Letters 1960-75 by Isaiah Berlin: Vast erudition, fluency and humanity, gossip, back-stabbing and name-dropping too

Berlin's letters, superbly edited by Henry Hardy and Mark Pottle, encourage us to ask what is going to be remembered and what is going to fade: the work, or the personality?

Isaiah Berlin – Building: Letters, 1960-75
Edited by Henry Hardy and Mark Pottle
Chatto & Windus, 704pp, £40

Isaiah Berlin’s career fell into three different parts. First, there was a period of growing acclaim during the late 1940s and 1950s. A key anti-communist voice during the cold war, he became a household name thanks to his radio broadcasts on the BBC and he became one of the most important liberal thinkers of the postwar period, the author of works such as The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953) and Two Concepts of Liberty (1958) – his inaugural lecture as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford.

From the mid-1960s, however, Berlin increasingly came under attack from the new left and, later, the new right. His cold war liberalism seemed out of step with the times and a new generation of historians of political thought was more critical of his academic work. Then, in the late 1980s and 1990s, his ideas acquired a new relevance with the end of the cold war, the fall of Soviet Communism and the revival of ethnic nationalism, especially in the Balkans.

The third volume of his Letters brings the story of the second stage to life. It begins in 1960 with Berlin in his heyday: recently knighted, an Oxford professor, a friend of the great and the good on both sides of the Atlantic. He knows Stravinsky, W H Auden and David Ben-Gurion. He is invited to the Kennedy White House and Anna Akhmatova and Shostakovich visit him in Oxford.

Yet, as the 1960s go on, Berlin becomes more and more embattled, like one of his beloved 19th-century Russian liberals. Under attack from left and right, he writes with feeling of “the awful fate of liberals in difficult times”.

One of “the miserable centrists, the contemptible moderates”, Berlin was not at home in the new world of student protests, feminism and race riots. In May 1968, he writes, “New York – the student riots – the slowly mounting mass of black anger – is terrifying.” Two years later, he writes, “I am 60, this is not my world.”

Even more disturbingly for Berlin, Israel is attacked twice – in 1967 and in the Yom Kippur war of 1973. He agonises as Israel faces destruction from its enemies and then, having won both wars, risks losing the peace. This prompts some of the most powerful letters in the book, especially his exchanges with the Palestinian Omar Haliq.

In much of Building, the Holocaust is a strange absence until it explodes with extraordinary intensity in a series of letters from 1972. Berlin goes to Israel to give a lecture on “Zionist politics in wartime Washington” and comes under ferocious attack from an Israeli, Nathan Yellin-Mor, over his alleged silence about the Holocaust during the war. Berlin mounts a passionate defence against this charge and these 20 pages are the darkest and most troubling part of the book.

This is Berlin at his most engaged. Surprisingly, though, he is often neither original nor illuminating about the events of the day. He writes, “My life is divided between my duties in Oxford and thoughts about conductors; Cuba, Laos, the atom bomb, Berlin pass me by.” There is one letter on the Eichmann trial and just a single reference to Martin Luther King. The great social and cultural changes of the time – the civil rights movement, feminism and gay rights – do not engage him.

However, the editors are surely right to call Berlin “one of the best letter-writers of the 20th century”. He used to say that people were his landscape and the book is full of evocative portraits. His lifelong friend Maurice Bowra was “like a half-extinct, halferupting volcano”, once a “Byronic, satanic, brilliant destroyer” but now “a pathetic old porpoise, fat, resentful, suspicious”. His mother “had enormous vitality, fantasies of what she might have been, passionate love of Ibsen, Hamsun, D H Lawrence . . . all forms of full-blooded self-assertion”.

Many individuals pass through in just a sentence but come to life, like Mr Edelberg, “who used to sell chocolates to her [Berlin’s mother], and wept in a welter of German- Russian Riga broken phraseology”.

Then there are the intellectual fireworks. There are pages and pages of Oxford gossip and endless chatter about Wolfson College and the Royal Opera House, then suddenly Berlin turns to 19th-century Russian thinkers and writers such as Belinsky, Herzen and Tolstoy or late 18th-century critics of the Enlightenment such as Herder and Hamann. Take this on Tolstoy: “Towards the end of his life, [he] was thought of much as [Bertrand] Russell is now – marvellously self-confident aristocrat, a genius in his own proper sphere, but cranky and silly on social and political issues, though so proud, and so eminent, as not to be assailable whatever he said.” These pages are astonishing and bring Berlin’s genius to life.

This is the essence of Berlin and the best part of this volume of Letters, superbly edited again by Henry Hardy, this time in tandem with Mark Pottle. Yet there is always a tension. On the one hand, the vast erudition, fluency and humanity. On the other, the feline gossip, the back-stabbing and the namedropping. In 1972, Berlin wrote about his friend Lewis Namier: “He will live by his works more than by his personality, the memory of which will gradually fade.” The central question this book raises about Berlin is which will fade: the work or the personality? And what will endure?

Man out of time: Isaiah Berlin in 1985. Photograph: Gemma Levine/Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

Getty
Show Hide image

In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred