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Arthur Koestler's "The Ghost in the Machine" rings true, 50 years on

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BOOK REVIEW: The Ghost in the Machine by Arthur Koestler (Last Century Media) 1967

Written 50 years ago, in late 1966, and released the following year, Arthur Koestler’s fascinating investigations into the “human condition” and the connection between body and mind (which explains the “ghost in the machine” title, as coinced by English philosopher Gibert Ryle in the mid 20th century).

This body-mind dualism fascinated Koestler, who had been a member of the Communist Party in the 1930’s, and covered the Spanish Civil War for a newspaper until he was captured by Franco’s Fascist troops and imprisoned under sentence of death. He was released, however, and went on to write remarkably hard-hitting books about man’s inhumanity to man (in 1972 he wrote the Carl Jung-inspired, synchronous The Roots of Coincidence, which we reviewed here) and later deciding it was time to investigate further why that has been the case since, well, forever.

Broken down into three parts – Order, Becoming and Disorder – begins by telling the reader in the preface that evolution, somehow, has led to man, while superior to other living things, to contain “some built-in error or deficiency which predisposes him towards self-destruction.”

It seems as though for all of humanity’s triumphs, we still can’t get it right. Koestler minces no words in describing humanity as a “mentally sick race.”

I happened to take this book on a trip to Florida (rock star Sting of The Police is a big Koestler fan, inspired by his work, and named his band’s 1981 hit album after this book title), reading it while lounging on the beach. Granted, it is not “beach book” material, but Koestler’s findings – albeit a bit dated, half-a-century later, are important in helping us understand why it is we do what we do, no matter how crazy it may seem.

As a non-scientist, I found myself puzzling at some of Koestler’s scholarly verbiage, but you get the point. We are aggressive. Pathological. Irrational. Quick to hate and anger. And as such, self-destructive. Examples – and they are numerous – are given over the course of the book and he makes it clear that there is a sizable disconnect with the ghost in this flawed machine. What to do?

And over the course of Koestler’s book, he (like the environmental doomsayers that emerged in the 1970’s) warns us that unless more is done to correct our "jammed" information trays, we are, well, doomed. Koestler (who would commit suicide in 1983) suggests introducing "mental stabilizers" in the water, perhaps? A Huxley-styled Brave New World mass drugging in some future New World Order? Koestler, after his experiences in the politically turbulent 1930's, was anti-authoritarian, but he still recognized the need for some sort of intervention to set humanity on a less chaotic course.

"The answer seems obvious," concludes Koestler, five decades ago. "No legislation, no compulsary measures were needed to persuade Greeks and Romans to partake of 'the juice of the grape that gives joy and oblivion.' Sleeping pills, pep pills, traquillisers have, for better or worse, spread across the world with a minimum of publicity or officials encouragement. They have spread because people have like their effect, and even accepted unpleasant or harmful after-effects."

So, here we are in the latter half of the second decade of the 21st century and mankind seems just as mad as we were 50 years ago, albeit slightly less so, perhaps due to the proliferation of technological distractions. Are we better off with the easy access of drugs - legal and illegal? It's going to be folks above my pay grade who are going to make those decisions. In the meantime, The Ghost in the Machine is an important read, even today.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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