The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library

Taking Dictation from Isaiah Berlin

Letters from Lelia Brodersen

Excerpts from two letters that I wrote to a friend in March of 1952, when Berlin was a Visiting Lecturer at Bryn Mawr College and when I was doing graduate work at Bryn Mawr, was therefore short of money, and was picking up earnings wherever I could find them.

Letter postmarked 2 March 1952
At the end of last week Mrs Manning[1] called me & boomingly inquired whether I could assist international relations to the extent of helping Isaiah Berlin with his correspondence. Yes, Mr. Nahm[2] had told her that I had told him that I no longer took shorthand – but she thought the most important thing was to be able to understand him (Berlin). The previous incumbent, she said casually, had broken down & never returned. I said I would try. Shortly thereafter he called. He has an Oxford accent, a lisp, an inability to say r, & the most inconceivably rapid “delivery” that I have ever heard outside of a patter song [...] We arranged that I was to appear at 11 Tuesday morning. Monday evening I went to his lecture on Fichte & was appalled. He bowed hastily, established himself behind the lectern, fixed his eyes on a point slightly to his right & over the heads of the audience, & began as if a plug had been pulled out. For precisely an hour, with scarcely a second’s pause & with really frightful speed, he poured forth what was evidently a brilliant lecture from the little I could catch of it. He never shifted the direction of his gaze once. Without a pause he swayed back & forth, so far that each time one was sure that he was going to topple over, either forward or backward. His right hand he held palm up in the palm of his left hand, & for the whole hour shook both hands violently up & down as if he were trying to dislodge something from them. It was scarcely to be believed. And all the time this furious stream of words, in beautifully finished sentences but without pauses except for certain weird signals of transition such as “ ... & so it is evident that Kant’s idea of freedom was in some ways very dissimilar to the idea of freedom which Fichte held, W E L L!”  I was exhausted at the end, & yet I am sure that if ever I saw & heard anyone in a true state of inspiration it was then. It is really a tragedy that communication is almost impossible.

“W E L L!”  On Tuesday, typewriter in hand & despair in heart, I arrived at the Deanery, where he is staying. The rest is anticlimactic. I took his letters directly on the typewriter, which forced him to make pauses, since the noise of the machine forced itself upon him; he is happy to have things struck over, x’ed out, etc., & will sign literally anything; his letters are charming & occasionally  pathetic; & he is movingly shy, polite, helpless, & apologetic. And – on Thursday, when I went again, & he was shortly called to the telephone, I started to read a reprint which he had lying on his desk – “Lev Tolstoy’s Historical Scepticism.”[3] I was at once caught up into it; & when he came back I asked him if he could  spare it for a few days. “Oh, take it, take it,” he said, fumbling madly among his papers. “I have them to send to people – take it – keep it.” So I did, & when I had finished it I settled once & for all into the impression that here was a near-great, if not a really great man. I’ll bring it for you to read [...]

Anyway, it is a fascinating experience altogether, & I see no signs of collapse yet. I am to go again on Monday – perhaps no more – he doesn’t say. He referred to Bryn Mawr, by the way, in one of his letters as “this very civilized corner of the world” – which is a compliment from a Fellow of All Souls!

Letter postmarked 17 March 1952
On Monday I cope with Isaiah for the last time [...] Last time was remarkable. He dictated for an hour & a half & stood squarely in front of me for the whole time, which certainly made the understanding much easier. Somehow, in the middle of a letter, he became aware that the huge window-pane beside him had a hole at the top & a crack running down from it the whole length of the window. He made noises of interest & ran his finger along the crack. I muttered something about somebody’s having been shooting at him, & he looked at me with an absolute gleam in the face, saying, “Yes, exactly! It does look exactly like a bullet hole, doesn’t it?” After a moment spent in silent & joyful contemplation of this fact he went on dictating, & I, of course, went on typing. Suddenly I heard him say, “Oh, good heavens!” I looked up, & saw him helplessly affixed to the window by his sleeve. He had leaned against the pane, the crack had nipped up a length of his sleeve, & there he was, unable to reach the situation with either hand. I rose up to rescue him, he assuring me repeatedly, as I worked, that “Such a thing never happened before – absolutely never happened before!” Eventually I pried him out, exhorting him the while to hold still & not cut the cloth, & being exhorted with equal vehemence not to cut my fingers. Cloth, fingers, & personnel survived. It is, somehow, in spite of his protestations, just the sort of thing one would expect to happen to him.

I have grown curiously fond of him. I won’t be sorry to conclude the secretarial part of it, but I will be sorry to see him go. There is a peculiar sweetness & charm there which grows upon one half-imperceptibly. It has really been quite an experience altogether.

1. Dean of the Undergraduate School. [back]
2. Chairman of the Philosophy Department. [back]
3. This was to become The Hedgehog and the Fox in 1953. [back]
© Lelia Brodersen  2001

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