Self-Amused

Adam Phillips

  • Isaiah Berlin, Enlightening: Letters 1946-60 edited by Henry Hardy and Jennifer Holmes
    Chatto, 844 pp, £35.00, June 2009, ISBN 978 0 7011 7889 5

Isaiah Berlin was returning from Paris in 1952 when the aeroplane – ‘it was an Air France: Air Chance is a better name’ – ‘caught fire and scenes of extraordinary panic occurred’. Berlin mentions this, jokily and in passing, in several letters, but Alice James, the wife of William James’s son Billy, gets the full story of the disaster that didn’t happen, at least to Berlin. ‘I saw a thin flame crawling up the side of my window & decided that it would take at least ten minutes to reach me & there was, therefore, no reason for haste. I was, however, mistaken in this’:

The aeroplane was emptied amid screaming etc. I thought of little save how to save (a) my Abercrombie & Fitch new overcoat to which I felt devotion (b) a particularly neat small wireless set which I was bringing as a present to my parents. I therefore behaved with a false calm & as I imagined some detached dix-huitième observer of life might have behaved. But no sooner was I out & contemplating the burning wreck in a Gibbonian manner than I was screamed at by a loudspeaker: told not to be mad … & to run fast. It was only then that I observed that the other passengers were as specks in the distance & that I was alone in my distinguished detachment.

Noticing, in his self-amused way, that he was behaving rather oddly, both inside the plane and when he got out, Berlin was baffled by the choices he’d made. An interest in the costs of choice-making, in the losses that every decision involved, was one of the things that distinguished him from run-of-the-mill anti-determinists. But choices were always risky because preferences were always being sacrificed (‘I thought of little save how to save’). In ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, the inaugural lecture he gave in 1958 and one of the culminating achievements of the period covered by this second volume of letters, there is a well-known statement that sheds some light on this incident, the published work often being a better commentary on the letters than vice versa. ‘If, as I believe, the ends of men are many, and not all of them are in principle compatible with each other, then the possibility of conflict – and of tragedy – can never wholly be eliminated from human life, either personal or social.’ As it turned out, the emergency landing was more of a farce than a tragedy, and one of the many pleasures of these letters is Berlin’s capacity for self-caricature, his sense of the ridiculous, his unrelishing of tragedy – his preference for the self-revealing situation over the getting of self-knowledge. What is striking in his description of the occasion is the lack of conflict, the apparent ease, the unflappableness with which he makes his choices, and that makes him obtrusively repeat himself; he behaved like ‘some detached dix-huitième observer of life’, he was alone in his ‘distinguished detachment’. It was a false calm that kept him calm, but it worked.

As these strangely unguarded and unself-regarding letters show, Berlin was never quite sure whether what was distinguished about him wasn’t somehow false; whether his choices were always too easy; whether he used history to make masks for himself. Whether he was, in fact, a wildly emotional Russian Jew behaving with the eccentric composure of an imaginary Oxford don. As the letters make clear, he was troubled by the forms of ease his unease took. His detachment always puzzled him. He felt it to be at once a necessity and a self-estranging technique. Being able to be more English than the English while being self-evidently a foreigner put him at an odd angle to himself. When he married Aline Halban in 1956 after nearly 30 years of more or less celibate bachelorhood (in many ways the central drama of this volume of letters even though the love letters between Berlin and his wife are embargoed), he wrote to his friend Marion Frankfurter: ‘Goodness me: I don’t feel enormously real: I suppose it is all in order: I suppose it is right to embark on such critical courses with no sense of drama, like opening a window.’ The clarity of the image shows Berlin at his best; but it is his daunting uncertainty about himself and about the certainties of others that dominates the correspondence. Einstein, whom Berlin met at Princeton in 1952 (‘neither man was impressed by the other,’ Berlin’s scrupulous editors note), described Berlin as ‘a kind of spectator in God’s big but mostly not very attractive theatre’. As a writer he was a fascinated and often horrified observer of the dogmatism and recklessness of revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries; he believed we should distrust people who know what everyone should do in a crisis. To be an expert on what people wanted and needed, on what was to be done, was a temptation to be avoided. All of Berlin’s writing is an attempt to persuade people not to talk on other people’s behalf. He wanted the eccentric to inherit the earth and not be bullied by people who knew best.

The risk was that one might end up not talking on anyone’s behalf, not even one’s own. Berlin’s money was always on Turgenev because, as he wrote in his Northcliffe Lectures of 1954,

Turgenev’s liberalism and moderation, for which he was so much criticised, took the form of holding everything in solution – of remaining outside the situation in a state of watchful and ironical detachment, uncommitted, evenly balanced … For him … reality for ever escapes all artificial ideological nets, all rigid, dogmatic assumptions, defies all attempts at codification.

The odd implication is that the ideologists, the men with a system and a plan, are out of touch with reality, while those who remain outside the situation are the real participants. The realists like Turgenev and Berlin know that it is unrealistic to know what to think (the pun on ‘solution’ is Berlin’s kind of joke).

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