Isaiah Berlin’s “Crooked Timber” and the “Bent Twig” of Nationalism

Obviously, there’s a ton of new writing on politics. Thoughtful, anxious books and longform essays about the right wing, especially, about nationalism, authoritarianism. I’m just beginning Kurt Anderson’s Evil Geniuses, as one example, which documents the Right’s efforts, since the late 70s, to dismantle the New Deal and create distracting culture wars as cover. Robert Reich, whose books The Work of Nations, Reason, and others were formative parts of my reading education, has now written a book called The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It. And of course Jane Meyer’s amazing Dark Money was, a few years ago, the new standard in impeccably-researched, dark and incontrovertibly real accounts of Plutocratic moves to undermine American democracy and fairness. 

These books look into America’s recent political past for explicit beginnings and sharp turns. Policies, manifestos. Think tanks. Secret meetings. They’re all there! Despite Anderson’s professed disinclination toward conspiracies, Evil Geniuses is absolutely persuasive about an organized, well-funded, secretive, bait-and-switch to lock in the power of corporations and the rich in the wake of late-60s progressivism and the schisms of the “Me” generation, bad wars, and bad actors in government. 

What is happening? is the question we’re asking over and over now. This is not normal. Is it a Trumpocalypse, as David Frum has it in his book by that name? Is it something that’s always been here, for which Trump is just the most cartoonishly vivid and corrupt avatar, as Kurt Anderson seems to say in his earlier book Fantasyland? Is it something more fundamental, the ugly form of decadence that was predicted of late capitalism, like the critic Terry Eagleton describes in his book Materialism?

These were not the questions I had in mind when I went to re-read Isaiah Berlin’s book The Crooked Timber: Chapters in the History of Ideas. It had been so long since I’d read it, in fact, that I was taking it off the shelf as an escape, as one of those confident, anodyne syntheses of philosophy that would take my mind off the present, reconnect Aquinas with Aristotle or something like that.  

I could not have been more wrong, and The Crooked Timber could not be a more eerily incisive analysis of the current situation. Though it was published as a collection more than 30 years ago, and though it focuses on what may seem like minor historical figures, like Joseph de Maistre (“Joseph de Maistre and the Origin of Fascism”), the clarity of Berlin’s analysis, the specificity of his historical subjects, and his analytical synthesis of rationalism, the romantic, belief and esteem bring this book right to the doorstep of our current crises.

The Crooked Timber is a collection of essays spanning Isaiah Berlin’s career starting in the late 50s, and connecting the themes of his political philosophy: History is concerned with the development of our faculties, of science and rationalism, of human as opposed to absolute truths (“Giambattista Vico and Cultural History”). Progress, moving in fits and starts, crests in the Renaissance, again in the Age of Reason and the rationalism of the Enlightenment. But reason has so many psychological pitfalls and frankly vengeful enemies that history is deranged by the emergence of good ideas at key points, like the French Revolution. New ideas arise and change culture; they are attacked. There are reactions, counter-reactions. Berlin says almost wistfully that “these collisions of values are of the essence of what they are and what we are,” and yet the results of the collisions can be brutal, catastrophic. The Reformation, the Terror, the Counter-reformation. History simply is the expression of human progress, its angry suppression, its eventual reappearance.

“Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made,” Kant says in the quote from which the book takes its name. It’s clear that for Berlin absolutism, such as arises against ordinary human progress, is a real enemy—and a form that fear and suppression often take. Berlin deploys the Kant epigram not to criticize the idea of progress per se but to show how skeptical we should be of “straight things” like the religious orthodoxies, political utopias, and totalizing principles that are the bad guys in his writing.

Even worse and more deranging than absolutes, however, are the ideas that come out of the Romantic movement, which he sees as a “deep and radical revolt against the central tradition of western thought” that peaks in the second half of the 18th century as Germany’s Sturm und Drang (“The Apotheosis of the Romantic Will: The Revolt against the Myth of an Ideal World”). For Berlin, the Romantic is the dethronement of reason by the will, whose poet is Friedrich “high demonic freedom” Schiller and whose philosopher is Fichte, the “true father of romanticism.” It is the replacement of shared truths with personal truths, the elevation of the artist over the thinker, and the irrational, emotional, and violent over the reasoned and hammered out.  One’s own truth is something to be insisted upon, even if it’s wrong. This is the truly massive shift in western culture, and a bad one: the Germans, as Berlin has it, couldn’t keep up with their Enlightened French showboat Encyclopedist neighbors in the sixteenth century and so basically invented Romanticism, and with it the aggrieved blood-and-soil ideologies that became National Socialism and the new American authoritarianism 300 years later in a crooked but unbroken line.

Nationalism and populism come directly out of the Romantic, in other words, out of the particular and personal against the general. This is where Berlin’s writing is so prescient. As he says, “Nationalism is an inflamed condition of national consciousness which can be, and on occasion has been, tolerant and peaceful. [But] it usually seems to be caused by wounds, some form of collective humiliation.” As Berlin says, “to be the object of contempt or patronizing tolerance on the part of proud neighbors in one of the most traumatic experiences that individuals or societies can suffer.” In Berlin’s example, the Germans, lagging behind their European and especially their French counterparts during the Renaissance “discover in themselves qualities superior” to their neighbors, qualities based on “unexhausted vital powers”, deliberate provincialism and the rejection of learning and sophistication. Berlin describes this as a “pathological exaggeration of one’s real or imaginary virtues, and resent and hostility toward the proud, the happy, the successful” (Italics mine). For me this is the beating heart of the book and the thing that makes it so extraordinary—and so timely: Aggrievement and shame are the real engines here! Fuck ideas, fuck fellow-feeling! Fuck level playing fields and “what relations between men have been, are, might be and should be.”

The uncanny relevance of this was really brought home to me as I listened to a recent “Trumpcast” episode with Virginia Heffernan and Ben Rhodes, writer and former White House staffer. Rhodes said the animating force of the far right in America this last decade has been disgrace. The hallmarks of the conservative agenda were so thoroughly repudiated by the spectacular failures of the financial crisis (deregulation) and the Iraq War that true believers were left with nothing but shame, resentment and vengefulness. Which puts us in one of Berlin’s convolutions right now, actually, one of those moments like the French Revolution that pit the rational against the aggrieved irrational in ways that almost can’t help but go crooked.   

Summon: A Short Essay on Making Music

Making music is, in one sense at least, really hard. I mean that it’s elusive. You can play an instrument by yourself for thousands of hours, as I have, often in a not very productive way, and you can play with others for hundreds of hours, and get hardly any music out of it. Even if you know the chords and you know the lyrics and you know the song form and the audience is clapping and you have the technique, usually something hasn’t quite happened. What isn’t happening all that time? What is music that is so elusive? 

There’s a trend now in discussions of “practice”, both in the strictly musical sense, like how to make your half-hour piano practice more efficient, what techniques to practice. But also in the more general and maybe more Eastern sense of “your practice”, the set of activities you do routinely and with intention to improve your skills and your self. In both these senses I myself am deficient, and am most often noodling mindlessly on my guitar or not being intentional enough about my actions in any sphere, let alone the musical one. 

On those rare moments when music happens, however, you really feel it. You can be playing something solo or, even better, suddenly find that you and the rest of the band are making something, holy shit!, making music! It’s there!

The way I think of it is like a seance. Playing summons music, though not often. The deepest feeling I have about music is that it’s its own thing, a rare presence in the room, a creation that sits apart from its participants. And isn’t this what art is, after all, what creation is: You made it and now it’s there.

As at a seance (I imagine), you can be “doing” the seance and not quite feeling it. Maybe the table shakes a little bit, maybe someone thinks the air has gotten colder in the corner. But then: the seance works and there is a real manifestation. And everybody knows it. A being has been summoned into this room with us. This is music. We are a string quartet—two violins, a viola, and a cello—but there are five…entities in this room.

Time is one for the main mediums (ha) of this summoning, too: The music has its tempo, and when it’s there you don’t feel like you’re having to keep time for the music. You just feel the music’s time, just as you feel the harmonies. They are there. Present. When the bridge of the jazz standard comes you all drop into it, relaxed in spacious time divisions and fooling with them because the music is with you, non-contingent, not fragile, it’s keeping things going, at the tempo, in that key.

And to summon music, you must of course listen. Even as you are playing. To listen and perform at the same time, even just by yourself, is rare! As rare as music is.

Earthy: Sweater-powered human space travel

A new more pragmatic generation of space exploration researchers has outfitted its small crew with a key new piece of technology: Icelandic sweaters. Four heavy, somewhat misshapen pullovers, differently-hued radial patterns across their chests, literally redolent of peat smoke and wool, of human sweat. The world’s television screens have fixed upon these lumpy traditional garments as totems of restored hope.

After nearly a decade this new mission, scheduled to execute moments from now, marks only the fourth trip into the reaches using a method known as leaping. Three prior deep space leaps have been tragedies, from which the crews have returned, because of the way that leaping must work, without any memories of the voyage. The data collected from devices about reaches of space previously unavailable to us is unimaginably rich, opening whole new fields of inquiry and research. But the leapers themselves have had nothing to tell us, nothing about what it’s like so far beyond the Earth and our solar system, what they’ve experienced. The world has wept at the grim, now-familiar images of the last three crews, emerging from the vessels in silver space suits, staring literally like idiots, unable to recall any details about their trip, or indeed anything from the lives they lead before they left for space. Some eventually regain their memories. Others, unfortunately, have come back lost to us utterly.

The Icelandic sweaters represent a very different approach to leaping. A return to earlier modes of travel, to a human-based program and a literal disenchantment with the garish silver metal rockets of the 1950s, the glass geomes and other basic shapes of the early 2020s. This time on our terms, the sweaters say: as humans, our outsized brains floating in liquid, our minds so prone to worry and to wander, our fragile skins.

Wool, it turns out, is very good at repelling solar radiation in space. No one knows why. The sheep in Iceland so close to what’s left of the intense ice sheets, the polar light of the North. Much more important, however, may be the actual feel of the sweaters, the deep odor of Icelandic wool, the talismanic wholesomeness they afford their wearers.

Wool sweaters are earthy. That’s the main thing. We believe that the astronauts now waiting to launch in thick traditional wool sweaters will retain more of themselves on this flight, and will share something real to us upon return.

This obsession with the future, we realize now, was about forgetting! Of course our astronauts would come back blanked. We would never conquer the reaches with fantasy. Silver shiny is not us. We’re wiser now. What had this abandonment of ourselves gotten us, this fetish of sleek and futuristic, the shiny Will Robinson fantasies? Making it there and back wasn’t a matter of faster vessels, more leap drive, or dilithium crystals. It was a matter of being able to maintain yourself, to keep your self organized. To feel and be present, no matter what.

To travel through distances any greater than to our own moon, you just need to leave the earth’s orbit with your space craft–almost any craft will do here–and then, working together, leap into the reaches with what’s more like a shared mental exercise than a spatial journey.

The astronauts stride into the small capsule. They know they are risking their lives, their memories, what makes them human. Researchers are already investigating an even stronger formula of Icelandic sweaters and Spanish rioja wine.