprisonment under Franco, tried to rouse the world about the plight of Jews and gypsies under Nazism, campaigned against capital punishment, defended American anti-Communists: and loved dogs.

           And Koestler had no trouble finding some woman to be his slave, and his last wife, Cynthia, actually signed herself “Slavey”. When he chose suicide – he had Parkinson’s disease and leukaemia –  she agreed to die with him, though she was a fit and healthy woman twenty years younger.

             What does it prove? One uncomfortable suggestion is that some women actually like male chauvinists, even if they are violent, difficult or drunk (as Koestler sometimes was).

            How can domestic abuse be abolished if some women choose to be with the sort of alpha-male who dominates in this way? Koestler’s life is a casebook study of this psychology.

      The other point is that a man may indeed be greatly admired – and yet a rapist (or other kind of sex offender). People are not all of a piece: they are patchy. Hitler gave away all his money to struggling opera companies, and Stalin wrote poetry of the most tender ilk. There’s no accounting for folks. ENDS 

Irish Independent February 2010