Revealed in his own words
ISAIAH BERLIN CENTENARY, 1909-2009:The Latvian Jew who found a home in the British establishment is now recognised as a peerless historian of ideas, as evidenced by this meticulous collection
Enlightening - Letters 1946-1960, By Isaiah Berlin. Edited by Henry Hardy and Jennifer Holmes, Chatto and Windus, 844pp. £35
CONOR CRUISE O’Brien wrote, in 1991, that many people had come to “love, venerate, and – above all – learn from” Isaiah Berlin. Born 100 years ago this year, Berlin has been increasingly recognised since his death in 1997 as an outstanding defender of liberty and the greatest historian of ideas in modern times.
The editors of this massive volume certainly accord him the respect he deserves. No detail is too small for their attention. When, for example, Berlin says his Harvard class “scribbles away furiously from the moment I say ‘Good Afternoon’,” a footnote tells us he was a notoriously late riser and his classes were scheduled to begin at nine in the morning. A mention of Proust is footnoted: “(Valentin-Louis-George-Eugène-) Marcel Proust (1871-1922), French novelist”. Ah, that Marcel. And when Berlin writes that he is “hors de communication”the footnote says, “Incommunicado” – this induced in me a fit of the giggles.
But the editors’ fanatical diligence proves invaluable. Berlin asks a correspondent in 1953, “Were you shocked by the Soviet news about the Jews? I was not very.” The news was that a number of Jewish doctors had allegedly murdered Zhadanov, a member of the Politburo, and were in league with Western intelligence in a plot to kill other leaders. What the footnote tells us, and what Berlin didn’t then know, was that his uncle Leo, a professor of dietetics in Moscow, had been arrested. (On being released, following Stalin’s death, Leo saw the KGB man who had tortured him and dropped dead in the street.)
Berlin’s innermost reality lies on that street: for him political theory and terror are blood relatives. As a result he is always engaged, as Paul Celan puts it, “with the persecuted in late unconcealed radiant union”. The “unconcealed”, though, needs some expansion. Berlin was born into a prosperous Latvian Jewish family (his father made his fortune from timber and – not at all kosher – pig bristles), but he also made himself at home in the heart of English power. In this foreigner-native duality, one is reminded of the Irish arrivistes Edmund Burke, Brendan Bracken and Patrick Cosgrave (who left Washerwoman’s Hill in Glasnevin to become an adviser to Thatcher in London, not such a great distance). The difference is that Berlin did not need to depend on political patronage for his living and he was not a Tory.
For some English democrats – notably John Carey in the Sunday Times– Berlin’s upper-class snobbishness, despite his credentials as a leader of the non-communist left, is hard to swallow. There are, indeed, enough toffee-noses here for a fudge factory, including Berlin’s lover, Lady Patricia Douglas, granddaughter of the Marquess of Queensberry (Oscar Wilde’s tormentor). Carey says Berlin regarded “most other people with supercilious disdain”, and views him as if he were a particularly smarmy member of the Bloombury set, a kind of Uriah Heap in Virginia Woolf’s clothing. My own impression is that, like another great Russian exile, Vladimir Nabokov, the disdain masked a fundamental humility and kindliness.
This is not always an easily defended position, even in relation to his most intimate friendships. His early mentor and guide through the concentrated camp of Oxford was one of its high queens, Sir Maurice Bowra, whom Berlin thanks in 1952 for making him “a conscious and devoted member of the immoral front”. But by 1959 he is describing Bowra as “pathetic, oppressive, demanding, guilt-inducing, conversation-killing, embarrassing, gross, maddening, at once touching and violently repellent, paranoid, deaf, blind, thick-skinned, easily offended”.
And this distaste had a homophobic element: while considering a proposal to appoint Benjamin Britten as musical director of Covent Garden, Berlin said, “Opera is an essentially heterosexual art, and those who do not feel affinity with this tend to employ feeble voices, effeminate producers etc, which is a very large part of our present misfortunes”. Britten didn’t get the gig.
Duplicity and genuine affection were intricately interwoven in the fabric of Berlin’s character. Not the least of the pleasures of reading these letters is that they allow one to track the silvery threads of his deceptions. For instance, AL Rowse, the Shakespeare critic, furious about not getting an academic appointment, was gulled by Berlin into believing he was “an ineffectual angel . . . too innocent and out of this world to be concerned at all in the realities of politics”. In reality, Berlin was the Brutus who had shafted him.
TS Eliot, too, felt this steel, but in more moral circumstances, and he got the dagger in his chest. When the magisterial poet and all-powerful publisher accused Berlin (21 years his junior) of making “highly misleading” statements about his anti-semitism, he received a reply that repeated them and “that really distressed me”. Eliot then further justified his views by asserting that there appears to be “inferior races” in the world (among whom he listed “black-fellows”) and that “the only proper consummation” was the conversion of the Jews to Christianity, which had not happened in part because of “the stiffneckedness of your people”.
Berlin did not dignify this chilling insensitivity with a reply. Three years later, however, when Eliot sent him an essay, he did write a letter of effusive thanks. To this Eliot responded, “I was already convinced that you are my superior in learning, profundity and eloquence. I am now of the opinion that you far surpass me in the art of flattery.”
BERLIN’S NEGATIVE CAPABILITY INrelation to those he was least in sympathy with was extraordinary. A life-long Zionist, he could nonetheless say, “If I were an Arab I would hate Israel.” He went on to compare the fate of the Palestinians to that of “everyone in history who has ever had to give up something they want to somebody who in their eyes had no right to it and came down like a wolf on the fold without rhyme or reason, a scourge of God not to be endured patiently by men of courage, patriotism, pride”.
His solution to the problem was “Arab-Jewish talks, independently of everyone . . . mediation by outsiders will help no one”. This letter could be read with profit by President Obama.
As well as being sometimes profoundly wise, these letters are often laugh-out-loud funny. There are extended comic set pieces, such as the occasion when the plane in which Berlin was travelling crashed at take-off and burst into flames; while the other passengers were panicking, all he could think of was rescuing his new overcoat.
There are memorable quotes: EM Forster, for instance, describing Wagner as “the Puccini of music”; and GE Moore opining of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, “I consider this a work of genius, but even if I am mistaken, it seems to be fully up to the standard of the Master of Arts degree in Cambridge University.”
And there are piquant oddities of personality, such as Clarissa Churchill saying of her husband, prime minister Anthony Eden, that she had no objections to him talking to his dogs and cats, but that she was “a trifle embarrassed” when he addressed his strawberries and raspberries as “my darlings” and “my dears” and inquired “when it was that they would be appearing above the soil”.
In 1960 Berlin was lamenting the fact that he had not written a book since 1938. But as well as being a hardworking academic, political adviser and BBC broadcaster, he was a hugely productive writer, as evidenced by the treasure-trove in his online virtual library, berlin.wolf.ox.ac.uk. His essay on the Counter-Enlightenment is just one of many jewels to be found there, free of charge.
A final note on the footnotes: when Berlin says he feels he is “ ‘at the end of a long period of political elaboration,’ as Yeats describes his own time,” the editors confess to not being able to find the quotation. Considering the flood of light they have shone on their subject, it would be nice to think some Irish Timesreader could illuminate this little darkness for them.
Quote me on that: Isaiah Berlin
Brian Lynch is a poet, screenwriter and novelist. His publishing venture, the Duras Press, has just produced 2016 Vision, a novel by Hugh Maxton