On Isaiah Berlin: Gossip

Dominique Nabokov
Isaiah Berlin with Sidney Morgenbesser, a professor of philosophy at Columbia, New York City, 1980s


The hostile review of Isaiah Berlin’s correspondence by A.N. Wilson in the TLS*—which has set off a heated controversy about Berlin and his reputation—exhibited a misunderstanding of university life as well as of the nature of Sir Isaiah’s career. Wilson was unappreciative of Berlin as a historian, comparing him unfavorably with his close contemporary the Oxford historian A.L. Rowse. Neither were truly major historians but Berlin was not really a historian at all, in the full sense of that word, nor was he exactly a philosopher. His field, largely untrodden and little understood, was the intersection of philosophy, aesthetics, and history: in this, his achievement was very great, above all in his profound elucidation of the way that ideas like freedom, enlightenment, and nationalism could appear, develop, and be challenged in politics and art from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries.

He never aspired to be a historian of ideas in the grand general sense—that is, to give a complete intellectual image of any era—but only to reveal the contradictions and paradoxes in the historical development of ideas that we still grapple with today. Even though it is true that his conversation, at least in my own acquaintance with him, was even more brilliant than his writing, his essays on Johann Georg Hamann, Johann Gottfried Herder, Joseph de Maistre, Alexander Herzen, and others will retain their interest and value for a long time to come.

Wilson’s main complaint about Berlin’s letters is the frequently malicious comments about life in Oxford. Not that malice is absent from Wilson’s review. In his case, however, it is often inexplicable. The review is entitled “The Dictaphone Don,” and this is surely intended to have a pejorative edge to it. But it is not clear to me why Berlin’s habit of speaking his letters into a dictaphone is more shameful than writing on a computer or with a goose quill. On Berlin’s account of his meeting with Greta Garbo, Wilson complains that “he has not spotted her lesbianism.” Should he have? Did she give herself away, dressing in men’s clothes like Queen Christina?

The petty aspects of Wilson’s review are overshadowed when Wilson is shocked that the letters “are peppered with malice about poor A.L. Rowse” while Berlin was personally cordial to him. The open cordiality to Rowse that Wilson characterizes as “treachery” is simply a frank letter of refusal to support Rowse’s failed campaign to be elected warden of All Souls College, a refusal couched in the kindest possible language. Wilson’s claim that Rowse was “ultimately more intellectually distinguished” than Berlin is simply ludicrous. The right description for Rowse’s historical work is well put a few sentences later by Wilson—“readable, well-researched volumes”—while most authorities consider that Rowse’s writing on Shakespeare, of which he…

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