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The Life of the Mind | The Nation

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The Life of the Mind

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Berlin was swept up into the circle of Oxford's most eccentric and brightest don, Maurice Bowra, and he quickly absorbed the requisite rankery and clubhouse banter, even rehearsing the diction in which to deliver it. He paraded his new style in his letters. The misliked wife of a don is dismissed as an "Oxford negress," a newly elected fellow of All Souls is "repulsively ugly & looks like a currant & dates merchant," a Bowra witticism is awarded a B+. When it came to social snobbery, though, Oxford had less to teach him, since he could draw on his own White Russian, high-Jewish pedigree. In 1934, traveling for the first time to Palestine, he told his parents that "Tel Aviv is dreadful--like the Klondyke--imagine a whole lot of Jewish gold-diggers suddenly swooping on to the place.... Jews have no taste"; in September 1938, after watching Oxford ladies and wives of college servants come together to assemble gas masks, he wrote to Irish novelist and saloniste Elizabeth Bowen: "I more than ever believe in the necessity of preserving standards of civilized life against the frightful warmth & intimacy of wartime cosiness." But he also felt the emotional costs of the "All-Souls smartness" by which he made himself live. Writing to his friend Mary Fisher on the death of her father, the Oxford grandee H.A.L. Fisher, he regretted that "the effect of Oxford is that one loses all power of direct statement or even direct feeling and has to circumnavigate in the hope that the outline of what one is unfortunately not simple enough to say directly, is conveyed, & with it the undescribed content."

About the Author

Sunil Khilnani
Sunil Khilnani is the author of Arguing Revolution: The Intellectual Left in Postwar France (Yale) and The Idea of...

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The history of twentieth-century France depicts a struggle between the republican ideal of a unitary state and the shifting concerns of a pluralistic society.

At Oxford, he took to the intellectual society more than to the ideas themselves: He treasured the companionship of clever, gifted people, to whom living came easily. The letters testify to his genius for friendship. In a marvelous letter to Ben Nicolson (son of Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West), Berlin defended friendship against the claims of cold intellectualism and the solitary pursuit of artistic glory:

Proust said that friends were a waste of time & the real world was a private universe into which the artist withdraws with relief. This again holds only of the bruised, the humiliated, the cripples, even when their passion is for the truth alone, & they are men of genius. The paranoia of mystics, poets, & Proustian writers may increase their neurosis to the point of genius, but as quality of life I cannot protest against it more vehemently than I do. And the windows can be kept open only when outside them there are other persons, who are fond of one & of whom one is fond, neither side expecting anything in return...unless one lives among people whose reactions one respects, (& therefore one's own reactions to them are less suspect than in more dubious cases) how can one orientate oneself? & not to do so is the worst of all disasters.

He developed deep loyalties toward Bowra, Felix Frankfurter, Stuart Hampshire, Spender, A.J. Ayer and Bowen--the last in some ways the most unlikely of his friendships, but that with its constant flow of gossip, both tender and malicious, captivated him ("She continues to be a delightful person, understands everything one says, and loves low life, toughs, bloods, and anything violent.... She makes one feel cleverer, more sympathetic, more nicely poised than one is, one cannot talk about nothing, one is kept up to the mark, & she never does not respond at all, but always reacts in some way to all one does or says").

His family he kept well away from his Oxford world. His letters to his parents, while clearly those of a fond son, are also very much those of an enfant gâté, and his treatment of his parents can sometimes make awkward reading. He describes an abortive holiday with his mother to an Oxford friend: "This horrible hotel where I came to see my mother--I came for a fortnight, I leave in 5 minutes after 30 hrs--the food is prunes & prawns in aspic and rice pudding"; he agrees to fit his father into his schedule for a few hours over dinner; he complains about his father to his mother ("To work on a holiday with him is impossible--he does not read for more than 3/4 hours at a time and he hates to be left alone"); and when pressed by his parents for longer, fuller letters (the title of this volume is taken from the one-word telegrams Berlin devised in order to reassure his parents), he exasperatedly replies, "What on earth am I to describe to you now? My mode of life you know."

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