Sunday, November 13, 2005

Michael Ignatieff, 'Isaiah Berlin: A Life'

How can a book about someone who writes books be interesting? Read Michael Ignatieff's page-turning and hugely inspiring (authorised) biography of Isaiah Berlin to find out. As usual, I can't resist sharing a few gems -

Words of advice to Isaiah from friend Stephen Spender, who relentlessly sought to bring home to Berlin and his circle the realities of interwar European politics (p. 53, my edition, from the chapter entitled 'Oxford, 1928-32):

...if our world is a world of violence, of rawness, then [when] one leaves Oxford one is bound to have to deal with it, so it is best to accept the real conditions of contemporary life as soon as possible. One has got to put up with them for better or worse, and the only hope of changing them is in facing them, not in living in a dream of the old world. But I am tired of saying what is so obvious to me. The point is that if philosophy withdraws to the seclusion of Oxford and is studied by people who see nothing outside of Oxford, it will create a remote idealistic world which is quite as cloistered as the Church ever was, but which provides a trap for people with brains, which the Church no longer does (pace T. S. Eliot).

I'm not sure Berlin would ever have agreed with the Oxford v. real world tone of the letter, but the sentiment must surely have resonated with him and can perhaps be seen in his own move away from the clean bright lines of logical positivism to the fuzziness of the history of ideas. People, places, history, context - all these things mattered to him. In any case, Berlin did do things outside of Oxford (I'm only halfway through, so I don't know what all), but he seems to have been the FO's eyes and ears in the United States during the crucial war years, gauging the mood of American opinion and advising Whitehall on how best it might draw the US into the war. As things turned out, the Japanese solved the problem for them.

But back to Berlin and Oxford. There are so many casual references to intellectual giants strolling about in Christ Church meadow or on Addison's Walk that I am looking out from my bedroom window at cobbled lamplit Merton Street with a new reverence. Here, for example, is this account of a dinner at New College (p. 65) -

It was to Elizabeth Bowen that he wrote in November 1933, after he met Virginia Woolf at dinner at the Fishers' [Warden's lodgings] in New College Lodge. Woolf had the fine-boned beauty he was to find attractive in women and he was fascinated by her way of speaking. Warden Fisher asked her whether she liked walking, and she replied that she did, because she liked coming upon goats. 'They look so ecclesiastical,' she said. [thariel: Personally, I think a tutorial run by Virginia Woolf would have been an absolute nightmare. Can you imagine her running off at tangents and saying the most random things that came to her mind?] After dinner, Isaiah retired into a corner with the Magdalen don C. S. Lewis. They talked unctuously about 'God, Shakespeare and the charade of life', until Isaiah overheard Virginia, nearby, mention Elizabeth Bowen. He stepped forward and said that she was in America. A halting conversation then ensued about literature, before she turned away to talk to other guests. While Isaiah felt he had been rewarded with a few moments in the Elysian Fields, Mrs. Woolf's reaction was considerably more caustic: 'I should think there were one hundred promising undergraduates in after dinner; and I shook hands with all, and tried to think what to say, but oh dear what a farce! One might as well go to a school treat and hand out penny buns [thariel: so this is what VIPs are thinking when they come to play chief guest, duh!]. There was the great Isaiah Berlin, a Portuguese Jew by the look of him [thariel: Virginia could be quite an anti-Semite, apparently, especially when she was mad], Oxford's leading light; a communist, I think, a fire-eater - but at Herbert's [Fisher] everyone minces and mouths and you wouldn't guess to talk to them that they had a spark.

Oh, and I can't resist this (as you've probably figured by now, I have a way of quoting the most irrelevant things) (p. 59):

The passage from an undergraduate to a don's life proved a highly disagreeable shock. The senior common room at New College was mortally dull. 'Everyone talked about automobiles and by-passes.' Jasper Ridley, a brilliant philosophy undergraduate at Balliol, put his head round the door of the New College senior common room, took one look and whispered, 'Who are these gargoyles?' Now Isaiah was one of the gargoyles. The realisation made him miserable. The first time he dined at high table he was so utterly mute that Crossman [thariel: some character] hissed at him across the table, 'Be bright, Berlin, be bright. If you aren't, they won't take to you, you know.'

Erm...whatever. As with all narratives dealing with this time, there are references to the Spanish Civil War and what people thought about what was going on there. The thing that strikes me about the civil war is that everyone who was remotely politically engaged had an opinion on the civil war and on which side they would have been on (I ran a workshop on the Iraq war on Saturday and was struck by the number of self-avowedly leftwing activisty types who said they were unsure about their feelings re: the invasion of Iraq because they simply weren't sure who to believe. Fair enough, but the singular thing about the Spanish civil war (and possibly WW2 - so it can't be singular) was the absolute sense of conviction - people knew which side they were on and many acted on those convictions. You don't get that now. (p. 72)

Like most of his friends on the left, Berlin supported the republican side in Spain. As he told Sheila Grant Duff, the Spanish cause was the litmus test which told you, infallibly, where your friends stood politically. But he added that it was about the only political issue that was clear-cut: 'on all other issues (e.g. Palestine) no clear proposition can be uttered which is not in some degree unjust to someone'.

That's funny, Mr. Berlin, because Palestine is exactly the issue that I would have chosen as the litmus test for today. Why today? Even in 1948, as an Indian, I would have been dumbfounded to hear talk of a 'land without people for a people without land'. I would have thought that by then, the language of terra nullius (with its often racist implications in practice) would have been discredited beyond all doubt. I would also have been struck by the unfairness of a partition plan that gave 56% of the country to 31% of the population, at a time when they owned 7% of the land [thariel: Khalidi] and, frankly, I too would have rejected such a plan. I would have been horrified by the Holocaust, but I would not have seen why I should have to give up my home for a people who had been wronged by Fascist (and to a lesser extent, Liberal) European Christendom. In any case, the Berlin quote above is from a letter that he wrote to Sheila Grant Duff in August 1936, well before the events that we now refer to as 'the Holocaust' had even begun. In 1936, Palestine was very much more clear-cut and Berlin had no business being as ethically ambivalent about it as he was (particularly because as a dyed-in-the-wool liberal who fully endorsed the separation of church and state, he should have been pooh-poohing scriptural claims to land). But of course I am reacting to all of this as an Indian, and Isaiah - I think it is fair to say - reacted as a Jew. That makes his position on Palestine understandable, but a dead disappointment. (Edward Said concurs, btw, but I'm too tired to quote - see 'Isaiah Berlin: An Afterthought', in The End of the Peace Process.)

Palestine is simply not the centre of our intellectual and ethical maps in the way that the Spanish Civil War was. In part this is because the Israelis are a much tougher opponent to be morally up against than the Fascists (and, ironically enough for this discussion, because of the Fascists). Their history of oppression gives them a moral high ground that is difficult to assail without earning the oft-hurled epithet 'anti-Semite'. Further, the entire Oslo peace process has given the conflict the unfortunate and inaccurate appearance of having been solved, as a result of which the world finds it easy to look away. There is the semblance of Palestinian self-rule, but none of the hard issues have been resolved (sovereignty, statehood, borders, Jerusalem, refugees, water). Meanwhile the settler population has more than doubled, Israeli bypass roads connecting settlements and the dreadful 'Separation Barrier' have reduced Palestinian areas to an archipelago of moth-eaten bantustans. The upshot of all this is that Israel retains control of the OTs, with no responsibility for governance or the actual life-conditions of Palestinians.

This post wasn't meant to be about Palestine, but I simply can't understand - given the situation there - why it doesn't function as the Spanish Civil War of our time. If we cannot oppose the nearest surviving approximation to colonialism and apartheid, what the hell else can serve as a litmus test?

Your prolific quotations, and musings about ideas, makes me want to quote something i read in the New Yorker (Louis Menand) article about George Orwell.

If ideas were to stand or fall on the basis of their logically possible consequences, we would have no ideas, because the ultimate conceivable consequence of every idea is an absurdity—is, in some way, "against life." We don't live just by ideas. Ideas are part of the mixture of customs and practices, intuitions and instincts that make human life a conscious activity susceptible to improvement or debasement. A radical idea may be healthy as a
provocation; a temperate idea may be stultifying. It depends on the
circumstances. One of the most tiresome arguments against ideas is that their "tendency" is to some dire condition—to totalitarianism, or to moral
relativism, or to a war of all against all. Orwell did not invent this kind of argument, but he provided, in "1984," a vocabulary for its deployment.

Dear S ;
I have no friggin idea what you're writing about. Are you going to be a famous writer?
oooh... i'd like to be! sorry about inaccessibility, sometimes my interests get incredibly parochial. i'm seriously in need of inspiration these days, so am reading biographies of oxford grandees just to convince myself that i'm doing things worth doing.
'Be bright, Berlin, be bright. If you aren't, they won't take to you, you know.' PERFECT advice to an aspiring Oxford don. Don't you think?

Otherwise, as always, very well written!
Ok, i might not know how to pronounce parochial, but i'll bet the oxford guys you're reading about never read biographies of oxford guys :P

If you're having fun doing what you're doing, then it worth it, i say.

Are you people serious? I can't believe that you would accept the hopelessly ignorant and serial liar Edward Said as an authority on these matters!

It really saddens me that so many people, particularly western middle-class university types who treat "Orientalism" as though it were unassailable holy scripture, the second law of thermodynamics or DNA code!

Said was a crank and an intellectual crook. True historians see him for what he was: a lying opportunistic whinger who simply could not admit that the Arab muslim world started to die in the 15th century, and that they haven't had the balls to admit ever since.

Enough already! What is wrong with these people? If it's not the Mongols, the Turks, the Persians, it's the British, the French, the Americans and "the Jews.

Time for them to grow up, shut up, and stop boring the shit out of the rest of us.

I hope this helps.

thariel - you say you are reading bios of former Oxford Grandees etc. so you must by now have grasped that there is nothing you can learn from the past - if there was anything to be learned, why would history keep repeating itself. We have always had people of great intellect who are ultimately as racist, egoistic, vain and warmongering as the most uneducated knuckle dragging troglodyte. Look at any present day newspaper in any country int he world and watch the so called great intellects fucking with people's lives.

regards SexyBeauty
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?