The Life of the Mind

The Life of the Mind

Isaiah Berlin once told his biographer, Michael Ignatieff, that “I have a natural tendency to gossip, to describing things, to noticing things, to interest in human beings and their characters, t


Isaiah Berlin once told his biographer, Michael Ignatieff, that “I have a natural tendency to gossip, to describing things, to noticing things, to interest in human beings and their characters, to interplay between human beings, which is completely independent of my intellectual pursuits.” The 700-odd pages of this first of three planned volumes of Berlin’s letters testify in spades to the truth of each except the final clause of that sentence. In fact, Berlin’s many intellectual pursuits all welled up from his fascination with gossip of the mind. He entered ideas through his feeling for the thinkers who thought them: He was interested in how and why people did things with ideas, not in abstract philosophical patterns.

This accounts both for his own chosen intellectual path–which led him to renounce footnoted philosophy papers in favor of well-turned essays displaying his talent for intellectual empathy, even for minds and milieus he disliked–and for the success he enjoyed progressing up it, in a culture whose educated classes preferred to take their philosophy in biographical rather than analytical dress. Renown came also of course for his political views: A defender of Western capitalism during some of its most dicey years, he became the cold war’s house liberal. Although he reveled in complexity and shades, he could also conveniently simplify the world: hedgehog or fox, negative or positive liberty, with us or against us.

This volume of letters–bulging with helpful editorial material–opens with Berlin as an 18-year-old about to go up to Oxford; it ends with him already, at 36, something of a public figure, and about to return to his fellowship at Oxford, having spent several of the war years at the British Embassy in Washington. Much of the life lived in these years seems choiceless: unfolding in that characteristic effortless way of the English upper-class life, where apparently fortuitous (but in fact socially predetermined) encounters and invitations draw one to an unavoidable destination.

Yet the remarkable fact is that Berlin was not pulled from Oxford’s gilded genetic pool: He was a Riga-born Jew, a lone and late child of doting parents who, wealthy and in flight from the Bolsheviks, arrived in London in 1921. Dumpy, thickly bespectacled, with a rich accent and a bad arm, he was a dark duckling among the pretty blonds: Isherwood, Auden, Spender, all of them his contemporaries and friends at Oxford. But he had wit, intelligence, charm, extraordinary–sometimes excessive–capacities of self-dramatization and a preternatural self-confidence, his expressed thoughts unmarred by the self-doubt one might have expected of someone in his shoes, all articulated in what he called his “mannered garrulity.”

We see him developing a taste for both the life of the mind and of the deed, and wavering between them. In Ignatieff’s 1998 biography, Berlin resembled a little too closely a Canadian intellectual, and these letters reveal him in all his bitchy, campy, upwardly billowing glory (Louis MacNeice once suggested that the most appropriate gift for Berlin was a “dish of milk”). We encounter here a sophisticated and energetic young man on the make, in an Oxford more socially porous than ever before. Like most newcomers, Berlin worked hard to be liked, a trait that was always to fill him with intense self-loathing–since he had quickly enough made his own the English dislike of ingratiation. (One senses perhaps a trace of this self-hatred when Berlin writes of another professor, “I have never met a man so anxious to please, to adapt himself to the strange but distinguished English.”)

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.”

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.”

Although British reviews have celebrated these letters as fine examples of the art, for the most part they are not. The prose is effluvial, a stream of thoughts and half-thoughts (sometimes too obviously passing), delivered in scarlet-waistcoated style. (Perhaps the finest example of his epistolary craft, and a sound model of etiquette should one ever be in a similar predicament, is a hilarious letter written to his hostess after a party, confessing to the unintended thievery of a silver matchbox.) For one who was initially regarded as a philosopher, there are few signs of an instinctive fascination with philosophical problems. Berlin considered himself a failure as a philosopher (though a happy failure), and by the standards of twentieth-century professional philosophy, he was. He was interested in dimensions of life that resist systematization: original thought, literature, politics, conversation, friendship, statesmanship, judgment. In the course of these letters we see him coming to a realization that he did not want to pursue formal philosophy any further. Instead, he allowed himself to be pulled in different directions by his various interests: His intellectual life was by invitation (“hailed like a taxi,” as he put it)–this was how his major project of these years, a biographical study of Karl Marx, came about.

A large chunk of this volume contains letters written while Berlin was living in America–he went there for the first time in the summer of 1940, to join the British Embassy. America utterly depressed him. “There is no social mystery, no special social mazes which in principle cannot be represented by a definite plan, as eg Oxford, Cambridge, Bloomsbury,” he wrote to Mary Fisher, “…everything is stated. If you omit, you are politely but relentlessly pressed for it…. I passionately long to [come] home,” while to another friend he gave a still gloomier picture: “That America is hateful I hardly have to tell you. The inhabitants have no souls, only hearts at the most. Everybody is enormously relentlessly boring in a sense which extends the concept of the activity. They are all guilty, uneasy, frightened, brazen, stupid, muddled and generally intolerable…. I…have the reputation in America–you won’t believe it–for melancholy & neurosis.” At best, he could assure his parents that “Mother would like America v. much: open, vigorous, 2×2=4 sort of people, who want yes or no for an answer. No nuances. Food is superb everywhere.” Yet he slowly came to appreciate the “brimming vitality” of the Americans, and to his surprise developed an avid interest in American politics, which he explained to his parents “must be because American political life is very personal in quality. Institutions play a far smaller part than individuals, and relations between individuals, the pattern of which is so strongly laid in Oxford itself, has, of course, always fascinated a gossip-loving character like me.”

Berlin is now a canonized saint of the liberal intelligentsia, but it was never entirely clear just what sort of liberalism he stood for. His horror of “yes or no” went deep, and the letters fully indulge a habit that stayed with him: an intellectual evasiveness, an unwillingness to settle–or to be seen to settle–a position. That was part of his charm, a sign of his cultivated sense of the many-sidedness of the world. Yet it was also characteristic of Berlin to append his vortex of subordinate clauses to sharp dichotomies and alternatives. Hence the paradoxical effect often produced by reading him: the proximity of philosophical profundity to political simplicity.

The event that defined Berlin’s political views was not the Holocaust or Nazism but 1917, which he saw as nothing but a world-historical catastrophe. Berlin’s own cold war began then and continued for him till his death in 1997–unconnected to actual history. The great political subjects of the day certainly enter into these letters: The war and the fight against Nazism revealed to him that “the private world has cracked in numerous places,” and while in America he was drawn into circles of Zionist argument. And yet they have a remote quality. “I don’t understand world movements, & everyone seems to be blandly discussing the imminent collapse of European civilization, though I cannot see what can possibly be meant,” Berlin confessed in 1935.

In fact, in political terms his liberalism consisted entirely of a deep antipathy toward totalitarianism–a position that at certain moments in the twentieth century required a degree of pluck (though perhaps less so in the senior common rooms of Oxford or the committee chambers of the British Academy) and reflected good character traits, but was hardly an intellectually difficult one to hold. Unlike some of his fellow European intellectual émigrés to Britain–Hayek, Popper, Gellner–Berlin remained entirely uninterested either in economic questions (what relationship might exist between capitalism and the variety of liberty he defended?) or in wider concerns about the nature of the social order. These letters abundantly display Berlin’s intelligence and charm, but they also presage the limits of his political horizon. His natural milieus were seats of power–intellectual, cultural, political–and his later life was to be spent gliding between Oxford and his rooms at the Albany Hotel in London. Easy with power, beloved by its wielders, he would not be its critic.

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