Experiences of Arthur Koestler
Koestler is best known for his novel about the abuses
of communism, Darkness at Noon. He also wrote a
wide-ranging look at inspiration and creativity in The
Act of Creation.
(1905 - 1983)
his autobiography, The Invisible Writing, Koestler
shares a life changing experience that occurred when
he was accused of being a spy during the Spanish Civil
War and imprisoned in solitary confinement.
was standing at the recessed window of cell No. 40
and with a piece of iron-spring that I had extracted
from the wire mattress, was scratching mathematical
formulae on the wall. Mathematics, in particular analytical
geometry, had been the favorite hobby of my youth,
neglected later on for many years. I was trying to
remember how to derive the formula of the hyperbola,
and was stumped; then I tried the ellipse and parabola,
and to my delight succeeded. Next I went on to recall
Euclid's proof that the number of primes is infinite...
I had become acquainted with Euclid's proof at school,
it had always filled me with a deep satisfaction that
was aesthetic rather than intellectual. Now, as I
recalled the method and scratched the symbols on the
wall, I felt the same enchantment.
then, for the first time, I suddenly understood the
reason for this enchantment: the scribbled symbols
on the wall represented one of the rare cases where
a meaningful and comprehensive statement about the
infinite is arrived at by precise and finite means.
The infinite is a mystical mass shrouded in a haze;
and yet it was possible to gain some knowledge of
it without losing oneself in treacly ambiguities.
The significance of this swept over me like a wave.
The wave had originated in an articulate verbal insight;
but this evaporated at once, leaving in its wake only
a wordless essence, a fragrance of eternity, a quiver
of the arrow in the blue. I must have stood there
for some minutes, entranced, with a wordless awareness
that "this is perfect---perfect"; until
I noticed some slight mental discomfort nagging at
the back of my mind---some trivial circumstance that
marred the perfection of the moment. Then I remembered
the nature of that irrelevant annoyance: I was, of
course, in prison and might be shot. But this was
immediately answered by a feeling whose verbal translation
would be: "So what? is that all? have you got
nothing more serious to worry about?"---an answer
so spontaneous, fresh and amused as if the intruding
annoyance had been the loss of a collar-stud. Then
I was floating on my back in a river of peace, under
bridges of silence. It came from nowhere and flowed
nowhere. Then there was no river and no I. The I had
ceased to exist.
I say "the I had ceased to exist," I refer
to a concrete experience that is verbally as incommunicable
as the feeling aroused by a piano concerto, yet just
as real---only much more real. In fact, its primary
mark is the sensation that this state is more real
than any other one has experienced before---that for
the first time the veil has fallen and one is in touch
with "real reality," the hidden order of
things, the X-ray texture of the world, normally obscured
by layers of irrelevancy.
distinguishes this type of experience from the emotional
entrancements of music, landscapes or love is that
the former has a definitely intellectual, or rather
noumenal, content. It is meaningful, though not in
verbal terms. Verbal transcriptions that come nearest
to it are: the unity and interlocking of everything
that exists, an interdependence like that of gravitational
fields or communicating vessels. The "I"
ceases to exist because it has, by a kind of mental
osmosis, established communication with, and been
dissolved in, the universal pool. It is the process
of dissolution and limitless expansion which is sensed
as the "oceanic feeling," as the draining
of all tension, the absolute catharsis, the peace
that passeth all understanding.
coming-back to the lower order of reality I found
to be gradual, like waking up from anaesthesia. There
was the equation of the parabola scratched on the
dirty wall, the iron bed and the iron table and the
strip of blue Andalusian sky. But there was no unpleasant
hangover as from other modes of intoxication. On the
contrary: there remained a sustained and invigorating,
serene and fear-dispelling after-effect that lasted
for hours and days. It was as if a massive dose of
vitamins had been injected into the veins. Or, to
change the metaphor, I resumed my travels through
my cell like an old car with its batteries freshly
the experience had lasted for a few minutes or an
hour, I never knew. In the beginning it occurred two
or even three times a week, then the intervals became
longer. It could never be voluntarily induced. After
my liberation it recurred at even longer intervals,
perhaps once or twice in a year. But by that time
the groundwork for a change or personality was completed.
I shall henceforth refer to these experiences as "the
hours by the window."
Arthur. The Invisible Writing, (New York: The
Macmillan Company, 1954, pp.350-354. Quoted in Walter
T. Stace The Teachings of the Mystics, (New York:
New American Library, 1960), pp. 230-235.
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