Pullulating with people and gossip

October 22, 2004

Alex Danchev admires an impresario given to perfervid profusions of excess, but finds unleavened Isaiah liable to be tedious.

"I have a natural tendency to gossip," burbled Isaiah Berlin to his biographer, "to describing things, to noticing things, to interest in human beings and their characters, to interplay between human beings, which is completely independent of my intellectual pursuits." In this he was misled or self-deceived. The tendency to gossip and so on was his intellectual pursuit. As Noel Annan observed: "His thoughts, his theories always refer to people: the very life he leads pullulates with people." It is the people who animate the ideas. His role was to introduce them, one to another, and at the same time to us. Isaiah the impresario.

His letters perform this function. They are themselves introductions, and he clearly found the form congenial. Berlin was a prodigious talker. His best letters read like talk transcribed. Consciously or unconsciously embedded in some are early versions of celebrated texts - more celebrated than read, perhaps - but undeniably influential in the 20th-century traffic of ideas. These passages are not so much trial runs as riffs on responses, encounters with the living and the dead. "I have suddenly begun to read Turgenev in Russian and am now reading him wildly in a sort of intoxication," he wrote to Stephen Spender in 1932. "I believe he often does much better than he intends: that he starts out by trying to sketch some general well-known type of Russian and cannot help noting various personal characteristics that are irrelevant to the type, but produce living individuals: whereas Tolstoy is trying quite consciously, almost aloud, not to lose himself in generalities, but is continually and successfully pumping temperament and blood into his characters, knowing what he is doing." Twenty years later this emerged as The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953).

To Elizabeth Bowen: "I am reading Malebranche, who says that a better world than ours might exist, but it would be far more complicated, and God being good, and desiring to give us a world not wholly unintelligible, produced this compromise between simplicity and goodness, which he thinks (odd interesting view!) incompatible. Hence our miserable makeshift universe.

Indeed, if our universe is the best of all possible worlds, what must the others be like? (I am not sure the last pensee fits me at all well.) Did not Kant say 'out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made?' This [is] irrelevant but impressive, don't you agree?"

Irrelevant and impressive as it was, it became a kind of mantra.

Bowen elicits some of the most magnificent letters here, and some of the most self-revealing. On Henry James and personal relations: "The oversensitiveness with which James... deal(s) leads logically to the theory that we - the intellectuals, the sensitives, the observers, the persons who discuss - are cripples: able to peer from all sorts of unusual angles, able to move ourselves simultaneously 9/10 way in every direction: but thereby we deprive ourselves of the right of life... but (tho' possibly this is self-defence - but what remark is not, if pressed with sufficient malice and skill?) - I wish to maintain that the doctrine is simply false, that relations are possible, and daily occur, in broad daylight, neurotic perhaps, but direct, not a perpetual generation and corruption, but a direct activity between persons... People give themselves wholly and lose nothing irrecoverable and, unless one does, and has confidence, and is deceived, and generally plunges, plumps, commits, a close subterranean atmosphere will continue to enclose and enervate all attempts at stabilising oneself at this or that level, nothing will ever be anything rather (than) something else, one will endlessly slip and lose grip... I cannot conceive why I am being so vehement. Deflation is required."

Not all the letters reach this pitch. Nevertheless, at some 700 pages for two decades - and Berlin not yet 40 - the doting editor allows the drooping reader rather too much deflation for comfort. Annan remarked that Berlin "will always use two words where one will not do". That may be true of the lectures and elogés that were his characteristic forms of public address; for those occasions the familiar perfervid profusion was closely monitored and frequently revised. But even Berlin can be dull and the unleavened Isaiah of the letters is liable to be tedious, not least on college men and their skunk-like morals.

For Henry Hardy, more exhumer than editor, the whole assemblage is plainly a labour of love. This first instalment is beautifully produced and copiously annotated. The apparatus will irritate or intrigue, according to taste. Berlin's observation that "the house is full of vicious members of the aristocracy: eg, Lady Prudence Pelham", for example, serves to license a stupendous footnote of a kind quite out of fashion. "Younger daughter (1910-52) of Jocelyn Brudenell Pelham, sixth Earl of Chichester, Prudence Pelham was a sculptor and a lettering pupil and friend of Eric Gill, and also a friend of the painter and poet David Jones; Victor Rothschild was in love with her before he married. In 1939 she married Guy Branch, killed in the Second World War; she later lived with the painter Robert Buhler, changing her surname to his by deed poll, but not marrying him (she needed her widow's pension)I She called IB 'the Burler bear', and wrote a limerick about him with E. C. Hodgkin: 'Com'è molto gentile ce Burler/ Who dislikes to be woken too earler/ He probes all his friends/ But to make them amends/ He'll make debutante talk to a girler.'" And so it goes on.

Flourishing is fascinating. As a grab bag of Berlin, it bears out John Sparrow: " Nimiety - that's your weakness!" Nimiety means excess.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Nottingham University.

Flourishing: Letters 1928-1946

Author - Isaiah Berlin
Editor - Henry Hardy
Publisher - Chatto and Windus
Pages - 755
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 0 7011 7420 X

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