Michael Ignatieff

Michael Ignatieff’s Isaiah Berlin: A Life is out from Chatto.

To be a liberal in Europe is a frustrating business. In Britain Liberal Democrats can only stand by and fume while Blair’s Third Way steals liberal nostrums and enlists them in the service of a new centrist consensus designed to keep Lib Dems on the margins for ever. In Germany, the liberals have gone from being the king-makers of the Kohl era to bystanders in Schröder’s. In Jospin’s France, it is not possible to be a genuine liberal at all. The word itself has collapsed into a synonym for ‘neo-liberal’, which means rabidly free market.‘

Sergeant Jones’s Sleeping-Bag

Michael Ignatieff, 17 July 1997

It adds greatly to the glamour of this book that its author was threatened for having written it. Her offence was to argue that many of the passing media events of our culture – chronic fatigue syndrome, Gulf War syndrome, satanic ritual abuse allegations, alien abduction fantasies – are forms of mass hysteria. This so enraged American sufferers of chronic fatigue syndrome that they threatened to kill her. The fact that people so tired they can barely get out of bed could muster the strength to do this would be comic if it weren’t so alarming.’

The Beloved

Michael Ignatieff, 6 February 1997

When Andrei Sinyavsky looked up tsenzura in a Soviet dictionary of foreign words imported into Russian, it wasn’t there. ‘The word censorship was itself censored.’ Censorship is ashamed of itself. It is also ridiculous: a censor, J.M. Coetzee writes, is like a man trying to stop his penis from standing up. To censor is to give proof that one is in the grip of that which one wishes to forbid others desiring. Not even feminist critics of pornography like the philosopher Catharine MacKinnon actually want to censor pornography. ‘Censoring pornography would not delegitimise it; I want to delegitimise it.’ Besides, ‘censorship excites men a lot.’

What about Anna Andreyevna?

Michael Ignatieff, 6 October 1994

Ryszard Kapuściński’s is the most passionate, engaging and historically profound account of the collapse of the Soviet empire that I have read. Caustic and lyrical by turns, it is driven by that combustible mixture of love and loathing for their neighbour which Poles seem to have felt since the days of Mickiewicz. As in all of his previous work – The Soccer War, The Emperor, Shah of Shahs – Kapuściński (with the help here of Klara Glowczewska’s translation) has raised reportage to the status of literature.’


Michael Ignatieff, 20 December 1990

This is a very good biography indeed – thorough, compassionate, refreshingly unreverential. Is it, on the other hand, necessary? Any literary biographer must proceed on the assumption that the life gives us the work, yet Nabokov’s scorn for this way of thinking was proverbial. The butterflies of his art were always flying free of the dingy Continental hotel rooms in which they happened to have had their pupation. So what exactly do we learn about the butterfly darting out of the window when we learn the name of the pension, the name of the landlady or the floor the window was on – the humdrum specimens that end up in the nets of the harmless drudges of biography? The best that a biographer can do is to demonstrate the unheroic reality – those mean Berlin rooms, the absurd, forgotten émigré cabals – that Nabokov’s art managed to transcend.’

Living like a moth

Michael Ignatieff, 19 April 1990

I have always wondered when my grandparents realised they would never see Russia again. In July 1917, when they locked up the house on Fourstatskaya Street in Petrograd, left the key with my grandfather’s valet and set off with a party of servants for Kislovodsk, a spa town in the north Caucasus, they told the children that they were all going for a summer holiday. That is what they said. But what were they thinking? The disintegration of the Provisional Government was underway. One of their sons swears he overheard his father whispering to another relative: ‘I’ve got to get them out of here.’ And my grandmother, whatever reassuring fictions she may have told her children, took her jewellery with her, and ordered the maid servants to pack a trunk of family valuables. Some shadow passed across her mind, and she took precautions, and that is why there is a silver ewer and basin in my house, one piece of family linen with a monogrammed crest and two bits of jewellery. Without that instant of hesitation, they might have been lost.


Michael Ignatieff, 8 May 1986

One question in this strange, riveting story of identical black twins whose career of arson led them to indefinite confinement in Broadmoor is never quite addressed: what makes a person a person? How do we become individuals? These twins never made it into personhood, and their story helps one to realise that becoming a person is not the natural outcome of all childhoods, but an arduous self-invention which can go terribly wrong. Freud says that infants have no project for becoming a self at all. The infant is forced by separation from the breast, exclusion from the mother’s bed, the traumas of Oedipal rejection, to put on the armour of a childhood identity. With the Oedipal debacle comes insertion in language, which makes selfhood reflexive for the first time. It was at this stage that the twins stopped becoming persons. They went silent in their families and remained so for the next 17 years, perfectly able to speak to each other, in a slurred, compressed and speeded-up private dialect of their own, yet denying to each other, by implacable mutual censorship, the chance to use speech to develop a separate identity. Like the anorexic girls who would rather die of starvation than become women, the twins’ refusal to speak shows how unnatural the process of growing up can seem to a lonely frightened child. Terrified of embarking on the voyage to adulthood alone, they forbade each other to take the first step.

Decent Insanity

Michael Ignatieff, 19 December 1985

Huston-Sartre, Sartre-Huston: an odd couple, but not an inconceivable one. Huston wasn’t scared or contemptuous of intellectuals, and he had even directed Sartre’s No Exit in New York. The Freud oeuvre was hardly natural material for Hollywood, but Jones’s biography and the version of the Freud-Fliess letters then just published led Huston to think that Freud’s discovery of the unconscious would make a gripping intellectual adventure story. He also hoped the picture would send his audience out into the street ‘in a state of doubt as to their own powers of conscious choice or free will’. For his part, Sartre had once dismissed Freud as a doctrinaire mediocrity, but the neurotic trajectory of genius traced by Jones was, curiously enough, to raise Freud in Sartre’s estimation. ‘That Freud of yours, I must say, he was neurotic through and through,’ he remarked at the time to an analyst friend, with an odd note of admiration and possibly self-recognition. Like Huston, he began to see Freud’s discovery of the unconscious as a highly cinematic descent into hell. They even agreed on the incredible proposition that the imaginary young patient – Cecily – should be played by Marilyn Monroe. Sartre apparently thought she was the greatest actress in the world. Not least, they agreed on the money: $25,000 was to be Sartre’s fee. That was about all they agreed on.’

Anna F.

Michael Ignatieff, 20 June 1985

She burst into the history of psychoanalysis crying out in her sleep: ‘Anna Fweud, stwawbewwies, wild stwawbewwies, omblet, pudden!’ The calipers of theory were immediately applied: ‘At that time she was in the habit of using her own name to express the idea of taking possession of something. The menu included pretty well everything that must have seemed to her to make up a desirable meal.’ A strange father he must have been, ruminating into the night in his study on the meaning of his children’s half-heard cries in their sleep. Even here he paid attention to details other fathers would have thought beneath their notice. Why, he wondered, did she cry out for two kinds of strawberry: ‘The fact that strawberries appeared in it in two varieties was a demonstration against the domestic health regulations. It was based on the circumstances, which she had no doubt observed, that her nurse had attributed her indisposition to a surfeit of strawberries. She was thus retaliating in her dream against this unwelcome verdict.’

Diary: Canadian Elections

Michael Ignatieff, 1 November 1984

On 4 September, the night of the Canadian Election, friends of mine were gathered around the live radio-feed listening to the results in Canada House, cackling as the tumbrils bore each Liberal Cabinet Minister to the electoral guillotine. By about four in the morning, the dimensions of the Liberal catastrophe had revealed themselves: expelled from its Quebec bastion, reduced to a small-town Ontario rump with only two seats between Thunder Bay and Vancouver. It is difficult to say which pebble set off the landslide: reaction against Trudeau’s high-minded highhandedness, the prospect of change without risk, the attractions of a Tory leader who grew up in an iron-ore town on Quebec’s north shore and had a popular touch in either language. For many people, however, it was the stink of the pigs in the trough which finally did the Liberals in. Trudeau, ever the master of the contemptuous parting gesture, had forced his successor, John Turner, to approve over a hundred and fifty patronage appointments among the bagmen, hangers-on and courtiers of his reign. Cabinet Ministers accused of influence-peddling were pensioned-off as ambassadors to small unwilling nations and loyal apparatchiki were raised from obscurity under the garden stones of politics and given the Canadian equivalent of life peerages. Patronage is the gift ritual which binds together the tribal alliances of modern states, but this potlatch was gross, the last straw. At Canada House the pleasure of the night was more in punishing the losers than applauding the winners. The choice before the electorate was uninspiring: one high-priced lawyer with a lantern jaw and a hand on the ladle of the public trough, versus another. When the new man, Brian Mulroney, appeared on the screens in the small hours, waving in ragged colour from a hockey auditorium in his home town, Baie Comeau, Quebec, there were ripples of mockery in Canada House.

Daddy’s Boy

Michael Ignatieff, 22 December 1983

The media attention accorded to acts of infamy may or may not figure in the motivations of mass killers, but it must certainly count among the compensations of homicide as a moral career. In the wake of his conviction for murdering and dismembering six lonely young men at that dreaded address, Cranley Gardens, Muswell Hill, Dennis Nilsen must have basked in the thought that, even behind bars, he was still free to roam through the darker corners of the minds of all those people who had scorned or ignored him when he was a Job Centre counsellor and a pub bore.

Diary: Uncle Alyosha

Michael Ignatieff, 20 October 1983

When my father reached Paris from Russia in May 1919, the man who met them at the Gare de Lyon was Uncle Alyosha. My father was six at the time and he has no memory whatever of the tall, soldierly gentleman with a moustache. Instead his memory darts unerringly to the thing which mattered to him at that moment in his life. In Uncle Alyosha’s apartment in Saint Cloud, he was served koulibiaka, a pâté made from salmon. To a little boy who had just discovered what it was like to be hungry in the war zones of the southern Caucasus, where the Whites would capture their town one week and the Reds the next, the koulibiaka must have come dancing before his eyes as a promise of deliverance.

Last Word

Michael Ignatieff, 3 February 1983

I dreamt that it was night and that I was lying in my bed … Suddenly the window opened of its own accord, and I was terrified to see that some white wolves were sitting on the big walnut tree in front of the window. There were six or seven of them. The wolves were quite white, and looked more like foxes or sheep-dogs, for they had big tails like foxes and they had their ears pricked like dogs when they pay attention to something. In great terror, evidently of being eaten up by the wolves, I screamed and woke up.

A future which works

Michael Ignatieff, 30 December 1982

It is not easy to make sense of the trade unions. ‘Suicidal’, ‘mindless’ and ‘atavistic’ are, to be sure, epithets of wilful incomprehension, but even those disposed to understand sometimes find it hard to comprehend union behaviour, workers’ interests and the uncertain fit between the two. The first obvious case which baffles even sympathetic onlookers arises when unions strike in apparent disregard of the apocalyptic economic facts in their industry. During the ASLEF strike, even those loyal to the traditions of craft unionism found it difficult to see why the union should have seen fit to push the industry to the brink of collapse. It may be rational, even in a time of recession, to take on a plump multinational subsidiary like Ford’s, but it seems insane to grapple over the rusting hulk of some near-bankrupt nationalised industry. A rational explanation of union behaviour in these cases would have to demonstrate how unions manage to construe the facts of life in their industry in such a way that they can convince themselves and their members that they are defending, not destroying, their own occupation. The second case, which equally baffles outsiders, occurs when even unionised workers are seen to put up with low pay, appalling conditions or both without collective complaint. The cotton workers who have been stoically giving their lungs and their lives to the defence of an industry itself dying on its feet from mismanagement and foreign competition are the most pathetic example. If the first case – ‘suicidal militancy’ – is the bête noire of Conservatives, the second is the eternal puzzlement of Marxists. Neither side produces explanations of these cases which credit workers with the capacity to think for themselves. Conservatives like to emphasise the political and personal ambitions of the leadership – the Ray Bucktons of this world – thus failing to explain why the rank and file seem so regularly to find sound reasons of self-interest to support their leaders’ supposedly selfish causes. The catch-phrases in the Marxist explanation of why workers put up with the unbearable – the ‘divide and rule’ tactics of the employers, the ‘co-optation’ of the unions, the weight of ‘dominant ideology’ – likewise assume a passive rank and file, incapable of either speaking or knowing their own minds. It is almost an embarrassment, and certainly a puzzle, that these same numbed and divided workers can, with surprising suddenness, become militants in their own cause. Then, of course, Marxist sociology has to explain that they were secret bearers of revolutionary consciousness all along.

Ruthless Enthusiasms

Michael Ignatieff, 15 July 1982

One of the sombre gratifications of war, as we have had recent occasion to discover, is solidarity. War taps a longing to still the quarrels of ordinary life for the sake of something in common. This is a more pervasive longing than we like to admit. Even those who speak out against war are not immune to its lure. ‘Jingoism’ is a word used to condemn the enthusiasms of others, but also to ward off their fatal attraction. Since 1945, the quarrels of peacetime in Britian have been made to seem that much more mean and interminable by the memory of wartime solidarity. Now that we have peace of a sort again, the same nostalgia preys upon the business of taking up the old quarrels.

Homo Sexualis

Michael Ignatieff, 4 March 1982

Is a history of sexuality possible? It is easy to envisage a history of the language of enticement, the trail of clothes on the floor, the bed even, but the coupling, the thing itself, how could we nail that to the historian’s rack? An instinct timeless in its force, an experience at once private, secret and charmingly individual, how could it be made to submit to dates and social determination? It is easier to admit that the language of love knows its different tropes and turns in time than to admit that, if this is so, the experience it represents must have a history too. Sex is one of the last citadels to hold out against the sappers of historicism, one of the few domains in which it remains common to speak of a constant human nature and universal human experience.

It’s a riot

Michael Ignatieff, 20 August 1981

The morning after Toxteth and Moss Side, the Daily Express front page asked its readers ‘HOW MUCH MORE MUST WE TAKE?’ This ‘we’ lends itself to easy caricature. It is ‘Outraged, Tunbridge Wells’ writ large, an army of indignant blue rinse. It is the passive ‘we’ of embattled parents, distributing blame to the ungrateful children with the aggrieved cry ‘What have we done to deserve this?’

Mad or bad?

Michael Ignatieff, 18 June 1981

During his summation at the Old Bailey trial of Peter Sutcliffe, Mr Justice Boreham felt called upon to remind the jury that they were there to judge Sutcliffe, not the flock of psychiatrists called to testify as to his mental condition. The jury could have been forgiven for believing that psychiatry, not Sutcliffe, was in the dock, for during the trial, the profession and its discourse were subjected to merciless inquisition. The jury’s verdict implied the professionally mortifying conclusion that the doctors had indeed been duped. Yet if Sutcliffe fooled the doctors, he also appears to have taken in the Attorney-General, who accepted his plea of diminished responsibility.


It’s a riot

20 August 1981

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