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Douglas Fetherling - Isaiah Berlin
by Douglas Fetherling

Flagging Down Isaiah

Michael Ignatieff

9 Orleston Mews

London NY7 8LL

Dear Michael:

This is a fan letter. Well, a fan column actually. No other recent work of Canadian non-fiction has impressed me more with its deftness than your Isaiah Berlin (Penguin, 356 pages, $35 cloth). Accordingly, I want to see if I can enumerate to myself-out loud, as it were-my reasons for wishing it well in the approaching season of literary awards.

No one who's read Berlin-and his audience grew impressively in the few years before his death in 1997-doubts the sincerity or the utility of his liberalism. He was, supremely, the man of the middle way, like, say, Lord Morley in his time, whose book, On Compromise, as one-time protégé Winston Churchill said, influenced the young people of his own generation.

You bring eloquence to the obvious when you say that Berlin returned from a visit to his native Russia in 1945 "with a loathing for the Soviet tyranny, which was to inform nearly everything he wrote in defence of Western liberalism and political liberty thereafter". But what impresses me is the way you pinpoint the not-always-so-obvious streaks of anarchist or libertarian thought that run through Berlin's career as a political philosopher. You say, "what Berlin loathed about fascism and communism was their moral cynicism, their shared contempt for ordinary human beings". Of course. But then you bring the subtleties into the foreground.

You write: "Both Soviet Marxism and post-war Western social democracy were prey to the same 20th-century rationalism illusion: that, with sufficient social engineering human evils could be abolished and individuals happily assimilated into a seamless social consensus. To be sure, Soviet Marxism was more ruthless in its contempt of democracy and human rights. But Western liberals could not remain complaisant... In these wars, he belonged to the liberal left, but he warned his own side that their goals were in conflict. For every supposed gain in social justice there might be a corresponding lack of freedom". George Woodcock never put it more cogently.

And again: "Against the weight of the whole republican tradition, which had always made political participation and citizenship the redeeming arena of human life, Berlin tacitly defended political quietism, or at least the liberty of those who wanted to keep out of politics. He was highly sceptical, therefore, about the idea held since Aristotle that men were `political animals'. The desire to participate was simply the desire to be recognised by one's own group, and the desire to belong. There was no reason to suppose that participation, the exercise of citizenship, improved human character. Politics was an inescapable element of human affairs, he argued, simply because human goals were in conflict. Politics was not an emancipatory activity, merely a necessary one". Berlin comes out sounding like a kind of Russian/Jewish/English Taoist.

Given your own heritage, no reader will be surprised at your insight into Berlin's complicated relationship with Russia, his childhood memories of which extended back to tsarist times. Nor, given your own (in my view, lamentable) expatriation in Britain, will anyone be surprised at your grasp of the fine shadings of exile: "Adopted countries do not necessarily return an exile's devotion"-though for the Berlins life in England was no "glissade of social decline".

What surprises and delights me in the book, rather, is your grasp of his Jewishness, not only his exact and sometimes shifting roles in the politics of Zionism of the 1930s and 1940s-a subject itself hardly stationary-but also his own particular answer (the work of a lifetime really) to the question of whether, how, and to what extent to assimilate into the majority culture that surrounded him. Some Jewish friends, including a former rabbi with whom I discussed the book, confirmed the existence of this singular insight on your part.

I much enjoyed your writing, your style, which seems perfectly fabricated to the subject. I was fascinated to see when and why you call your subject "Berlin" and when you call him "Isaiah", and that you never call him "Sir Isaiah", as he eventually became. You actually imagine yourself into his position as well as an outsider can and in somewhat the way a novelist would do. I suspect that Asya and Scar Tissue, your essays into the novel, probably taught you a great deal of the technique you utilize profitably in this biography.

I was mesmerized at times by the choice of information used to illuminate character as well as by the play of ideas. For example, Berlin's interest in music, of which his books such as Russian Thinkers gave me no hint whatever. "In and through music," you write, "he learned emotional pitch, learned to distinguish between true and false feeling. He always had a vivid sense of the difficulty of knowing what one feels and expressing these emotions without sentimentality. This is why his love of music was both aesthetic and ethical... There is a strong analogy between what Berlin learned from Toscanini and what he was to learn from Bertrand Russell: that artists and thinkers of greatness have a core idea, which, however complex the adumbration and defences of it may be, is always simple. Once found, it unlocked the nature of a work". This is of course the centrepiece of his most famous book, The Hedgehog and The Fox.

Your prose is so controlled when necessary, so descriptive when description is required. While treating his ideas fully, much more so in my view than John Gray did in his Princeton book, Isaiah Berlin, of three years ago, you give us a full anecdotal picture that is not available from his own writings (though it is hinted at in his published conversations). I adore the place where you quote Berlin's response to critics who said he was doing too much talking on the BBC and appearing too much in the newspapers. A public intellectual, you have him saying, is like a taxi. People flagged him down and have a destination and off he went. Very much like yourself, of course.

I've never told you this (you'd mock me for the seemingly bizarre coupling) but, in my own view, the two most significant Canadian public philosophers are you and William Gibson, reputed coiner of the term cyberspace and author of Neuromancer and other such works. With your career-long interest in prisons, human rights, atrocities committed in the name of assorted nationalities and ethnicities, you are the public philosopher of the concept of our humanity. You are the student of the point at which humanity, in the sense of compassion for our fellow creatures, is corrupted by politics and other artificial constructs. Gibson, conversely, is the philosopher of humanness-of the highly complex question of at what point technology robs persons of their membership in the human family. One day I'd love to bring the two of you together. "Michael, this is William. William, this is Michael. Go off in a corner and talk and let me listen please."




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