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On Isaiah Berlin, Part I of IV

I'll be taking this week off from the blog. It's the first time I've done so since I started posting five months ago. I have several projects I need to finish and Thanksgiving is coming up on Thursday.

In the meantime, I'll be posting an essay (in four parts) on Isaiah Berlin written by the Australian cultural critic, Clive James. It first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on 3 September 2004. I realize it's long and rather academic. Althoug I don't write about Berlin often, his work very much inspires this blog. So bear with me; the following essay is a wonderful overview of Berlin's contributions to liberal philosophy in the 20th Century.
Lecturing at the time of the Franco-Prussian war, Jacob Burckhardt told his history students that the revolutionary age from 1789 onwards had been "lehrreich": rich in teaching. The greatest spirits of a hundred years before were now looking short of knowledge, but only because of what had happened since. Modern students should not attribute virtue to themselves just because they could see so much that their mental superiors had not foretold. It is worth remembering Burckhardt's principle when we come to deal with another great lecturer, Isaiah Berlin. He was once famous for understanding everything about the age he lived in. There is still reason to believe he understood a lot. But if today he is starting to look a bit less penetrating about it all, it could be because things have moved on.

Though Berlin wrote comparatively little about the twentieth century's worst horrors, there wasn't much he didn't know about them. The question is how much he usefully wrote about them: a question worth trying to answer, because on the answer will eventually depend how much we can usefully write about him. On the level of personal publicity, his renown as an amiable sage goes on increasing after death. Mainly due to the beavering diligence of his editor Henry Hardy, compilations of Berlin 's essays have continued to appear, making him seem more productive than when he was alive. Michael Ignatieff's finely proportioned biography, a model of the genre, summarises and clarifies Berlin 's themes with a terseness that might lead its readers to skip through the subject's own compositions when it is found that they are seldom as tightly written. But The Proper Study of Mankind, a concentration of the compilations, provides sufficient evidence that Berlin's best prose was something more weighty than the distilled monologues of a fascinating talker: as a set book it is likely to go on being a touchstone of liberal thought for many years to come. Thus attended by curators and commentators, Berlin continues to enjoy a bustling second life, like the city of the same name. Yet somehow it has become necessary to assert, instead of just accept, that he had deep feelings about what was going on in modern history, because all too often his written response sounded shallow.

As the bright young son of a bourgeois family that sensibly fled Riga to escape the Bolshevik revolution, he took with him, as part of his baggage, memories of Cheka arrogance that made him suspicious for life about any concept of freedom that presumed to impose itself through political coercion. But even on the subject of the Soviet Union, he would later write much more about the repression of individual artists than the mass obliteration of ordinary people — which, as Michael Burleigh has tried to remind us, is the thing to concentrate on, not gloss over. And the depredations of Nazi Germany scarcely figure in Berlin 's writings at all, even though he played an honourable part in fighting Hitler. He spent much of the war in Washington only because he had been sent there on a diplomatic posting, not because he was playing for safety. If he had been caught in Britain, he would undoubtedly have shared the fate of millions of other Jews had the battle been lost. Silence about Mao's China might be understandable — the full story emerged late in his life — but how was it that the global aggregate of totalitarian mania failed to take a central place in his treatment of recent history? Does his eloquent advocacy of liberalism take the full measure of the forces ranged against it? We are not necessarily in contravention of Burckhardt's principle if we say that the twentieth century's seismic outbursts of irrationality were its defining events. There were plenty of thinkers who thought so at the time. But if Berlin thought so, he was reluctant to say so; and if he starts looking weak there, then doubts are bound to creep in about the strength of his contribution to his main field, the history of ideas in the Enlightenment and the nineteenth Century. If he could say so much about the preparation for the main event, but so little about the main event, how good was he on the preparation? Perhaps the first defence against so subversive an enquiry would be to say that a later superficiality doesn't necessarily erode an initial seriousness. If it did, Bertrand Russell's recommendations for unilateral nuclear disarmament would have made nonsense of Principia Mathematica . But a better defence would be to show that Berlin 's superficiality was only superficial.

This would be easier to show if this whopping first volume of his collected letters had not been published. Wilfully complete — it was Berlin himself, and not, for once, his editor, who wanted everything included — the book begs for belittlement, which it has duly received from some reviewers, especially if they placed a high value on his more formal work. With a lot more to come, the letters cover his active life from the late 1920s, in which the young refugee from revolutionary Russia became almost immediately assimilated into the English beau monde, through to 1946, by which time he was established as the most dazzling Jewish social asset since Disraeli, and without being baptised. The contemplative life, however, is largely absent, which is probably the reason why some of the reviewers reacted as if to the diaries of Chips Channon, or of Harold Nicolson at best. Certainly there is an awful lot about grand houses, dinner parties whether in London or in Washington, and — this above all — academic politics in all their bitchy intricacy, as if recorded by a less ponderous and more cultivated version of C.P. Snow.

But “cultivated” is the operative word. Although the letters might give the impression that Berlin was always at least as interested in the power struggles going on within Balliol and All Souls as those going on within the Foreign Office, the U.S. State Department, the Wilhelmstrasse or the Kremlin, the knowing gossip is enriched by the intensity of his enthusiasm for the arts and for civilized institutions. Indeed he treats British institutions as works of art in themselves, as if endorsing Chesterton's idea that democracy was another name for the sum total of humane traditions. In that crucial regard, this book of letters — and further volumes are bound to confirm the impression — is a sumptuous demonstration of one of his key principles, and ought to be valued as such. The principle is no less valuable because Burke thought of it first: a tolerable polity is an inheritance, and too multifariously determined by the past to be altered comprehensively in the present without the risk of its lethal disintegration. Later on, Karl Popper, in exile in New Zealand, would do the theoretical work establishing the imperative that any imposed social change should be aimed only at the correction of a specific abuse: the theoretical work that decisively identified revolution as the enemy of an open society. Berlin might have elaborated the same theory earlier, if he had had the time. But he was too busy embodying its truth. Sixty years later, nearing death after a happily fulfilled life, he was right to demand that none of his early letters should be left out, because they registered all the different ways he could function, as a free and thoughtful human being, in the full and complicated texture of an historically continuous society, an order which he thought needed no fundamental reordering. If he failed to notice some of its failings, it was only because he was enjoying so many of its virtues. The Jew out of nowhere was in demand everywhere, and he can be excused for loving every minute of it. To call him profoundly conservative hardly meets the case. He thought even the frivolity was part of the bedrock. The ideal guest, a fountain of scintillating chatter to match the fountain in the courtyard, he would gladly have revisited Brideshead every weekend.

Sexually inoperative but incorrigibly flirtatious, he loved the high-born ladies, who loved him right back, although his paucity of physical response — a desert under the ocean of talk — led several of them to despair, and one of them to the mad-house. On this evidence, his appeal was no mystery. Clever young beauties with hyphenated surnames found themselves being adored for their cleverness as much as their beauty. A single letter to Cressida Bonham-Carter is peppered with references to Beethoven, Tolstoy, Kafka, Racine, Henry James, Debussy, Proust, Bartok, Berg and St John of the Cross. It probably went down a storm. Certainly she didn't ask him to lay off the erudition, because his next letter to her mentions Diderot, Balzac, Maupassant and Turgenev, while commending her for agreeing with him about the attractions of his admired Herzen, whom Berlin himself had discovered only recently, while researching his monograph on Karl Marx. Herzen's magnanimity — in such sharp contrast to Marx's vengeful rancour — had bowled him over. (“There is no writer, & indeed no man I shd like to be like, & to write like, more.”) These letters to Cressida were written in 1938, by which time it must have been obvious to him that the old world he had already seen coming apart was showing few signs of putting itself back together. Clearly he thought, as Herzen did, that it could be put back together spiritually, in a convivio of civilized minds favoured by the seemingly unshakeable social cohesion of Britain, his land of exile.

It hardly needs saying that there were plenty of intelligent native-born people at the time who thought that the social cohesion was bound for well-deserved ruin. But he noticed that they were almost all well connected. To join the Communist party, he observed, was mainly a way for guilty liberals to feel serious. A more serious liberal than that, he firmly recommended, not least by his behaviour, the inherited political stability that enabled subversive opinion to be expressed safely in the first place. If his success as an adornment of grand dinner tables looks a bit cosy in retrospect, we should not forget that he had small reason to question the impenetrable exclusiveness of a social structure's upper works if they were penetrable and inclusive enough to allow his own ascent to favour. He was the living proof of what he proposed as a necessary condition for liberalism: hang on to what works, pas de zele, no root-and-branch solutions for the problems of a civil order that was something far more complicated than a tree. Left-leaning intellectuals who thought that society was on the point of ceasing to work altogether had good reason for despising his attitude as a voluble incitement to do nothing. So it was, but it arose from an acute apprehension of what might happen if the wrong things were done.

From this distance, the apprehension looks like a perception. There were many intellectuals of comparable status who could not accept until many years later that the society they already lived in was the only reliable source of any alterations that might improve it. Berlin took that for granted: so much so that he didn't write much on the subject. Professionally, he didn't yet feel obliged to. His little book on Marx was a one-off, although its attendant prodigies of research would serve him well in his post-war future. Throughout the thirties — and indeed right up until the famous war-time Atlantic crossing when he had his change of heart in the unpressurised belly of a bomber — he was nominally a philosopher, not an historian of ideas; and the philosophers of the day were already well set on the hermetic course that would separate their metiere from any obligations to interdisciplinary wisdom. But significantly, he didn't write much on the subject in his letters either. Not only was society unquestioned: so were its questioners. Stalin gets only a few lines of the index, and Hitler fewer still. There is a whole column for Maurice Bowra. (“on Forster as bore, 104;” “hates Connolly, 142;” etc. and ad inf .)

Apart from Berlin's sharply expressed objection to his aristocratic friend Adam von Trott's apologetics for the Nazi legal system — a system that would later reward von Trott by hanging him from a hook -- the paucity, in the letters, of Berlin's written reaction to the global disaster that emanated from Hitler's Germany would be continued after the war, when, no longer a formal philosopher, he began producing the long string of lectures, broadcasts and essays that gave him his enduring lustre as an intellectual. Hardly any of his public writings impinged directly on that subject; an omission we can safely postpone examining until after taking account of the considerable amount he wrote about the Soviet Union, because there would also be an omission in that, and one that might provide a generally applicable clue. Some of the later letters in the book evoke his celebrated meeting with Anna Akhmatova in Leningrad in 1945. It was one of the key episodes in his life, and, indeed, in Akhmatova's. (Understandably self-obsessed after years of mental torture, she thought that her meeting with Berlin — “the guest from the future” — was the cause of the Cold War.) His correspondence on the topic presaged the post-war wealth of his writings about Russia in general (to be found in the 1978 collection Russian Thinkers) and the Soviet Union in particular. To a certain extent they had been presaged by his book on Marx, but by now he knew that Stalin was the man to contend with.

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