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Semi-Heroes

Personal Impressions

by Isaiah Berlin
Viking, 219 pp., $13.95

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 we comprehended it than he begins using the same methods to create a conflicting or, it may be, a complementary vision of life, so that by contrast we may understand the first conception better. He will always use two words where one will not do.

His writing has all the élan of conversation.

Style is a major key. Prose style and, above all, style of character, play a complementary part in his examinations of his people. Herbert Read once attacked Churchill’s prose, saying his eloquence was false and artificial, the images “stale, the metaphors violent…a volley of rhetorical imperatives…and an aggrandisement of the self.”

But Berlin understands that the manner of the 1914 generation had greatly changed. He understands Read’s hostility but disagrees. Churchill’s style, he says, was a deliberate return to a “formal mode…which extends from Gibbon and Dr. Johnson to Peacock and Macaulay, a composite weapon created by Churchill in order to convey his particular vision.” There was no “escapism” in it. It was the vehicle of a romantic vision of history that reflected the formation of his own vision. He saw history and life as a pageant; the moments of comedy were necessarily uttered in the formal mock-heroic manner, for example in phrases when he says he views this or that aberration “with stern or tranquil gaze,” or that any “chortling” over the failure of a chosen scheme “will be viewed with great disfavor by me.” Watch Berlin’s own remarkable and sinuous style examining Churchill’s:

[Churchill’s] eye is never that of the neatly classifying sociologist, the careful psychological analyst, the plodding antiquary, the patient historical scholar. His poetry has not that anatomical vision which sees the naked bone beneath the flesh, skulls and skeletons and the omnipresence of decay and death beneath the flow of life. The units out of which his world is constructed are simpler and larger than life, the patterns vivid and repetitive like those of an epic poet, or at times like those of a dramatist who sees persons and situations as timeless symbols and embodiments of eternal, shining principles. The whole is a series of symmetrically formed and somewhat stylised compositions, either suffused with bright light or cast in darkest shadow, like a legend by Carpaccio, with scarcely any nuance, painted in primary colours, with no half tones, nothing intangible, nothing impalpable, nothing half spoken or hinted or whispered: the voice does not alter in pitch or timbre.

The long essay proceeds to an elaborate comparison of the temperaments of Churchill and Roosevelt. Both were romantics; Churchill’s imagination was formed by the nineteenth century, Roosevelt’s by the twentieth. He was “optimistic, episcopalian, self-confident, cheerful, empirical, fearless, steeped in the ideas of social progress,” and he believed in improvisation. Churchill “believed in institutions, and the permanent character of races and classes and types of individuals.” And Churchill’s private office was run in a sharply disciplined manner but—splendid under-statement—“his habits, though unusual, were regular,” whereas Roosevelt was all for flexibility. His bureaucracy was “somewhat chaotic.” He maddened institutional authority “but it is doubtful whether he could have achieved his ends in any other way.” And a fundamental pluralist judgment concludes these two éloges: it is possible to reject the strait-jacket of doctrine and “to reconcile individual liberty” in the end “with the indispensable minimum of organizing and authority.”

Isaiah Berlin’s habit of qualification and re-qualification does not leave him afloat in impartiality. He feels and illuminates the passions he admires and nowhere so strongly as in the portrait of Chaim Weizmann. As a historian Berlin knows why the isolating situation of the Eastern European Jews was a potent source of Zionism and, with some irony, he puts aside the view of Marx and Tolstoy who believed that the impersonal forces of history are more decisive than “great men.” Weizmann had the distinguishing mark of greatness: “active intervention makes what seemed highly improbable in fact happen”—in his case the creation of the state of Israel. I have never read so full and lucid a study of the rise of Zionism and its social and psychological ironies and conflicts, though I am certainly not equipped to offer an opinion on the cold-shouldering of Weizmann’s cause by post-Churchillian British governments. The almost tragic irony of this hero’s case is that Weizmann, both as a scientist and as a man, quite simply adored England and, as Berlin says, invested “far more of his emotional capital in his friendship for England than, I think, he realised.” He was a great charmer.

He valued especially the tendency toward instinctive compromise, whereby sharp edges are not indeed planed away, but largely ignored by both sides in a dispute if they threaten to disrupt the social structure too widely, and break down the minimum conditions for common life.

And when Britain disappointed him, he wondered whether British imagination and appetite for life were dying: his followers began to look on his Anglophile policy as bankrupt and he became a tragic figure. Western statesmen often saw him as an inexorable ancient prophet, a man who craved virtue, and they often feared that an interview with him might “prove altogether too much of a moral experience.” He admired courage, dependability, and practical judgment; the stock subject of mocking skeptical Jewish humor distressed him. The settlement was to be the cure of the neuroses of the ghetto. But Weizmann was without pathos and for Berlin he was the first totally free Jew of the modern world—an eloquent conclusion that reveals a strain of romanticism or, at any rate, a response to the visionary which is aroused in many of Berlin’s subjects.

The most edgy of Berlin’s semi-heroes is the historian L.B. Namier, who worshiped Weizmann until the inevitable quarrel. With whom did Namier not quarrel! A hypnotic dazzling non-stop talker, Namier drew breath by making a “mooing sound” which blocked the gaps between his sentences and so prevented interruption. He loathed historians who invoked the influence of ideas—Marx above all, whom he described as “a typical Jewish half-charlatan”—put his faith in Freud and psychological influences, and spoke with the controlled ferocity of one who hated doctrine with the tenacity of the doctrinaire. He worshiped the English aristocracy, whom he regarded as above all the resistance to Zionism, but pursued British officials with relentless personal contempt. Berlin suspects Namier of having daydreams of being the D’Annunzio of the movement. Like Marx, he “fascinated and oppressed his interlocutors.” This most distinguished man was a bore from whom people fled and it was really not surprising that he was never given a Chair at Oxford, although he was greatly honored elsewhere. Yet—and this is the heart of Berlin’s alert sympathy for this ponderous man—Berlin was not bored by him. He saw that Namier had the Romantic pride and yet as a historian was a deflater; that for years he had lived in bitter personal unhappiness; he was unworldly and innocent, easily deceived, though he mellowed after his happy second marriage. The conclusion is that Namier was an amateur: a “man who thinks more of himself than about his subject.” His conversion to Christianity of course ended his friendship with Weizmann.

The portraits of the Oxford philosophers which follow are of distinguished men who may be only names to the general reader, but there is a similar mixture of personality and debate in Berlin’s studies of them. The most impressive narratives in this book are of Berlin’s visits to the Soviet Union in 1945 and 1956. He had not seen Russia since he left as a boy of ten in 1919. The spell of his boyhood language reawakened his love of Russian literature, especially of its poetry, and brought him an intimacy with Pasternak and Akhmatova, the two survivors of what he calls the “second Renaissance” in Russian literature which had begun in the Nineties.

Their vivid portraits are the high moments of this essay. Both were tormented, alone, and suffered from the persecution, ostracism, and suspicion of Stalin and the Party. Pasternak had once been described as looking like an Arab on his horse:

…he had a dark, melancholy, expressive, very racé face…. He spoke slowly, in a low tenor monotone, with a continuous, even sound, something between a humming and a drone, which those who met him almost always remarked; each vowel was elongated as if in some plaintive, lyrical aria in an opera by Tchaikovsky, but with more concentrated force and tension.

Tension is the key word, for he was often defensive or prickly in the course of his many meetings with Berlin, who admired one of his early books, The Childhood of Lüvers. Pasternak said that he was sure Berlin’s real opinion was that it was modernist and selfconscious.

No, no, don’t deny it, you do think this and you are absolutely right. I am ashamed of them—not of any of my poetry, but of my prose…. But now I am writing something entirely different, something new, quite new, luminous, elegant, well-proportioned, classically pure and simple…and this will be my last word, and most important word, to the world.”

He was drafting what was later to become Dr. Zhivago. The droning talk would often overflow, the lucid passages would become wild. It reminded Berlin of the talk of Virginia Woolf who, too, “made one’s mind race and obliterated one’s normal vision of reality in the same exhilarating and, at times, terrifying way.” Pasternak was deep in Proust, Ulysses, and Rilke, and talked of a host of others in these literary conversations, which always took place before a polished desk without a book or a scrap of paper on it. From time to time he became ecstatic and prophetic: he told the now well known story of Stalin’s telephone call asking whether Pasternak was present on the occasion when Mandelstam had recited his lampoon on the tyrant. Pasternak ignored the question and replied that Stalin and he must meet at once, for everything depended on it, “they must speak of ultimate issues about life and death.” Stalin wanted a plain Yes or No to his question and rang off.

Pasternak was very sensitive to the charge of accommodating himself to the Party and was afraid that his survival was thought to be due to this. He taunted Berlin for being bemused and not seeing that everything in Russia was disgusting and an “abominable pigsty.” Pasternak was an insistent Russian patriot, to the extent of feeling himself in the “true tradition” which culminated with Slavophils—“not to the liberal intelligentsia, which, as Tolstoy maintained, did not know what men lived by.” Pasternak’s desire to be thought of as a writer with deep Russian roots was even obsessive. He described himself as an idiosyncratic Christian and his attitude to his Jewish origins was negative. Berlin’s earlier discussions of the tensions between the Zionists and the assimilated Jews in the essays on Weizmann, Namier, and Einstein come to mind here, but Pasternak avoided the subject: “he was not embarrassed by it, but he disliked it: he wished the Jews to assimilate, to disappear as a people.”

Akhmatova, who lived in Leningrad, and he were devoted friends, often in dispute, especially about Chekhov. For Pasternak, Chekhov was unlike all other Russian writers, who preached too much. He was “a pure artist…he is our answer to Flaubert.” Akhmatova said that Chekhov’s universe was “drab; the sun never shone, no swords flashed, everything was covered by a horrible grey mist…a sea of mud…a travesty.”

The meetings with Akhmatova are the most emotional and moving in this book. The first meeting was interrupted by the grotesque appearance of Randolph Churchill on the scene, a farce that was to turn, as is only too familiar in Soviet life, into a disastrous occasion. There was further persecution of the poet by the secret police. (Randolph Churchill had been followed to her house when he was trying to get in touch with Berlin, and was drunk as usual; Berlin, being a temporary employee of the British embassy, was assumed, as all people in foreign embassies were, to be a spy.)

Akhmatova was living in the upper room of the palace that had belonged to the Sheremetev family, but most of the furniture had been sold or looted during the siege and the severe looking gray-haired poet rose to meet him and talk, as he says, like a “princess in exile.” On the second visit she recited some of her poems, saying, “Poems like these, but far better than mine, were the cause of the death of the best poet of our time, whom I loved and who loved me”—and broke down in tears, but whether she spoke of Gumilev or Mandelstam Berlin could not say. Then she read Requiem and spoke of the awful years 1937-1938 when her husband and son were sent to prison camps. (She was later to be denounced by Zhdanov as “half nun, half harlot,” in the course of his condemnation of the “formalists” and decadents. Very soon she was denouncing Chekhov’s “mud-coloured world”—as Pasternak had said she would—and attacked Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

Why should Anna Karenina have to be killed? As soon as she leaves Karenin,…she suddenly becomes a fallen woman in Tolstoy’s eyes, a traviata, a prostitute. Of course there are pages of genius, but the basic morality is disgusting…. Tolstoy is lying: he knew better than that. The morality of Anna Karenina is the morality of Tolstoy’s wife, of his Moscow aunts.

The visit lasted long into the night and went on late into the morning of the following day. She spoke of Leningrad as the graveyard of her friends and of the unrelieved tragedy of her life; but there was no talk of flight or emigration; whatever happened to her she would stay in Russia. The day Berlin left Leningrad uniformed men were placed outside the entrance to her staircase and a microphone was screwed into the ceiling of her room to frighten her. In 1965 when she was allowed to go to Oxford to receive an honorary degree she told him of the consequences of his visit.

She blamed her disgrace on Stalin’s paranoia and said that the fact of Berlin’s visit “had started the cold war, quite literally, and changed the history of mankind.” Was paranoia feeding on paranoia? It was present in Dostoevsky, one remembers, and she worshiped Dostoevsky. Was she a visionary or a fantasist? Berlin makes an important distinction. Her suspicions of poisonings, her belief that her meeting with him had been decisive for the cosmos, had no apparent justification in fact, but they were not senseless. They were intuitive:

They were elements in a coherent conception of her own and her nation’s life and fate, of the central issues which Pasternak had wanted to discuss with Stalin, the vision which sustained and shaped her imagination and her art.

Yet on the literary and social scene in St. Petersburg before the First World War she spoke sharply and with realism. She did not speak publicly—or to Berlin himself—a single word against the Soviet regime. It is characteristic of Berlin that here he thinks of Herzen, who had said that almost all Russian literature was one “uninterrupted indictment of Russian reality.” There was no self-pity in her. Hatred, insults, contempt, misunderstanding, persecution she could stand, she told her friends, but not interest mingled with compassion. She was proud. A minor but not irrelevant matter: she changed her mind about Chekhov when she read Ward No. 6.

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