Isaiah Berlin: A Life

Isaiah Berlin: A Life

by Michael Ignatieff, Ignatieff

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Now in paperback, the landmark biography of the preeminent liberal thinker of our time, from celebrated social critic Michael Ignatieff. of photos.  See more details below


Now in paperback, the landmark biography of the preeminent liberal thinker of our time, from celebrated social critic Michael Ignatieff. of photos.

Editorial Reviews

Richard Bernstein
. . .[A]dmirable, clearheaded and readable. . .[that] explains why Berlin is celebrated. . .[and] why the celebration is justified. . . .[I]t would be difficult in light of the experience of the century to come up with a clearer and more humane political credo than the one we owe to Isaiah Berlin.
New York Times
Michael Dirda
Concise, crisply written, always intelligent. . .and valuable.
Washington Post Book World
Ian Buruma
Michel Ignatieff has written a fine biography in the spirit of his subject. . .entertaining without ever lacking in seriousness.
New Republic
Noel Annan
A fine biography of the most remarkable intellectual of his generation.
Literary Review(London)
Ralf Dahrendorf
A rare gem of a book. We knew we had to read Isaiah Berlin's writing, but now also know that his long and extraordinary life has as much to tell us.
Sunday Times (London)
Steven Marcus
A touching portrait and a labor of love. . .a rounded view of an extraordinarily distinguished mind. —The New York Times Book Review
Algis Valiunas
Men are never more bloodthirsty, Berlin writes again and again, than when they are in the grip of an idea about the ultimate good: To be certain that one knows the single true way in which humanity ought to live bends one toward murderousness, for those who disagree cannot be permitted to impede mankind's progress toward unqualified happiness. —The American Spectator
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Over the last 10 years of Isaiah Berlin's life (1909-1997), Ignatieff tape-recorded conversations with the philosopher in what he describes as "a virtuoso display of a great intelligence doing battle with loss." Because this biography is based primarily on these talks--as well as on interviews with Berlin's widow, friends, students and colleagues--the tone is informally conversational rather than pedantically authoritative. After a prosperous childhood in Latvia, Berlin's family was forced to move to London, where young Isaiah absorbed the British values of decency, the toleration of dissent and the importance of liberty over efficiency. At Oxford, he developed intellectually under the likes of Stephen Spender, W.H. Auden, R.G. Collingwood, Elizabeth Bowen and Virginia Woolf. Berlin did well at Oxford--he was elected Tutor at New College, Fellow of All Souls--but with war coming, he welcomed a chance to work for the Ministry of Information, first in the U.S., where his brilliant wartime dispatches (avidly read by Churchill) established his reputation in both Britain and America, and later as part of a Foreign Office team in Moscow (where he met Boris Pasternak) and Leningrad (where he began his transformative friendship with Anna Akhmatova). Throughout the book, Ignatieff concentrates on his subject's conversation and flow of ideas. Berlin championed freedom but not dogmatically. In his view, to be true to human nature in its diversity, we have to embrace contradictory values; otherwise, we lose our humanity. Ignatieff's biography is worthy of its subject, lucidly explaining how this "Paganini of words" used philosophy to defend civilized society.
Library Journal
Ignatieff (The Warrior's Honor, LJ 1/98) met and conferred with Berlin periodically over a ten-year period until Berlin's death at the age of 88 in 1997. He also spent hours talking to Berlin's wife and friends and had complete access to his papers and a collection of his letters. Berlin also "opened himself up" fully to Ignatieff, which has resulted in an intimate, revealing portrait of a man who knew just about everybody of importance in his lifetime--artists, musicians, writers, philosophers, politicians. The account is more or less chronological, from Berlin's birth in Riga, Latvia, to his emigration to London at age 11, to his appointment to teach philosophy at Oxford, to his wartime diplomatic service in America and Europe, and his subsequent abandoning of academic philosophy to pursue political theory and the history of ideas, especially the ideas of liberty and freedom. A good biography should leave readers feeling that they know the subject intimately, and this is definitely a good biography. For both academic and public libraries.--Leon H. Brody, U.S. Office of Personnel Mgt. Lib., Washingon, DC
Jay Tolson
...[A]n intimate, intelligent, and succinct life of one of the more widely loved men of this century....[Ignatieff] shares with his subject a fine liberal temperament....liberal ideals...serve as the guiding themes of this biography.
WQ: The Wilson Quarterly
Martin Sieff
In Michael Ignatieff's book, this great and good man is celebrated,a nd his lessons for the ages taught anew.
National Review
Kirkus Reviews
A polished life story of the century's pre-eminent liberal (in the classic sense) philosopher. Just as Berlin's critics complained he never wrote a single-volume magnum opus but only essays, Berlin's friends wondered why he never wrote his autobiography and instead circulated his reminiscences in his incomparable conversation. British television talk host and New York Review of Books contributor Ignatieff (The Warrior's Honor Ethic) listened Boswell-like to Berlin for over a decade, initially as another interviewer, then as a potential biographer. The resultant work stands essentially as the authorized life, equitable and sometimes revelatory, particularly about Berlin's complicated relation to Zionism. It solidly locates Berlin, always an outsider on the inside, in his many worlds during what he called "the worst century there has ever been." Quite uncharacteristically for an Oxford don who thrived in the cloistered university environment, his ability to appear in historical flash points seems almost preternatural as related here. Despite Berlin's own complaints of an exiled existence's "discontinuities," Ignatieff's account succeeds in drawing out the thematic threads in the linked episodes of Berlin's life: from his Russian childhood during the Bolshevik Revolution and his Oxford education during the rise of logical positivism to his Foreign Office posting in Washington, D.C., just before America's entry into WWII and his journey to Russia at the beginning of the Cold War. In this last, vividly recounted episode, Berlin managed to see the Russian poets Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova at precisely the moment when they needed contact with the West after Stalin'srepressions. Coming away from these meetings, Berlin's philosophic path for liberty, liberalism, and pluralism was set for the course of the Cold War. During Berlin's post-war rise to fame, Ignatieff cogently glosses the development of his thought while keeping an eye on his personal career, which culminated in the presidency of Oxford's newest graduate college. An informed, smoothly executed portrait of a philosophic fox's lifetime pursuing hedgehog ideas.

From the Publisher
"A model biography of the man of ideas." —Richard Bernstein, The New York Times

"Remarkable. It cannot be overstated how sublimely Ignatieff takes the measure of this man."—Carlin Romano, The Philadelphia Inquirer

"Rarely were biographer and subject better matched. Everything Ignatieff writes, he feels on his pulse." —Stephen Toulmin, Los Angeles Times

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Product Details

Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
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6.42(w) x 9.48(h) x 1.19(d)

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Chapter One


The Albany is set back behind a small carriage yard off Piccadilly, opposite Hatchards bookshop and Fortnum & Mason's. It was established in the late eighteenth century as a residence for gentlemen with estates in the country who wished to have a pied-a-terre in town. In the long lobby leading to the garden there is a bust of Byron, who lived there in 1816, and plaques to other Victorian worthies, Lord Melbourne, Lord Chancellor Eldon and Viscount Palmerston. All the male English institutions -- the public schools, the Oxford and Cambridge colleges, the London clubs, the Inns of Court -- have a family resemblance, and the Albany belongs to that family. The corridor is high, cold and austere; the mosaic tiles gleam underfoot; and there are burnished boards high on the walls, listing the secretaries of the management committee, running continuously back to 1799.

    His rooms lie at the end of the covered wooden walkway that extends the length of the garden. Framed between sashed curtains, gentlemen can be seen taking tea in their drawing rooms. All of his life has been spent in places just like this, in the walled gardens and high-windowed rooms of English institutional privilege.

    He answers the bell himself and allows himself to be kissed, in the Russian fashion, once on each cheek and once for good measure. It is a declaration of our common Russian ancestry, the formal beginning and ending to all our meetings. He always wears the same sober, dark-coloured suit, with a buttoned waistcoat and cuffed trousers. The tailoring is conservative, the worsted of the best quality. His black lace-up shoes are well polished and fissured with tiny cracks of age. He usually wears one particular tie with a pattern of Penny Black stamps. Dangling from his waistcoat pocket, at the end of a chain, is a lorgnette-like pair of pearl magnifiers, which he places on top of his glasses in order to read small print.

    He leads me into a cosy room with a view of the walkway and a fine set of eighteenth-century French etchings on the walls. Embossed invitations line the mantelpiece. He slowly settles down into the battered, white easy chair next to the fire. The phone is at his elbow and it rings often. When it does, the same sequence of gestures ensues. He mutters, `With pleasure, with pleasure, now let me see', cups the receiver between neck and shoulder, retrieves his diary from his waistcoat pocket, pushes his glasses above his eyebrows, places his pince-nez on the bridge of his nose, fingers the diary pages, ponders, then says, `Wednesday at 3 p.m.', scribbles, repockets his diary, puts down the phone, blinks and says, `Now where were we?' His social network stretches from Jerusalem to Washington, from his generation to my own; the web encompasses academe, publishing, politics and the arts, and a good part of his life now is spent keeping up with its intrigues, dramas, fallings-out and comings back together.

    In front of him on the coffee table are spread a cluster of tins containing salted almonds and a type of Finnish crispbread, which he spirits along to dinner parties in his suit pockets. On the bookcase nearest his chair rises a ziggurat of chocolate bars. He is an inveterate nibbler, popping nuts and chocolate into his mouth as he talks, leaning forward in his chair to forage in the tins with his right hand. The left arm usually remains curled in, close to his body.

    Next to the tins is a newly published book, often from a former student (`I never read anything any more,' he sighs), a plump manuscript of his, revised by his editor Henry Hardy and awaiting his reaction (`I can't bear to read myself, let alone anybody else'). But each morning he avidly peruses The Times. The faces stare up from its obituary pages -- the wife of a Law Lord, a professor of physics, and once a woman he loved. He lingered over her face: `Wildly untruthful she was. Wildly. But desirable to the last degree.' He shakes his head. `All I seem to do at my age is attend funerals.' In teasing mode, I report that in Paris they say, `Mais Berlin est mort, n'est-ce pas?' `Perhaps I am,' he says with a small smile.

    In the pictures of him in the 1930s -- walking in Magdalen Gardens, standing in a slanting beam of light in All Souls' quad -- he is a plump, small-shouldered figure in a three-piece suit, with curly black hair and dark eyes behind thick glasses, his right hand cupping his left arm at the elbow. He half-turns away from the camera or strikes a mock-solemn pose. His oldest friends say he has changed little. `A baby elephant, always the same baby elephant,' Stephen Spender said to me. In the earliest pictures of him taken by a Riga society photographer in 1910, even at the age of one, his eyes are striking -- large, dark, playful, intelligent, already amused. He has kept the certainties he began with, as the loved only child of a prosperous Jewish merchant's family. The same gaze still meets the world eighty-seven years later.

    His voice is astonishingly rapid and, for the uninitiated, nearly incomprehensible. Joseph Brodsky once said that his English was just like his Russian, only faster, `courting the speed of light'. He seems to bubble and rattle like a samover on the boil. Virginia Woolf, who first met him at a dinner in New College in November 1933, said that he looked like a swarthy Portuguese Jew and talked with the vivacity and assurance of a young Maynard Keynes. The genealogy of his vocal mannerisms is the story of how all the layers of his identity settled into his voice. In the earliest tapes of his lectures, the voice is a Russian impersonation of strangulated Oxford upper-class diction, all tight lips and clipped vowel sounds, unconsciously borrowed from the beau ideal of the 1930s, his lifelong friend and rival, Maurice Bowra. Old friends, like George Weidenfeld, also hear some of David Cecil in the melodic gabbling, the helter-skelter pace. It is ironic that the voice which two generations of British radio listeners took to be the voice of the Oxford intellect should actually have been a Riga Jew's unconscious impersonation of his English contemporaries. Over time, it went from being an impersonation to being the man himself. Now, in the last quarter of his life, Russian recidivism has occurred. Old Slavic and Jewish sonorities have re-asserted themselves and the delivery has slowed from a gabble to a confidential murmur.

    The voice is the despair of typists and stenographers: there seems nothing to cling to, no pauses, no paragraphing, no full stops. Yet after a time one learns that the murmur has an arcane precision all its own. There are sentences always; paragraphs always. Even if the subordinate clauses open up a parenthesis that seems to last for ever, they do close, eventually, in a completed thought. Each sentence carries clarity along its spine with qualification entwined around it. The order is melodic, intuitive and associational rather than logical. This darting, leaping style of speaking is a style of thinking: he outlines a proposition and anticipates objections and qualifications as he speaks, so that both proposition and qualification are spun out in one and the same sentence simultaneously. Since he dictates all of his written work, the way he writes and the way he talks are identical: ornate, elaborate, old-fashioned, yet incisive and clear. Judging from school compositions, he was writing and talking like this when he was eleven.

    Inarticulate intelligences have to struggle across the gulf between word and thought; with him, word and thought lead each other on unstoppably. He suspects his own facility and thinks that inarticulate intelligence may be deeper and more authentic, but his facility is one secret of his serenity. Words come at his bidding and they form into sentences and paragraphs as quickly as he can bring them on. Since the Romantics, the life of the mind has been associated with solitude, anguish and inner division. With him, it has been synonymous with wit, irony and pleasure.

    To love thinking, as he does, you must be quick, but you must also be sociable. He hates thinking alone and regards it as a monstrosity. With him, thinking is indistinguishable from talking, from striking sparks, from bantering, parrying and playing. His talk is famous, not only because it is quick and acute, but because it implies that thought is a joint sortie into the unknown. What people remember about his conversation is not what he said -- he is no wit and no epigrams have attached themselves to his name -- but the experience of having been drawn into the salon of his mind. This is why his conversation is never a performance. It is not his way of putting on a show; it is his way of being in company.

    He will tell you that he is `intolerably ugly'. Certainly it is a noble rather than a handsome face, but age has thinned him down, greying the hair around his balding head, exposing the eyebrows, the expressive nose and the strong cheek and jaw-lines. When he is not pursing his lips into a frown or a mock expression of disapproval, they have a fine, full shape. He looks now as if he was always supposed to look like this, as if his whole life was leading him towards this appearance of rabbinical wisdom. But it is an ironic result, since he is by conviction and temperament as unrabbinical as it is possible for an old Jew to be.

    Ageing has been a gentle gradient so far, but it is getting steeper. He has the small-shouldered stoop of an old man. His hearing is less good than it used to be: he finds it hard to follow the ebb and flow of talk around the long, baize-covered table where the fellows gather for All Souls' elections; and he finds large dinner parties a trial; but concerts give him and his wife, Aline, as much pleasure as ever. Every performance is inventoried in his mind in a receding series, stretching back to the Salzburg of the 1930s, to the Queen's Hall, to auditoria long demolished and performers -- Kempf, Schnabel, Solomon, Lipatti -- long departed.

    Being renowned for acuteness of mind means that his friends watch him -- and he watches himself -- for any signs of falling off. As far as he is concerned, falling off is occurring daily. `I can't remember a thing,' he will say, and then, just to confound his fears, he will set about (`Wait, wait, here it comes') retrieving the name of a conductor in a Salzburg festival programme in August 1932. His memory is freakish, so unusually fine-grained as to seem scarcely human, and so effortlessly in command of his past that he gives the impression of having accumulated everything and lost nothing.

    He always claims that he does not find himself in the least interesting. This is artful and disingenuous, since many of his best stories are about himself, but it is true that he seems self-contained rather than self-absorbed. He does listen to other human beings and appears to hear what they say, though it is a curious and not especially warm form of listening, more like a pause between his own talk. He is often criticised by activist friends for being more interested in inner experience than in public commitment. But that is the man: more curious about the varieties of human self-deception than realpolitik.

    His only noticeable form of narcissism is hypochondria. He likes being mildly, curably ill. He loves doctors, regimes, nursing homes; he will take to his bed at the slightest provocation. Students remember him conducting tutorials from his bed, the covers scattered with books, papers, cups of tea and biscuits. On the night table of the small single bed where he sleeps now, next to his wife's room, there is a platoon of pill bottles, ointments, boxes, tumblers of water. He will tell you he is faring badly, but the truth is that he has benefited from an almost complete dispensation from the ills of the flesh. His good fortune, in this and almost every other respect, is maddening. To the degree that luck is a real category shaping lives, he is one of the luckiest men alive.

    The thought of writing his memoirs fills him with dismay. `Never,' he says and then shudders with comic finality. Besides, he fears his own candour and does not want it to find its way into print. But if he wasn't going to write his own life, then who, said his friends, would capture some of his talk before it was lost? That was how this book began in September 1987. I was not a former student or surrogate son: he seems to have been born without a paternal instinct. I was simply there, initially, to interview him. I taped his talk, hour after hour, like a servant taking buckets to a fountain. When he agreed to a biography, after we had worked together for several years, it was his decision that it be published posthumously, and that he should not read a word of it. `Apres moi, le deluge,' he said.

    The afternoons at Albany continued for a decade. Beneath the continuous low murmur of his voice, the tape recorder on the low coffee table also picked up the click of almonds in their tins and registered the chimes of the French clock on the mantelpiece as it sounded the hours. One question from me would set him talking for an hour as he roved back and forward, telling and re-telling the old stories, sweeping across decades, past famous faces, pausing over obscure people for the simple pleasure of proving to himself that they had not been forgotten. The ambition was to enfold all his experience -- literally every last letter and bus-ticket, every remembered joke and remark -- into a crisp, economical story which, once elaborated, polished and given its punch-line, could then be filed away in the labyrinthine archive of his mind, safe from the ruin of time. It was a virtuoso display of a great intelligence doing battle with loss.

    I heard the same stories many times, as if repetition proved that he had mastered his life, penetrated its darkest corners and dispelled its silences. It became obvious why he never wrote an autobiography: his stories had done the trick. They both saved the past and saved him from introspection.

   His candour about his past, like the candour about his illnesses, was very Russian. He told me everything, but only when I learned to ask the right questions. He let me read his letters, and they turned out to be as spontaneous as his talk. He was prodigal with words and time. To an obscure graduate student in Oregon he would expound his distinction between two concepts of liberty with the same gusto that he devoted to sharing gossip with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. In this endless flow of verbal facility, it seemed as if he genuinely believed that he could be personal with almost anyone.

    He was candid about sex; more than candid about his friends; candid about his failings. He liked to say that his success -- professorships, a knighthood, the Order of Merit -- depended upon a systematic over-estimation of his abilities. `Long may this continue,' he always said.

    Self-denigration came naturally, but it was also a pre-emptive strike against criticism. `I am an intellectual taxi; people flag me down and give me destinations and off I go' was all he would ever offer, when pressed to say what his intellectual agenda had been. Yet this was wrong. Many of his essays were demanded of him by chance and circumstances, but he accepted only the assignments that fitted his own itinerary. There is no doubt that there was an itinerary and, when he had completed it, the result was a unique and coherent body of work. To use the distinction he made famous, the range of his work may make him seem like a fox, who knows many things; in reality, he was a hedgehog, who knew one big thing. One purpose of this book is to elaborate what this one big thing was.

    To know one big thing he had to master all the strands within himself. He took three conflicting identities, Russian, Jewish and English, and braided them together into a character at one with itself. He might have suppressed any element of what he was. In the duress of exile, many do survive by suppressing some part of who they are. But he suppressed nothing, allowed all the claims within to be answered, and in so doing forged a liberal temperament that may be as important a legacy as his work.

    It is often said that his equanimity, together with his liberalism, are the products of privilege. He has had a lucky and privileged life -- parents who adored him, an exile that did not scar him, election to All Souls at twenty-three, marriage to a gifted, supportive and wealthy woman -- these have enabled him to make manifest what is often frustrated in others. But make it manifest he did, when others might have thrown their advantages away. There is in his temperament some impalpable source of health and well-being. He is well in his skin, at home in the world, at ease even with the advancing prospect of his own death. This cool, even cold serenity seems mysterious, unapproachable, unavailable to me; and in all our afternoons together, it is this that I most wish to understand. To be an intellectual is often to be unhappy: his happiness is an achievement worth seeking to explain.

    `Do you wish you could live for ever?' he once asked me. His mother lived until she was ninety-four. I told him the idea filled me with horror. He heard me out, then said, `All of my friends think the same. But I do not. I wish it would continue indefinitely. Why not?' Albert Einstein met him once and remarked afterwards that he seemed like `a kind of spectator in God's big but mostly not very attractive theatre'. He has never tired of life's theatre and he imagines himself watching its lighted stage for ever.

    At the end of our afternoons, he often accompanies me out. I help him into his coat, while he fits his lame left arm in first, then throws the coat over the right with a heave of his shoulders. He plumps a brown fedora onto his head, places his umbrella on his right arm and leads the way out into the glare and noise of Piccadilly. He walks slowly on the backs of his heels, his feet pointing out, precisely, very upright, his head turning this way and that to take in every detail of the unfolding scene. `Look,' he will say of a bright-haired Amazon with a backpack striding past us. `She must be a Norwegian. Terrifyingly blonde.' He pauses and inspects rain-gear in Cordings men's shop, staring down at thick corduroy plus-fours, in yellow and green, and other garments of the country gentry, with friendly curiosity. He passes the entrance to the Meridien Hotel, and surveys an American businessman, whose otherwise expressionless, late-twentieth-century face is distinguished by an elaborate brown moustache, which wings away from his cheeks. As the man passes out of earshot, Isaiah cups his hand over his mouth in an elaborate stage-whisper. `Amazing moustache,' he says, then adds, as if to himself, `Life is inexhaustible.'

    At Piccadilly Circus we part, he towards the Athenaeum Club in Pall Mall, to take tea with a Russian scholar wanting to hear about his night with Anna Akhmatova. In front of the stand selling sex magazines, London policemen's helmets in plastic and piles of the Evening Standard, I embrace him; he stands back, bows ironically, briskly turns and is gone, ducking between two taxis, pointing his umbrella into the thick of the traffic to make it stop, whistling soundlessly to himself.

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What People are saying about this

Michael Ignatieff
There's a bit of fox in me -- look at the books I've written -- but I also feel theres a hedgehog trying to come out. . . .I suppose I'm interested first of all in multiple identities and how they're reconciles. You've got to belong to yourself first.
— Interviewed in Publisher's Weekly, November 30, 1998

Meet the Author

Michael Ignatieff is a regular contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. He is the author of The Warrior's Honor (Metropolitan Books, 0-8050-5519-3), The Russian Album, The Needs of Strangers, and Scar Tissue, a novel short-listed for the Booker Prize. He lives in London.

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