Among men of learning in history and philosophy Isaiah Berlin is probably the most captivating expositor of ideas in the English-speaking world. The subject of Personal Impressions is men and women inhabited by intellects that blend with or distort their characters and become important personal visions. Berlin is an impressionist only in the sense that his impressions are argued and cut deep. He entices us to keep up with his fast conversation. As Noel Annan says in his long and searching introduction to this collection of Berlin’s memoirs of such figures as Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Chaim Weizmann, L.B. Namier, Felix Frankfurter, Maurice Bowra, Einstein, Aldous Huxley, the Oxford philosophers, and, in Russia, of Pasternak and Akhmatova:
Nobody in our time has invested ideas with such personality, given them a corporeal shape and breathed life into them more than Isaiah Berlin; and he succeeds in doing so because ideas for him are not mere abstractions. They live—how else could they live?—in the minds of men and women, inspiring them, shaping their lives, influencing their actions and changing the course of history. But it is men and women who create these ideas and embody them.
“Life,” Berlin has said, “may be seen through many windows, none of them necessarily clear or opaque, less or more distorting than any of the others.” He makes his stand on pluralism—a word which has been debased by those of us who cannot make up our minds and find everything “relative.” For him, as Noel Annan says, pluralism means “acceptance of a multitude of ideals appropriate in different circumstances and for men of different callings.” And later on he adds, “for unless society acknowledges that men both do and should live according to different ideals, the men and women within it will not be free.” Berlin is indeed a man of passion—as the essay on Chaim Weizmann shows—and indeed of something approaching compassion in dealing with the disposition of a cantankerous and distinguished historian like Namier. The portrait studies in this book are critical impressions: they seek to separate the praiseworthy impulse from what is dubious, but not in the bland conventions of the Memorial Service.
Berlin’s sense of humor—sometimes extravagantly Russian—preserves a frank delight in human contradiction. He is really concerned with the essences or forces that formed outstanding people, and though he is a man of praise he is sharply aware of the difference between the awful, the bad, or the downright evil. All this is conveyed in a conversational style famous for its long, caravanning sentences, “clause upon clause” (as Noel Annan says), “the predicate lengthening out into a profusion of participles.” Or perhaps he should be compared to Seurat peppering his canvases with
a fusillade of adjectives, epithets, phrases, analogies, examples, elucidations and explanations so that at last a particular idea, a principle of action, a vision of life, emerges before our eyes in all its complexity; and no sooner have …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.