“Ideas and Real People”

Caryatids on The Erechtheum

“Ideas and Real People”

When I need consolation, when sorrow exerts its hard claims, I turn instinctively to what Plato would call the realm of forms: beautiful things and ideas that are clear and significant.

When our friend Leo Bronstein was killed by a motorcyclist in Strasbourg (where he had gone to see the Grunewald Crucifixion), I found myself drawn ineluctably to the classical rooms in the Metropolitan Museum. The statues, the bas reliefs, their serenity, their quality of completeness, of something forever achieved, I don’t know why, but they soothed me. I even took to wearing a paisley scarf, since the ancients used paisley decoratively.

These days I’m reading two books that delve into the influence of ideas on culture. By “culture” I mean the mean the matrix of beliefs, practices and traditions within which we conduct our personal lives.

The two books are very different. One, Isaiah Berlin: A Life, by Michael Ignatieff, is a first rate biography of someone who was one of the voices of twentieth century intellectual culture. His insights don’t seem to me dated. His personal interactions take one through a vivid succession of scenes that marked turning points in the century just past, whose reverberations are with us still.

The other book, which I’m just starting, is the recently published Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian communist whose intellectual blueprint for getting the Revolution up and going again through methods of which he was the discoverer, had a large – hard-to-measure-how-large – influence on our culture today.

Isaiah Berlin was born in Riga, Latvia in 1910. He was a small boy during the initial phases of the revolution that overthrew the Tsar and brought the communist party to power in Russia. He had seen the nascent tyranny in its first days, and later revisited Soviet Russia right after World War II, where the intellectuals he met lived in fear of being denounced and executed – or in shame at having denounced others to buy an extra span of years for themselves and their families. So it was impossible for Isaiah to embrace the Utopian delusions of a workers’ paradise in the USSR. While these delusions gave shape and purpose to his fellow intellectuals in the 1930’s and later, Isaiah simply held his own. He resisted the sirens and kept to a moderate, middle course. It’s no simple accomplishment.

I never had thought so till I read this book, but Isaiah Berlin was an interesting man. He had a facility for getting to know people — such as Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, English author Virginia Woolf, English poet Stephen Spender, Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, philosophers Stuart Hampshire, J. L. Austin and A. J. Ayer, newspaper editorialists Drew Pearson and Walter Lippman, first president of Israel Chaim Weizman, diplomat George Kennan — whose actions were, in some cases, of historic consequence. He had a first class Oxford education, including a philosophic education, and was on terms of intellectual friendship with major philosophers of the day. He was fluent in Russian and won the confidence of writers who’d kept alive the flame of “the Russian soul” when tyranny’s deadly combination of fear and shame had all-but-extinguished it. He carried the manuscript of Dr. Zhivago from Boris Pasternak’s hands to its publication in the West. During the War, when he was attached to the British embassy in Washington as an aid to Lord Halifax, he was the eyes and ears of the British Foreign Office in Washington, though his widely read dispatches went out under Halifax’s signature. In that position, it took intelligent self-mastery to walk the delicate line between his inward support for a future Jewish state and his duties under a decidedly ambivalent British foreign office.

Although he professed no interest in that side of his family tree, he was heir to a lineage that amounted to Hassidic royalty. He did not embrace it (that was not his calling) but surely bore some traces of its imprint. His discernment was delicate and keen. His mind was sturdy and strategic. I’m reading with ongoing fascination of encounters where he made a nuanced but beneficial difference to people who in turn made a difference to the culture we share.

Gramsci is quite a different figure in the culture. Imprisoned as a communist and anti-fascist during the dictatorship of Mussolini, he used his time of incarceration to work out a strategy for bringing the culture that had formed him to its knees. His scholarly discipline appears (from what the editor is telling in the Introduction) to have been impeccable.

His aim, as I take it, was to find the threads that held the culture together as a single weave – in order to pull down and unravel the whole fabric! Not the fabric of the fascist culture that had imprisoned him. Rather, if I understand it correctly, the high culture of his native Italy — humanistic, literate and liberal! That culture. What he thought would replace it, I can’t tell. Maybe I’ll find out by the time I get through Volumes I – III. Or maybe I never will. Maybe there’s no answer to that one. Anyway, it’s a stunning case of a man who uses the tools forged by the civilization that formed him to bring down that very civilization. I shall read it with interest and hope I learn something.

Ideas are the formative features of our lives, something like the connective tissue. This is as true for the culture we live in as for ourselves, who are its assenting or dissenting members.

Here is how the biographer sums up the maturing realizations of Isaiah Berlin:

“He was coming to see ideas … as what human beings lived for and by: ‘something wider and more intrinsic to the human beings who hold them than opinions or even principles … [they] are indeed the central complex of relations of a man towards himself and to the external world.’”

To my mind, the question that follows is of the most intimate urgency:

By what ideas are we living?

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