Arthur Koestler, Thomas Mann, and Arthur Schopenhauer’s Essay “On Death”: The Psychology of a Very Brief Encounter*



 Henry Innes MacAdam

Look! For if you did, you’d see
life after life surging
like birds with powerful wings, more irresistibly
than raging fire,
to the sunset god’s edge of death.

-Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrranus lines 173-177(trans. Ahl, 2008)

The lives of Arthur Koestler (1905-1983) and Thomas Mann (1875-1955) intersected briefly in the summer of 1937 in Switzerland. Earlier that year Koestler had been released from a  Spanish prison where he awaited a death sentence for his known communist party affiliation and his work as a journalist for the British anti-Fascist News Chronicle. It was during that “death row” episode (see Koestler’s first account in his Dialogue with Death, 1937; 1961) that he reflected on the mathematical perfection of Prime Numbers (see on this MacAdam 2009). He also expressed his admiration for the early novels of Thomas Mann, and how much spiritual and  intellectual comfort they gave him while imprisoned. Even before returning to London, he wrote to Mann. The most detailed account of this appears in the second volume of Koestler’s autobiography, The Invisible Writing (1954; 1969):


During the first three weeks of solitary confinement, before I was allowed books from the prison library, my only intellectual nourishment had been the remembrance of books read in the past. In the course of these memory exercises, a certain passage from Buddenbrooks came back to me and gave me much spiritual comfort–so much so that at times when I felt particularly dejected, I would have recourse to that scene as it were a pain-soothing pill. The content of the passage, as I remembered it, was this. Consul Thomas Buddenbrook, though only in his late forties, knows that he is about to die. He was never given to any religious or metaphysical speculation, but now he falls under the spell of a book [Arthur Schopenhaurer’s essay On Death, and its Relation to the Indestructibility of our Essential Selves, which appears in Vol. 2 (a supplement to Book 4) of The World as Will and Representation] which for years has stood unread in his library, and in which he finds explained that death is nothing final, merely a transition to another, impersonal form of existence in the All-One…

            The day after I was set free, I wrote Thomas Mann a letter (I knew that he lived in Zürich-Kuessnacht) in which I explained [my remembrance of Buddenbrooks] and thanked him for the spiritual comfort that I derived from his work. The title of [Schopenhauer’s essay] was expressly mentioned in my letter, which was dated from the Rock Hotel, Gibraltar, May 16 or 17, 1937. Thomas Mann’s answer reachedme a few days later in London. It was a handwritten letter which I lost, together with all my files, on my [escape] from France in 1940. I cannot, of course, remember its actual text, only its content which, for the sake of simplicity, I shall paraphrase in direct speech:


Dear Sir:


            Your letter arrived on May [23rd]. On the afternoon of that day I was sitting in my garden in Kuessnacht. I had read Schopenhauer’s essay [originally published in 1844 in the second volume of The World as Will] in 1897 or 1898, while I was writing Buddenbrooks, and I had never read it again as I did not want to weaken its original strong impact on me. On that afternoon, however, I felt a sudden impulse to re-read the essay after nearly forty years. I went indoors to my library to fetch the volume. At that moment the postman rang and brought me your letter ... (Koestler, 1969: 452-453).


[Yours, etc.

Thomas Mann]


Koestler’s letter to Mann, however, does still exist, and it allows us to correct a few dates and to grasp the sense of elation that Koestler felt shortly after his last-minute reprieve from the prison firing squad in Seville. That letter is reproduced in Christian Buckard’s Arthur Koestler: Ein Extremes Leben (2004). Strictu sensu this is not a biography of Koestler, but Buckard devoted three pages (140-143) to the Koestler-Mann episode described above. Koestler’s letter to Mann is in Mann’s archive. Buckard reproduced most of it (Koestler wrote it on 15 May) except (apparently) the  greeting and an explicit reference to “On Death” (141-142). Buckard reproduces Mann’s diary entry recording his reception of Koestler’s letter on 23 May 1937 (142). I am grateful to Prof. Michael Scammell of Columbia University for bringing Buckard’s volume to my attention.

Koestler then goes on (in The Invisible Writing) to relate how his interview with Mann later that year (en route to an assignment to the Balkans for the News Chronicle) turned into a social disaster for which Koestler took a large share of the blame: “This was no doubt partly due to my paralysing timidity [there is an amusing reference in this recollection to the socially inept malapropisms of Frau Stöhr in The Magic Mountain] and gaucherie in the master’s presence; on the other hand Mann did nothing to put me at ease” (Koestler, 1969: 453-454). That allusion to Mann’s uneasiness regarding the media (even, in Koestler’s case, a German-speaking journalist) is hardly unique. In later years Mann was on several occasions impelled to write letters to the editors of journals (particularly the USA based Time magazine) to “explain” or “correct” certain statements he had made in the course of interviews. It may be instructive to note the parallel career of Mann’s cultural if not spiritual near-contemporary, German composer Walter Braunfels (1882-1950)–see a report on the revival of his 1920 opera Die Vögel (based on Aristophanes’ still relevant satiric comedy The Birds) in Tomassini (2009).

What is worth noting here is Koestler’s ambivalent appraisal of Mann, someone he admired for the early novels (especially Buddenbrooks, noted above) and non-fiction but found fault with for his seemingly waffling attitude to German political developments before and after 1933, as well as his (Mann’s)  later literary output during his prolonged political and cultural exile. This is nearly if not exactly the critique made of Koestler’s own oeuvre  during his peregrinations (initially prompted by WW II) to the U.K., to Israel, to the U.S.A, to France, and eventually and permanently back to the UK (on that diaspora theme see Cesarani, 1998). Since Mann was still alive when this volume of Koestler’s autobiography was published [1954] it may be worth reproducing excerpts from his assessment of Mann’s influence on German (and European) literature of the 20th century. I do not  know if Mann might have read this critique of his own career before his death in 1955, and none of the biographies of Mann which I’ve consulted offer any insight:


Since that unhappy meeting, [i.e. between 1937- c.1953] I have re-read a substantial part of Thomas Mann’s early work. Much of it has lost its original impact on me, but it has retained its grandeur and subtlety, its poetic irony, its universal sweep and range. Most of his later work I find mannered to the point where it becomes unreadable. But Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain, the stories and essays (excluding the political essays), and indeed the major part of his work up to and including the last volume of Joseph [published in 1943; the fourth volume of a

tetralogy] remain as a monument of the early twentieth century, and Germany’s

most important single contribution to its [twentieth century?] culture. Thus personal disappointment did not diminish my admiration and gratitude for Mann’s work.


            It did seem to provide, however, an explanation for a certain aspect of Mann’s art which has always puzzled me: I mean the absence of human kindness. There has perhaps never been a great novelist so completely lacking the Dostoievskian touch of sympathy for the poor and humble. In Mann’s universe, charity is replaced by irony which is sometimes charitable, sometimes not; his attitude to his characters, even at its most sympathetic, has a mark of Olympian condescension …

The only exception to this is Mann’s treatment of children and dogs; perhaps because here condescension, the gesture of bending down, is implicit in the situation. The title of his only story about dogs is, revealingly: Herr und Hund. which does not prevent it, however, from being a masterpiece (Koestler, 1954, republished 1969: 455-456).


Koestler then moves on to criticism of Mann in political/ideological terms, an assessment not always noted by Mann biographers who didn’t live through the convoluted era of c. 1930-l945 or who do not see Koestler from the perspective of a committed communist who eventually lost faith and promoted leftist violence as the correct response to fascism (on this see Bance, 2002: 116). It is worth noting that Mann himself expressed such sentiments, although in a very muted way. In his diary entry for 2 March, 1954 Mann wrote that he hoped someone would assassinate U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy and end the anti-communist witch hunt (which included an FBI file on Mann after he visited East Germany on several occasions) begun by that demagogue in 1949 (Reed, 2002:15).

Koestler’s summary of Mann’s literary influence concludes with these thoughts:


The result [of Mann’s philosophy through his publications] is a humanism without the cement of affection for the individual human brick, a grandiose, but unsound edifice which was never proof against the nasty gales and currents of the times. This may explain a series of episodes in Mann’s public career which were exploited by his opponents and embarrassed his admirers–such as his support of Prussian imperialism in the first World War; his hesitant and belated break with the Nazis; his silent endorsement of the new despotism in Eastern Germany [after 1949], and his acceptance of the Goethe Prize [also in 1949] from a régime which banned and burned the books of his compatriots and fellow-authors …

            … They do not affect Mann’s greatness as an artist, but they have defeated his claim to the cultural leadership of the German nation. It is impossible to be angry with Picasso for believing that Stalin was the greatest benefactor of mankind, for one feels that his error is the result of a naïve and warmhearted passion. But it is not so easy to forgive the moral faux pas of the ironically dispassionate Olympian (Koestler, 1969: 456).

There is a distinct psychological dimension to the brief encounter of Koestler and Mann. It may be due in part to the fact that Schopenhauer’s nearly two-century long reputation rests as much on his psychological insights as it does on his philosophical or spiritual convictions. Puzzling to me is Koestler’s lack of comment on Mann’s extraordinary novel Death in Venice (1912) and its haunting depiction of the acceptance of death as a consequence of obsessional desire. In the classical world the Greek concept of Tychê and the Roman concept of Fatum (loosely translated as “Luck” and “Destiny” respectively) were compared and contrasted (especially by the Stoics) to determine if possible which played a greater role in human affairs.

Perhaps the best illustration of that disturbing, dramatic, psychological tension is the very different treatment of the “two faces” of Oedipus Tyrannus/Rex in Greek (Sophocles) and Roman (Seneca) stage tragedy–on this see most recently Ahl (2008). Koestler and Mann also appreciated that same dynamic “fate” and/or “fortune” tension in the human psyche, but for them expressed more directly by Schopenhauer than by Sophocles. It is to Koestler’s credit that he could subject Mann to equal portions of criticism and praise. Certainly he appreciated, as did Mann, the role of coincidence not just in general, but as an active aspect of how they met each other.

In Koestler’s much later work, The Roots of Coincidence (1973), he again pays

tribute to Schopenhauer through a long quotation from The World as Will. This includes Schopenhauer’s verbal image of “mapping” coincident events:


Coincidence is the simultaneous occurrence of causally unconnected events … If we visualize each causal chain progressing in time as a meridian on the globe, then we may represent simultaneous events by the parallel circles of latitude…” That both kinds of connection exist simultaneously, and the self-same event, although a link in two totally different chains, nevertheless falls into place, so that the fate of one individual invariably fits the fate of the other … this is something that surpasses our powers of comprehension, and can only be conceived as possible by virtue of the most wonderful pre-established harmony ... (Koestler, 1973: 107-108–italics mine).


Thus coincidence, for Schopenhauer, is the random “intersection” of persons and/or events on lines of longitude and latitude at a moment in time. With that as the context, and with an earlier reference to Schopenhauer’s influence on Freud and Jung, Koestler then summarizes his own thoughts on coincidence:


The classical theories of ESP proposed by Carington, Tyrrell, Hardy and others were variations on the same theme–a “psychic ether” or group-mind or collective unconscious, serving as a subterranean


pool which individual minds can tap, and through which they can communicate. The dominant concept is Unity in Diversity–all is

One and One is all. It echoes through the writings of Christian mystics, and is the keynote in Buddhism and Taoism. It provides the parallels of latitude on Schopenhauer’s globe, and ties coincidence in the universal scheme of things. According to Jung, all divinatory practices, from looking at tea-leaves to the complicated oracular methods of the I-Ching, are based on the idea that random events are minor mysteries which can be read as pointers towards the one central mystery (Koestler, 1973: 108–on Carl Jung see the Nota Bene below).

At that point, perhaps, Koestler has come full circle: he has combined the randomness of a coincident universe with the randomness of Prime Numbers–a mystery of unexplained perfection.


Additional Notes:


While this article was in press Michael Scammell’s definitive biography Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic was published in December 2009 by Random House in the USA and by Faber & Faber in the UK. In it he not only refers to the Koestler-Mann interview in the summer of 1937 but translates most of the text of Koestler’s letter to Mann that Buckard (2004: 141-142)  reproduced from among Mann’s archived correspondence. At the end of it Koestler summarized his reasons for writing to Mann at such a critical point in his (Koestler’s) career:


Ich glaube, ich habe es Ihnen zu danken dass ich noch am Leben bin; zumindest, dass ich noch bei Verstand bin … Ich hätte es früher niemals für möglich gehalten, dass Kunst eine derartigen, drastischen Einfluss auf das Leben gewinnen kann (Buckard, 2004: 141).


To put it baldly, I believe I have you to thank for the fact that I’m still alive, or, at least, that I still have my wits about me … I would never have thought it possible that art could exercise such a drastic influence on my life (Scammell, 2009: 142).


As a coda I might add that Mann’s letter to Koestler may still exist. Many of Koestler’s typescript books and private papers were taken from his Paris apartment during raids by the anti-communist French police, the Deuxième Bureau, between the outbreak of WW II in September 1939 and the Nazi occupation of France the following spring. Koestler always believed that these losses were irretrievable. But in e-mail correspondence with Michael Scammell I learned that he saw some of this material in what had been the former KGB archives in Moscow during a visit there in 1994.The Nazis took to Berlin what they seized in Paris, and in turn the Soviets took the Nazi archives to Moscow after they occupied Berlin in the spring of 1945.

Scammell was particularly eager to discover if the German original typescript of Darkness at Noon (translation by Daphne Hardy, published in 1941) was among Koestler’s effects, but found instead three original German typescripts of The Gladiators (translation by Edith Simon, published in 1939). Not realizing that all other copies of the German original of The Gladiators had either been lost or discarded, Scammell did not try to obtain a microfilm or photocopy. He did note that Koestler’s working title for the novel had been Der Sklavenkrieg (The Slave War–see Scammell, 2009: 164 and note #1) not, as I and others had assumed, Die Gladiatoren (see Burkard, 2004: 162).  Scammell failed to find a copy of the German original of Darkness at Noon, a portion of which Koestler somehow recovered in the U.K. after WW II.

Mann’s handwritten letter in reply to Koestler’s lengthy and philosophical missive of May, 1937 may be within the Koestler files in Moscow or in Paris if those files were repatriated to France since the fall of the Soviet Empire. Certainly Mann did not make a copy of it before posting the original to Koestler or it would be among the extensive correspondence collection in the Thomas Mann archive. I have tried to make contact with the Directorate of the Russian Federation State Military Archive regarding Koestler’s typescripts and personal papers, but so far to no avail.

Prof. Scammell shared the above information with me via e-mails between late 2008 and mid-2009 (see Scammell, 1998 esp. p. 28 for his visit to the Moscow KGB and Comintern archives where he discovered a copy each of Koestler’s two letters of resignation from the German Communist Party).The irony is that after WW II both novels were back-translated into German, The Gladiators from the translation done by Edith Simon, and Darkness at Noon from the translation done by Daphne Hardy (who had fled from German-occupied Paris with Koestler in early 1940).

My thanks to Prof. Scammell for his gracious assistance in this and several other matters during the preparation of this article. Grateful thanks also to Brent Shaw of Princeton University for making Buckard’s volume available and for patiently allowing me to expound on the subject of this essay in person over several lunches, and via e-mail correspondence.


* This essay is a revised and expanded version of the “Appendix” and the “Postscript” portions of my contributions to Simon (2009)–see pp. 137-140.

NB: Jung’s Liber Novus (i.e. “New Book”–his name for the extensive notes and drawings made between 1914-30) has been transformed and published as: C.G. Jung, The Red Book (2009)– see Corbett (2009) for that transformation. Thanks to Matthew Giobbi for bringing this article to my attention. Do not confuse The Red Book with Beak (2006), which has an identical title.






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Beak, Sera (2006). The Red Book: A Deliciously Unorthodox Approach to Igniting Your Divine  Spark (San Francisco, USA; Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint).


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Tomassini, Anthony (2009), “Even High Above the Clouds, You Can’t Escape the Gods,” New York Times (The Arts; 14 April) C1; C9.

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