Ferdinand Mount sketches a delightful image of Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) as gentleman and conversationalist:

I was aware of Isaiah Berlin long before I saw or heard him or even read his works. My mother used to tell me how, when she was an undergraduate at Oxford in the 1930s, he would take her out and dazzle her with talk of a sweep and brilliance she had never heard at her school for the daughters of indigent clergymen, then with exquisite courtesy walk her back to the gates of Somerville College. The next morning there in her pigeonhole would be a beautiful little note dated All Souls, 2:30 a.m., recalling and continuing the conversation and giving thanks for the evening. It was as if the talk had never stopped through the night, as indeed it did not on one legendary occasion with the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, who did not have to be back in college by 10 o'clock.

So before I knew anything of Isaiah the scholar, the historian, the teacher, I knew of Isaiah the enchanter. When he died in November, just short of his 90th birthday, he was as much mourned in New York and Washington and in Jerusalem and Moscow as he was in London and Oxford, for he was not only, in Noel Annan's term, a magus, he was a magus who had left behind him devotees in almost every great Western city. When he bustled up the aisle of the Oxford lecture room, black and compact with energy like a crow about to take off, his gown seemed to rustle with priestly authority and the torrents of eloquence that were about to deluge us to derive from some Pentecostal gift. In no time, the fusillades of subordinate clauses, the cluster bombs of adjectives, the ack-ack of hypothetical questions battered us into submission. For the remaining 50 minutes we were his, and after he had bustled out again with an abruptness that never failed to startle me, we stumbled out after him onto High Street, dazed and happy.

It reminds me of Stephen Greenblatt's description (WillInTheWorld, 20 Apr 2005) of Shakespearean language: "... like the dream of what ordinary speech would be like were human beings something greater than they are ...".

(from "The Two-eyed King", a review by Ferdinand Mount of The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays by Isaiah Berlin, in the Los Angeles Times (30 Aug 1998) [1]; cf. FoxyFables (23 Apr 2002), ...)

TopicLiterature - TopicProfiles - TopicLanguage - 2005-11-24

(correlates: WillInTheWorld, LifeLogs, HardCoreBelievers, ...)