Thursday, July 30, 2009

Because the stakes are so low

Henry Kissinger, Harvard academic (1950s-1960s), mass murderer and putschist (early '70s), éminence grise of the American foreign policy punditocracy (ever since), once quipped that university politics is vicious precisely because the stakes are so small. Isaiah Berlin's letters, which have just been published, would seem to bear out this truism. Here is A.N. Wilson's take in the Times Literary Supplement (July 17, 2009):

Particular pleasure is derived [by Isaiah Berlin] from the failures of other dons who were pursuing comparable Alpine peaks:

I have seldom enjoyed an event more than Trevor-Roper's inaugural lecture, it was amusing in itself – I must send you a copy – but what was funny were the preliminaries; he had hoped for a large incursion of smart persons from London and deputed Lord Furneaux and Chips Channon's son – he wrote them that he gathered that they were socially-minded and would know the faces of Cabinet Ministers and Ambassadors – to act as ushers. He caused four rows of the School to be kept empty for "the quality"; it was terrible to see aged dons and white-haired ladies rudely pushed away from these empty places which were waiting to be filled by elegant persons from London. In the end, apart from the Duke of Wellington and about eight members of the Astor family and his own wife and her sister Doria nobody came and the seats were filled by plebeians in the end.

The editors plainly hero worship Berlin, but they have done him a questionable service by revealing his blatant treachery. "He was never sneaky or malevolent", says Noel Annan in The Book of Isaiah. The letters, alas, do not bear out this kind judgement. Bowra and David Cecil are supposedly among his closest friends, but Berlin, an intellectual as well as a social snob, who despises what he calls the "upper middle brow", is only too anxious, when corresponding with American academics, to deplore Cecil and Bowra's publications.


The 800 pages are peppered with malice about poor A. L. Rowse (a more interesting man than Berlin and ultimately more intellectually distinguished). Rowse "grows more and more impossible and awful daily". Rowse's absence is "a source of happiness". Rowse is "more Malvolio like than ever". Yet to Rowse himself, Berlin writes an Iago-like letter in which he says, "One cannot live for twenty years on and off with someone as wonderful & unique as, if you'll let me say so, you are & not develop a strong and permanent bond". It is hard to like the author of this letter. The whole volume, indeed, fills the reader with a gloom which was surely not intended by the editors. If the reader, and even more the conscientious reviewer, who has read each page with notebook in hand, feels that the exercise of reading was a waste of time, that only half explains the misery that the exercise provokes. Reading the book, after all, takes only a week. But writing these tedious, infelicitous, prolix letters took fourteen years of a clever man's life. While he was writing them, and regurgitating the same old thoughts about Maistre, Herzen and co, A. L. Rowse was producing those readable, well-researched volumes The England of Elizabeth, Ralegh and the Throckmortons, The Early Churchills, The Later Churchills, etc. Berlin's repeated jokes about Wittgenstein, likewise, seem counterproductive on the page. "Nothing is more terrible than religious Wittgensteinism", he writes – merely making this reader think that the author of The Hedgehog and the Fox was not worthy to lick the boots of the author of Philosophical Investigations. [...]