Love Story

Earlier this month David Brooks published a beautiful column in the Times (5/1/14) about Michael Ignatieff’s biography of Isaiah Berlin. He titled his column “Love Story.” I don’t usually read Brooks’ column, but its title led me to give this one a try.

He describes an incident in Ignatieff’s book about the visit Isaiah Berlin made to the apartment of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. She was 20 years older than he was, “still beautiful and powerful, but wounded by tyranny and the war,” quoting Brooks. Berlin didn’t know a great deal about her and at the outset, their conversation was said to be reserved.

But they continued and Brooks reports: “By midnight, they were alone, sitting on opposite ends of her room. She told him about her girlhood and marriage and her husband’s execution. She began to recite Byron’s “Don Juan” with such passion that Berlin turned his face to the window to hide his emotions. She began reciting some of her own poems, breaking down as she described how they had led the Soviets to execute one of her colleagues.”

And so it continued. At 4 in the morning they were talking about Pushkin and Chekhov and Dostoyevsky. They spoke more and more about their life, their literary pleasures, art, history, the rich cultural life they could not live without. Finally, Berlin returned to his hotel and was said to exclaim, “I am in love; I am in love.”

I thought how wonderful this was, how rare it is today or seems to be, how a life of wide reading, reflection and writing seems to have lost whatever luster it had. When have you ever had a conversation like that? Or a bond with another person like that?

It was a friendship and a love, built around ideas, great books, writing. Several times Brooks refers to it as an intellectual communion. How often I have dreamed of such a relationship.

A friend and I have exchanged a few words about the Brooks column. She wrote:

It's a kind of life that seems to be passing. I see so much today in the history of the past, the rise and then decline of various civilizations. We do seem to be on a decline today…I don't see much positive in the future for my grandchildren.

In reply, I wrote: Who can be sure of what the future holds? It has a way of surprising us. It is already a different world than the one into which we were born. But there are still quite a few poets and writers and Isaiah Berlins who love books, and learning, literature and the humanities in general. And there are still a few places, like Reed and the two St. John’s College campuses, where that kind of life is taught and respected. Some gravitate to it naturally and I hope that will always be the case. There have never been very many, anyway.

Brooks worries that not many schools prepares students for this kind of life. Or parents either, I might add. But Berlin and Akhmatova were prepared, had done the reading, knew what it meant to grapple with large ideas, how important it was, and so they were able to have that kind of conversation.

‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished.


Stefanie said...

This was lovely Richard. What a beautiful friendship Berlin and Akhmatova shared. Are you going to read the biography?

I agree with your answer to your friend. I don't think there has ever been a time period in which a portion of the people didn't think society was in decline for one reason or another. The past always looks better because we can't see into the future. But like you, I am certain there will always be people who love books, love learning and thinking. You are right that is has never been very many anyway, but an increase in the number and a heady friendship like Berlin's is definitely something to be wished for!

Richard Katzev said...

Thank you. I did think about reading the biography, almost bought it, but stopped because I already know a great deal about Berlin and once took an online course on his work by an Oxford Don. It taught be a lot about Berlin's vast learning and online learning in general.

cath said...

Both the column and what you wrote about it have been lingering for the last couple of days. They made me reread a few of Akmatova's poems (I recommend the translation of twenty poems by Anna Akhmatova,made by this other great poet Jane Kenyon).
I admire how you, in your reply to your friend are able to keep the future and its possibilities open.
And every once in a while it happens, the kind of communication Brooks is referring to, it is rare and it is there albeit the form may differ, a column f.i.or a blogpost.

Richard Katzev said...

Thank you, Catherine. You remind me to read some of Akhmatova's poems. I will look for Kenyon's translation.

Linda West said...

This is such a beautiful story, Richard.

You wrote (about lives immersed in book, learning, literature) in your reply to your friend: "Some gravitate to it naturally and I hope that will always be the case. There have never been very many, anyway."

I think you are right that there are not many, but thank god I gravitated to it naturally at an early age (although I'm still doing the reading work). Like Bloom said, it is a "secular transcendence" that can sustain one throughout life.

Beautiful post.


Richard Katzev said...

Thank you again, Linda. Yes, a beautiful, irresistible story and no doubt a memorable experience for both of them. Do you live in this country? You may write to me at rkatzev@teleport.com. Perhaps you also have a blog?

Richard Katzev said...

Linda: The phrase "secular transcendence" just caught my eye. Perfect. At times reading a fine piece of literature feels that way, it makes like worth living, redeems it, dispenses with all the frivolous distractions and annoyances that are part of being alive. Richard