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

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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.