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A leading light amidst the gloom

3 April 2004

12:00 AM

3 April 2004

12:00 AM

Flourishing: Letters 1928-1946 Isaiah Berlin

Chatto, pp.755, 30

Isaiah Berlin was a much-loved friend and a dominant influence on my thinking as an historian. His death in 1997 left a void that cannot be filled. I first met him in 1946 playing tiddlywinks on the floor of his room in New College. The letters in this book of some 700 pages, magnificently edited by Henry Hardy, cover his life before that date: at Oxford before the war, his time in wartime New York and Washington and his visit to Russia in 1945.

What do the letters tell us of Berlin’s life up to 1946? First of all the central importance of his Jewish family. He was born in Riga in 1909, his father a prosperous timber merchant who had escaped with his family the horrors of the Bolshevik revolution to settle in England in 1921. The father appears in the letters as a colourless figure. His mother was anything but colourless, a woman of strong convictions as a Zionist, above all of enormous energy. Perhaps dissatisfied in her marriage, she poured her vitality and love into Berlin, her only child. Her concern for his health became obsessive. Berlin was, in his many letters to her, economical with the truth; often ill, he always insists to his mother he is ‘flourishing’. It was from his mother that he inherited his abiding passion for music. The early letters chronicle his annual visits to Salzburg: it was ‘paradise: a Toscanini concert the greatest experience of my whole life’.

His near contemporary, the philosopher A. J. Ayer, never denied his Jewishness, but considered it irrelevant to his life. Given his mother’s enthusiastic Zionism this could not be the case with Berlin. A Voltairian sceptic, Berlin could not accept the notion of a personal God — an old man with a beard as he described him — but he regularly observed the Jewish festivals. He told me once that he felt at ease in Israel ‘because no one looks at me in the street’. The significance of this escaped me until I read his letter to his parents on a visit to Palestine in 1934. He describes Tel Aviv as ‘dreadful’. Yet ‘the atmosphere, though hectic, is beautiful: Jews, everywhere Jews’. But he was a liberal Jew, hating Hassidic fanatics and those Jews who despised Arabs and wanted to drive them out of Palestine.

In 1927 he won an entrance scholarship to Corpus Christi, a small but distinguished college which he found to be ‘cosy’. It was at Oxford that he began his lifelong friendship with the poet Stephen Spender, evident in the many letters of the 1930s. He was disturbed when Spender joined the Communist party. Marxism, to Berlin, was nonsense and he was never the committed political animal Spender was. He wrote in August 1936 that the Spanish Civil War was the litmus paper that revealed where one stood; all decent liberals must support the embattled Republic against Franco. He wrote that the Spanish issue was the only ‘absolutely clear-cut issue … on all other issues [e.g. Palestine] no clear proposition can be uttered which is not in some degree unjust to someone’. This was surely a foretaste of his central conviction that human beings are free because they can choose. Yet they have to choose between competing and incompatible values. ‘Tragic,’ Hegel had written, ‘is the struggle, not between right and wrong, but between right and right.’ Berlin’s solution to conflict between values — say between democracy and liberty — was to seek trade-offs; so much liberty for so much democracy. There could be no single answer as to how we should live; Monism must lead to the horrors of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

After gaining two first-class degrees, in November 1932 he was elected a fellow of All Souls by examination, then regarded as a notable distinction. He flourished in a society that included prominent politicians, lawyers and the editor of the Times. He was entering a wider world. In the summer of 1933 he met the novelist Elizabeth Bowen of Bowen’s Court in County Mayo. His letters to her and Spender are among the best in this book. They reveal his literary and personal tastes in the 1930s. Henry James is a cold fish, ‘unable to find sufficient real material in his own direct experience’, he wrote to Elizabeth Bowen in January 1936, ‘to satisfy his craftsmanship’. Jane Austen lacks the moral seriousness of the 19th-century Russian intelligentsia he so admired. Rosamund Lehmann might be a beautiful and important woman but she is ‘dull and sentimental’: two cardinal failings for Berlin.

Throughout the 1930s he was teaching philosophy at New College. In a letter to Elizabeth Bowen of November 1933 he describes his meeting with Virginia Woolf at a New College party. Afterwards Woolf wrote, ‘There was the great Isaiah Berlin, a Portuguese Jew by the looks of him, Oxford’s leading light.’ The phrase ‘leading light’ struck me as odd, reading back into the 1930s Berlin’s fame in the 1960s. As a history undergraduate in 1938, I and most of my friends were unaware of his existence.

As a philosophy don, Berlin became increasingly disillusioned with Oxford analytic philosophy. Stuart Hampshire, a close friend and a formidable intellect, rebuked Berlin for his talk about ‘the spirit of this and that Zeitgeist’. For Berlin, philosophy, as taught in Oxford, might sharpen one’s wits, but one learnt nothing. He would become the greatest historian of ideas in Britain by examining the Zeitgeist in the works of the great minds who embodied it.

With the outbreak of the war in 1939 his Oxford life came to an end. ‘The private world,’ he wrote in June 1940, ‘has cracked … I should like to be able to help in the great historical process in some way.’ But unfit for military service, it was difficult for a Latvian Jew to find a place in the war effort. In June 1940 Guy Burgess professed to have arranged that he and Berlin should go to Moscow where Berlin would become a press attaché as a fluent Russian-speaker. The Foreign Office was appalled and blocked the venture, leaving Berlin miserable, stranded in New York longing to return home. But at last he was to find himself helping ‘the great historical process’. He was attached to the British embassy in Washington to report on and seek ways to move towards supporting the British war effort, the Jewish community and the trade unions. Later he was to report on American opinion generally. He immediately spotted that whereas in England political life was institutionalised, in the world of American politics it was personal relations that counted. Berlin was an expert on personal relations and exploited them. This gave his reports a unique flavour and provided superb insight into the personalised politics of Washington. Circulated to the Cabinet, they attracted Churchill’s attention and led to the famous 1944 luncheon party at Downing Street where Churchill mistook the songwriter Irving Berlin for the writer of the weekly reports. Rumours of this disastrous but comic misunderstanding, Henry Hardy observes, gave him ‘as much fame as any event in his own life’. Initially he found America a ‘semi-barbarian land’ whose inhabitants, in a letter to his parents in July 1940 he declared, ‘want yes or no for an answer. No nuances.’ But it was the Oxford ‘nuances’ of his conversation that made him a welcome dinner guest in Georgetown.

The pillars of Berlin’s moral and intellectual life were his Zionism and his love of the Russian language and the great writers of pre-revolutionary Russia; Herzen ‘who altered my life’ and Turgenev were familiar spirits. For his liberal, moderate Zionism the reader must refer to his 1957 lecture on ‘Zionist Politics in Wartime Washington’ printed in this book. During the war Chaim Weizmann, as president of the Zionist movement, hoped that a Jewish state would, after the war, be realised in
Palestine under British protection. This would be gained, piece by piece, by his influence with British politicians. Hence extreme attacks of zealous Zionists on British policies in Palestine must be avoided at all costs since an Allied defeat would have been fatal to all Jews. The letters reveal Berlin’s efforts to resist these extremist outbursts and his friendship with Weizmann, whom he describes as ‘a great man who looked like a distinguished and rather a tragic camel’. But Israel did not come into existence, as Berlin recognises in ‘Zionist Politics’, through Weizmann’s gradualism and influence in high places, but by war in 1948 against the Arabs. Left with only symbolic powers as president of the new state, Weizmann became a truly tragic figure.

Berlin had long dreamed of visiting Russia. The opportunity came with his short stay in Moscow and Leningrad in the autumn of 1945. His letters and his Leningrad report describe his meetings with the writers who represented the traditions of pre-revolutionary intelligentsia. They were eager for contact with the culture of the West from which they had long been cut off. Berlin erred in reporting that ‘life seems politically easier’ in Leningrad. The letters do not reveal his long conversations with the great poetess Anna Akhmatova. Their intimacy had an emotional effect on Berlin and Anna that lasted for the rest of their lives.

Berlin confesses that he ‘hated solitude’, that he was a ‘gossip-loving character’. At All Souls in the 1930s he feared that the more austere academic fellows would dismiss him as a lazy, garrulous lightweight. His first book on Marx, published, to the relief of his friends, in the first months of the war, received respectful reviews but made little impact. When he came back to Oxford after the war, he was still a minority taste for undergraduates. My intelligent pupils found in Karl Popper’s Open Society (1945) the defence of pluralism that was to become Berlin’s hallmark. One cannot help sensing in his letters that Berlin felt in some way unfulfilled. The letters of the 1930s show him involved in a series of amitiés amoureuses: beyond them lay disaster for himself and others. Happy and emotionally secure in his marriage after 1956, his essays in defence of pluralism, his rejection of single answers to the question of how we should live, were to make him famous.

Those who envied his fame chose to castigate Berlin as an elitist and a snob. He was neither. He was not, like Proust, dazzled by duchesses. Rather duchesses were dazzled by him. He confesses in these letters that he was too anxious to please and that he acted as ‘everybody’s friend’. This must not be taken to mean that he was soft-centred. His dislike of A. L. Rowse as a conversational bore turned into detestation. Professor Lindemann, Churchill’s scientific adviser, was a ‘bad man … a genuinely horrible figure who symbolises everything one hates’. Warden Sumner, who made my life at All Souls a misery, was ‘a very dismal man’. I once went in distress to Berlin over an Israeli D. Phil. student of mine whom I could not get to modify what I thought was a mistaken judgment. ‘Jews,’ he replied, ‘are an obstinate people.’ Berlin, on matters which he felt deeply, could be a very obstinate person.

To write this review has been a painful experience. The letters bring back an echo of his life-enhancing conversation. His fascination with Oxford’s petty intrigues irritated me. But he was a good man, and as a jazz classic has it,

A good man is hard to find.
You often get the other kind.

Isaiah’s goodness suffuses these letters. It is hard to improve on the final sentence of Michael Ignatiev’s posthumous biography: ‘In a dark century he showed what a life of the mind could be: sceptical, ironical, dispassionate and free.’

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