Mr. Churchill

Isaiah Berlin defends Churchill against the charge that his writings are windy and self-aggrandizing
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In the now remote year 1928, the eminent English poet and critic Herbert Read published a book dealing with the art of writing English prose. Writing at a time of bitter disillusion with the false splendors of the Edwardian era, and still more with the propaganda and phrasemaking occasioned by the First World War, Mr. Read praised the virtues of simplicity. If simple prose was often dry and flat, it was at least honest. If it was at times awkward, shapeless, and bleak, it did at least convey a feeling of truthfulness. Above all, it avoided the worst of all temptations—inflation, self-dramatization, the construction of flimsy stucco façades, either deceptively smooth or covered with elaborate baroque detail which concealed a dreadful inner emptiness.

The time and mood are familiar enough: it was not long after Lytton Strachey had set a new fashion by his method of exposing the cant or muddleheadedness of eminent Victorians, after Bertrand Russell had unmasked the great nineteenth-century metaphysicians as authors of a monstrous hoax played upon generations eager to be deceived, after Keynes had successfully pilloried the follies and vices of the Allied statesmen at Versailles. This was the time when rhetoric and even eloquence were held up to obloquy as camouflage for literary and moral Pecksniffs, unscrupulous charlatans who corrupted artistic taste and discredited the cause of truth and reason, and at their worst incited to evil and led a credulous world to disaster. It was in this literary climate that Mr. Read, with much skill and discrimination, explained why he admired the last recorded words spoken to Judge Thayer by the poor fish peddler Vanzetti—moving, ungrammatical fragments uttered by a simple man about to die—more than he did the rolling periods of celebrated masters of fine writing widely read by the public at that time.

He selected as an example of the latter a man who in particular was regarded as the sworn enemy of all that Mr. Read prized most highly—humility, integrity, humanity, individual freedom, personal affection—the celebrated but distrusted paladin of imperialism and the romantic conception of life, the swashbuckling militarist, the vehement orator and journalist, the most public of public personalities in a world dedicated to the cultivation of private virtues, the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the Conservative Government then in power, Mr. Winston Churchill.

After observing that "these three conditions are necessary to Eloquence—firstly an adequate theme, then a sincere and impassioned mind, and lastly a power of sustainment, of pertinacity," Mr. Read drove his thesis home with a quotation from the first part of Mr. Churchill's World Crisis, which had appeared some four years previously, and added: "Such eloquence is false because it is artificial...the images are stale, the metaphors violent, the whole passage exhales a false dramatic atmosphere...a volley of rhetorical imperatives." He went on to describe Mr. Churchill's prose as being high-sounding, redundant, falsely eloquent, declamatory, which, in Mr. Read's woris derived from undue "aggrandization of the theme"; and condemned it root and branch.

Mr. Read's view was well received by the young men who were painfully reacting against anything which appeared to go beyond the naked skeleton of the truth, at a time when not only rhetoric but noble eloquence seemed outrageous hypocrisy. Mr. Read spoke, and knew that he spoke, for a postwar generation; the sequel to so much magnificence was very bitter, and left behind it a heritage of hatred for the grand style as such. The victims and casualties of the disaster thought they had earned the right to be rid of the trappings of an age which had so heartlessly betrayed them.

Nevertheless Mr. Read and his audience were profoundly mistaken. What he and they denounced as so much tinsel and hollow pasteboard was in reality solid: it was this author's natural means for the expression of his heroic, highly colored, sometimes oversimple and even naïve, but always absolutely genuine, vision of life. Mr. Read saw only an unconvincing, sordidly transparent pastiche, but this was an illusion. The reality was something very different: an inspired, if unconscious, attempt at a revival. It went against the stream of contemporary thought and feeling only because it was a deliberate return to a formal mode of English utterance which extends from Gibbon and Dr. Johnson to Peacock and Macaulay, a weapon created by Mr. Churchill in order to convey his particular vision. In the bleak and deflationary twenties it ,was too bright, too big, too vivid, too unsubtle for the sensitive and sophisticated epigoni of the age of imperialism, who, living an inner life of absorbing complexity and delicacy, became unable and certainly unwilling to admire the light of a day which had destroyed so much of what they had trusted and loved. From this Mr. Read recoiled; but his analysis of his reasons is unconvincing.

Mr. Read had, of course, a right to his own scale of values, but it was a blunder to dismiss Mr. Churchill's prose as a false front, a hollow sham. Revivals are not false as such: the Gothic Revival, for example, represented a passionate and intense attitude towards life, and while some examples of it may appear bizarre, it sprang from a deeper sentiment and had a good deal more to say than some of the thin and "realistic" styles which followed; the fact that the creators of the Gothic Revival found their liberation in going back into a largely imaginary past in no way discredits them or their achievement. There are those who, inhibited by furniture of the ordinary world, come to life only when they feel themselves actors upon a stage, and, thus emancipated, speak out for the first time, and are then found to have much to say. There are those who can function freely only in uniform or armor or court dress, see only through certain kinds of spectacles, act fearlessly only in situations which in some way are formalized for them, see life as a kind of play in which they and others are assigned certain lines which they must speak. So it happens—the last war afforded plenty of instances of this—that people of a shrinking disposition perform miracles of courage when life has been dramatized for them, when they are on the battlefield; and might continue to do so if they were constantly in uniform and life were always a battlefield.

This need for a framework is not "escapism," not artificial or abnormal or a sign of maladjustment. Often it is a vision of experience in terms of the strongest single psychological ingredient in one's nature: not infrequently in the form of a simple struggle between conflicting forces or principles, between truth and falsehood, good and evil, right and wrong, between personal integrity and various forms of temptation and corruption (as in the case of Mr. Read), or between what is conceived as permanent and what is ephemeral, or the material and the immaterial, or between the forces of life and the forces of death, or between the religion of art and its supposed enemies—politicians or priests or philistines. Life may be seen through many windows, none of them necessarily clear or opaque, less or more distorting than any of the others. And since we think largely in words, they necessarily take on the property of serving as an armor. The style of Dr. Johnson, which echoes so frequently in the prose of Their Finest Hour, particularly when the author indulges in a solemn facetiousness, was itself in its own day a weapon offensive and defensive; it requires no deep psychological subtlety to perceive why a man so vulnerable as Johnson—who belonged mentally to the previous century—had constant need of it.

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Mr. Churchill's dominant category, the single, central, organizing principle of his moral and intellectual universe, is an historical imagination so strong, so comprehensive, as to encase the whole of the present and the whole of the future in a framework of a rich and multicolored past. Such an approach is dominated by a desire—and a capacity—to find fixed moral and intellectual bearings to give shape and character, color and direction and coherence, to the stream of events.

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