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.