AFFIRMING: LETTERS 1975-1997
By Isaiah Berlin
Chatto & Windus/Trafalgar Square, $75, 676 pages, illustrated
This is the fourth and final volume of letters by the distinguished British thinker Sir Isaiah Berlin. Thinker is the word for this mental giant, although one could say academic because of his professorship at Oxford or political scientist or philosopher, intellectual historian or cultural critic. But none of these not ordinarily confining categories could do justice to such a phenomenal polymath. Letters do not always convey a writer’s personality, let alone his essence, but Berlin’s certainly do. “Affirming” shows that they were good to the last drop, the final proper one sent less than a week before his death and an uncharacteristically monosyllabic fax “yes” on the fatal day itself: Nov. 5, 1997.
As Henry Hardy, fortunately once again editing with his customary skill and peerless knowledge of Sir Isaiah, tells us in his preface, these missives are not to be dismissed as peripheral:
“A body of correspondence that should be seen as an integral part of his oeuvre, comprising as it does a sort of running commentary on his more formal work that sometimes throws supplementary light on his central ideas . Among many other subjects, he returned repeatedly to pluralism of values and of cultures, political liberalism, national consciousness and other forms of belonging, and the essential ingredients of human nature, as opposed to human characteristics that vary between persons, groups, cultures or epochs; and he chewed over and refined what he had said and written and thought about these subjects before.”
It is interesting, for example, to see how his opinion of Mikhail Gorbachev evolved, how it changed from skepticism/cum disdain but snapped back to something less than admiration, at least as far as Russia was concerned. (He was fair enough to give him credit for the freedom of Eastern Europe.) Nothing if not a supple thinker, he was never the prisoner of previous misconceptions — or even conceptions. Ably buttressed by the informative notes and addenda we have come to expect from this scrupulous editorial enterprise, these letters really are a vital tool for understanding the last quarter of the 20th century.
But there is no mistaking who is the star of this volume. Berlin’s own very distinctive human characteristics jump out from every page. Most of these are wise and attractive. He is the most uxorious of husbands and can be surprisingly warm in expressing his emotions and understanding those of his correspondents. His letters of condolence to the widows of poet Stephen Spender and Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden are models of expertly targeted sympathy. In Spender’s case, he was a close friend, but with the Eden’s, she is the close friend of long standing, something he frankly acknowledges, not at all to the detriment of his condolences.
He can on occasion be prickly: His fondness for Lady Eden does not prevent a sharp rebuke for what he considers a betrayal of their relationship by giving a letter he wrote her in 1956 supporting her husband’s Suez policy to Sir Anthony’s biographer. This is no mere social nicety. As always with Berlin, there is a serious issue here, in this case the fact that conformity to political correctness in his precious academic environment soon led him to make an about-face on Suez. So he is not best pleased to have his slipperiness revealed, especially as it is a quality which has disturbed many of his critics and even admirers, myself included. Something of the same dynamic is evident in his twists and turns regarding Israel as its popularity wanes within the academy, this notwithstanding his lifelong Zionism. But his personal, as well as more dispassionate, discussions and analysis of British anti-Semitism are consistently heartfelt as well as probing and revealing.
Admittedly, Berlin can be wickedly gossipy and indiscreet, but this is more winning than the obsequiousness which turns up perhaps too often. Even accounting for the protocol for addressing royalty correctly, his letter to the decades-younger prince of Wales accepting an invitation to the opera is nauseatingly sycophantic. There’s no denying that he was an arch snob as well as a stalwart pillar of the British Establishment, and this is an unfortunate but also integral part of his makeup. Such flaws are, though, more than canceled out by the much more prominent shafts of wisdom throughout this correspondence:
“I abhor the [deconstructionist] absurdities of people like Derrida, de Man and the sages of Yale, which seem to me a kind of game — a form of perhaps not wholly unconscious, clever, amusing, frivolous quackery, which its more gifted exponents enjoy putting across, without, I think, actually believing all that they are saying, but delighted to find such a market for them. The same was certainly in part true of the Marxism of people like Marcuse, who confessed to me being astonished by the degree of support he suddenly obtained when he used the same charges against the United States which he had formulated against the Weimar Republic in the late 1920s and early 1930s.”
What you see here and in myriad other instances is nothing less than the distillation of a lifetime of thought and experience observing crosscurrents of thought and those who drive, as opposed to those who merely ride, them.
• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.