Isaiah Berlin: Letters 1928 – 1946 (2004)


…the pluralist view of the ultimate human ideals that supports (Berlin’s) liberal stance…. In contrast to the great majority of ideologies and creeds that humanity has created, he argued that not all values can be jointly realised in one life, or in a single society or period of history, and that many ideals cannot even be compared on a common scale; so that there is no single objective ranking of ends, no uniquely right set of principles by which to live.

From this it follows not only that people should be free (within the crucial but rather broad limits set by the demands of sheer humanity), both individually and collectively, to adopt their own guiding priorities and visions of life; but also…that a perfect, frictionless society, as well as being impossible in practice, is in principle incoherent as an ideal.

–Henry Hardy

Berlin’s early letters, edited by Henry Hardy, do not match his later ones, but they show his vision of the growing Nazi menace and they dramatize his movement from philosopher to historian of ideas. Throughout his dozens and dozens of letters to the prominent, the academic and the bureaucratic, as well as to a circle of lifelong friends, you come across depths of understanding of art, politics, philosophy, domestic and foreign affairs, Washington, DC, during the World War Two years and much else. Intensity and passionate interest and ruthless honesty make his letters often treasures of informal thinking and general observation and commentary.

Here are a handful of serious and sometimes funny passages on one of his interests, the joys and challenges of writing narratives and how narratives affect us:

“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.”

“Darwin (did you know he demanded a happy ending to every story, & said if the central figure was a pretty woman why so much the better)….”

“(Henry) James with all his genius for slow, courteous, ruthless evisceration of every situation, was unable to find sufficient real material to satisfy his craftsmanship….”

“I therefore read Mr. Yeats’ Autobiography which I enjoy very much indeed: his…unselfconsciousness (is), after a term in Oxford, unusually delicious.”

“(T.S.) Eliot …practises a sort of exhibitionist restraint and wry jokes: pseudo-grimness is also ridiculous.”

“…a Mrs. (Virginia) Woolf state, in which everything occurred with the greatest lucidity and dramatic value but under a thin crust, not of glass, but of ice, which absorbed all firsthand qualities, and only allowed a schematized, nevertheless very full and vivid version of everything to appear.”

“…Miltonic properties of creating a world of colossal strength & beauty from the earliest beginning of any sentence.”

“I heard the second half of  Oklahoma with great delight…. My actual memories of the Great West are completely superseded by this far more vivid and memorable series of sights and sounds.”

Would Darwin have been a fan of Harlequin Romance novels? I’ve never read a more telling comment on Henry James. Eliot is dazed but the ref will probably let him continue when T.S. gets up at the count of eight. Sounds like Virginia and Henry should have met on eHarmony. Milton and Rogers and Hammerstein…I can almost see Milton’s scowl relaxing when he hears “The Surrey With The Fringe On Top” (though he might be more sympatico with “Poor Jud Is Dead”).

A car pulled into our place a couple of days ago, but it wasn’t Berlin; just a guy looking for an address further down the road. I decided not to ask him about Darwin’s reading favorites.

I still have my ear cocked toward our driveway.