“Describe, don’t explain”. Though Wittgenstein perhaps wrote those words while discussing the epistemological value of science, one has to read Isaiah Berlin in order to see their true expository demonstration. This is no ordinary achievement. In more than one way, its an indispensable text; that is, its a marvel of literary criticism, a classical description of the inner-most structures of Russian thought, introduction to some of the brilliant minds and intellectual giants of 19th century Russia, and most importantly, an exquisite commentary on the history of ideas that made the modern world.
But while achieving these goals, Berlin does not try to supply judgements, leaving reader with a lot to chew. As I said, its the description that is perhaps much more important than the explanation; the latter has the tendency to eject the enquirer out of the domain of possibility, which in a way brings the creative process to a terminus.
On a different note, would anyone believe that a collection of essays about Russian literature and thought can prove to be a page turner? Well, to tell you the truth, it might not be unless the reader is at least familiar with major trends of Russian literature. For instance, two essays included in the volume -‘The Hedgehog and the Fox‘ and ‘Fathers and Children‘ – may fail to inspire a sense of awe without a decent familiarization with Tolstoy and Turgenev and if those who have read ‘War and Peace‘ and ‘Fathers and Sons‘, its a bonus. Moreover, if you are not familiar with Herzen, Belinsky or Bakunin, Berlin makes a point to generally characterize these trends of liberal intelligentsia before taking the reader finally to the outliers of the whole liberal spectrum.
Besides lucidity of prose, the greatest aspect of Berlin’s exposition is fine categorization of social and political trends in literature, and how he supplies archetypes of thought for an informed as well as uninformed reader. His point, for instance in the starting essay, that Tolstoy could neither be characterized as a Fox or Hedgehog and his ultimate conclusion that he was a Fox trying to portray as a Hedgehog is so illuminating and potentially powerful that one is forced to place intellectuals in these relative compartments for the rest of one’s life. Then there are subtleties like Turgenev being an archetype for liberal predicament, which are expounded with such force that now we have a way to describe various ideological movements of 21st century through the models of Russian thought.
An illuminate experience, a gripping read and a force to make you fall in love with Russia as well as Isaiah Berlin’s immense literary canvas.