A Passion For Sheer Quirk?

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 Shlomo Avineri and Alan Ryan on Isiah Berlin 

This was an odd event, in several ways. The speakers declined to be introduced, leaving that tedious bit of background-giving until afterwards. It was also, emphatically, a conversation rather than a formal lecture or dialogue, yet the speakers’ styles were strikingly different and the act of talking in front of a large, silent audience always becomes something of a performance. So there was artifice but also passion and erudite improvisation. The images of a sparkling, desirable kaleidoscope of peoples and types versus a bland, homogeneous soup of mankind, that Alan Ryan invoked near the beginning, worked for me throughout: philosopher-historian Isaiah Berlin could only be viewed as through a kaleidoscope, showing many facets at once but never a simple, integrated person. Ryan spoke like a slightly comedic, avuncular professor (which he is), circling around his subject, inserting digressions and exclamations at leisure. Avineri was more direct but no less humorous. Both had a tough task winkling out what in Isaiah Berlin’s personality and views could be defined as his Jewishness. They touched on his suggestive interest in other great “borderline” Jews, including Marx and Disraeli, inferring that Berlin understood these men in a way few others could, both like him standing somewhat apart from the class they were born into. They touched on Berlin’s famous quip that “the Jews are like everybody else, only more so”, which Avineri inverted to apply to Berlin himself. For Avineri, Berlin was a “true enlightenment person”, which licensed his apparently complete indifference to spiritual questions. He was very interested in nationalism in general, as an advocate of auto-emancipation, but Zionism for him was fraught territory, and his negotiation of it was hard to follow – as both speakers confessed!Both men were more comfortable on the influence of Berlin’s two countries, the Russia of his early years and his adopted Britain. They saw Berlin admiring certain aspects of each – Russian fire and activism, and British ingrained liberal habits – that together might have embodied his dream of a liberal nation. Both also made much of Berlin’s tutorial style at Oxford, and thus his overall style as a philosopher. Ryan reminisced about being introduced to Machiavelli as if he were sitting in the room with him, and being obliged to engage him in argument. For him, the ‘Isaiah mode’ brought philosophy to life and into his life, though it risked allowing all other philosophers to merge with Berlin’s own philosophy. The exhilaration of having the great man concede affably “You’re probably right, I’m wrong” still moves the distinguished warden of New College, Oxford.

The hour’s conclusion was a hybrid of Desert Island Discs and an Oxford tutorial: each speaker nominated his favourite Berlin work to be saved from the waves (Berlin on Disraeli and Marx for Avineri; his essay on Herzen in A Marvellous Decade for Ryan); then Ryan made a steeple of his fingers and pronounced “good”, as if we had at any rate listened well, if not written a decent essay.

 Sophie Lewis is the first UK director of American publishing house Dalkey Archive Press, seeking out great literature to publish from all over the world. She also translates French literary fiction and prose into English.

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