Mystical Experience of Arthur Koestler

Arthur Koestler, (September 5, 1905 –  March 1, 1983) was a Hungarian-British author and journalist. In 1968, he was awarded the Sonning Prize “for outstanding contribution to European culture” and, in 1972, he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).

The mystical experience quoted below occurred in 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. Arthur Koestler, a German exile writing for a British newspaper, had been arrested by Nationalist forces in Málaga and sentenced to execution. He spent every day in prison awaiting death (only to be released three months later under pressure from the British government). Koestler had busied himself by etching mathematical formulas on the walls with a spring he extracted from his mattress. He wrote that he was most elated by his reconstruction of Euclid’s proof that the number of prime numbers is infinite.

“And 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.

When 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. What 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.”

Koestler further stated that the above referenced mystical experience, along with his others, “filled me with a direct certainty that a higher order of reality existed, and that it alone invested existence with meaning.”

Quoted from Arthur Koestler’s autobiography, The Invisible Writing.

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