things of little relevance

ok isaiah
July 23, 2009, 10:13 am
Filed under: Uncategorized


Over at the TLS, A. N. Wilson exposes that Isaiah Berlin, like the rest of us, has petty social squabbles.

The editors plainly hero worship Berlin, but they have done him a questionable service by revealing his blatant treachery. “He was never sneaky or malevolent”, says Noel Annan in The Book of Isaiah. The letters, alas, do not bear out this kind judgement. Bowra and David Cecil are supposedly among his closest friends, but Berlin, an intellectual as well as a social snob, who despises what he calls the “upper middle brow”, is only too anxious, when corresponding with American academics, to deplore Cecil and Bowra’s publications. To Arthur Schlesinger he cringingly says that he would swap Edmund Wilson for David Cecil “any day”. He tells an American “pansy friend” (Roland Burdon-Miller) that he finds Bowra “rather philistine and uninteresting”.

The 800 pages are peppered with malice about poor A. L. Rowse (a more interesting man than Berlin and ultimately more intellectually distinguished). Rowse “grows more and more impossible and awful daily”. Rowse’s absence is “a source of happiness”. Rowse is “more Malvolio like than ever”. Yet to Rowse himself, Berlin writes an Iago-like letter in which he says, “One cannot live for twenty years on and off with someone as wonderful & unique as, if you’ll let me say so, you are & not develop a strong and permanent bond”. It is hard to like the author of this letter. The whole volume, indeed, fills the reader with a gloom which was surely not intended by the editors. If the reader, and even more the conscientious reviewer, who has read each page with notebook in hand, feels that the exercise of reading was a waste of time, that only half explains the misery that the exercise provokes. Reading the book, after all, takes only a week. But writing these tedious, infelicitous, prolix letters took fourteen years of a clever man’s life. While he was writing them, and regurgitating the same old thoughts about Maistre, Herzen and co, A. L. Rowse was producing those readable, well-researched volumes The England of Elizabeth, Ralegh and the Throckmortons, The Early Churchills, The Later Churchills, etc. Berlin’s repeated jokes about Wittgenstein, likewise, seem counterproductive on the page. “Nothing is more terrible than religious Wittgensteinism”, he writes – merely making this reader think that the author of The Hedgehog and the Fox was not worthy to lick the boots of the author of Philosophical Investigations.

While I appreciate that A.N. Wilson reveals new facets of Isaiah Berlin’s character, I’m a bit uncomfortable with Wilson’s value judgment. It’s unfair to expect Isaiah Berlin to be high-minded in all areas of his life, even a historian of ideas deserves some mental downtime. A friend once had this to say about snooping around someone’s e-mail inbox, “You only find out what you don’t want to know,” which is really true.  Personally, I like knowing that Berlin wasn’t constantly intellectual and was awed by Greta Garbo. Others, however, are less accepting of frivolity. If we are to publish some public figure’s private writings, either journals or correspondence, we can’t begrudge them for having normal human tendencies.


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An interesting piece. I found Wilson’s article blunt in the extreme, but worse, it was without context.

Wilson was incorrect certainly when he wrote ‘A. L. Rowse (a more interesting man than Berlin and ultimately more intellectually distinguished)’, since Rowse was not original, where as Berlin who was if not completely original (who is) than was certainly more ‘groundbreaking’ in his impact. Above all Rowse was the snob of snobs, and therefore can not be used in an argument against Berlin on that front.

Comment by Nathan P. Bridle

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