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Berlin is enlightening

· 12 December 2010 |  by Janantoon
· Published in: English texts · FILOSOFIE
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The second volume of Isaiah Berlin’s letters, Enlightening, is so much richer than the first one, Flourishing. Of course, he is maturing, the range of his correspondents is widening, many of his ideas about political philosophy and the history of ideas are crystallising.
Nevertheless, his style remains the same, his humour, the gossip, etc, all that makes his letters such a treat to read. For instance, in the early fifties All Souls had to choose a new Warden, twice. Isaiah writes about the rivalries, the infighting, the quarrels, the fractions, and it all seems a real life example of what C. P. Snow marvellously painted in The Masters.

Sometimes he shows himself a visionary as in a letter of 9 December 1952 to Alice James:

Atomic energy may replace coal and that will transform things a bit; but all this is rather like what was going on already, only more so. But if clerical workers and civil servants are replaced by mechanical memories and brains […] that will upheave our lives totally, and change everybody’s occupations and cause people to need a quite different education and to feel and think quite differently. That is what marks a real change, and all the talk about the ‘atomic age’ is a kind of short-sighted vulgarity.

In the same letter I found this fine passage that gives a synopsis of his philosophy:

So you see, our lives are in tiny Trollope-like units, but I expect all lives are, and there is nothing big in the world but is composed of tiny molecules, each of which is an intelligent fragment of experience in itself, and there are no large lives, but only collections of small worlds and combinations of isolable parts of living, each of which is all important in itself as it occurs; and one should not pursue distant goals and ask for the ultimate reason for anything — as the Russian revolutionary Herzen once said, ‘What is the purpose of the song the singer sings? It is the song.’ If you ask for the ultimate reason, it is because you have not heard the song, or do not like singing.

Berlin was something of a hypochondriac, or at least he gives the impression in his letters. He certainly liked to use his health predicaments to explain why he hadn’t done or couldn’t comply with something. So, while his relationship with Aline Halban was taking form — she was still married, so he couldn’t speak or write about it — he used his well known hypochondria as an excuse not to go to Harvard and other American institutions.
But very soon word got out of their engagement (while she still had to be divorced) and finally he was able to express, sing rather, his extreme joy.

Sometimes he uses his banter, gossip, ideas, views about people, music, history and philosophy, as a smokescreen not to speak about really important events in his life, like his very long secret affair with Aline and like the shattering experience of his visit to Anna Akhmatova in 1946.
He was very aware of the danger of talking too much about his Soviet acquaintances. He almost never mentions Akhmatova, with whom he had a very deep experience. The same goes for Pasternak, who gave Berlin a copy of the manuscript of Doctor Zhivago. And although Berlin was instrumental in getting the novel published, he remains very vague about it in his letters.

He is at his best when he characterises someone in a few picturesque lines. In a letter to his mother (28 November 1955):

The next night I went to hear Oistrakh play […] he was marvellous. First of all it is nice that he looks like a solid Russian Jew. Secondly he plays with freshness, appetite, sweetness of tone, ease, & a simple uncomplicated attitude of a bootmaker making boots. No nonsense.

Music is an aspect that almost never gets noticed, although it has always been stimulating in his life. He regularly visited music festivals, like Bayreuth. He admired Arturo Toscanini as the greatest conductor of all times. In 1954 he became a board member of the Royal Opera House.
In 1958 he was host to Dmitry Shostakovich who came to Oxford to be made an honorary Doctor of Music. Isaiah’s description of Shostakovich’ stay is tremendous.
Later he became befriended to Alfred Brendel, but this will only be obvious in the next volume of letters, to which I am really looking forward. The editor, Henry Hardy, makes an urgent appeal to bring forth letters on the Isaiah Berlin website.

To end, a small self-portrait in a letter to Rowland Burdon-Muller (19 April 1960):

I prefer liberty to efficiency & loose textures to fanatical tidiness, & always will.

Isaiah Berlin


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