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When War Came

Categories: Nonfiction

All of us associated with the New England Review mourn the loss of the writer A. J. Sherman, who died on April 6, 2013, just before the current issue was released in print. He was a person of extraordinary discernment, an accomplished author, and a generous friend.

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From A. J. Sherman’s “When War Came,” an essay in the current issue:

For my parents, as for many New Yorkers, the countryside was invested with almost magical healing and protective powers: it was the only safe place for young children to spend the summer months, especially in the years when polio threatened all of us and seemed to lurk with greatest menace in crowded urban areas. Those perennial enemies, city dirt and city crowds, were deemed especially dangerous in hot weather; and the wholesome features of country life, including fresh milk and eggs, obligatory exposure to sun, and brisk walks, were expected to extend their benign blessings throughout the bleak winter months of cold and snow.

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Only openness

Categories: NER Classics

A. J. Sherman (NER 25.4) sums up a collection of Isaiah Berlin’s early letters:

Berlin remained consistently concerned with the dignity of individual human beings, with their perforce difficult and even tragic choices among values that inevitably and often hopelessly clashed. He rejected absolutes, distrusting “all claims to the possession of incorrigible knowledge about issues of fact or principle in any sphere of human behavior,” as Hardy has observed. Denying the Enlightenment view that there could eventually be a convergence, a synthesis of all human aspirations and values, Berlin instead maintained that values and ideals will always conflict, and that however we may be convinced of the rightness of our ultimate choice, we have no authority to insist that it govern the lives of others as well. Berlin was fond of quoting Kant’s “out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made,” but insisted that his pluralist view of human possibility was not to be confused with relativism. The Kant quotation gave its title to another selection of Berlin’s essays, edited by Henry Hardy: The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas (1990). Berlin abhorred the notion, cherished inter alia by missionaries, terrorists, and ideologues of all persuasions, that “organized happiness” is a desirable aim and that coercive sacrifices in the name of some Utopia are justifiable in pursuit of the ideal. Although he was capable of understanding those whose views he found objectionable, he felt closest to such personal heroes as Herzen, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and in the twentieth century above all Akhmatova. Throughout Isaiah Berlin’s writing the tone is free, animated, never pedantic or insistent, asking of the reader only openness, a degree of worldly curiosity; the arguments persuade by charm as well as by logic.

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