I decided to read this for three reasons: It was on David Bowie’s book list, I recently-ish read War and Peace and had some questions, and it connected to the other topics I was thinking about in the recent weeks, namely, what it feels to be in the throes of history.
In the 1990s, I never felt like I was within history. Then 9/11 happened, I grew up, and I read The Handmaid’s Tale, which has the forgotten ending section that describes the Gilead timeperiod in the longview of History.
In this speech to a historical society, Isaiah Berlin thinks through the historiological vision of Tolstoy in War and Peace. He relates it to the idea of “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing” an ominous breakdown of knowledge as a set of facts and ideas, or a unifying vision.
Tolstoy then becomes a kind of visionary of both. The novel itself is 1300 pages of family and military drama, and then 100 pages of historical theory in which the totalizing effect of small moments in history add up to the broader whole of History.
Berlin breaks down that vision, seeks its historical antecedents, and reads through Tolstoy in the kind of 1920s Historical Literary Criticism that has fallen out of fashion (read who was being read). The result is an interesting reminder that we don’t have public intellectuals anymore. Also it’s a reminder that being within something can be a frustrating experience, and only seen from a kind of distance can emotional and historical reckoning happen.