Monday, March 15, 2004

PLUG: Flourishing, the first volume of Isaiah Berlin's letters, is to be published in Britain by Chatto and Windus two weeks from today (it's published in the US, with a much less interesting title (Letters 1928-1946), by Cambridge University Press, in May. Another book by Berlin, The Soviet Mind, is to be published by the Brookings Institute Press in April; but is already available on the shelf in Blackwell's.)
This excites me for a number of reasons. One is, of course, my interest in the letters published in this volume, which I've already read through once. Another is the lengthy, interesting, judicious and scrupulously researched explanatory material provided by Berlin's editor, Henry Hardy (who happens to be one of my doctoral supervisors, as well as a friend), which does an exemplary job of not only explaining the letters and putting them into their proper context -- which would be quite enough in itself -- but manages to fashion them into a lively and enlightening narrative of Berlin's early life. The photographs are also great fun, as is Hardy's introduction (which I have to admit delights me in part because there are a few overly generous words in it for a certain young would-be Berlin scholar of my acquaintance).
The book is already receiving reviews, which I'll keep track of here. There's one in the Literary Review by Allan Massie, which is impressive for having appeared before even the advance copies of the book were off the presses. There's also a review in the Financial Times, which is linked to by AL Daily. Unfortunately, this review, by Roy Foster, seems to be restricted to subscribers. I have however managed to get my hands on the text through artful trickery (i.e. Lexis-Nexis); I think it very good indeed, and so have taken the liberty of reproducing the better part (though not all) of it below:

Isaiah Berlin liked to claim that he had been lucky enough to be over-estimated all his life, drily adding "Long may it continue!" This wonderful first volume of his letters will ensure the continuance of his reputation, and it should help clear up that vexed question of over-estimation.

Henry Hardy has edited a dozen collections of Berlin's essays - a great act of reclamation. He has brought the same combination of devotion, scholarship and flair to 600 pages of the political philosopher's correspondence up to the age of 37. The deft interpolation of a wide and suggestive range of evidence from other sources does nothing to dilute or muffle that inimitable voice, described by biographer Michael Ignatieff as "bubbling and rattling like a samovar on the boil". And the content helps establish the case for Berlin as a phenomenon of enduring importance, whose life and thought made a difference to what he called "the worst century there has ever been".

There is a counter argument, aired after Berlin's death in 1997. His lucky and happy existence, his influence in the corridors of power, his disinclination to publish, his dazzling social life and his ability to charm were all held against him in some quarters - especially in conjunction with his politics (although he refused to adopt a formal political stance he moved, more or less, from the liberal left to the liberal right, at least in the view of some embittered leftwingers).

Then there was his deeply held Zionism, and his Gladstonian sense of right-timing. As a philosopher of liberalism, he was sometimes accused of not facing up to inconsistencies in his defence of pluralism. His off-hand irony about himself could be misinterpreted. When Berlin was given a knighthood in 1957 (an honour that he considered refusing), an old friend sent a barbed congratulation putting it down to his "services to conversation".

The flow of conversation is magically preserved here; but so is the intellectual substance, the deep engagement with the world in the dark as well as the light, and the commitment to wielding what influence he could in war as well as peace (the most fascinating section covers his diplomatic career in New York and Washington from 1940 to 1946). Time and again, a reflection springs out of the rush of correspondence that illuminates the reasoning beneath the sparkling and convivial surface:

"I approve of gangs, Stuart (Hampshire) disapproves... I quote my noble 19th-century Russians & maintain that only in nuclei does anything worth-while develop, unless one is an exceptional Dostoyevskian hermit, that one gains enormously from having oneself observed and responded to, that one never knows what one thinks & feels until one says it, that one can only say it in a context & milieu where there is no restraint & absolute confidence and a wall of disinterested friendship protects one from all the things which inhibit one in public, or even when one is alone & therefore open to a hostile (real or imaginary, doesn't matter which) world, & that this civilised inhabited area, where one is free, & spontaneous, & happy can only be created, in the majority of cases, by the establishment of machinery for discussion, & unselfconscious, ungrammatical communication, where standards are not lived up to, and one knows that one's words are valued simply as being one's own, & not for their relevance, content, effects, intentions. Hence my pro-Russian anti-Florentine turns." (to Ben Nicolson, September 1937)

But Berlin was not the kind of secular saint created by some of his hero-worshippers. Hardy's biographical footnotes are enlivened by phrases such as "despised by IB" or "loathed by IB", and the roll- call of betes noires at this stage of his life includes A.L. Rowse, Frederick Lindemann, Lord Beaverbrook, Harold Laski, J.B. Priestley and the first wives of Stephen Spender and A.J. Ayer.


He was a late and only child, whose advent was considered semi- miraculous. His parents observed him with an awed and admiring love all their lives, and Hardy uses a deeply moving family memoir by Isaiah's father Mendel. The intense background of Russian Jewishness suffuses the early letters and, indeed, Berlin's whole early life. It does much to explain his sublime self-confidence, which reminded Virginia Woolf of the young Maynard Keynes.

Elected to All Souls at 23, Berlin's absorption into Oxford life, like his later absorption into high society, was complete, but accomplished on his own terms. As he moved from precocious schoolboy to legendary philosophy don to wartime diplomat, he remained oddly unchanged. The marvellous accompanying photographs (which include him, incredibly, on a pony crossing the Gap of Dunloe near Killarney) show him short, decisive, tubby, hawk-nosed, nearly always talking. Even in childhood, the gaze is held by his enigmatic, shining dark eyes, later to be admired by Greta Garbo. Guy de Rothschild's description of him in Washington holds true all through his life:

"The most immediately striking thing about him was his unconventional appearance: his peculiar air of seeming to float in his clothing, a strange face that seemed almost a caricature of his two dominating characteristics: subtle intellect and Russian-Jewish ancestry... Brilliant, original, witty and bold, truly erudite, he was unanimously admired as much for what he was as for what he did, and he was universally recognised as an exceptional, fascinating human being."

He had already adopted Alexander Herzen as a kind of intellectual alter ego. Much of his future work would concern Russian thinkers of the 19th century, as well as the development of Romanticism and nationalism, and the idea of historical inevitability. The groundwork for his luminous essays on these subjects, as well as for his famous disquisition on the political implications of the two definitions of liberty (negative and positive), can be traced in his life and experiences as spelled out in these letters.

But, as Berlin himself would have accepted, the roots twine further back. One of Hardy's most intriguing appendices is a prize essay written by the 18-year-old Berlin at St Paul's School in 1928, on "Freedom":

"History moves not in continuous straight lines, but in folds. These folds are not of equal length or substance, but if we venture to examine the points in which these folds touch one another, we will often find strong and real similarities between the points. If we attempt to look through our own age at the layers which are, as it were, in a vertical line below it, we shall see the eighteenth century, and the Roman world in the third century AD, and the Alexandrine culture in the third century BC; the comparison must not be pressed too hard, but the resemblance between these periods and ours is peculiarly profound and precise in this, that the spirit of slavery and convention rests on all."

Eighteen years later, when this collection ends, the grown-up Berlin had looked through the "folds" of history from the vantage of 1946 and seen much darker parallels to his own day. His belief that contradiction and divergence should be seen as central to human existence, rather than something to be eliminated by one system or another, would colour all his future writing - along with his distaste for Utopian social engineering.

He presented these ideas with compelling lucidity decades before they became fashionable. Much of his achievement in the post-war era would be to turn the attention of philosophy from esoteric problems of logic to a consideration of the political issues bedevilling the modern Western world. The fact that he wrote intellectual history with uncompromising clarity may have led some critics to discount its hard-won profundity. The background to Berlin's liberalism, as to his subsequent politics, is demonstrated here, accompanied by the mischievous sparkle and social vivacity which never left him and which enabled him to survive: a determinedly lucky man in an unlucky world.

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