Inimitable Sir Isaiah Berlin

^z 22nd March 2023 at 6:44pm

Beautiful eulogy for a beautiful person: Henry Hardy's 1997 obituary "Sir Isaiah Berlin", 7 Oct 1997 in The Independent. Some excerpts:

Like other great men he was a catalyst of excellence. Those who have had the good fortune to know him can testify to the strikingly positive, enlarging, warming experience of being in his company and listening to his irrepressible flow of captivating talk. He was legendary as a talker both for his imitable rapid, syllable-swallowing diction and for his inimitable range — he was astonishingly widely read in a number of languages, he knew (and deeply influenced) a great many prominent men and women in England and elsewhere, and he peppered his conversation and writings with a bewildering cascade of names. (This was not name-dropping: the names were a shorthand for their bearers' ideas.)


... He positively relished what others would have found intolerable pressures and, though he was perfectly serious when the occasion demanded, brought a sometimes impish sense of fun to everything that he undertook.

He was not, and would not have wished to be, any kind of saint, but he had in abundance what he called in others "moral charm". This quality was particularly striking in his manner of conversation, which could unsettle those new to it. He did not stick to the point, but would sit back, look up, and follow his interest where it led, happily digressing, digressing from digressions, and unceremoniously returning to the topic of his own previous remarks, or changing the subject, apparently oblivious of what his interlocutor may have been saying, even at some length, in the interim.

This last idiosyncrasy might have seemed impolite in other hands, but in him it was clearly unselfconscious, and demonstrated his absorption in the issue before his mind, which he would pursue almost playfully, often in odd directions. Although talking to him made one's mind race, it could be infuriating if one wanted to sort out some problem and come to a clear conclusion, and he was not always an attentive listener — sometimes because he had a shrewd idea of what one was going to say before one had said it.

He had no taste for purely verbal word-play, but his wit, in the wider sense, was matchless. He could be bewilderingly quick on the uptake, and equally quick with an illuminating response. He was refreshingly direct and, for a man of his generation, unusually open: he made the obsessive circumspection of some parts of the Oxford establishment seem mean and life-denying by comparison. Gossip and anecdote abounded, but not malevolently: indeed, he was virtually incapable of innuendo, and did not seek to score points. Even when he propounded an unfavourable view of someone, it could seem more like a move in a game than a damning judgement.

He loved ranking people, and sorting them into types: most famously, hedgehogs and foxes — those in the grip of a single, all-embracing vision as against those who are more receptive to variousness. Indeed, his taste for light-hearted categorisation was an informal manifestation of his ability to extract and display the essence of a person or a difficult writer.

As a lecturer he had complete command of his material, and was spellbinding to listen to (fortunately several of his lectures were recorded, and can be heard at the National Sound Archive). He was consciously but not self-consciously Jewish, and a lifelong Zionist: his views counted for a good deal in Israel. He was a director of Covent Garden and a devoted opera-goer; he was a trustee of the National Gallery. He did not lack recognition — a knighthood, the OM, many honorary doctorates, the Mellon Lectureship, the Presidency of the British Academy, the Jerusalem, Erasmus, Agnelli and Lippincott Prizes — but always protested that he was being given more than his due, that his achievements had been systematically overestimated. He was larger than life, entirely sui generis, a phenomenon, irreplaceable.


... His encounter with Anna Akhmatova had an especially profound effect on him; and the many passages about him in Akhmatova's poems bear witness to its fundamental significance for her. "He will not be a beloved husband to me / But what we accomplish, he and I, / Will disturb the Twentieth Century" ...


His descriptions of those with whom he is in the closest sympathy often have a marked autobiographical resonance: he said of others, with dazzling virtuosity, what he would not have been willing to say of himself, what he probably did not believe of himself, though his words sometimes fit him precisely. Had he been sufficiently interested in his life and opinions for their own sakes, he would have been his own ideal biographer; but he would also have been a different man.

Isaiah Berlin was often described, especially in his old age, by means of superlatives: the world's greatest talker, the century's most inspired reader, one of the finest minds of our time — even, indeed, a genius. It may be too early to be sure about such strong claims. But there is no doubt that he showed in more than one direction the unexpectedly large possibilities open to us at the top end of the range of human potential, and the power of the wisely directed intellect to illuminate, without undue solemnity or needless obscurity, the ultimate moral questions that face mankind.

(cf IsaiahBerlin (2005-11-24), Systematic Overestimate (2009-01-30), Two Concepts of Liberty (2010-06-27), ...) - ^z - 2019-04-11