When you are young, you cannot imagine that the old were ever young. As you get older, that becomes easier. Isaiah Berlin was in his sixties when I first met him in Oxford. Britain’s most celebrated public intellectual, an iconic figure with his heavy-rimmed spectacles, dark three-piece suit, and unforgettable, much-imitated, bubbling, allusive, rapid-fire conversation, had characteristically agreed to spend an evening with a small undergraduate society. To a nineteen-year-old student, he seemed close to Methuselah—although, as I would discover over a quarter-century of closer acquaintance, this was a Methuselah with a vast appetite and talent for gossip.
Letters, 1928–1946 shows what Isaiah Berlin was like when he was young. His life unfolds, through Henry Hardy’s meticulously edited first volume of his letters, in a sequence of expanding circles. The first circle is his close and supportive Russian-Jewish family, which had moved from Riga to England in 1921. There is a moving early letter from the nineteen-year-old Shaya, as he was then known, to his spirited, musical, romantically aspiring mother, Marie, consoling her (“I know that your position is not sweet”) for the frustrations of living with the pedestrian caution of his merchant father, Mendel Berlin. It ends with this admonition: “Remember: Life is Good; and always will be Good however ugly it looks….” Somehow that remained Isaiah’s personal belief through all the horrors of the twentieth century, and this fundamentally optimistic, life-affirming attitude is one of the qualities that made him such a stimulating person.
The entire volume is punctuated by such affectionate, loyal, reassuring letters to “Ma and Pa,” who are constantly worrying about his health, appearance, and so forth. Sometimes, reading them feels like eavesdropping. At age twenty-four, already a lecturer at New College, Oxford, he writes:
My dear mother: in answer to your questions in order: 1) I am taking my medicine. 2) I feel much better. The stomach is less troublesome. I am taking care about diet. 3) I have not taken the new handkerchieves with me so far as I know. I’ll look again, but I think not. 4) I have had 2 baths! 5. Nails etc. fairly, not very, clean. Doing my best.
No doubt Methuselah, too, had a fussing Jewish mother. Hardy also inserts at various points extracts from Mendel Berlin’s rather touching private biographical sketch of his son, writing of Isaiah as “you.”
The second circle is Oxford, to which he came as an undergraduate in 1928 and where he died in 1997. Oxford was central to Isaiah’s life—“London is heaven,” he writes from Washington in 1944, “but Oxford seventh heaven”—and these letters speak to us of a time when Oxford still confidently considered itself to be central to British culture, and beyond. He approvingly quotes a comment by the German scholar Ernst Robert Curtius that “the barometers of culture in England were in Oxford & Cambridge & not in London.” (No longer true, if it ever was.) And from his wartime stay in the United States he reports back, “After Oxford, Harvard is a desert.”
Isaiah Berlin’s Oxford, like Isaiah’s world altogether, was all about particular people. Crowds of them tear through these pages in a melee of vivid, thumbnail sketches, gossip, congratulation, condolence, written as he spoke: generous, witty, occasionally waspish, and overflowing with joie de vivre. We are told that he plunged into the social life of his undergraduate college, small, “cosy” Corpus Christi, joining every student society, and “his rooms were a place of resort” for other students seeking company and conversation. His genius for friendship was clearly there from the very beginning.
At the outset, the company is not so striking, with fellow classicists going on to join the Colonial Service for life, or so they fondly imagined: “Jerry’s career seems to be completely settled. I am happier about it than I can say, in spite of a slightly bitter letter about Africa from Cruikshank which I unexpectedly received.” But soon he is moving into grander company, titled, rich, the haute volée, or as Isaiah himself puts it, “mildly vile body society”—presumably an allusion to Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. Now the first-ever Jewish scholar to be elected a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, he goes to stay with Victor Rothschild and his wife in Cambridge, in the company of Aldous Huxley (“dull,” “too unspontaneous”), and is flown back from Cambridge to Oxford in a private plane.
Here is Isaiah’s third circle: high society. English high society, initially, but soon stretching well beyond. One remark attributed to him in later life was that “there are 567 people in the world and I know all of them.” Yet he was far too ironical an observer ever to have been a snob, and “snobbish” appears in these pages as a severely critical epithet. Rather, he was characterized by an insatiable appetite and ability, apparent already when in his early twenties, to get to know an extraordinary range of people, spanning especially politics, di-plomacy, literature (Stephen Spender is an early, important and lifelong friend, Elizabeth Bowen a regular correspondent), journalism, music, and, of course, academia. By the end of his life, he really did seem to know—or to have known—“everyone.” This came with a quality, of which he was wholly aware, of being something of a conversational chameleon—agreeing with each interlocutor, flattering them by that generous agreement, before going on to add something original of his own. Describing a tense ménage à trois between two philosophers and one woman he says, self-ironically, “I play my usual precarious delicate and tactful part of friend of all the world.” In his later years, I sometimes felt he had raised this to a utilitarian principle, entirely justified as bringing the greatest happiness to the greatest number.
In these letters from the 1930s, he is a witty social observer, tossing off some striking lines: “[Richard] Crossman is trying to sell his soul again & finding no buyers even among those who think he had one”; tutoring undergraduates is “like striking matches on soap”; “David Cecil still runs in and out, with a voice like a crate of hens carried across a field.” But the torrent of gossip in his letters about long-dead dons and “mildly vile body society,” recounted in a consciously heightened and slightly bright-young-thing style, can occasionally pall. All Souls College’s full title is “The College of All Souls of the Faithful Departed,” but at times this feels like All Souls of the Frivolous Departed. “There may be a lot of theatrical nonsense here,” as he self-deprecatingly remarks at the end of one letter to Elizabeth Bowen, confessing that “I can never trust myself to re-read letters.”
It’s perhaps not surprising that we don’t hear so much about his serious intellectual pursuits, although there are glimpses of the intense excitement of his regular Thursday philosophy sessions with A.J. (Freddie) Ayer, J.L. Austin, and Stuart Hampshire and some fine literary exchanges with Stephen Spender. In a letter to Spender from All Souls, written in 1935, he comments on the German poet Stefan George and his book of 1900, Der Teppich des Lebens (The Tapestry of Life):
Your remarks on George I think are absolutely true. I think he was a divine poet sometimes the Teppich des Lebens is magnificent, so are odd things in the other books: as for the passages you quote, I think he was a persecuted megalomaniac, nor can any of the pleas of his closest followers save him from the fact that he was a man of repulsive views or actual modes of living, that he ruined many of his friends, exploited them, used them, etc. as sometimes Wagner did, did not simply burn them up as George Sand or Dostoyevsky did, or tortured them as Lawrence sometimes must have done (is this nonsense?) but definitely used them coldly & that not in virtue of his nature but in virtue of what he believed himself to be, or at any rate in virtue of the part he was determined to act.
More surprising is how relatively little the threatening politics of Europe in the 1930s intrude. From one of the earliest of his regular annual trips to the Salzburg music festival with Stephen Spender, in 1931, he records his “first glimpse of a real Nazi—a great corpulent creature in the official brown uniform, with a red & black Swastika on his sleeve, & wearing a small black demi-astrakhan hat with silver symbols embroidered thereon.” There’s a trip to Ruthenia in 1933: “5 principal languages, 7 subsidiary ones, 4 frontiers, picturesque and mad Jews, petty Ukrainian squabblers.” There are echoes of the arguments about appeasing Hitler over the dinner table at All Souls. Adam von Trott, a German aristocrat at Oxford, later to be executed for his part in the resistance to Hitler, moves in and out of Berlin’s circle. But for the most part, the disintegrating European world is heard like echoes from a busy street the other side of a high college wall.
This may partly just reflect what Isaiah thought fitting matter for letter-writing, as well as the accident of which letters have survived and found their way to his Boswell, Henry Hardy—who begins this volume by appealing to anyone who possesses others to come forward. Indeed, to read this book properly you need to have Michael Ignatieff’s excellent memoir/ biography of Isaiah in the other hand.* Yet you also glimpse how, in other circumstances, Isaiah might have remained no more than just a great Oxford character, a local legend but not a figure of any wider significance, like his early exemplar Maurice Bowra, on whose conversational voice and style, Ignatieff suggests, Berlin’s famous voice and style were originally modeled. What saved him from this fate, what made him a thinker not just of national but of international importance, were the three wider circles of his life: his Jewish engagement, in relation to Zionism, Palestine, and later Israel; America, where he went in 1940; and Russia.
For me, this book explodes into electrifying life with Isaiah’s first trip to Palestine, in 1934. It goes without saying that Isaiah was deeply conscious of his own Jewishness, but one sees in these pages how, while being fully accepted as a brilliant young member of English society, he was still clearly identified as “a Jew.” After meeting him at a dinner in New College, Virginia Woolf wrote to her nephew Quentin Bell, “There was the great Isaiah Berlin, a Portugese Jew by the look of him; Oxford’s leading light; a communist, I think, a fire eater.”
Now, in Palestine, the two identities, English and Jewish, are in tension, if not outright conflict. He lodges at the Pension Romm on King George Avenue, Jerusalem, with Russian-Jewish friends of his parents, Yitzchok and Ida Samunov, while his traveling companion, John Foster, a gentile Fellow of All Souls, puts up at the grander King David Hotel. “There has been trouble there,” Isaiah explains in a letter to his parents, “—all the Jewish employées were suddenly dismissed—labour trouble—so it is unpopular for Jews to stay there at the moment.” A childhood Jewish friend is working illegally on “a Palestine paper.” But “to night Foster & I dine with a lot of young [British] officials & Yitzchok wants me to ‘pump’ them. This I will not do.”
One moment he is sitting with an Oxford contemporary and friend in the colonial administration, the next with a Jewish family friend who feels horribly oppressed by it. “And yet,” he writes to his parents, “the atmosphere, though hectic, is beautiful: Jews. Everywhere Jews. On the holidays you feel rest: a lot of Hebrew singing not too loud & vulgar in the Jewish suburbs of Jerusalem, people going about in Talésim openly etc.” However, “Jewish opinion is v. bitter against the English. Not so much abt. policy in general as abt. small rudenesses, brutalities, insults.” And, he adds, “the English are C3″—meaning of low quality. Palestine, he writes to Marion and Felix Frankfurter, is “staffed by public school men—of an inferior brand.” “As for the Jews they are most odd and fascinating, & I felt equally uneasy with them & away from them.”
Small wonder he spoke of himself in Britain as a “Metic”—the ancient Greek word for an alien living in a Greek city, having some but not all the rights of citizenship. And it was this sense of foreignness, critical distance, never quite being fully at home, that fed his intellectual growth. Often the difference between an academic and an intellectual lies precisely in this stubborn grain of alienation. All intellectuals are mental Metics. In Berlin’s case, it seems fair to assume that his central philosophical argument about value pluralism grew out of such experiences and tensions.
Berlin’s more than five years in America, which occupy nearly half this volume, came about in a most improbable way—because he was trying to get to Russia. By the summer of 1940, most of his British friends were either in military or government service. Isaiah was disqualified from the former by his weak left arm, damaged at birth, and, Hardy suggests, from the latter by his foreign origins. Frustrated, he drafted a letter to Lord Halifax, the then foreign secretary, offering his services as a kind of informal cultural-political listening-post and investigator for Britain in Russia (“no Russian on merely hearing me speak would assume that I was any sort of foreigner”). The letter appears not to have been sent in this form, but perhaps a similar one was.
At around the same time, he received a visit from Guy Burgess, then known as a louche, drunken British diplomat, but in fact also a Soviet agent. Burgess suggested that Berlin should become British press attaché in Moscow, and that he, Burgess, should accompany him, first to America, to obtain the necessary Soviet documents, and then to Moscow. Presumably, Burgess felt Isaiah would be useful cover for his own trip to visit his secret Soviet masters. Lord Halifax soon thereafter signed a courier’s passport requesting “free passage for Mr Isaiah Berlin, proceeding to Moscow, via USA and Japan.”
In slightly Chekhovian fashion, Isaiah then sits around in Washington, sighing “to Moscow!” while, unbeknown to him, none other than the traveler-diplomat Fitzroy Maclean irritably but in fact wisely puts the kibosh on Burgess’s unconventional scheme, after John Foster has urged the government to block it. (The story is meticulously reconstructed by Henry Hardy.) Fortunately, his talents are then seized upon by the British Information Service and embassy. His task is both to report upon and to attempt to influence the Jewish community and organized labor in the United States. To influence them, that is, to be more sympathetic to the British cause in the war against Hitler, which, at this point, the United States has not yet entered. “The Jews here are a tough nut,” he writes cheerfully to his parents from New York, “but I hope to crack them for the benefit of H.M.G. [His Majesty’s Government].” Yet he is equally adept at getting to know the upper crust of New Deal Washington, such as the Alsop brothers and Philip and Katherine Graham. His genius for friendship is put to good use.
Isaiah’s reporting from New York and Washington was so rich and vivid that it even came to the attention of Winston Churchill, prompting a famous episode when Irving Berlin was invited to lunch by Clementine Churchill and then quizzed about American politics by the British prime minister, laboring under the misapprehension that he was talking to the I. Berlin who had penned those brilliant dispatches.
Hardy includes here one sample of Isaiah’s reportorial talent, a list of “Things Which Americans Hold Against The British,” including everything from imperialism and the class system to “British lack of forthrightness in speech. Englishmen in America substitute caution and reserve for tact, do not allow themselves to agree or disagree vehemently with the American speaker’s point of view, but are expected to remark that it is ‘very interesting.'” The British diplomat who forwards this list to the Foreign Office in London describes its author as “A v. clever Jew who works in the British Propaganda dept here. [The paper] has the schadenfreude of the Jew finding that another race [Hardy adds here “sic”] is disliked also—but it is very shrewd and about 60% of it is accurate.”
In private, meanwhile, Isaiah is confessing how much he misses England. (Like many British writers of his generation, Isaiah uses Britain and England interchangeably, but England carries the more positive charge of affection.) “How much nicer England is,” he writes to his parents from New York in August 1940. And six months later, “wish I were in England.” It is New York, particularly, he finds hard to take. He later recalled, with some hyperbole, “I used to stand on the 44th floor of the Rockefeller Building, and look down into the street with a certain desire to commit suicide. All these little ants running around, one more, one less, it couldn’t make any difference. I felt somehow I was just a cypher, a number, no individual personality at all. In Washington I felt quite different.”
He is at pains to conceal this deeper discontent from his ever-loving, ever-caring, ever-worrying parents. “Flourishing” he repeatedly cables them (thus giving the title to the British edition of these letters, sadly missing from the American one). Or even “PLEASE SUGGEST SYNONYMS FOR FLOURISHING = BERLIN.” On one occasion, however, he is forced to concede “I must admit that perhaps it was not very wise or true to cable you, as I did yesterday, that I was ‘flourishing,’ which was an exaggeration.” He writes this from New York Hospital, where he is recovering from pneumonia. Yet even then he concludes: “I am, au fond, flourishing.”
“Mother would like America v. much,” he writes, “open, vigorous, 2 x 2 = 4 sort of people, who want yes or no for an answer. No nuances.” But Isaiah himself is much less sure. “There is no social mystery,” he confides in Mary Fisher, a close Oxford friend, “no special social mazes which in principle cannot be represented by a definite plan, as e.g. Oxford, Cambridge, Bloomsbury, even Edinburgh I expect. This is very grave. There is a total lack of salt, pepper, mustard etc.” “Everything is clear, explicit, floodlit even,” he writes to Marion Frankfurter, giving America a more positive spin to his American correspondent. “I am myself a little disturbed by this terrific clarity & emphasis: where nothing is taken for granted, everything is stated in so many unambiguous terms, no secret seasoning is tasteable, everything is what it is and proclaims itself sometimes at great length, to be so. But it is superior to the nuances and evasions of England or France. Aesthetically inferior but morally superior.” A very English ambivalence about America is perfectly expressed.
Isaiah clearly did a superb job in Washington and New York. He made many friends for life. In 1945, Time magazine published an article on his impact, despite a telegram from Isaiah to the proprietor, Henry Luce—and of course he knew Luce, as he seemed to know everybody—trying to stop publication of the article. In a characteristic flurry of hyphenated adjectives, Time reported:
Dark-skinned, raven-haired Berlin’s main job was to compile weekly reports on the US scene, which he accumulated in part in an interminable round of dinners and cocktail parties. Hostesses and guests were charmed by his Oxford-accented observations on the world and its great; Reporter Berlin was charmed with what he learned.
The second use of the word “charmed” is questionable, at least without some secret seasoning. Time’s story needs to be read beside a frank, affecting judgment by Mendel Berlin, in his family memoir, summarizing Isaiah’s American years in his slightly erratic Russian English:
You have enlarged and expanded your personality, came into contact with a greater and larger world than academic Oxford… and gained a great deal of self-confidence. You have obtained a knowledge of politics and diplomacy and cannot so easily be led up the garden, as many academicians were and are.
Made with a father’s careful, loving eye, that judgment seems to me about right. But Isaiah himself was restless, not least, it seems, because the Holocaust (which, remarkably, hardly appears at all in these pages; and I mean the terrible thing itself, not the word, which only came into wider usage later) was creating an increasingly acute tension between his Jewish and English/British self, as prefigured in Palestine ten years before. “The Jewish issue is certainly about to boil up seriously here,” he writes to his parents from the British embassy in Washington in January 1944, “and I try as much as possible to have nothing to do with it, without success, as everything ultimately comes to rest on my desk and I have to perform miracles of diplomatic contortion.” And he continues, “Everyone is most kind and charming and polite; this country is undoubtedly the largest assemblage of fundamentally benevolent human beings ever gathered together, but the thought of staying here remains a nightmare. On the very first day after even the European war is over, I shall probably make a frantic attempt to return to Oxford.”
Yet before he got back to that nest of high college walls and secret seasoning, he was to plunge into the deepest and darkest circle of his experience: Russia. For, unlike Chekhov’s three sisters, Isaiah did finally get to Moscow—for four months from September 1945 to January 1946. We know from his other writings, especially the moving “Meetings with Russian Writers in 1945 and 1946,” that this sixth circle of Berlin’s world largened, deepened, and informed everything he subsequently said and wrote, even more than Palestine and America. This was his first and only direct experience of totalitarian rule, which was deforming the lives of his close relatives, including his uncle Lev, or Leo, Berlin, a professor of dietetics, whom he sought out and visited. Leo Berlin was arrested in 1952 and accused of belonging to a British spy ring that included Isaiah. He was interrogated and tortured until he “confessed.” Released after Stalin’s death, he died of a heart attack when he saw his torturer on the street.
Through no fault of the editor, the Russian part of this book is disappointing. Only a handful of letters survive and they add very little. Hardy has to fall back on other sources, and reprints Isaiah’s official report of one of his trips to Leningrad, where he had lived as a child. But as Hardy notes, Berlin “deliberately underplays, indeed slightly falsifies” his encounters and talk through the night with the poet Anna Akhmatova, which had such a great impact on both of them. To understand it, you have to go back to Isaiah’s own writings, Ignatieff’s biography, and, of course, Akhmatova’s Poem without a Hero, with this extraordinary poetic tribute to Isaiah, written as a dedication on the tenth anniversary of her second meeting with him in her bare apartment in the Fontanny Dom:
He will not be a beloved husband to me
But what we accomplish, heand I,
Will disturb the Twentieth Century.
This was a long, long way from the tittle-tattle of Corpus Christi College in 1928.
After a few last months in Washington, Isaiah, now aged thirty-seven, would return to New College, Oxford, “in the dim recesses of which,” he wrote to Averell Harriman, “I shall think with some nostalgia but no regret of the world to which I do not think I shall ever be recalled.” Yet nor would he ever entirely leave it. Shaya had become Isaiah, recognizably the Isaiah that I would meet in another college thirty years later: an Oxford figure enlarged and made unique by the three wider circles of Palestine-Israel, America, and Russia. Over the next two decades, from about 1946 to 1966, he would produce that great outpouring of work—not pure philosophy or monographs, but lectures and essays in the history of ideas, biography, and political theory—which would lay the solid foundation of his intellectual reputation. He would argue and defend a complex, nuanced, pluralist version of liberalism (a “liberalism of fear” in Judith Shklar’s perfect phrase) which would not so much “disturb the Twentieth Century” asattempt to find a civilized answer to the century’s terrible disturbances. His subtle, tolerant, and life-affirming answer was such that some of us are still moved to say, “Ich bin ein Berliner.“
September 23, 2004