It is almost a rule that the more complex a man is, the simpler his billing. A person with a retrospective ability gone rampant often would be called an historian. Similarly, one to whom reality doesn’t seem to make sense gets dubbed a philosopher. Social critic or ethical thinker are standard labels for somebody who finds the ways of his society reprehensible. And so it goes, for the world always tries to arrest its adolescence, to appear younger than it is. Few people have suffered this fear of grown-ups more than Sir Isaiah Berlin, now eighty, who is frequently called all these things, at times simultaneously. What follows is not an attempt to redress the terminological chaos: it is but a tribute by a simpleton to a superior mind from which the former for a number of years has been learning about mental subtlety but apparently hasn’t learned enough.
A study in genealogy normally is owing to either pride in one’s ancestry or uncertainty about it; our history of ideas is no exception. Given the fruit this century came to bear, however, there are additional reasons for such scrutiny, which have nothing to do with attempts to brandish or ascertain the origins of our nobility. These reasons are revulsion and fear.
The quest for universal social justice that preoccupied European thought for, roughly speaking, the last four centuries has too often in our era resulted in its exact opposite. Considering the number of lives this quest has claimed, its Holy Grail proved to be the fixture of a literal dead end, and with a total disregard for the individual in its wake. A subject for revulsion, this effect should also be perceived as a cry from the future, given the rate of population growth throughout the world. After all, the temptation of social planning has turned out to be irresistible even for relatively humble social units.
That is what instills fear. In a manner of speaking, every bullet flies from the future. A mass society is natural prey for any presumption, but above all to a socialist one, which may eventually yield only to that of a computer. For this reason, poring over the genealogical chart of European philosophical thought through the last four centuries is not all that different from scanning the horizon: in either case, though, one looks out not for the cavalry but for an Indian scout.
There are not many of these scouts, and few of them are much good. The invention of ethical and political doctrines, which blossomed into our own social sciences, is a product of times when things appeared manageable. The same goes for the criticism of those doctrines, though as a voice from the past this criticism proved prophetic. All it lacked was the appropriate volume, but then one of the main distinctions between Indian scouts and cavalry is their discretion.
They were always discreet, as well as few in number—those opponents of political certitude, doubters of social blueprints, disbelievers in universal truths, exiles from the Just City. It could not be otherwise since for them to be shrill in social discourse would have been a contradiction in terms. Even systematization often seemed to them contradictory because a system would entitle them to mental privilege over the very subjects of their ponderings.
Their actual lives and careers were diverse but not spectacular. Some of them would advance their views in magazines. Others would do so in a treatise or, even better, in a novel. Still others applied their principles to the offices they held or disciplines they were mastering. They were the first to shrink from being called philosophers; above all, they never tried to shout anyone down.
This posture had little to do with either humility or modesty. In fact it could and perhaps should be perceived as an echo of a polytheistic notion of the world, for these people firmly believed in the multiplicity of the human predicament, and the core of their social formula was, essentially, pluralism. This of course drew fire or silence from social reformers of every stripe, both democratic and autocratic, whose most high-minded common contention would even today be that pluralism is pregnant with moral relativism.
It is. But then moral absolutism is not so hot either. Its main attraction is that it is unattainable and, for a social reformer, that it provides an attractive embellishment for his designs. Yet the bottom line of every social order is not the moral superiority of its members but their safety, which, in fact, moral superiority doesn’t necessarily guarantee.
Every discourse on social matters boils down, of course, to the issue of free will. This is something of a paradox, however, since regardless of whether the will is free or not, in any outcome of such discourse it will be curbed. One’s curiosity regarding the nature of the will is therefore either sadistic or academic or both. (“Let’s see how free is what we are curbing.”)
In any case, with pluralism one would think a danger far greater than moral relativism (which is the reality of the world anyway) or shackling the will, is the implicit dismissal of the metaphysical properties of the species, the short shrift that pluralism, like nearly any other social formula, gives to the notion that man can be driven as much by his appetite for the infinite as by necessity.
The pluralist formula shares this danger with every form of social organization, including theocracy. Man’s metaphysical instinct (or potential) is substantial enough to overshoot the confines of any creed, not to mention ideology. At the very least, that is what is responsible for the emergence of art, music, and, particularly, poetry. In many ways, this is both a self-and world-negating instinct and its exercise may easily make the finest social tapestry fade. Whether a society benefits from this humbling effect is another matter. One suspects that it may.
On the basis of this suspicion one perceives the equating of man’s metaphysical potential with its absence as a danger. Everything that reduces man’s spiritual tenor is a danger. The antihierarchical pathos of pluralism may render society’s senses dull to the pitch of the human maximum, which is always a solo performance. Worse still, it may perceive this solo as a subject for applause, exacting no obligations from its audience.
But if it were only a matter of the quality of the applause, that would be fine. Regrettably, what passes for social pluralism is echoed in the life of cultures and even civilizations. For they and their values, too, are conflicting and diverse enough to make up society, especially given their current Biblical proximity (we are literally only a stone’s throw from one another), especially given the world’s emerging ethnic composition. From now on when we are talking about the world we are talking about a society.
The need for a common denominator, for a universal set of values, is dictated by our concern for our safety (and one wouldn’t be wrong to regard Herder as a precursor of the League of Nations). Alas, the development of this common denominator is fraught with a cultural realignment so enormous that one is not keen to ponder it. We already hear, for example, about equating tolerance (this high-pitched solo of Christianity) with intolerance.
Alas, the trouble with ethics is that it always answers the question “How to live?” not, “In the name of what?” or even “What for?” It is clear that it tries to supplant those questions and their answers with its own; that moral philosophy tends to operate at the expense of metaphysics. Perhaps rightly so, given the world’s population prospects; perhaps it’s time to bid the Enlightenment farewell, to learn an inflected gutteral tongue and step into the future.
One is almost ready to do so when in walks Isaiah Berlin, at age eighty, carrying under his arm seven not very long books: The Age of Enlightenment, Four Essays on Liberty, Vico and Herder, Against the Current, The Hedgehog and the Fox, Russian Thinkers, and Personal Impressions. He does not look like an Indian scout; his mind, however, has been to the future. The volumes under his arm are its map, where the East overlaps with the West, where the North flows South.
This is not how I first saw him, though, seventeen years ago, when he was sixty-three and I thirty-two. I had just left the country where I’d spent those thirty-two years and it was my third day in London, where I knew nobody.
I was staying in St. John’s Wood, in the house of Stephen Spender, whose wife had come to the airport three days before to fetch W.H. Auden, who had flown in from Vienna to participate in the annual Poetry International Festival in Queen Elizabeth Hall. I was on the same flight, for the same reason. As I had no place to stay in London, the Spenders offered to put me up.
On the third day in that house in the city where I knew nobody the phone rang and Natasha Spender cried, “Joseph, it’s for you.” Naturally, I was puzzled. My puzzlement hadn’t subsided when I heard in the receiver my mother tongue, spoken with the most extraordinary clarity and velocity, unparalleled in my experience. The speed of sound, one felt, was courting the speed of light. That was Isaiah Berlin, suggesting tea at his club, the Atheneum.
I accepted, although of all my foggy notions about English life, that of a club was the foggiest (the last reference I had seen to one was in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin). Mrs. Spender gave me a lift to Pall Mall and before she deposited me in front of an imposing Regency edifice with a gilded Athena and Wedgewoodlike cornice, I, being unsure of my English, asked her whether she wouldn’t mind accompanying me inside. She said that she wouldn’t, except that women were not allowed. I found this puzzling, again, opened the door, and announced myself to the doorman.
“I’d like to see Sir Isaiah Berlin,” I said, and attributed the look of controlled disbelief in his eyes to my accent rather than to my Russian clothes. Two minutes later, however, climbing the majestic staircases and glancing at the huge oil portraits of Gladstones, Spencers, Actons, Darwins, et alia, that patterned the club’s walls like wallpaper, I knew that the matter with me was neither my accent nor my turtleneck but my age. At thirty-two I was as much out of sync here as if I were a woman.
Presently I was standing in the huge, mahogany-cum-leather shell of the club’s library. Through high windows the afternoon sun was pouring its rays onto the parquet as though testing its resolve to refract light. In various corners two or three rather ancient members were sunk deep in their tall armchairs, in various stages of newspaper-induced reverie. From across the room, a man in a baggy three-piece suit was waving to me. Against the sunlight, the silhouette looked Chaplinesque, or penguinish.
I walked toward him and we shook hands. Apart from the Russian language, the only other thing we had in common was that we both knew that language’s best poet, Anna Akhmatova, who dedicated to Sir Isaiah a magnificent cycle of poems, Sweetbriar’s Bloom. The cycle was occasioned by a visit Isaiah Berlin, then secretary of the British embassy in Moscow, paid to Akhmatova in 1946. Aside from the poems, that encounter provoked Stalin’s wrath, the dark shadow of which completely enveloped Akhmatova’s life for the next decade and a half.
Since in one of the poems from that cycle—spanning in its own turn a decade—the poet assumed the persona of Dido, addressing her visitor as Aeneas, I wasn’t altogether surprised by the opening remark of that bespectacled man: “What has she done to me? Aeneas! Aeneas! What sort of Aeneas am I really?” Indeed, he didn’t look like one, and the mixture of embarrassment and pride in his voice was genuine.
Years later on the other hand, in his own memoirs about visiting Pasternak and Akhmatova in 1946, when “the world’s strength was all spent / and only graves were fresh,” Sir Isaiah himself compares his Russian hosts to victims of a shipwreck on a desert island, inquiring about the civilization which they’ve been cut off from for decades. For one thing, the essence of this simile echoes somewhat the circumstances of Aeneas’s appearance before the queen of Carthage; for another, if not participants themselves, then the context of their meeting was epic enough to endure subsequent disclaimers.
But that was years later. Now I was staring at a face I saw for the first time. The paperback edition of The Hedgehog and the Fox that Akhmatova had once given to me to pass on to Nadezhda Mandelstam lacked a picture of its author; as for a copy of Four Essays on Liberty it came to me from a book shark with its cover torn off—out of caution, given the book’s subject. It was a wonderful face, a cross, I thought, between a wood grouse and a spaniel, with large brown eyes ready at once for flight and for hunting.
I felt comfortable with this face being old because the finality of its features alone excluded all pretension. Also, in this foreign realm where I had suddenly found myself, it was the first face that looked familiar. A traveler always clings to a recognizable object, be it a telephone or a statue. In the parts I was from that kind of face would belong to a physician, a schoolteacher, a musician, a watchmaker, a scholar—to someone from whom you vaguely expect help. It was also the face of a potential victim, and so I suddenly felt comfortable.
Besides, we spoke Russian—to the great bewilderment of the uniformed personnel. The conversation naturally ran to Akhmatova until I asked Sir Isaiah how he had found me in London. The answer made me recall the front page of that mutilated edition of Four Essays on Liberty, and I felt ashamed. I should have remembered that that book, which for three years served me as an antidote to all sorts of demagoguery in which my native realm was virtually awash, was dedicated to the man under whose roof I now stayed.
It turned out that Stephen Spender was Sir Isaiah’s friend from their days at Oxford. It turned out that so, though a bit later, was Wystan Auden, whose “Letter to Lord Byron” had once been, like those Four Essays, my daily pocket companion. In a flash I realized that I owed a great deal of my sanity to men of a single generation, to the Oxford class, as it were, of circa 1930; that I was, in fact, also an unwitting product of their friendship; that they wandered through each other’s books the way they did through their rooms at Corpus Christi or University College; that those rooms had, in the end, shrunk to the paperbacks in my possession.
On top of that, they were sheltering me now. Of course, I wanted to know everything about each one of them, and immediately. The two most interesting things in this world, as E.M. Cioran has remarked somewhere, are gossip and metaphysics. One could add, they have a similar structure: one can easily be taken for the other. That’s what the remainder of the afternoon turned into, owing to the nature of the lives of those I was asking about, and owing to my host’s tenacious memory.
The latter of course made me think again about Akhmatova, who also had this astonishing ability to retain everything: dates, details of topography, names and personal data of individuals, their family circumstances, their cousins, nephews, nieces, second and third marriages, where their husbands or wives were from, their party affiliations, when and by whom their books were published, and, had they come to a sorry end, the identities of those who had denounced them. She, too, could spin this vast, weblike, palpable fabric on a minute’s notice, and even the timbre of her low monotone was similar to the voice I was listening to now in the Atheneum’s library.
No, the man before me was not Aeneas, because Aeneas, I think, remembered nothing. Nor was Akhmatova a Dido to be destroyed by one tragedy, to die in flames. Had she permitted herself to do so, who could describe their tongues? On the other hand, there is indeed something Virgilian about the ability to retain lives other than your own, about the intensity of attention to others’ fates, and it is not necessarily the property of a poet.
But, then again, I couldn’t apply to Sir Isaiah the label “philosopher,” because that mutilated copy of Four Essays on Liberty was more the product of a gut reaction against an atrocious century than a philosophical tract. For the same reason, I couldn’t call him a historian of ideas. To me, his words always were a cry from the bowels of the monster, a call not so much for help as of help—a normal response of the mind singed and scarred by the present, and wishing it upon nobody as the future.
Besides, in the realm I was from, “philosophy” was by and large a foul word and entailed the notion of a system. What was good about Four Essays on Liberty was that it advanced none, since “liberty” and “system” are antonyms. As to the smart-alecky retort that the absence of a system in itself is a system, I was pretty confident that I could live with this syllogism, not to mention in this sort of system.
And I remember that as I was making my way through that book without a cover I’d often pause, exclaiming to myself: How Russian this is! And by that I meant not only the author’s arguments, but also the way that they were presented: his piling up of subordinate clauses, his digressions and questions, the cadences of his prose which resembled the sardonic eloquence of the best of nineteenth-century Russian fiction.
Of course I knew that the man entertaining me now in the Atheneum was born in Riga—I think Akhmatova told me so. She also thought that he was a personal friend of Churchill’s, whose favorite wartime reading had been Berlin’s dispatches from Washington. She was also absolutely sure that it was Berlin who arranged for her to receive an honorary degree from Oxford and the Etna Taormina Prize for Poetry in Italy in 1963. (Having seen something of Oxford dons years later, I think that making these arrangements was a good deal rockier than she could have imagined.) “His great hero is Herzen,” she would add with a shrug and turn her face to the window.
Yet for all that, what I was reading wasn’t “Russian.” Nor was it Western rationalism marrying Eastern soulfulness, or Russian syntax burdening English clarity with its inflections. It appeared to me to be the fullest articulation of a unique human psyche, aware of the limitations imposed upon it by either language, and cognizant of those limitations’ perils. Where I had cried, “Russian!” I should have said “human.” The same goes for the passages where one might have sighed, “How English!”
The fusion of two cultures? Reconciliation of their conflicting values? If so, it would only reflect the human psyche’s appetite for and ability to fuse and reconcile a lot more. Perhaps what could have been perceived here as faintly Eastern was the notion that reason doesn’t deserve to have such a high premium put on it, the sense that reason is but an articulated emotion. That’s why the defense of rational ideas turns out sometimes to be a highly emotional affair.
I remarked that the place looked positively English, very Victorian, to be precise. “Indeed so,” replied my host with a smile. “This is an island within an island. This is what’s left of England, an idea of it, if you will.” And, as though not sure of my fully grasping the nuance, he added, “a Herzen idea of London. All it lacks is fog.” And that was itself a glance at oneself from the outside, from afar, from a vantage point which was the psychological equivalent of the mid-Atlantic. It sounded like Auden’s “Look, stranger, on this island now….”
No, neither a philosopher nor a historian of ideas, not literary critic or social utopian, but an autonomous mind in the grip of an outward gravity, whose pull extends its perspective on this life insofar as this mind cares to send back signals. The word, perhaps, would be “penseur,” were it not for the muscular and crouching associations so much at odds with this civilized, alert figure comfortably reclining in the bottle-green leather armchair at the Atheneum—the West and the East of it mentally at the same time.
That is where an Indian scout normally is, that’s where one would be looking for him. At least in the beleaguered fort I was from one learns not to look in one direction only. The sad irony of all this is of course that, so far as I know, not a line of Berlin’s writings has been translated into the language of the country which needs that intellect the most, and which could profit from those writings enormously. If anything, that country could learn from him a lot more about its intellectual history—and by the same token about its present choices—than it seems capable of thus far. His syntax, to say the least, wouldn’t be an obstacle. Nor should they be perturbed by Herzen’s shadow, for while Herzen indeed was appalled by and sought to change the mental climate of Russia, Berlin seems to take on the entire world’s weather.
Short of being able to alter it, he still helps one to endure it. One cloud less—if only a cloud in one’s mind—is improvement enough, like removing from a brow its “tactile fever.” An improvement far greater is the idea that it is the ability to choose that defines a being as human; that, hence, choice is the species’s recognized necessity—which flies into the moronic face of the reduction of the human adventure to the exclusively moral dimensions of right and wrong.
Of course, one says all this with the benefit of hindsight, sharpened by what one could have read of Berlin since. I think, however, that seventeen years ago, with only The Hedgehog and the Fox and Four Essays on Liberty on my mind, I could not have reacted to their author differently. Before our tea at the Atheneum was over I knew that others’ lives are this man’s forte, for what other reason could there be for a sixty-three-year-old knight of England to talk to a thirty-two-year-old Russian poet? What could I possibly tell him that he didn’t already know, one way or the other?
Still, I think I was sitting in front of him on that sunny July afternoon not only because his work is the life of the mind, the life of ideas. Ideas of course reside in people, but they can also be gleaned from clouds, water, trees; indeed, from a fallen apple. And at best I could qualify as an apple fallen from Akhmatova’s tree. I believe he wanted to see me not for what I knew but for what I didn’t—a role in which, I suppose, he quite frequently finds himself vis-á-vis most of the world.
To put it somewhat less stridently, if not less autobiographically, with Berlin the world gets one more choice. This choice consists not so much of following his precepts as of adopting his mental patterns. In the final analysis, Berlin’s notion of pluralism is not a blueprint but rather a reflection of the omniscience of his own unique mind, which indeed appears to be both older and more generous than what it observes. This omniscience in other words is very man-like and therefore can and should be emulated, not just applauded or envied.
Later the same evening, as we sat for supper in Stephen Spender’s basement, Wystan said, “Well, how did it go today with Isaiah?” And Stephen immediately asked, “Yes, is his Russian really good?” I began, in my tortured English, a long story about the nobility of old Petersburg pronunciation, about its similarity to Stephen’s own Oxonian, and how Isaiah’s vocabulary was free of unpalatable accretions of the Soviet period and how his idiom was so much his own, when Natasha Spender interrupted me and said, “Yes, but does he speak Russian as fast as he speaks English?” I looked at the faces of those three people who had known Isaiah Berlin for much longer than I had lived and wondered whether I should carry on with my exegesis. Then I thought better of it.
“Faster,” I said.
August 17, 1989