Thursday, January 14, 2021

'I Could Never Abide "Group Think"'

In Vixi: Memoirs of a Non-Belonger (2003), Richard Pipes writes of Sir Isaiah Berlin: 

“He had that rare quality which Trollope attributed to one of his characters, that of taking up the other persons’ subject, whatever it was, and making it his own. He was thus an excellent listener; but when the conversation lagged, he took over. He was always witty and in good humor, at least in company. If, as Max Beerbohm wrote in his essay on Ibsen, ‘great men may be divided into two classes: the lovable and the unlovable,’ Isaiah emphatically belonged to the category of loveable.”


As character sketch, this is gracious, elegant and yet plain-spoken. Any suggestions, readers, as to which Trollope character is being described? Pipes aptly applies the Beerbohm quote to Berlin, but it’s amusing to recall that Max finds Henrik unambiguously unlovable: “[A]s we know, other men, not less great than Ibsen, have managed to be human.”


Last week, after I wrote about Pipes’ essay on Beerbohm, a friend suggested I read Vixi. Unlike many memoirs, it is concisely written and not self-aggrandizing. A scholar of Russian and Soviet history at Harvard, Pipes was a deeply cultured man. His interests transcended the provincial precincts of the academy. When he completed the 1,500 pages of his history of Russia, Pipes writes: “I understood what George Chapman meant when three and a half centuries earlier, having finished his translation of Homer, he exclaimed: ‘The work that I was born to do is done.’” Pipes opens the preface to his memoir with an explanation of the title:


Vixi in Latin means ‘I have lived.’ I have chosen it as this book’s title because any other that I could think of for my memoirs has already been used by someone or other. It also has the advantage of brevity.”


The subtitle, too, is worthy of contemplation: “[W]hen I say that in some important respects I feel to have been a lifelong ‘non-belonger’ I mean that I have always insisted on following my own thoughts and hence shied from joining any party or clique. I could never abide ‘group think.’”


Normally, declarations of independence are intended to mask one’s profound loyalty to some cause or fashion. In his thinking, Pipes seems to have been that human curiosity, a genuinely independent thinker. He describes the outrage among fellow historians when, at an academic conference in 1988, he discussed the Bolshevik regime’s influence on the Nazis, providing them with “the model of a one-party dictatorship.” He writes:


“One participant declared me to be a very courageous man to draw such parallels: I replied that what I had said required not courage, since nothing threatened me, but knowledge.”


At this point, Pipes adds a footnote: “I might have cited Max Beerbohm who professed surprise how ‘few people have the courage of their opinion. . . . I do not see where courage comes in. I do not understand why a man should hesitate to say, as best he can, just what he thinks and feels. He has nothing to fear, nowadays. No one will suggest the erection of a stake for him to be burned at. . . . So far from being angry, people admire and respect you for your ‘courage.’ You gain a cheap reputation for a quality to which, as likely as not, you have no real claim. It is as though a soldier in battle were accounted a hero for charging up to the muzzles of guns which he knew to be unloaded.’ Cited in David Cecil’s Max (New York, 1985), 172-3.”


Leave it to Pipes to see more in Beerbohm than a minor aesthete or juggler of diaphanous ironies.

1 comment:

Busyantine said...

Could Isaiah Berlin have been thinking of Phineas Finn? The genial and charming young Irishman was the central character in two of the Palliser novels.