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Michael Ignatieff
Michael Ignatieff
Isaiah Berlin:  A Life
ISBN: 0805055207
Isaiah Berlin: A Life
Russian by birth, Jewish by descent, English by choice, Isaiah Berlin (1909-97) knit together three identities into a cosmopolitan sensibility that informed his contributions as one of the 20th century's most influential and important intellectuals. Based on his experiences as a child during the Russian Revolution and his friendships with such beleaguered writers as Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova, Berlin affirmed the superiority of individual freedom and judgment to Marxist totalitarianism. But he made fellow liberals uncomfortable with his unwelcome reminders that their ideals—liberty, equality, social justice—inevitably conflicted and required painful tradeoffs. London-based journalist Michael Ignatieff, who spent 10 years interviewing Berlin before his death, adeptly captures an appealing man: lighthearted, spontaneous, a brilliant conversationalist and lecturer (one of Oxford University's most popular professors), able to savor private happiness despite an essentially tragic view of political life. Ignatieff admires Berlin's views without accepting them uncritically; similarly, he acknowledges personal failings while appreciating the serenity Berlin achieved against considerable odds. This lucidly written, thoughtfully argued work is a model of the well-balanced biography, carefully evaluating the complex interplay of character and conviction in one remarkable individual. —Wendy Smith

Isaiah Berlin: A Life
Program Air Date: January 24, 1999

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Michael Ignatieff, who was Isaiah Berlin?
Mr. MICHAEL IGNATIEFF (Author, "Isaiah Berlin: A Life"): Possibly the greatest liberal philosopher of the 20th century, or certainly the greatest liberal philosopher since John Stuart Mill; a historian as well, friend of the famous. But h--what he will be remembered for is as a philosopher of liberty.
LAMB: Who decides that he's the greatest liberal philosopher of the 20th century?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Good question. I do, I guess. It's personal--a--a personal call. But I think you could get a lot of philosophers and historians lined up saying the same thing. He wrote a thing called "Two Concepts of Liberty" in 1958 which is the kind of starting point for the philosophy of liberty ever--ever since. It's a kind of--one of those essays that you just have to read if you're gonna play the game of arguing about liberty in the late 20th century.
LAMB: I remember reading the front-page bio--or, obituary in The New York Times, and I was, remember at the time, struck by, why is it on the front page? And then I went back and got on Lexis/Nexis--died on November the 7th, 1997. Was that the day he died, the 7th or the 6th?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: He died two years--two days before.
LAMB: OK. Four thousand, two hundred and thirty-three words in The New York Times on the front page. Why did this man, in your opinion, end up in The New York Times? It was...
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Very good question. Very good question. He had an obituary that you usually give to a former president or royalty or something like that. I think the reason that he's on the front page of The New York Times is that he has an extraordinary career in Washington and New York that begins in kind of 1949, when he comes to Harvard to give some lectures, and he spends 25 years on American campuses. So he's known to a whole couple of generations of American students and teachers. But that's, I think, not the real reason. Part of it has to do with the fact that he's in Washington during the war as a young academic but working for the British Embassy. And he writes extremely important dispatches for Winston Churchill on the state of American political opinion in Roosevelt's Washington, right? These dispatches come to the notice of Churchill, and while he's in Washington during the war, he meets a lot of people who turn out to be key players in American post-war history. One of his closest friends, for example, is Chip Bohlen.

Well, flash forward 20 years. It's 1962. Isaiah Berlin's invited to have dinner with President Kennedy. He and Kenned--he is with Kennedy the night that the Cuban missile crisis breaks. This is Isaiah Berlin. He's in the--having dinner and he's with Chip Bohlen. He's the--he's the kind of philosopher who had that kind of access, to people very close to power. The people who made the American century were his close friends.

So he's a liberal philosopher who has some very important American friends, and I think that's why, at the end of the day, he ends up getting that kind of coverage in The New York Times.
LAMB: What does it mean to be a liberal philosopher?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Hmm. You have to define liberalism here. It means, I think--let's put it together. Because he was in Washington during the war, it means that he loves Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. He believes in big government, or at least government big enough to create the conditions of liberty for everybody. What does that mean? It means good roads, good schools, public welfare, Social Security, health care. He--you know, Isaiah believed and I think a liberal believed that you can't have individual private freedom unless you create the common conditions for all on which that individual liberty can stand.

Having said that, then a liberal says one other thing, which is, if you create the state that protects i--e--everybody, sooner or later, you have to--you have to protect the individual against the state. So it's two things. A liberal thinks you've got to have big government, and then he thinks you've got to have institutions like the rule of law and the courts and division of powers to protect the individual from the state. And that's what being a liberal is from Isaiah's point of view.
LAMB: You wrote, `He thought of himself as impossibly ugly, white, oily, fat, white skinned and deformed.'
Mr. IGNATIEFF: It's funny when you quote that stuff back to me. Yeah. He did, I think. He was, in fact, not very prepossessing, about 5'6", 7". At birth, he had a--he had a forceps delivery, and the--the doctor pulled his arm out, and so his arm was always slightly kind of twisted close to his hand. He never thought he was a good-looking man. My view was, at the end of his life, he was a very good-looking man. He's one of these men for whom age did a lot of favors. It--you know, his--the bones in his face began to show. He had good--he looked like an old Jewish patriarch towards the end of his life, as you can see in those pictures. Then I think he began to have a kind of nobility to his face. But earlier on, he was very, very convinced he was an ugly man, and I think he--it took him a long time, maybe a lifetime, to be at home with himself.
LAMB: Where did he live in his life?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Born in Riga, Latvia, in 1909, when it was then a province of the czarist empire. He then witnesses the Russian Revolution in Petersburg in Russia. He sees the 1917 revolution happen with his own eyes. He's then in London and in Oxford through most of the middle part of his life. And then, as I said earlier, he spends five of some of the most happy and productive years of his life in Washington, DC, working for the British Embassy. After the war, he goes to Moscow and visits some famous poets and writers, comes back and then spends the next 40, 50 years either in Washington, Jerusalem, New York or London.
LAMB: Where did you meet him?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: I met him in 1987. I was on a television program, and--and I was asked to make a comment on some issue relating to Jewish questions. And I was--Isaiah happened to be at home ha--taking dinner on a tray. He saw me on television, approved of what I said on this program and wrote me a note--needless to say, the nicest note I ever got. He said, `Come to lunch.' I came to lunch in 1987, and pretty soon, we were talking. We started a conversation that lasted for 10 years, until his death. And the book is the result of that 10 years of talking and arguing and walking on the beach and going to concerts together. So it's more than a biography. It's a kind of record of a friendship.
LAMB: What were you doing before you met him?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: I was a--kind of hard to place in American terms. I'm a Canadian who went to England to be an academic at King's College, Cambridge. I then climbed over the monastery wall. I decided I didn't want to be a professor; went to work with the BBC, and that's where Isaiah picked me up. I was working for the BBC doing stuff on television. So I'm a kind of academic/writer/journalist.
LAMB: Where were you from in Canada?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Toronto.
LAMB: Where'd you go to college?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: University of Toronto, history, English, and then went to Harvard Graduate School for a hard-won PhD.
LAMB: In your book, you quote Clementine Churchill as saying, `"He was an intellectual acrobat in the society circus."'
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Yes. Well, this was a--the thing about Isaiah was that he had enormous social success. If you sat with him and talked, he would say, `Well, I want to tell you about the time I had dinner with Igor Stravinsky and the other time we had dinner with Sigmund Freud.' And he s--he knew literally everybody. And one of the things--one of the problems that that gave him was a sense that he was a kind of acrobat. People would invite him to his--parties because he was so famously clever, so famously quick. And he was worried that, you know, that wasn't quite respectable for an intellectual just to be a kind of--well, to put it cruelly, a court Jew--you know, invited to Gentile society because you're so clever, because you're so smart, because you're so verbal. And he was often very anxious about that role. But there's no doubt that he was a court Jew to English aristocratic society, and it bugged him. And it was one of the things I think that drove him to think, `Conversation isn't good enough. I've got to put some words down on paper.' And there are nine volumes of his essays as a result. But I think he was driven to write and write with passion and conviction partly because he wanted to escape this reputation of being a--a court Jew.
LAMB: You quote Harold Ross, former editor of The New Yorker, as saying, `"Young man, I can't understand a word you say, but if you write anything, I'll print it." This became a pattern in America. He became famous by being misunderstood.'
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Yes. He had this extraordinary voice which I won't begin to imitate, but it was a kind of--What do you call it?--palimpsest of three or four layers. There was Jewish, Russian and this very clipped Oxford diction, very tight-lipped--you know, bup, bup, bup, bup--very, very tight, precise vowel sounds. And when he came to America, you know, people just simply couldn't understand what the hell he was talking about. Katharine Ga--Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post, who became a lifelong friend, you know, said, `Isaiah, you know, if you're gonna be understood in America, you've--you've just got to slow down and talk more sensibly.' And he said, `I know, I know, but if I did, I'd be quite another person, quite another person.' So he--that kind of conversational rapidity, this kind of Gatling gun style of talk, became his kind of signature tune in America. And it's part of his success. People--people--what they remember about him was not quite understanding what he said. And I think he, in a way, kind of cultivated being at the edges of comprehensibility.
LAMB: The obit in The New York Times was written by Marilyn Berger and, as I said, it's 4,3--233 words long. What kind of attention did his death get in Great Britain?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Huge attention. Huge attention. Front-page news in most of the quality and standard newspapers. He didn't have one memorial service; he had three. Before he died, Roy Jenkins, the chancellor of the University of Oxford, said to Isaiah, `Well, you're gonna have to have your memorial service in Westminster Abbey, which is where the great and good in England have their memorial services.' He said, `Hell, no. I'm gonna have it in Hampstead Synagogue.' So when he had his memorial service at Hampstead Synagogue, I'm telling you, every single grandee of English life turned out and they all put on their yarmulkahs and the women sat on the left side of the synagogue and they all sat down and had an Orthodox Jewish memorial service.

So it was a funny kind of event. It was a kind of high Mass, to change the religious metaphor, of the whole English elite when he died, but it was in Hampstead Synagogue.
LAMB: Died November of 1997.
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Correct.
LAMB: When did you finish your book?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Oh, boy. Not probably until Labor Day of this year. That is to say, I wrote a--a version of this manuscript while he was still alive, because as anybody who's written a biography knows, you've gotta write it before you know what questions to ask, curiously enough. So I wrote a draft, and it threw up all kinds of questions. And I had the enormous good fortune for a biographer of being able to go to him and say, `Isaiah, now can we work out this little detail here? You know, what--what did you say to Churchill on this particular day?' That kind of stuff. So I had that draft, and the draft had allowed me to kind of complete the project. But when he died, I looked at the manuscript again and I thought, `Boy, we need to do some work here.' So the last year, 1998, January till September, was a very, very intense rewriting exercise.
LAMB: The name--the correct way to pronounce this name is...
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Isaiah (pronounced ISIAH), and it was a family name. He came from a family of Riga timber merchants, and his adopted grandfather was called Isaiah. He was known in America through the '40s right through--through his time in Washington as Shiah. It was his nickname. So there are a lot of people in Washington and in America maybe even watching this program who know him as Shiah Berlin, but he was--the proper way to do it is Isaiah. A lot of Americans say Isaiah--Isaiah (pronounced ISAYAH). Yeah.
LAMB: And his parents.
Mr. IGNATIEFF: His parents--his father is a Riga timber merchant, an assimilated Jew from the p--from the Jewish community in Riga. His mother is a very small, diminutive, passionate, emotional Jewish woman who'd wanted to be an opera singer. And Isaiah remembered her--she wasn't allowed to be an opera singer, so his chief memory of her was her walking around the house warbling arias from "Bellini." He was an only child. He was the kind of apple of their eye.
LAMB: Here he is with his father.
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Absolutely. And they--they lived through him. He was their great success story. He got--they got him safely to Britain in 1921, and then they watched this young Russian Jewish kid just take off and--and rise up through the British establishment, rather leaving them behind. But he's a good son and a faithful son. And I think that one of the keys to his biography is the intensity and single-mindedness of their love for him.
LAMB: He started a college at Oxford. By the way, do you happen to know how many colleges there are?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Oh, boy, good one. F--15? I hope there are no Oxford alumni who ring in.
LAMB: Well, we did a--we did a f--we asked that question--we did a 30-hour special on it. There are 30-some.
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Really? I didn't realize.
LAMB: Yeah. We kept asking, and no one--no one had the right answer as we went around the colleges.
LAMB: But anyway, he started one with Ford Foundation money. How did that work?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Yes. At the end of his life, to everybody's astonishment, after he'd been a very successful professor of political theory, in 1965, he w--was asked, `Would you take over a college' that was in a bunch of ramshackled buildings all scattered all over Oxford, `for scientists?' It's a complicated story, but the scientists didn't have a college of their own in Oxford. And he suddenly thought it was a very interesting decision that, `I have been a member of this Oxford community for 50 years. It has given me everything. It's time to put something back.' So he went to the Ford Foundation and he went to McGeorge Bundy, who was a good friend, and he said, `McGeorge, I need'--I don't know what it was--`$3.5 million.' He went to McGeorge Bundy; got that money from the Ford Foundation. Then went to a great Jewish philanthropist, Isaac Wolfson, got a matching fund, and created this college out of nothing--Wolfson College--and was the first founding president.
LAMB: You--you talk a lot in--in the middle about his relationship to women. Did he marry?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: He married late in his life, at 45. He has a very interesting emotional life because from his first time in Oxford, he becomes a kind of blameless and slightly sexless confidante of some of the most beautiful women in Oxford in the '30s, and they all troop through his rooms and they tell him about their love lives and sometimes they park their dogs and sometimes they park their boyfriends and return for their boyfriends. And he's kind of this blameless, as I say, sexless character whom everybody makes confessions to. But he himself stands back from emotional and sexual involvements until astonishingly late in his life. He's--he's in his 40s when he has his first kind of tumultuous affairs. And I devote quite a lot of attention in the book to his kind of sexual coming of age in his 40s because I think that it played a tremendously important part in kind of making him a full human being. Up to that point, he was--he was just a brain. By his mid- to late 40s, he'd become a complete human being. He then--he married in 1956, a divorced woman with three children. It was a fantastically happy and close marriage, and I think it gave him a kind of grounding and a kind of belonging that he'd never had before.
LAMB: Where was this picture taken?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: That picture's taken onboard the Queen Mary in the mid '50s, when they were crossing, I th--made one of their many crossings from Southampton in England to New York.
LAMB: And who is his wife? What's her name?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Her name is Aline Degansbourg. H--she is from an extremely distinguished Jewish--aristocratic Jewish family that has both a r--a French connection and a Russian connection. The Degansbourgs were born in Russia and came out to France. And that was part of the connection between Isaiah and his wife, that she had this kind of deep Russian culture that he could--he could identify with.
LAMB: Correct this if I am overstating. You say he went after two women--this--his eventual wife--and he wanted them while they were married.
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Yes. It's a--it's an eccentric erotic pattern, to say the least. This is a man who has no sexual life at all that he would tell me about, and he did tell me everything. I am--and I asked him point blank, you know, `When did you first have sexual relations?' And he said, `I was, I think, 43 years old,' right? Now this is unusual. He then proceeds, in 1950, to have two relationships, one after another, with the wives of very close colleagues and risks, you know, catastrophe--I mean, professional catastrophe and personal catastrophe pursuing these women, winning these women. But somehow, it works out. That is to say, these women initiate him into the life of the body as well as the life of the mind. These--some of these women are still alive, have a tremendous sense of affection and gratitude and love for him still. But it's an eccentric pattern. I mean, he--he went--he--he chose a sexual initiation that was full of danger that is...
LAMB: What was the name of the first woman he went after?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Well, I don't disclose her name in the--in the biography and feel I shouldn't just because it would violate a confidence. It's not her identity that matters as the fact that he--he began his sexual life very late. She was a more experienced woman. I think that she initiated him into the--you know, into the fully adult world.
LAMB: And she was married with children at the time?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: She was married with children and, you know, her husband was a close personal friend of Isaiah's. He respected the man deeply. And somehow--these things are very complicated, very ambiguous--it all worked out. That is, he...
LAMB: Did they ever know? Did her husband ever know?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: I th--well, there were some kind of funny things that happened. The husband was a very other worldly--unworldly academic who--and Isaiah felt he should make a full and frank confession to his best friend that he was in love with his wife. And he said to the man, `I'm in love with your wife.' And he shot back, `That is impossible.' And so Isaiah tried again to get him to believe, and he thought this time, `Well, if you tell a man three times that you're having an affair with his wife and he doesn't seem to believe you, then you have met your obligations to full disclosure.'
LAMB: But the woman he married, though, was a little more complicated than...
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Yes. The woman he married was married at the time to a very distinguished theoretical physicist who'd played a big part in the making of the atom bomb and the Manhattan project.
LAMB: What was his name?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: His name was Hans Halban.
LAMB: Still alive?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: No. He died. French, Austrian extraction, a tough, commanding man. He and Aline had had thr--two children, and it was not a happy marriage. And Isaiah became a kind of family friend and, slowly, Aline's affections began to transfer towards Isaiah. And then--but I think it's possible that nothing would have happened between them except for the fact that in 1953, suddenly, without warning, Isaiah's father died suddenly. And that kind of--you know the way it is in a m--man's life, a woman's life. It just pulled the pins right out from under him, pulled the blocks, pulled the ground right out from under him. And in his state of great emotional distress, I think he turned to Aline, and they fell in love. It was a very, very tormenting courtship because the husband put private detectives on their trail. He followed them around. It--you know, it nearly came to blows. It was a very tempestuous situation. And finally--and this is a very important moment in his life--Isaiah--you know, the philosopher of liberty finally came to this guy and said, `Listen, I want to tell you something. Your wife is a prisoner. Now you've got--you haven't got many options here. If you keep her locked up, that's no way to run a marriage. You're gonna have to give her her freedom or she's not gonna be able to live with you at all.' So the husband gave his wife her freedom, but it ended up destroying the marriage.
LAMB: But--but, at one point, the husband asks for--you--as you describe it, says to Isaiah, `How about just one night a week with her?'
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: Did that work out?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: It didn't work out for long. These things rarely do. And at the end of the day, in 1955, Hans Halban was offered a big job in France, and he said to Aline, `Let's go back to France.' And she looked at him and said, `I can't do it.' And at that point, h--she--Isaiah and Aline got together.
LAMB: What's this photo, top photo there with the...
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Top photo on the right there is Isai--Isaiah Berlin, Aline Berlin, Helena Bonner and the very--a m--a man who, for Isaiah, was a real hero, Andrei Sakharov, the great Soviet nuclear physicist and dissident. And that's in the driveway of a--Isaiah's house just after Andrei Sakharov got an honorary degree from Oxford.
LAMB: What's the house called?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: The house is called Heddington House. It was a great, big 18th century mansion--very, very splendid place where Isaiah s--you know, it was his home for 40 years.
LAMB: His home or her home?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Her home. I'm--good correction, yes. It was originally her home. It was the home that she had shared with Hans Halban, her former husband, and it became his home.
LAMB: He had a relationship when he was 21 and the woman was 26, or is it the reverse of that?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Yes, that's correct.
LAMB: And--and here's--is this the photo of the...
Mr. IGNATIEFF: No, that's a--that's another woman. That's...
LAMB: Well, tell this story, then. This was...
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Oh, that--that's a--that's a picture of Isaiah Berlin in 1947 in an Oxford punt, one of these little rowing craft that you--you--you--you'd punt on the river. And--and he's with a very, very beautiful woman called Shirley Morgan, and he's hiding behind a Hershey chocolate bar that he got in a care package sent from the States. And what they're supposed to be doing, although they're just goofing off, is working on a translation of Ivan Turgenev's "First Love," which is, for anybody who's read it, an absolutely marvelous story of how a young man falls in love with a woman only to discover that his own father has fallen in love with the woman as well. And it's a kind of very tortured but very beautiful study of the psychology of love, which Isaiah translated with this beautiful Shirley Morgan at a period, I think, in which he was working out some of his own emotional and erotic conflicts.
LAMB: I started to ask about the relationship he had with the younger woman that ended up having a lobotomy.
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Yes. That's a very painful story in Isaiah's life. In the '30s, Isaiah became friendly with a young, very beautiful, very troubled Oxford undergraduate called Tipps Walker. Her nickname was Tipps. She became infatuated with him. I think he was--she was younger, he was older; they were in their 20s. I think she desperately wanted to marry him. He turned her down. He--he went to Paris to see her in 1935. They went to the zoo, and he walked through the animal house with her and said, you know, while they stood in front of the python, `I'm sorry, Tipps, but I can't. You know, this is not gonna work. I can't marry you.' And it took a catastrophic turn f--that is to say, she ran off, she went to Vienna. She came back to England. She became increasingly unstable, went out of her--went out of her mind, had to be hospitalized and spent--tragically, spent the whole rest of her life hospit--hospitalized and ended up, as you say, with a lobotomy. And that was, in a sense, his first semi-erotic encounter, or one of his first. And I think it--I think it scarred him in a way. I don't think anybody who was close to the situation ever blamed him for tipping her over into madness, but he certainly felt scolded by that experience.
LAMB: You wrote that when he was working for the British Press Service in the United States, quote, "His job was to get America into the war."
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Well, you have to remember, this is 1940. Isaiah gets a job in New York working for this--basically a propaganda outfit. A lot of Americans didn't want to get into the war in Europe at all. Hitler had, by that time, conquered France. A lot of Americans--Mr. Lindbergh would be one example--a lot of American union leaders who were anti-British didn't want to get into the war. People forget, for example, that the American leader of the coal miners, John L. Lewis, one of the most famous union leaders of his day, was a Welshman by origin and he had a--had a very bitter feeling towards the English aristocracy. And he wanted to keep his people, the American mine workers, out of the war.

So Isaiah was sent to go to these union meetings and talk to American workers and persuade them to, you know, support the British war effort. And I don't think he had a h--and--and also to work with Jewish groups, who were much more sympathetic to the Allied cause. But he spent about 1940, '41, in union halls, in Jewish group meetings, meeting Americans, pressing the flesh, becoming a kind of lobbyist and propagandist for the British war effort. And he loved it. I mean, this is the thing about this guy. He is a--we think of him as a kind of ivory tower, armchair philosopher. But when he was pitched into the business of lobbying, schmoozing, sitting in smoke-filled rooms with union leaders and Jewish leaders, he loved it and he learned a tremendous amount about it.

One of the key elements in his philosophy, or in his view of life, was, you had to have a good sense of reality. He always used that phrase `sense of reality.' And one of the places he learned a sense of reality was in these union halls and with Jewish leaders and coming to meet political leaders, like Chaim Weizmann, the future first president of Israel who he m--whom he met around this time. And the great Jewish figures of--of American history, like Judge Louis Brandeis of the Supreme Court. He met these great figures, and--and from them, the thing that he liked--that he respected most about them was when they had a strong sense of reality. That is, a strong sense of what's practical and what's impractical, what's possible politically and what's not possible. And for a philosopher, that's a very rare--rare quality, to have any sense of reality at all. And it was in America that that sense of reality was honed as a fine skill.
LAMB: Any idea how many days you spent with him in your life?
LAMB: Ten years you were with him.
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Ten years. I'd see him every two weeks. We could do the math on that, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours together.
LAMB: How did you collect what he said to you?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Well, I'd--I put a tape recorder down, turn it on and then he would start eating--you know, he would start eating nuts or biscuits. He was a tremendous nibbler. So my tapes are full of kind of a sound of wrappers and nibbles. He was like a little squirrel. We'd sit there, he'd talk by the hour and he'd eat chocolate and nibble and tell me stories. And it was--I tried to be a good interviewer--systematic interviewer, take him over the ground, year-by-year and step-by-step. But it wasn't terribly successful. You'd say, `Now, Isaiah, I want you to tell me this story clearly about what--what Winston Churchill said to you.' And he'd say, `Well, yes, but then before we get to that, we gotta double back. We gotta talk about Sigmund Freud.' And then we'd do that.

And then we'd--it was like a mar--magic carpet ride and you'd start a question at the beginning of the hour and sometimes he'd still be talking at the end. And it--but I--I--the quality I want to get across to you is that it wasn't just wild, free association. And it wasn't a kind of s--semi-senile old man just reminiscing all over the place. What I came to see was that he was engaged in a kind of Homeric struggle--you know, he's in his 80s when he meets me--a kind of Homeric struggle of an old man to take the whole compass of his life and pull it together and--and so that every single strand of it would come together into a story. And I was going to be the storyteller, but he wanted to pull it all together for me and just hand it to me and say, `Now you take it.'
LAMB: How old was he when he died?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: How old was he when he died? He was just coming up to 87.
LAMB: And where were you when he died?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: I was--he was in an Oxford hospital. He went in for a--a medical procedure 'cause he had trouble swallowing. It often happens in old folks--the esophagus makes it difficult for them to swallow. Doctors were worried he was going to choke to death. So he was having a procedure to make it easier for him to eat. And he died just like that. And I wasn't--I wasn't there. I was rather--regret that I wasn't. You gotta understand I wasn't a son, I wasn't a disciple, but I felt tremendous emotional connection to him as a friend. He died--there--there wasn't anybody there, except nurses and doctors. His wife wasn't able to be there. We all feel kind of bad about that, that he had to die alone.
LAMB: Where is his wife today?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: She's in Oxford, in England and still in the house--80--in her 80s, frail but resolute, and I think--I think enjoying some of the posthumous glow that has--has come to surround him.
LAMB: You write `He rejoiced in worldliness and having some grasp of inner work--of the inner workings of the world of power and influence, in knowing the gossip and understanding what low motives actually did make the world run.'
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Yes. I--that's what I was talking about earlier, about a sense of reality. I mean, when he then--we talked about the phase when he was working to get America into the war. When America entered the war, he went to Washington. And his job in Washington was to go out and see all the columnists--all the columnists of that period: Arthur Krock and Marquis Childs and Lippman and all these famous guys, and then talk to all the famous insiders in the New Deal. He met all the kind of chief players around Roosevelt.

And then once a week, sit down and do a dispatch that would be sent to the British Cabinet, saying, `This is what they're talking about in Washington.' Now he discovered--and it's very rare talent for a philosopher--that he had a fantastic journalist's ear for the buzz, for the story, for the gossip. And he discovered--I think that also affected his philosophical output--his philosophical outlook. It made him see that having a sense of reality was often a quality that was very much missing in academics and intellectuals. And it was in that training of three, four years--writing these weekly reports that Winston Churchill read that gave him a sense of--of the low motives that make the world turn, how the business of life is actually done. And most intellectuals don't have a clue how the business of life is actually done.
LAMB: By the way, what did you do with all your tapes?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Oh, I gave them to--I gave them to--there's a Wolfson College Archive--the college that Isaiah founded is called Wolfson College and they've set up an archive of all of his stuff. I'm not a very good sound engineer, though. I hope--I hope posterity doesn't blame me for all the sound of those almonds and paper wrappers that clutter up our conversation.
LAMB: But if you--if the average person wants to hear what he sounded like or wants to hear your tapes, is it available to them?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Yes. There's a very large archive of Isaiah Berlin's lectures. A particularly famous set of lectures that he gave at the--at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1965 was taped by the BBC and the BB...
LAMB: Audio or video?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Audio, not video. And the BBC recurrently runs them. I mean, I think you have--to--to--to account for his extraordinary impact, you have to remember what these lectures were like. Here is a man who chose to lecture this Washington audience six hours on the origins of romantic thought. He thought the transition from classical to romantic thought was one of the biggest changes in the history of human consciousness. It occurs at the end of the 18th century.

He tried to do the story of that transition in six lectures. He didn't read a text. There is no text of that lecture. He didn't even have note cards. He would write a text out and then he'd boil it down to headings and then he'd squeeze it down to a note card and then he'd throw the damn note card away. And he would stand up in front of--in the case of the National Gallery, 600 people and for 50 minutes he would just fly. It was one of the most extraordinary kind of feats of semi-extemporaneous, though highly prepared, lecturing that anybody'd ever seen.

When he gave lectures on the radio, people'd think again that he worked from a text. What he would do is boil the thing down, get it down to note cards. Then throw the note cards away and in front of the tape recorder--this is in 1953 when he gave a very famous series called Freedom and It's Betrayal--he would lecture 53 minutes without a note to a--to a radio audience that numbered in the hundreds of thousands. And that was what made him famous. People had never seen that kind of feat of--of lecturing before.
LAMB: There was a quote here and I'll g--I want to get it because I want to ask you how this--you write this and how this tracks with what you've said...
LAMB: ...about spending all this time with him. He thought self-absorption was a bore. And you allowed him to be self-absorbed for hundreds of hours.
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: If it was so boring, why did he let you do it?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Yes. Yes. Well, it's a kind of strategy of self-deprecation to say self-absorption is a bore. But there was some truth to it. You see, he was a--he didn't spend a lot of time thinking about how interesting he was. He didn't think about his internal states of mind a great deal. I've met a lot of intellectuals in my life and writers in my life who--who are really--their--their--the chief interest of their life is--is the inside--the inside of themselves, every state and fluctuation of their being.

He wasn't like that. He was very outwardly turned. You know, if you came into the room, the first question he wanted to know was what it--what you'd been doing. And because I was from a younger generation, he kind of--he--he soaked up my life like a blotter. You know, he--he wanted to know what I was doing. So when he said self-absorption was a bore, he meant it in a sense. He would tell you the stories and he wanted--I think he--at the end of his life, while he said he didn't care, really, `whether my biography was any good or not,' by the end he cared a lot.
LAMB: Had he read any of what you'd written?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: No. No. That was the rule. The deal was I would write what I wanted, he would have no control over it whatsoever.
LAMB: Anything off the record.
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Nothing was off the record.
LAMB: Could you have published that woman's name--or did he ever give it to you?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: I could have. I could have. I felt--I felt a--a moral obligation that--I thought `Why cause distress and--and embarrassment to a woman in her 80s?'
LAMB: Where do you live now?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: I live in London, England.
LAMB: What do you do now?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: I'm a writer. I'm a broadcaster. I'm slightly unplaceable. That is, I'm an academic who went over the monastery wall. I go back over the monastery wall from time to time and lecture at universities. But I've put together a life that's broadcasting, books and lecturing.
LAMB: What's the correct way to pronounce your last name?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Ignatieff. Russian name.
LAMB: And where does your family come from originally?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Well, it connects to the Isaiah Berlin story. My family were Russian aristocrats. My grandfather was the last minister of education for Czar Nicholas II, and held office as minister of education from 1915 till the Russian Revolution. Isaiah knew that. He knew that I came from what can only be described as the historical enemy of his people. Because let's be clear about this, there are a lot of sentimentality about Czar Nicholas and the Romanovs and all that stuff, but it was very anti-Semitic tradition. My family is not free of anti-Semitism.

My great-grandfather, jumping back a generation, signed the most radical and restrictive tightening of the legislation against the Jews in the 19th century, right? So Isaiah--the family name Ignatieff meant nothing but trouble to Isaiah Berlin. To any--to any Russian Jew, my family name is trouble. So one of the things that had to happen--one of the dramas in writing the biography was getting him to trust someone from my tradition. And he had to learn that, you know, the sins of the fathers are not visited upon the sons.
LAMB: I th--and correct me if I'm wrong, but I found at least three different languages that you use in your book and I've always wanted to ask an author this: Why do you use the German, the Spanish and the French without telling people like me what that translates to?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Oh, I'm surprised. I thought I'd tr--I--I wanted to translate most stuff.
LAMB: But I--but it happens--I mean, authors have done--do that a lot. I mean...
LAMB: just throw you a--a one-liner in another language and don't tell you what it is.
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Oh, yeah. Well, I think sometimes--we--he would say (French spoken), after me the deluge. There are a few cases where he quotes German--I quote German. There's a wonderful story where a German ambassador is sitting in an old soul's common room--in an Oxford common room, saying--this is in 1935. He's saying, `I think some of Germany's territorial demands in Europe are justified.' And out of the corner of the room, a wonderful old Jewish historian got up and said--in German--`We Jews and other colored people think different.' And I think I quote the way he says that in German. I think that's true. But I thought I provided a translation.
LAMB: Who is this woman in this picture?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: That is Ana Akmotiva. Ana Akmotiva was the greatest Russian poet of the 20th century, some people say. Certainly the greatest love poet, certainly the greatest lyric poet. And Isaiah Berlin met her in a famous meeting in Leningrad where she lived in November 1945.
LAMB: How did they meet?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Well, what happened was that Isaiah went to Leningrad as part of a visit to Russia. After he was in Washington, he went to Russia and he was supposed to write a dispatch--a--a report on Soviet foreign policy. But what he actually did with his time is go and meet the famous--most famous Russian writers. He met Boris Pasternak and then he went to Leningrad. He goes into a book shop and he says, `Does anybody know where--whether Ana Akmotiva is still alive? I've heard--you know, I've read some of her books--I hear'--and the man in the bookstore said, `She lives about a half a mile away.' So he said, `Can I go and see her?' And this man sali--said, `I'd arrange it.'

So in November 1945, this 30-odd-year-old British diplomat walks to what was called the Sheramatyeff Palace. And there in an apartment in the Sheramatyeff Palace--very denuded, bare apartment, very poor--sat this famous Russian poet. And they talked for 11 hours non-stop together. And I think it's fair to say--and I try and argue in my biography, that it was the most important moment--the most important meeting--most emotional meeting in Isaiah's life.
LAMB: But it was even more important--she--she thought it was even more important than that, didn't she...
LAMB: ...that it had something to do with the war?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Well, it's hard, I think, for an American audience to grasp just how important poetry is in Russia and in the Soviet Union. Here's a poet who's not allowed to publish a line of her poetry from about 1919 to 1940, on Stalin's direct orders. And yet is regarded as such a national treasure that when the Nazis surround Leningrad, the Communist Party airlifts her out. When she meets Berlin, news of that meeting reaches Stalin's desk the next day. And Stalin says to his cultural boss, `I hear our nun is consorting with British spies,' right? So here is the master of an empire of, you know, 450 million people learning that a poet in a Russian city is meeting with a British diplomat. And Stalin began to increase the surveillance and repression of Soviet writers from that moment, believing that they were being infiltrated by British spies like Isaiah Berlin.

And Ana Akmotiva always believed and said quite seriously that the Cold War began because of this meeting between Isaiah and her in November of 1945. Now it's an exaggeration, a poetic exaggeration, but it has a kernel of truth. That is to say, after that meeting, her life was subjected to tremendous repression. Her son was rearrested. She was--they--they screwed microphones into the ceiling of her house, put her under total surveillance. Everybody clamped down the Russian intelligence after that visit. Isaiah went there very naively. He just wanted to meet the greatest poet of the Russian language. He didn't realize that he would be regarded as a British spy and that would put her and every other Russian writer under pressure.
LAMB: You say he was a dipper.
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Yes. He--somebody once joked when they sa--they came into his room and saw--his room in Oxford and they saw all the books around his walls. They wondered whether he actually read them or whether he just sat in the middle and kind of absorbed them by osmosis. He was a dipper in the sense that--it was uncanny, he would pick up a book, look at the title page, look at the table of contents, flip through to the back, kind of dip into a page. And he very, very quickly could--could get a sense whether this book was serious or not. He was not a methodical, plotting, you know, start at A and go through to Z kind of guy. He was a dipper in that sense. He leapt about, I think simply 'cause he had a c--he--you know, the--the--the computer processor upstairs was just a hell of a lot faster than most people's. He could dip in quickly, get the nugget, the--the kernel of something and move on.
LAMB: The Berlin-Churchill meeting.
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Well...
LAMB: There are two of them.
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Yes. I--the first one--the one that doesn't happen is the most famous story about Isaiah. And it happens because--as I was saying to you, Berlin writes dispatches on what's happening in Roosevelt's Washington. Churchill, in 1944, says, `Hey, these are good dispatches. I'm enjoying reading these. Now who's writing them?' And they go out and find out that it's some obscure intellectual in the basement of the British Embassy and he then--about two months later, Clementine Churchill comes to him and says, `Irving Berlin's in town, Mr. Prime Minister. I'd be really grateful if you could shake his hand.' And Winston says, `No, I can't shake his hand. I gotta meet him. I've gotta talk to him. It's very important. Bring him to lunch.'

Irving Berlin comes to lunch, is sat beside the prime minister. Churchill asked Berlin for an hour deep and close questions about American public opinion of Roosevelt's Washington. Berlin answers as best he can in a Brooklyn voice and gets more and more confused about why the prime minister is asking him all these technical questions. Finally, Churchill's beginning to think, `Maybe this isn't who I think it is.' Says to Irving Berlin, `What's your most important contribution to the war effort?' And Irving says "White Christmas." At which point Churchill says, `Who am I talking to?' And the meeting breaks up. Churchill's secretary comes up to him, says, `Mr. Prime Minister, you made a bit of a mistake. It's not Irving Berlin that--you know, it's Isaiah Berlin that you wanted to see.'

Churchill likes that, is amused, tells his Cabinet. The story then leaks into the press, gets into Time magazine in April 1944 and suddenly a very obscure intellectual laboring in the basement of the British Embassy in Washington finds himself famous for having been the man who didn't meet the prime minister.
LAMB: But he did meet him?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: He did then meet him later because he was asked to advise--after the war--on Winston Churchill's famous war memoirs. Isaiah gave him technical advice about some of the historical sections. He then--Isaiah then wrote one of the most famous essays ever written about Churchill called Mr. Churchill in 1940, which he wrote in 1949. And his part--and he wrote it for the Atlantic Monthly in the United States, so it's part of--that essay belongs--as one of the--the--the essays that created the modern Churchill myth.

And the essay was eventually placed on Churchill's desk and somebody asked him what he thought about this great paean of praise to him. And the old man growled, `Too good to be true.' So he liked Churchill, but he had very ambivalent relations to him. I think he thought that Churchill was an undeniably massive historical force. But he was also a brutal man. And, curiously, he didn't--the brutality of Churchill is something that people don't quite focus on. Isaiah vividly remembered Churchill saying at one point that he was terribly keen to get back in power because he was sure he was gonna have a duel with Stalin. And in that duel with Stalin, they would probably have to sacrifice Rome and Paris. Isaiah vividly remembered the old prime minister saying this and thinking, `This man is great, but he's also terrifying.'
LAMB: What would he think about this country right now?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Oh, he--he--he loved America. It's a very important part of his biography. If you asked Isaiah to list--and he loved lists--of the things that used to make him--bring tears to his eyes, one of them--two of them were American: The Gettysburg Address and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." He could not hear "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" without tears coming into his eyes. He had a deep affection and respect for the Republican institutions of this--this country. What would he think about it now? I think he felt that he had been in America during its heroic heyday. To have been in Roosevelt's Washington was to see a nation mobilized for war, led by an unquestionably great leader, just, you know, commanding the world. I think he would think this is a society that has somewhat fallen off from that level of greatness, candidly. But he still loved the place.
LAMB: You're saying, conviction. He was a liberal social Democrat, but he was more comfortable, socially, among conservatives.
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Yes. He's a paradoxical figure. He believed in big, generous, open-hearted government. He voted center left most of his ri--most of his life. But mo--hi--his closest friends were, you know, the--the gentry, the--the aristocrats, pretty grand people. And he was more comfortable with them. But he was also--he had a Democratic spirit. I've--I've sat on buses with that guy and watched him talk to the bus conductor and the bus collector and the people beside him. I don't want to give the impression that--the key thing about him was a kind of omnivorous, insatiable curiosity. He had some pretty tony high-class friends, but some of the moments with him that I remember with most affection are sitting, as I say, with him on a London bus talking about the world as it goes by.
LAMB: Who's in this picture right here?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: The picture on the right there is on his--in the center is Isaiah Berlin, himself, in a kind of mock solemn pose. On the left is probably his oldest friend, Stuart Hampshires--or Stuart Hampshire, who was a philosopher, who played an absolutely key role in decoding German signals traffic during the war. And on the right is Nicholas Nibokov, who was a relative of the great Vladimir Nibokov, the novelist, who was a musician and impresario. And they're in--they're on the--they're on the lawn of Heddington House sometime in the '60s and there's some private joke going on that I never could quite figure out what it was.
LAMB: Was Isaiah Berlin a hedgehog or a fox and what does that mean?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: It's a distinction that he made famous, but it comes out of a Greek pre-Socratic philosopher who said, `The world is divided into hedgehogs and foxes. A fox knows many things. A hedgehog knows one big thing.' Isaiah thought this was a fantastic way to distinguish people and he lined up all his friends and said, `You're a fo--fox, you're a hedgehog.' And then he began to think seriously about it. And he thought it was a way of understanding a division inside the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy.

Tolstoy was a fox in his ability to imagine what it was like to be `Natasha'; in his ability to imagine what it would like to be a soldier in the middle of, you know, th--the--the War of 1812. But he was a hedgehog in his desire to have one overriding theory of human existence at the center of his thought. And--and Tolstoy was torn apart by those tendencies within him. Was Isaiah a hedgehog or a fox? My answer is that he was a fox who longed to be a hedgehog. He longed to know one big thing. And the claim I make in the book is that he--the thing that holds his life together is a consistent, determined defense of human liberty.
LAMB: Let me read the--the epilogue part of it. You say, `He gave more and more thought to dying, discussing it with close friends in a bemused way as if admiring a distant view or a perplexing painting. He did admit to being afraid of dying, but he thought it was incoherent to fear death itself. It was at the age of 86 that he quoted Epicurus to a journalist.' Is that you?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: No, it was someone else.
LAMB: `Why are you afraid of death? Where you are, death is not. Where death is, you are not. What is it that you fear?' And then you write--or the rest of this paragraph, `Death,' he insisted, often quoting a remark of Whittenstein's, quote, `"is not an event in life."' What's that all about?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: He did think quite a lot about death towards the end of his life. But he thought--he didn't believe in an afterlife. He believed death was the end of everything.
LAMB: Was he an atheist?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: No, he was an agnostic. He just wasn't sure. He thought God was a kind of question that no human being could sensibly answer.
LAMB: You could say a verificationist atheist.
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Well, that's kind of com--fancy philosophical way of saying that God was a proposition that simply could not be proved or disproved by human reason. That was the position. The thing that was good about him was that he kept death from creeping into his life. When--when men and women get older, th--it's often as if you feel that death is with them in the room. What was very good about Isaiah is he kept insisting death is not an event in life. Keep it at bay. Keep it out there. Life is for the living. Life is--is to be lived. I don't think I--I've ever met an 85-year-old who was f--so full of a kind of desire to keep going. I once asked him whether he wanted to live forever, 'cause I think the idea of living forever would be terrible. He said, `Why not?' He thought it was a great idea.
LAMB: What did his wife think of your book?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Good question. She was very generous about it. It's not easy to be the widow--the grieving widow of a great man and it's not easy to see your life put between the covers of a book. One of the difficulties of writing a biography--if--of a living--a person recently alive, is everybody had their Isaiah, you know. All of his friends had their Isaiah. She had her Isaiah. I've tried to put as many Isaiahs, 'cause this was a protean, multifaceted character, within the pages of this book. Some of those Isaiahs are missing, but I hope the--I hope the core or the spine of this man is there and I also hope that it--it'll--it'll serve as a record of the most valuable, important friendship of my life.
LAMB: How old is he in this picture?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: He is in his early 80s.
LAMB: Our guest has been Michael Ignatieff. And it's the book "A Life: Isaiah Berlin." Thank you very much, sir.
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Pleasure.

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