Saturday, 11 August 2012

A sense of direct acquaintance with the texture of life

Isaiah Berlin, the famous historian of ideas, attributes to some men a type of knowledge distinct from that of the natural sciences; he calls it a gift, “a capacity for integrating a vast amalgam of constantly changing multicoloured, evanescent, perpetually overlapping data.”

To be able to do this well seems to me to be a gift akin to that of some novelists, that which makes such writers as, for example, Tolstoy or Proust convey a sense of direct acquaintance with the texture of life; not just the sense of a chaotic flow of experience, but a highly developed discrimination of what matters from the rest, whether from the point of view of the writer or that of the character he describes. Above all this is an acute sense of what fits with what, what springs from what, what leads to what; how things seem to vary to different observers, what the effect of such experience upon them may be; what the result is likely to be in a concrete situation of the interplay of human beings and impersonal forces – geographical or biological or psychological or whatever they may be. It is a sense for what is qualitative rather than quantitative, for what is specific rather than general; it is a species of direct acquaintances, as distinct from a capacity for description or calculation or inference; it is what is variously called natural wisdom, imaginative understanding, insight, perceptiveness, and, more misleadingly, intuition (which dangerously suggests some almost magical faculty), as opposed to the markedly different virtues – very great as these are – of theoretical knowledge or learning, erudition, powers of reasoning and generalisation, intellectual genius.

(Isaiah Berlin, “Political Judgement”)

Well, I’ve not yet read Marcel Proust, but as I enter the last 200 pages of War and Peace, I finally understand what he means and why Tolstoy is one of the two novelists singled out by Berlin in this paragraph. A review of the novel is pointless task, it’s too big, too complex, Tolstoy’s consciousness can soar over the gigantic battles of Austerlitz and Borodino as effortlessly as it recedes into the intimate world of unhappy marriages and dissolute youths. He describes Napoleon and decorated generals no more comprehensively than teenaged girls. 
And the essayism! From Book Three onwards, Tolstoy the novelist integrates Tolstoy the essayist in the novel and initiates a dissection and critique of the methodology of historical research, finding faults in those who argue that history is made by great men, and persuasively showing how Napoleon had no more power to influence the outcome of the war than the ordinary soldier. These are some of the most penetrating passages I’ve ever read on the illusion of historical laws, determinism and free will, and it’s on par with the insights of the novelist into human existence. In fact I don’t think the two can be easily separated since history is just another aspect of life and it’s every bit the purview of the novelist as characters and dialogue.

We all arrive at novels in a different way. I arrived at War and Peace thanks to Isaiah Berlin. Before I wanted to Tolstoy I wanted to read Berlin. I’ve read three books so far: The Power of Ideas, Freedom and Its Betrayal and The Sense of Reality, where the essay quoted above is. I love his books so much I decided to read Russian Thinkers, but before starting it I realized I wouldn’t understand his famous essay on Tolstoy, “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” unless I became acquainted with Tolstoy. That’s right, I’m finishing a 1300-page novel because I wanted to read a 70-page essay.

But now I feel that I can’t read Berlin’s essay until I know more of Tolstoy, that now that I’ve gotten this far I have to keep going. I have no alternative but to read Anna Karenina next.


  1. Thanks for the very insightful post. As I am interested in cultural and historical connections the ruminations on these great minds that are able to weave all together is fascinating to me.

    You read like I often do, I want to read a writer or a particular book but first set out to read two other books to prepare for that task. Sometimes the two preliminary books turn to three or four!

    1. Thanks for reading, Brian.

      If you're interested in historical connections between ideas, let me recommend Isaiah Berlin. He was an amazing historian who effortlessly traced many of the key ideas of our times back to their origins. Philosophical sleuthing at its best!