Personal Impressions

by Isaiah Berlin
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Personal Impressions

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2396

This is the fourth volume of Sir Isaiah Berlin’s collected essays, all carefully edited by Henry Hardy. His mastery of Russian intellectual history is shown by Russian Thinkers (1978), while his more general command of speculative philosophy dominates Concepts and Categories (1979) and Against the Current (1980). The present work consists of tributes to and memories of a diverse gallery of distinguished persons. It can be classified under three basic headings: men in public life (Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Chaim Weizmann, Albert Einstein in his views toward Israel); academicians at or visitors to Oxford (L. B. Namier, Felix Frankfurter, Richard Pares, Hubert Henderson, J. L. Austin, J. P. Plamenatz, Maurice Bowra, Auberon Herbert) and writers (Aldous Huxley, and most vividly Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova).

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First, a summary of Berlin’s impressive credentials: he is a polymathic thinker who taught social and political theory at Oxford from 1938 to 1967, then became President of Wolfson College there until 1975. He is President of the British Academy, and holds honorary degrees from and fellowships in universities of the United States, Israel, England, Scotland, and Wales. He may well be the greatest living exponent in the English-speaking world of the history of ideas.

In this collection, he is more relaxed and personal than when analyzing the concepts of Giambathsta Vico, Johann Gottfried Herder, Karl Marx, Aleksandr Herzen, or Mikhail Bakunin. With the exception of Roosevelt, Berlin is here describing intimates who have filled his own horizon. His tone is always appreciative and often empathic; his outlook is elegantly cosmopolitan and international; his generosity of feeling is notable: perhaps his only flaw is a disinclination to be severe with his subjects’ shortcomings. He has a passion to praise, to admire heroes. Though his special love is for the life of the mind as led at Oxford, he can understand people quite different from himself in temperament and interests. He both professes and practices pluralism, mistrusting totalitarians and technocrats, advocating liberty, variety, honesty, and above all humanistic sympathy. His portraits are rendered in lively, precise, evocative prose.

In his essay on Franklin D. Roosevelt, Berlin concedes a few weaknesses—opportunism, occasional cynicism, mental laziness—but then sketches a glowing portrait of him that establishes criteria for the kind of person he most admires:

he was large-hearted and possessed horizons, imaginative sweep, understanding of the time in which he lived and of the direction of the great new forces at work in the twentieth century . . . he was in favour of life and movement, the promotion of the most generous possible fulfillment of the largest possible number of human wishes, and not in favour of caution and retrenchment and sitting still. Above all, he was absolutely fearless.

Churchill is compared and usually contrasted to Roosevelt: he was a great nineteenth century conservative with an eighteenth century prose style patterned after Edward Gibbon and Dr. Samuel Johnson, whereas Roosevelt was a twentieth century innovator who welcomed the future. Though both men are celebrated as lovers of life, Roosevelt is seen as far more optimistic, empirical, buoyant, improvisatory, while Churchill is more introverted, tradition-bound, romantic, broodingly aware of darkness as well as light. Berlin praises his countryman as a mythical hero who saved Britain in 1940 “not by catching the mood of his surroundings . . . but by being stubbornly impervious to it.”

Berlin’s passionate Zionism colors his eloquent profile of Chaim Weizmann, who was to become Israel’s first President. He regards Weizmann as not only a great man but also a genius, the most gifted representative of a bourgeois Jewry semi-emancipated from the pietism of their ancestors, devoted to their families, socially realistic, stoic in the face of persecution, determined to achieve a democratic homeland in Palestine. Berlin loves Weizmann’s imperturbable self-confidence, authority, charm, dignity, control, and refusal to indulge in self-pity or pathos. A lifelong Anglophile, Weizmann had to endure the slings and arrows of the pro-Arab British Foreign Office, particularly the “brutal ill-humor” of Ernest Bevin; he was also reviled for his gentlemanly ways by East European Jews of more militant persuasion; Britain’s betrayal of the Balfour Declaration after World War II, wounded him in an irrecoverable manner. However, his consolation was of historic proportions:

He knew well that his achievement was without parallel. He knew that, unlike any man in modern history, he had created a nation and a state out of flotsam and jetsam of the diaspora, and had lived to see it develop an independent, unpredictable life of its own.

Albert Einstein had his differences with Weizmann and other Israeli statesmen, but remained a staunch Zionist. Berlin stresses the scientist’s sad awareness of Judaism’s rootlessness in the gentile-dominated communities of the West—hence the need of a national home that would restore Jews to psychic and social health. Paradoxically, Berlin demonstrates that Einstein, stressing man’s needs for social ties, was himself a homeless, lonely individual who found intimate relationships extremely difficult.

Berlin is understandably more anecdotal and conversational in his portraits of Oxford colleagues. Here he is literally, emotionally, intellectually at home, rendering impressions that are fondly personal in line with the title of this book. He is warm toward all his subjects, bringing them alive with polished ease.

The most difficult candidate for Berlin’s understanding and appreciation is the great historian Lewis Namier, notorious for his arrogance, intolerance, and quarrelsome nature. Berlin shows compassion for Namier’s difficult family history and first marriage; respects his superb mind; sympathizes with his failure to obtain a Chair at Oxford; and insists that Namier’s books elevated the standards of English historical scholarship for at least a generation. He stresses the contrast between Namier’s brilliant intellectual gifts on the one hand, and his self-destructive bitterness and solitude on the other. Once, after Berlin had sent Namier an off-print of one of his lectures, Namier replied with this note: “You must indeed be a very clever man to understand what you write.” Instead of taking offense, Berlin was delighted by the response, and relished reading it to his visitors.

Namier’s approach to history was the opposite of Berlin’s: he investigated individual lives in the most minute, pointillist detail, and was reluctant to undertake the wide syntheses and eclectic judgments that Berlin prefers. Berlin illuminates the origin of Namier’s outlook by tracing it to the anti-metaphysical, antiimpressionist positivism of Ernst Mach, Adolph Loos, Sigmund Freud, and the Vienna Circle of philosophers. He salutes his tortured, embattled colleague for his moral and intellectual integrity, his devotion to the highest scholarly standards, his unwillingness to curry favor with or appease any of his powerful enemies.

The longest, most personal and most moving essay is a fifty-two page account devoted largely to Berlin’s meetings with the great poets Pasternak and Akhmatova in 1945 and 1956. Berlin sets the scene for the encounters by indicating his own love for the literature of his native Russia, which he left in 1919 as a ten-year-old lad. He paints a harrowing picture of the isolation, desolation, and persecution of Russian intellectuals and artists under the Soviet regime. The Great Purge of 1937-1938 particularly resulted in wild, indiscriminate, often anti-Semitic arrests and imprisonments of an extraordinarily talented group: Vladimir Mayakovsky committed suicide in despair; Osip Mandelstam, Vsevolod Meyerhold, Isaac Babel, and Boris Pilnyak were all killed in concentration camps; the poet Marina Tsvetaeva returned to the Soviet Union from France in 1939, ended her live in 1941. Informers, false witnesses, and forced confessions of implausible espionage abounded. At the beginning of World War II, “Russian literature, art and thought emerged like an area that had been subjected to a terrible bombardment, with some splendid buildings still relatively intact, but standing bare and solitary in a landscape of ruined and deserted streets.” Pasternak and Akhmatova were probably the most splendid buildings left standing, though in a condition of anguish, living a form of internal exile.

In 1945, Berlin was attached to the British embassy in Moscow. He had known Boris Pasternak’s sisters in Oxford, and this gave him the pretext he needed to see the writer in Peredelkino, an artist’s village in the suburbs. Berlin’s memoir of their meetings is unforgettably vivid:

He was once described by his friend the poetess Marina Tsvetaeva as looking like an Arab and his horse: he had a dark, melancholy, expressive, very racé face, now familiar from many photographs and his father’s paintings; he spoke slowly, in a low tenor monotone, with a continuous, even sound, something between a humming and a drone, which those who met him almost always remarked; each vowel was elongated as if in some plaintive, lyrical aria in an opera by Tchaikovsky, but with more concentrated force and tension.

Pasternak spent much of his time rendering William Shakespeare into Russian, and was steeped in traditional Western literature and philosophy. He particularly admired Marcel Proust and James Joyce among the moderns. He showed his sense of intellectual isolation by telling Berlin: “We are like people in Pompeii . . . buried by ashes in mid-sentence.” In 1945, he had not heard of Jean-Paul Sartre or Albert Camus; by 1956 he had read two of Sartre’s plays, but Camus had not been permitted publication in the Soviet Union, being condemned as “reactionary and pro-Facist.”

Berlin visited Pasternak frequently; they became intimates. The poet was a confirmed Slavophile, in the tradition of Mikhail Lermontov, Lev Tolstoy and Feodor Dostoevski, with a passionate attachment to the Russian soil. Berlin believes this obsession might account for Pasternak’s denial of his Jewish origins. “He was unwilling to discuss the subject—he was not embarrassd by it, but he disliked it: he wished the Jews to assimilate, to disappear as a people.”

Many of their talks were, of course, devoted to discussing the victims of Stalin’s reign of terror. Berlin recounts a remarkable anecdote: in the late 1930’s Pasternak received a phone call from Stalin himself, asking him whether he had been present when his fellow-poet Mandelstam had recited a lampoon about the dictator. Pasternak evaded a direct reply, instead urging Stalin to grant him an audience, so they could “speak about matters of supreme importance.” Stalin repeated his question; Pasternak his answer. Then Stalin replied, ’“If I were Mandel’shtam’s friend I should have known better how to defend him’”—and put down the receiver. The episode preyed on Pasternak’s mind for many years as he harrowed himself with self-accusations—would another response by him have been more effective in saving his condemned fellow poet?

By 1956, when Pasternak and Berlin met again, “his estrangement from his country’s political order was complete. He could not speak of it . . . without a shudder.” He had completed Dr. Zhivago (1957); unable to get it published in Russia, he risked imprisonment by assigning world rights of distribution to an Italian publisher. He called the book “my last word, and most important word, to the world.” He wanted it to “travel over the entire world, to ’lay waste with fire’ (he quoted from Pushkin’s famous poem The Prophet) ’the hearts of men.’”

Though Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova were good friends, they often disagreed in their literary judgments. Pasternak loved Tolstoy, but despised Dostoevski: “His novels are a dreadful mess, a mixture of chauvinism and hysterical religion.” He also admired Anton Chekhov but was bored by Franz Kafka and Ernest Hemingway. Her preferences opposed his in all these instances. She was particularly negative about Chekhov: “his universe was uniformly drab; the sun never shone, no swords flashed, everything was covered by a horrible grey mist—Chekhov’s world was a sea of mud with wretched human creatures caught in it helplessly.”

Anna Akhmatova lived in Leningrad, and Berlin also looked her up in 1945; she was then an old, stately lady living in a single, poorly furnished room on the top floor of a magnificent late baroque building. In 1937-1938, both her second husband and son had been imprisoned—as well as Mandelstam, who had loved her and dedicated one of his most beautiful poems to her. Her first husband, the distinguished poet Lev Gumilev, had been executed some years earlier. She recited some of her greatest poems to Berlin; on their first meeting they talked through the night and until noon the next day. Like Pasternak, she preferred persecution and death in her own country to freedom and tranquillity abroad.

In January, 1946, Berlin left Russia. When he paid a farewell call to Akhmatova, she gave him a collection of her verse with a new poem inscribed on the flyleaf. It had been inspired by his long-lasting first visit, and was dedicated to him. Sadly, when the official edition was published later, the dedication to Berlin had to be omitted out of regard for Akhmatova’s safety.

In 1956, when Berlin returned to Russia, she was unable to receive him: her son had been rearrested in 1946, and she was subject to furious attacks by Party hacks. In 1965, Akhmatova was allowed to receive an honorary degree at Oxford. She told Berlin then that the paranoid Stalin had been enraged by his 1945-1946 calls on her—Berlin worked for a foreign government, after all, and “all members of foreign embassies or missions were spies to Stalin.” The day Berlin had left the Soviet Union (January 6, 1946), uniformed police were placed outside the entrance to her staircase, and a microphone was screwed into the ceiling of her room to terrorize her. Akhmatova went so far as to insist, in 1965, that “the mere fact of our meeting, had started the cold war and thereby changed the history of mankind.” Thus does paranoia beget paranoia.

With all her sufferings, Akhmatova insisted on conducting herself like a royal princess, detesting people’s pity, insisting to Berlin that her pride and dignity mattered more than others’ compassion. She died soon after her Oxford visit. Concludes Berlin: “The widespread worship of her memory in the Soviet Union today, both as an artist and as an unsurrendering human being, has . . . no parallel.” He adds that his friendship with Pasternak and Akhmatova “affected me profoundly and permanently changed my outlook.” His homage to these great personages is a splendid climax to a collection of gracefully composed and luminously evocative essays. The tribute Berlin pays Felix Frankfurter when he came to Oxford fits the author with equal justice: “He liked whatever could be liked, omnivorously, and he greatly disliked having to dislike.”


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 60

Christian Science Monitor. LXXIII, March 9, 1981, p. B2.

The Economist. CCLXXVII, November 22, 1980, p. 116.

History Today. XXXI, January, 1981, p. 56.

Library Journal. CV, December 15, 1980, p. 2565.

The New Republic. CLXXXIV, January 31, 1981, p. 35.

The New York Review of Books. XXVIII, February 5, 1981, p. 4.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, February 8, 1981, p. 1.

Newsweek. LVI, February 9, 1981, p. 123.

Saturday Review. VIII, January, 1981, p. 75.

Times Literary Supplement. December 26, 1980, p. 1459.

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