Tuesday 10 August 2010

Isaiah Berlin on writing

Since we've had a bit of an Isaiah Berlin theme lately, I thought I'd continue the sporadic series on writing with some of Berlin's observations about writing. Thanks to Kim Fabricius for sending me the following two quotes from Michael Ignatieff's intellectual biography, Isaiah Berlin: A Life (Vintage 2000):

"The problem was that Isaiah hated writing. As he confessed to a friend, spoken words vanish and no responsibility lingers; and one is freed from these embarrassing witnesses of one's momentary states'. Writing meant taking responsibility, and he avoided responsibility of any kind" (pp. 175-76).

And, pricelessly: "If anything, his self-doubt as an intellectual had grown with the years. As he confessed to a correspondent in 1963, 'I have not the slightest faith in anything I write myself. It is exactly like money – if you make it yourself, it seems a forgery'" (p. 262).

Of course while Berlin did not like writing, he was a famously gifted conversationalist and extempore lecturer; someone once described him as the world's greatest talker. If you're interested, you can see a great example of this in his videotaped conversation with Stuart Hampshire.


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