More than a decade ago, Michael Ignatieff, the Canadian-born academic turned London-based writer and TV host, caught the attention of the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, one of Britain's intellectual eminences. Berlin asked Ignatieff to lunch. The philosopher -- known as much for his prodigious talk as for his multitudinous essays -- wanted someone to interview him, to assist in a valediction.
Ignatieff got more than he imagined. "It's as if he never drew breath for 10 years," recalls Ignatieff during a breakfast lecture at the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs in New York earlier this month. "I was witnessing something that became more and more dramatic: an 80-year-old man deciding it was time to pull a big 20th-century life together."
What has emerged, a year after Berlin's death at age 88, is Isaiah Berlin: A Life, published this month by Metropolitan Books (Forecasts, Oct. 12). The intimate portrait has been praised, especially for such set pieces as Berlin's remarkable 1945 meeting with the Russian p t Anna Akhmatova. And it comes at an opportune time: Berlin's still current ideas about liberalism, nationalism and pluralism are being reassessed, marked by academic symposia and the publication of Berlin's collected essays, The Proper Study of Mankind, by FSG.
Ignatieff's book seems a striking match of subject and biographer, two expatriates with eclectic intellectual interests and multiple professional circles, both foxes -- in Berlin's famous formulation -- who might also be seen as hedgehogs pursuing one big idea.
At Carnegie, Ignatieff appears stylishly intellectual, tieless in a black shirt and near-black jacket. He's tall and lean, with thick eyebrows that suggest his Slavic roots and the angular features of his Scottish forebears. His lecturing style, a tad donnish, is tempered by TV-trained fluency, and his neutral accent has assimilated some British intonation.
In this book, Ignatieff concludes that Berlin managed to draw fully on his braided identity: Russian intellectualism, British empiricism and a Jewish sense of tribal belonging. "The thing I admired was the enormous psychological efficiency," Ignatieff declares. Berlin, he concludes, was a hedgehog after all, with "a spine of remarkable continuity" in his commitment to liberalism.
"I think he was the most influential liberal philosopher since John Stuart Mill, but Mill's liberalism is connected with progress. Isaiah's liberalism is post-Holocaust. People think he is speaking to our times," Ignatieff continues, "but he wrote Two Concepts of Liberty [his most famous essay] in 1958 under very different assumptions. He thought all communities were faced with incompatible values." Given that people disagree, Ignatieff explains in the book, a society emphasizing negative liberty -- curbs on authority -- was far better than one privileging positive liberty, the core of c rcive politics.However, Ignatieff tells his audience, the conflict is not between relativists and conservatives, but between pluralists and absolutists, and -- as he maintained in a New York Times op-ed essay on November 8 that touched on responses to the Lewinsky scandal -- pluralist liberals must argue that public and private standards can conflict.
Growing with His Subject
For Ignatieff, 51, his association with Berlin -- "my friend and master" -- accompanied a period of professional growth and personal change. But the reputation Ignatieff had built was one reason Berlin approached him.
The son of a Russian émigré who became a diplomat and ultimately Canada's U.N. representative, Ignatieff grew up all over the world, went to the University of Toronto and got his Ph.D in history at Harvard. He marched against the Vietnam War and was inspired by the civil rights movement.
In graduate school Ignatieff's volunteer work in a turbulent Massachusetts prison preceded his decision to write a dissertation on the Victorian prison, published as A Just Measure of Pain (Pantheon, 1978). "I learn from books, but I learn most from raw, painful experience," he tells PW in an interview at his publisher's office. In person, his television coolness is tempered by self-questioning and a propensity to contextualize.
Married to a Briton, Ignatieff moved to London for a research fellowship at King's College, Cambridge, from 1978 to 1984. Before he was denied tenure, he wrote The Needs of Strangers (Viking, 1985), an essay on obligations within the welfare state, which suggested he was ready to "go over the monastery wall." He began forging an eclectic career. His next book was The Russian Album (Viking, 1987), a reconstruction of the lives of his Russian forebears, drawn on accounts provided by his paternal grandparents, both of whom died before he was born.
Not long after he left Cambridge he was plucked by Channel 4 "to host a ridiculously abstruse late night TV show," Voices, interviewing the likes of Czeslaw Milosz and Susan Sontag. Meanwhile, he began his first novel, Asya (Knopf, 1991), an attempt to fictionalize his grandmother's story, the sprawling saga of a girl born in pre-Revolutionary Russia, her exile and ultimate return.
By then, Ignatieff was hosting BBC's The Late Show (from 1989-1992), becoming the nation's most telegenic intellectual, even landing on the cover of British GQ. As if chastening Ignatieff for his celebrity, the London reviewers of Asya were savage -- though those elsewhere were better. Of his TV fame, Ignatieff says he came to resent feeling like "a kind of well-mannered butler at other people's intellectual conversation." Still, that public presence led Berlin to him.
Over the first three years of their project, Ignatieff taped over 100 hours of interviews, with no stated goal. To a Zionist like Berlin, the name Ignatieff signaled White Russian anti-Semitism, and while Ignatieff d sn't bear the sins of his forebears, he acknowledges that "it took a long time to negotiate trust, not just between two generations, but two traditions."
Finally, Berlin authorized Ignatieff to transform the material into a biography, and agreed to not comment on the manuscript, which was to be published after his death. While Berlin trusted him to exercise discretion, Ignatieff worried more about esthetic than moral betrayal: "He was a complicated, subtle man, so you want a biography that's complicated and subtle."
"I didn't want what's popular in America, the biography as overstuffed satchel. I wanted to get the line right," says Ignatieff of a life that included a late but happy marriage, fame as a radio lecturer and stewardship of a new Oxford college.
Ignatieff praises the editing he received from Chatto &Windus's Jenny Uglow, a biographer herself (Hogarth), while Sara Bershtel at Metropolitan -- an old friend from graduate school -- did the line edit and added an American and Jewish perspective. Now he's sworn off biography, recognizing he was privileged by special access to a unique subject, not to mention the yeoman help of Oxford's Henry Hardy, who for decades resurrected and organized Berlin's unruly uvre.
In 1993, in the midst of the interview project, Ignatieff left chat shows to report, write and host BBC documentaries and write about ethnic nationalism. "I was kind of [Berlin's] eyes on a disintegrating world," Ignatieff notes. Those initial journeys -- from Bosnia to Kurdistan -- appeared also as a book, Blood and Belonging (FSG, 1994).
Berlin's wisdom helped inform Ignatieff, whose confidence in the international order had begun to fray in the face of gun-toting nationalistic youths he met in the field. "I realized that cosmopolitanism is the privilege of people with passports," says Ignatieff. "Isaiah should have been a cosmopolitan, but he was very scornful of it. He knew: you gotta have a home."
Despite feeling "scolded" by reviewers for Asya, Ignatieff returned to fiction, with the Booker-nominated Scar Tissue (FSG, 1994), an introspective tale of an unnamed philosophy professor grappling with his mother's decline into Alzheimer's. "I saw both my parents die, with total memory loss," Ignatieff explains. "I saw Isaiah age in a splendid and triumphant way. I almost never talked about my personal situation, but there was something comforting about being with him."
To Ignatieff, the raw material for his fiction must "be something that seems unmasterable by other means. I can't start with a blank sheet of paper."
Ignatieff continued his peregrinations for a film on the U.N. and reportage for publications like the New Yorker. Some of that work became the essay collection, The Warrior's Honor, published earlier this year by Metropolitan. The journeys, Ignatieff says, "make me more questioning of the liberal citizenship we take for granted." Praised by reviewers more for his description of international breakdown than for his prescriptions in The Warrior's Honor, the slightly left-of-center Ignatieff found himself in a not unanalogous position to his subject Berlin, whom he criticizes somewhat for equivocations on volatile issues like Vietnam and McCarthyism.
The Hedgehog in the Mirror
As with Berlin, "There's a bit of fox in me -- look at the books I've written -- but I also feel there's a hedgehog trying to come out," Ignatieff says. He knits his brow. "I suppose I'm interested first of all in multiple identities and how they're reconciled." And that essential question of belonging includes not only family, community and nation: "You've got to belong to yourself first."
Indeed, in a lecture earlier this year in Canada on liberalism and the family, Ignatieff obliquely acknowledged the breakup of his own marriage some five years ago and the burden on his two children. "One place I felt conflict between incommensurable moral values is in my own life." Staying in a difficult marriage, he says, "is misdescribed if it's simply seen as a conflict between selfishness and duty.
"I don't think I could have written that lecture had I not marinated my thought in Berlin," he adds, noting that his Times essay makes related points. Berlin, he adds, "lightened me up. I'm Russian and have a tendency toward gloomy self-absorption."
His grandfather's favorite phrase invoked "putting on the chains of service," and Ignatieff d sn't think he's been "very service-oriented." He revises: "I feel a responsible to my audience. I have a small audience I've worked hard with for 15 years. They tell me these books have made some difference."
Mornings he writes books on his computer, fortified by "two strong Hungarian espressos" (His companion and "an essential reader," Suzanna Zsohar, is from Hungary.) Afternoon work is for shorter writing, scripts and other projects. His most recent documentary covered South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission; he'll soon embark on a three-part BBC documentary on the future of war.
"I now feel rooted and happy in London," says Ignatieff, who nonetheless calls himself a Canadian writer -- and a writer before a broadcaster. "I don't think I could survive as an independent writer in the U.S." Nor, it g s unsaid, could he have established such a TV presence.
Due in 2000 -- the third in a three-book contract for Random House U.K. and Holt in the U.S. -- is an essay about "the moral imagination, a ridiculously ambitious project," he says, that will pick up from The Needs of Strangers. Some fiction, Ignatieff muses, may emerge "from the war zones."
His epitaph for Berlin concludes: "In a dark century, he showed what a life of the mind should be: skeptical, ironical, dispassionate and free." Ignatieff is still shaping his life of the mind. "His seriousness of purpose has never changed," observes editor Bershtel, "and he's become as bold and far ranging as I always thought he would be."