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).

Committed to what John Gray has called ‘agonistic liberalism’, to the irresolvably competing claims made on and by post-Enlightenment individuals, Berlin was as keen on refuges from conflict as on conflict itself; more excited by academic appointments in Oxford than by nuclear disarmament. When a few misquoted remarks in Time about American universities created a furore in the American press, Berlin relished his retreat. ‘It is really a great satisfaction,’ he writes to Frankfurter in 1950, ‘to sit in Oxford … among colleagues on the whole still sublimely unaware of the outside world, protected by the monastery to such a degree that one feels that these outside stirrings are public events not easily connected with oneself at all, which, if ignored long enough, will melt away, since they are happening on a stage.’ At another point Berlin refers to his ‘escape world in the Russian 19th century’. Crisis, serious conflict, was not his thing, or so he wanted to believe. And yet no one was more mindful of how much courage everyday living required of people, of ordinary life as a continual crisis, and of the melancholic existentialism that was required to deal with it. After reading Berlin’s letters, as opposed to his public writings, it is easy to feel that only those who do what they can to avoid conflict, to detach themselves from it as he did, know what it really is. Berlin was much criticised for his liberalism and his moderation, and indeed for his genial spectatorship. But the letters, because they are so engaged (with their correspondents, with contemporary political issues, with his own disengagement and evasiveness), reveal the kinds of problem and preoccupation that his version of liberalism might be a solution to. Or, to put it slightly differently, why would the Jewish son and only child of a timber merchant, born in Riga in 1909, become so enamoured of All Souls College, Oxford?

The story the correspondence tells is of Berlin returning to Oxford after his work in the US during the war, the academic career he established there punctuated by trips to Harvard and other American universities, and of his getting married. In this period his father dies – ‘the most painful experience I have ever had’ – and Oxford becomes his centre of gravity (‘this wishy washy town – dear good people but with enormous reluctance to look at facts rather than rules of conduct’). Berlin preferred to look at the facts from a place in which people cared about manners, but he worked out there a heartfelt political philosophy of the most uncompromising realism. There are many crises, political and personal, that Berlin has to deal with – both talk about and use to develop his own views – in the period covered by this volume: the Suez crisis, the continual crisis of the state of Israel, elections of presidents in the United States and prime ministers in Britain, the rise and rise of Communism in Russia, and Berlin’s unrelentingly tactful attempts to get Dr Zhivago published in the West. But the two issues that make Berlin flap the most in the correspondence are the state of Israel and the state of All Souls.

It is not entirely evident from Berlin’s published writings just how fervent a Zionist he was, or indeed how immersed he was in academic politics. When it comes to the issues of the day he is unsurprisingly well-informed, indeed often knows the protagonists personally, but he can become lofty and abstract with embarrassing ease, referring for example to the ‘crude political issues’ involved in the Suez expedition: ‘The moral issue (to me),’ he wrote, ‘is the general balance of happiness over misery or security versus danger in the lives of nations or people in general and not living according to rules or the sacredness of treaties or undertakings.’ He feels ‘no moral shock’ about the British intervention, and imperturbably surveys the complexities of the situation without being particularly fraught about the outcome.

When the Russians invade Hungary in 1956 he is at once taken up by the cause, but not taken in: ‘Meanwhile Hungary occupies all minds,’ he wrote to Michel Strauss, a student at Harvard:

Hungary is a very romantic cause; all sorts of young men want to go there and die for liberty, although plainly they cannot be of any use now that the Russians have crushed the resistance. But they very properly feel that something must be done, that awful things are happening, that one cannot be supine, and that unless someone does something mad and heroic, vile things will be tolerated. The instinct is very good.

The instinct is very good, but ‘plainly’ futile. What Berlin refers to in these letters as his ‘incorruptibly Oblomovian nature’, his fear that he would be inclined to be supine while vile things were happening, that he was ‘not a tough character and hates responsibility’ is a recurring refrain (‘shame’ is one of the words he applies most often to himself). What he can’t quite work out is whether it is corrupt to be Oblomovian, or corrupt not to be. The problem with the mad and heroic is that by choosing to act they have narrowed their options.

Except, that is, for the Israelis, who in Berlin’s view have done something if not beyond criticism, beyond dispraise. ‘I am not unbiased about Israel,’ he writes to David Astor in 1958, ‘I like them all, or nearly all, too well, & think that despite their faults and crimes they have developed a form of life … which is morally more attractive than any that I’ve seen elsewhere, because it is egalitarian without being priggish or oppressive, and just without being stiff or unspontaneous … At any rate I love them.’ The Israeli settlers were hardly Oblomovian, and if Berlin’s celebration can seem fulsome it is perhaps partly because they represented so much of what he felt was lacking in himself; and, unlike the liberals he was both inventing and promoting in his writing, they seemed to have magically reconciled incompatible values. The Israelis flout Berlin’s rule that what he calls ‘final solutions’ are inadmissible because of the harm done to those who don’t share either the problem or the solution. ‘Such passion to assert national identity,’ he wrote to Violet Bonham Carter after her trip to Israel in 1957, ‘and live a new and un-ghetto-ish life, surely had to have found vent sometime, and if blocked too long would have exploded more disastrously than – even counting all Arab wrongs real and imaginary – it did.’

‘The charge of cowardice bothered him all his life,’ Michael Ignatieff says in his sympathetic biography of Berlin, and adds, not quite as a non-sequitur: ‘But his work does not have the shape of a man eager to please at any cost.’ Shape is not the same as content, though it is certainly true that the writing Berlin does in the period of this correspondence has a boldness that belies his insistent references to his ‘timid temperament’, to the fact that he is a ‘terrible fool’ lacking ‘wisdom, courage & self-confidence to a fearful degree’ and that his writing is ‘misbegotten and disappointing (I expect everything I write to be that and always have)’. There is clearly something boastful about Berlin’s self-criticism. He is rather over-impressed by how unimpressive he is, though this is a note rarely struck in his correspondence with his parents. His letters to his ageing parents are, it should be said, eager to please and reassure and are therefore the least revealing; or rather are revealing only of the detachment required in being a dutiful son. In his correspondence with them Berlin manages his parents rather than engaging with them.

The letters cover the period when he switched from teaching philosophy to teaching the history of ideas (a new discipline), when he wrote the lectures and essays for which he became famous – The Hedgehog and the Fox, ‘A Remarkable Decade’ (the Northcliffe Lectures on Russia in the 19th century), ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ – and began to describe and redescribe the conflict between conformity and originality, consensus and individualism, assimilation and having something to vent, that obsessed him. His ‘usual tendency to reduce politics to personal issues’ meant in practice what he called liking ‘the history of ideas, and in particular … the personalities associated with ideas’. His writing in the history of ideas wasn’t in the least confessional – though the letters, even more than the biography, make it clear, perhaps inevitably, just how much his portraiture was self-portraiture – but it was a strange mixture of hero and anti-hero worship, of theories described as if they were characters. His books, when they were eventually published – the letters tell the tortuous story of Berlin’s endless difficulty with writing and publishing and broadcasting – were like the raw material for a novel of ideas. Herzen, Belinsky, Tolstoy, De Maistre, Vico and Herder, among many others, were in the best sense popularised by Berlin; they were made to sound like extraordinary men living in extraordinary times, riveting and engaged thinkers whose writings were startlingly applicable to our own lives (it would be fair to say of Berlin that he rather too literally made all history contemporary history).

Yet one experience seemed to be prominent in each of these people’s lives, or at least in Berlin’s account of them; and this was some kind of catastrophic disillusionment. Character, he seemed to suggest, like political commitment, was made out of the shattering of ideals. His solution to this, worked out in the period covered by this correspondence, was to try to formulate political ideals that were already disillusioned, or at least appeared to be, without being in any way cynical: political ideals that took their own irresolvable limitations for granted, that were based on a picture of human nature – Berlin insisted that all political ideals were pictures of human nature – that could never be too sure of itself (one can only be disillusioned if one is sure of oneself). The hopes of the Enlightenment, the hopes of the French Revolution, the hopes of the 1848 European revolutions had been formative; but it was their failures not their successes that were important for Berlin. What interested him was how and why all the post-Enlightenment programmes concerned with the perfectibility of man had failed; the best was the saboteur of the good, and the great idealists would turn out to be the real haters of life. History, he implied in his roundabout way, was a matter of dealing with disappointment, and his version of liberalism could arm people against it, or prepare them for it (or simply get them to acknowledge it). Since they had incommensurate ideals and ambitions, and since these would inevitably clash with the ideals and ambitions of others, great losses were unavoidable; there were real and intractable limits to how much people could improve their lives, and these limits were often the point and not the problem.

It was a politics based on not making demands on people that they can’t cope with, or that are simply against their nature. At its worst, Berlin referred to this as ‘my compromise-loving, accommodating, all too unromantical, juste milieu, soul’. He describes himself at one point as a ‘terrible defeatist’, though it is never quite clear to him what he feels defeated by. ‘I am by nature,’ he writes in a letter of 1954, again to Alice James, ‘a great appeaser and try and adjust myself to things I dislike almost unconsciously.’ And in another letter: ‘I try, as always, to produce a détente.’ Both appeasement and détente were (are) uneasy truces, and the possibilities for self-betrayal were never lost on Berlin. Indeed his version of liberalism makes self-betrayal inevitable, de rigueur so to speak, because in satisfying our need for justice, say (this is one of his recurring examples), we may have to sacrifice our desire for mercy. He wants us to get used to self-betrayal as integral to the moral life and not alien to it, built in to choice making. Sometimes he can be blithe about all this – ‘I adore having relations with the enemy and crossing the lines’ – but sometimes it is intimated that the advantage of not having strong beliefs is that you can never be disappointed, or are free for the pleasures of being paid on both sides. ‘I have an inveterate sympathy for traitors in both camps,’ he wrote to a friend in 1953; he wanted his pleasure to be as inclusive as possible, but the moral complexity of this was never lost on him.

The paradox of Berlin’s liberalism, more glaring in the letters than anywhere else, is that it exposes us to the fact that self-betrayal is integral to our moral lives as choice-making creatures, and yet it tries to protect us from the sting of this by naturalising (or rationalising) it. It is ordinary, not extraordinary, to have to sacrifice some of one’s most cherished values; in any life there will be a certain amount of selling out. And we can’t help but care about this while being unable to do anything about it. And while this can, at its worst, justify a multiplicity of sins, it also frees us to be less self-damning; not merely softer on ourselves but – in Berlin’s view – more clear-sighted. Yet making tragedy ordinary, or this ordinary, cuts both ways. Berlin is never quite sure whether he is making himself feel better by making himself feel worse, or vice versa. ‘It is all to do,’ he writes, ‘with having one’s heart in the right place and perhaps in the first place with having a heart at all.’ These letters – which sometimes sound like an epistolary novel by Saul Bellow – are about, among many other things, what the wish not to be heartless can turn a person into. If you believe, as Berlin does and says in these letters, that ‘no end, however good, could fail to be destroyed by the adoption of monstrous means,’ then you are going to have to be able to bear a great deal of frustration. And it is frustration that often makes people heartless and lose heart.

Saul Bellow, but also Proust, or at any rate the Goncourts. Berlin’s compulsive sociability is at war with his wish for and fear of solitude, solitude that is usually equated with work, or rather the inability to work. On the one hand, there was his ‘great desire to meet celebrities’, his being ‘adventurous in my social life, and intensely touristic’, his ‘old undiscriminating gregariousness’; and on the other, his ‘natural hypochondria’, which he is clearly attached to, and the fact that he ‘hates work’: ‘There is no one that loves work less than I.’ The contagious pleasure of his convivial life – his sheer appetite for seeing what other people are like in public – is often undercut by an abiding sense that he is somehow on the run, failing to engage with what matters most to him. ‘All I have to set against writing now,’ he writes to John Sparrow in 1953, ‘is social life & that merely increases my guilt.’ In an uncharacteristically dramatic, perhaps melodramatic moment in a letter of the previous year to Marion Frankfurter, there is a more drastic version of this: ‘My quest for gaiety & cosiness,’ he writes, ‘is a perpetual defence against the extreme sense of the abyss by which I have been affected ever since I can remember myself: & that is why these days [of] solitude without sense of utter inadequacy – are so pleasing to me.’

A sense that something was being warded off runs through these letters; and even though Berlin offers many hints and suggestions (‘I am terribly liable to self-contempt even if not self-pity’; ‘I am dreadfully sensitive – much too much – to opinion’), there was something unbearable about himself that Berlin felt was more truly quelled, or engaged with, by writing. Self-hatred is a great insulator, and Berlin’s obsessive self-disparagement often sounds like an attempt to pre-empt the criticism of others. The abyss he mentions, the sense of being somehow absent, his determined sense of insignificance, is alluded to sparingly in the letters, and is more striking for that; ‘I have always maintained,’ he wrote to the playwright Sam Behrman, ‘that I lack personality and my presence or absence from the room cannot and never has made any difference to anyone anywhere.’ Berlin would not be the first only child (only child of adoring, devoted Jewish parents) who craved anonymity and hated his specialness; who felt he was the most important person in the world and who longed to be the least important (and, of course, the most important).

Berlin, unlike Tolstoy, never pretended to be a hedgehog. The correspondence is often about his (usually disparaging) sense of himself – the one big thing he seems preoccupied by – but it is more often about his fascination with other people (not their fascination with him, which was considerable). It is full of astoundingly vivid and incisive and very often amusing sketches of people, famous and not, whom he had met in his inordinately busy life. There are marvellous portraits here of the Weizmanns, Ben-Gurion, Macmillan, Berenson, Eliot, Forster, Bowra among many others, and of various nobs and snobs no one has heard of since, and whom Berlin clearly enjoyed being unimpressed by. He may have regarded himself as ‘somewhat thin-skinned and susceptible to minding criticism’, but he went out and about a lot, disarming criticism, if he could, wherever he went, with his considerable charm. And he may have had a passion for the irresolvable, and have made a profession out of promoting the inevitability of conflict and the incommensurability of values, but he was clearly a much invited man. ‘If I ever write my autobiography – which I never shall – it would be called “Late Awakening”,’ he said in a letter in 1954, pointing to the fact that in the years covered in this volume of letters, Berlin the late developer becomes very much himself. And because as a writer he is always more engaging as a describer than as a theorist, the social whirl works for him; it doesn’t just give him material to use, as it might a novelist, but gives him an opportunity to see things, to show other people off, sometimes by showing them up. So the letters are full of irresistible sketches and impressions in which Berlin is, as usual, wanting to do two incompatible things, have a heart and be entertaining.

Of the American literary academic Harry Levin, Berlin wrote, ‘he is liable, I think, to be carried away by virtuosity, as such: like many clever, serious, manqué creative persons, he overestimates the value of all creative & imaginative art & prefers a breath of life, however thin & even counterfeit, to criticism and intellectualism however genuine. It is sweet & touching in him, that; but it falsifies his vision.’ You often feel, reading this correspondence, that Berlin is moved by the things he distrusts about people and likes the things he is averse to. This might be the plus side of a certain kind of detachment: your affection and your judgment need not be at war with each other.