Robert Skidelsky
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Essay: Confessions of a long-distance biographer
Robert Skidelsky
independent on Sunday | Sunday, November 23, 2003

 
It is no secret that I have spent a large chunk of my life writing about the economist John Maynard Keynes. In 1973, a few months after my son Edward was born, he got a postcard from my mother-in-law. She clearly believed in encouraging early habits of reading. It was of Gwen Raverat's famous watercolour of Keynes as a young man. "This is a gentleman whom you and Mummy and Daddy will soon grow to hate v. enormously I expect. He looks a bit furtive to me." My son Edward is now 30.
 
My original 1970 contract with Macmillan was to write a single- volume 150,000 word biography to be delivered "not later than 31 December 1972". This must rank high in the annals of contractual fantasy. The first volume was published in 1983, the second in 1992, and the third in 2000. Last week the single-volume abridgement was published. As I put it, I hope disarmingly, in its introduction: "The single-volume life of John Maynard Keynes has been delayed by the publication of my three-volume life."
 
I would like to relate some of the highlights of the writing of the life of this remarkable man and to convey something of the flavour of the subject and the challenges of the enterprise. It will be partly at any rate an explanation for my prodigious achievement in tardiness.
 
The first part of the defence is familiar to most biographers: I could not get access to the necessary papers. Although Sir Geoffrey Keynes, my subject's brother, had given me permission to see the personal papers held at King's College, Cambridge, the economist Richard Kahn, who held copyright of Keynes's economic papers, refused me access. The reason he gave was that a research student of his, Don Moggridge, was editing them for the Royal Economic Society's Collected Edition of Keynes's writings and nothing must be allowed to slow down this valuable project. No less a figure than Harold Macmillan, who had returned to publishing after an interlude as Prime Minister, interceded on my behalf, but to no avail.
 
Moggridge tried to cheer me up: he would not be long in finishing, and then I would be able to read the material I wanted in the published Collected Writings. "Rest assured," he wrote to me in July 1970, "it is not my life's work - not even half a decade's." However the volumes of his edition were still being churned out 12 years later, the last one of all in 1989.
 
My contract with Macmillan stood, but the completion date was tacitly dropped. Since I was frustrated on the Keynes front, I took a university teaching job in the United States. I returned to an English academic job only in 1976, and set about reviving the Keynes project. I would start work on the personal papers and the few already published volumes of the Collected Writings and hope that by the time I had finished writing about the early Keynes, the papers of the later Keynes would be open to me.
 
Only gradually did I realise what a mad undertaking I had let myself in for. The trouble was that Keynes inhabited many different worlds: his curiosities, his sympathies, his ambitions ranged over much of the thought, letters, arts, and practical affairs of his time: he even, fortunately briefly, hoped to make a contribution to genetics. He touched almost nothing without leaving a mark on it. How was a biographer to cope? In the introduction to my first volume, I wrote: "One learns as much as one can in the time available; and for the rest, one hopes, like Bernini, to create an illusion of solidity."
 
My serious learning started in the King's College, Cambridge, library in 1977. Some diary entries from that summer capture the terror, excitement, and pitfalls of research:
 
12 July: "To Hershel Road to see Richard and Anne Keynes. I was dreading it, but they were very friendly, and offered me several large sherries. He suddenly said: `I want you to see Maynard's letters to Lydia' - so I arranged to start reading them next week."
 
20 July: "Dadie Rylands led me from the library [at King's] to his rooms above it. We sat in his drawing room, full of china, in the window seat where he & Lydia [Lopokova, later Keynes's wife] had acted Comus in 1926. Later saw Simon Keynes at Trinity - an Anglo- Saxon historian, grandson of Geoffrey Keynes and son of Richard and Anne. He let me take away Maynard's Yellow Pedigree Book and his notes. He offered me a huge sherry."
 
27 July: Drinks with Milo [Richard Keynes's brother] - more sherries - then on to the Arts Theatre for Rattigan's Deep Blue Sea, then back to his house for dinner, to bed at 1.15. The amount of drink one has to go through is simply enormous. He remembers his uncle Maynard coming up to him on his 21st birthday and saying: "You have now reached the age of copulation".
 
Nicky Kaldor, the economist at whose house I was staying, had worked with Keynes as a young man, and he loved discussing (or rather expounding) economics. He was then obsessed by the need to save the world from the evils of "monetarism", and would develop this theme for hours at a stretch. I would ask questions, which gave him opportunities to lambast Milton Friedman and other assorted "neo- classical" economists and free-traders. Nicky suffered from narcolepsy, and would often fall asleep in full flow, only to resume 10 or 15 minutes later at exactly the point he had left off. He was a wonderful and generous teacher and friend, and I learnt a great deal from these tutorials.
 
The biographer's most important relationship, apart from that with his subject, is with what Virginia Woolf called the "widow" - the guardian of the Great Man's memory. My two widows were Geoffrey Keynes and Richard Kahn. (Keynes's actual widow, the ballerina Lydia Lopokova, never wanted to talk about her husband and by this time was past talking about anything.) Geoffrey was a brooding presence throughout my early years of research, a powerful force for omission and suppression. He had commissioned Roy Harrod to write the "official" biography in the late 1940s, and, despite having given me permission to see Maynard's personal papers, saw no need for another life. He was well into his eighties when I started, and his proverbial fierceness had undergone no apparent waning.
 
Gaining Geoffrey's confidence took several years. Two main problems had to be overcome. The first was that thinking about his brother re-opened too many family wounds. For all his eminence as a surgeon and bibliophile, Geoffrey suffered an acute sense of inferiority in relation to Maynard. He knew that his brother found him a bit of a bore. "He never liked me when I was young," he told me. "It was only when he married Lydia, and she liked me, that he began to think there might be something to me."
 
He also resented the fact that his parents had preferred Maynard to him. In their eyes, Maynard was the hare, he was the tortoise; Maynard the charmer, Geoffrey the dry stick. He could hardly bear to talk about his parents, and when he finally wrote his autobiography (published when he was over 90), they got exactly one paragraph.
 
I used to send him articles I wrote early on about his brother, and he once told me they caused him "great pain" to read. I was not as tactful as I should have been. I regarded these ephemera as a way of trying out ideas. Geoffrey would treat them as final thoughts, and turn on me. He would withdraw permission for me to see the papers, and the whole relationship would have to be re-established.
 
The other problem was Maynard Keynes's homosexuality. What purpose did I have, he once asked me, other than to tell the world his brother was a bugger? I replied that it was too late to suppress this, even were it desirable to do so. Michael Holroyd had already revealed most of it in his life of Lytton Strachey; it would surely be far better for Maynard's private life to be placed in the context of his public achievement than for him to be presented as a lecherous appendage to Lytton Strachey. Geoffrey was not convinced. The annoying thing was that whenever the press gave me a "puff" it was this aspect that they found most titillating for their readers. This confirmed Geoffrey's worst fears.
 
Gradually things improved, and by the time he died in 1982 we were on excellent terms. The way to Geoffrey's heart was through his library. He had one of the great private collections of antiquarian books, and when I visited him at Lammas House, near Cambridge, we always spent some time looking over them. (One of his favourites was a first edition of Francis Bacon's Essays, annotated by William Blake). As he told me each volume's history, and how he had acquired it, the fierce old man would soften, his face light up in a charming smile. At such moments, one felt he was almost reconciled to the thought of painful revelations in store.
 
One summer evening he was driven over by his grandson Simon Keynes to have supper with us. I remember Geoffrey almost springing out of Simon's low-slung MG sports car. He must have been 93 by then. His great age made him a figure of awe to our two boys. For some years afterwards, whenever we met anyone who looked moderately old, William would always ask: "Is he as old as Sir Geoffrey Keynes?"
 
The keeper of the economic tablets was Richard Kahn, Keynes's "favourite pupil", who had helped him with the General Theory and lived on at King's College, also very old, though not as old as Geoffrey, and, unlike Geoffrey, very deaf. His face was purple, and he had enormous whiskers growing out of his ears, but he had the sweetest of smiles. Now that I no longer badgered him about "his" papers, he had become very friendly. The truth, which I did not know then, was that he had never liked Roy Harrod's biography of Keynes. But he had his eccentricities. Whenever I appeared at King's, he would greet me warmly and ask me to come and see him "for a long talk". "Only," he murmured, "be sure to ring to make an appointment."
 
One morning I rang him up. "Richard Kahn," said the voice at the other end. I told him who I was. There were some piercing high- pitched whistling noises as his hearing aid was turned on, much audible shuffling of pages (as though of an engagement diary), and an appointment arranged. It had seemed quite easy, and I told Nicky Kaldor that I would shortly be seeing my other widow. Nicky roared with laughter. "Oh no, you won't. You wait and see." Early on the morning of the appointed day, the telephone rang. "This is Richard Kahn. I'm terribly sorry, but I find I have an engagement for this afternoon. Could you come at the same time next week?" This went on for most of one summer and I left Cambridge without our long talk.
 
When I returned for more research the following year, I ran into Richard by the library steps at King's. "I think you have been avoiding me," he said. I did eventually get my interview. It was a grey winter afternoon, and Richard gave me tea in his study above the King's College library. His desk was covered with enormous piles of yellowing paper which, I had no doubt, included several unanswered letters of mine. I was placed in a chair at some distance from him, which did not make conversation easy. As the afternoon wore on, the light faded, but Richard made no move towards the light switch. Eventually we sat facing each other in almost complete darkness. I would shout a question (several times) and finally a ghostly reply would waft towards me through the gloom.
 
By 1981 I was ready to start writing. Our family decamped to La Garde Freinet in Provence, where we had a house, followed by a van with a huge pile of books. I wrote my first two sentences in September: "John Maynard Keynes was not just a man of establishments; but part of the elite of each establishment of which he was a member. There was scarcely a time in his life when he did not look down at the rest of England, and much of the world, from a great height."
 
La Garde Freinet, a windswept village perche, was by no means devoid of intellectual resources. The economist Ian Little had a house just outside the village. Nicky Kaldor had a holiday home. The two economists did not see eye-to-eye, even on matters of theory. Indeed, it was from listening to them argue one lunchtime at Lady Jane Heaton's that I got my great insight that economics was a form of post-Christian theology, with economists as priests of warring sects. Lady Jane lived in some state in a converted chapel in the middle of the village. On either side of her at a long table in the crypt, Kaldor and Little played intellectual tennis of high quality. Nicky served and volleyed with great ferocity, but I noticed that Ian's passing shots were working well. The issue, I remember, was: did Ricardo's theory of comparative advantage assume constant returns to scale? Yes, thundered Kaldor; no, parried Little. Lady Jane presided with a charming but glazed expression, helping them in turns to nourishing soup, which she ladelled out from a large tureen.
 
Half way through the year, I decided I must learn some mathematics. Few economists in Keynes' day knew much mathematics. Keynes, however, in addition to his other accomplishments, was a Cambridge "Wrangler" - holder of a First Class honours degree in maths. True enough, by the time he wrote his big books on economics, his mathematics was rusty. My mathematics was not in a position to become rusty: I had retired from the subject at 15 with a rather bad O-level. I did not attribute this poor result to lack of ability, but to poor teaching, and lack of motivation. Now I felt I had plenty of motivation. On a visit to London I dropped in at Foyle's and asked for a book on algebra. I returned to our village with Algebra for Beginners by Messrs Hall & Knight. This book dated from 1892, which certainly was the right epoch. The algebra Keynes did (at about the age of eight!) I would follow, aged 42, in his footsteps. My wife seemed less than enthusiastic when I suggested we do the examples together, but she warmed noticeably when it became clear that she was consistently getting more right answers than I was. All day I wrote on Keynes at the top of the house; almost every evening from February through till May - when we were not playing Scrabble with Lady Jane - we ploughed through Hall & Knight. As the problems grew more difficult and the evenings longer and warmer, we would take increasingly frequent breaks at the local bar, until one evening we decided we had had enough of algebra.
 
It was not till November 1982 that I broke the bad news to my agent Michael Sissons: there could be a book in 1983, but it would only be the first of a two-volume set. The reason, I told him, was "that there is still too much material constantly coming out, which requires mastering and in many cases rewriting of stuff already written."
 
Although my schedule had always been fanciful, this was true. It turned out that the "economic papers", to which I finally gained access that autumn, contained masses of unpublished philosophical manuscripts. Reading them for the first time not only caused me to rewrite (in a great hurry) a fundamental chapter in my first volume, but also sharpened my intuition that there were important connections to be made between Keynes' theories of ethics and probability and his economics - connections which had to do with the problem of rational behaviour under conditions of uncertainty. However, it was also true that the scale on which I was writing the life was totally inconsistent with a one-volume treatment.
 
The first volume was published to what are called "glowing" reviews. What I felt I had succeeded in doing was rescuing the young Keynes from the "moist light" with which Roy Harrod, according to Noel Annan - reviewing the Harrod book - had irradiated him. I was particularly pleased to get the following from Richard Kahn: "I found [your book] most impressive, interesting and beautifully written. You have taken enormous trouble, covering a much wider field than might have been expected - I look forward to the further volumes."
 
My relationship with Kahn had, as this letter suggests, now entered a benign period. Richard was at Nicky Kaldor's funeral in the autumn of 1986. At drinks afterwards, he was sitting alone in the dining room, by the sideboard, isolated from the throng by his deafness, age and temperament. It was the last time I saw him. He died a few months later. At the end he suffered from delusions. One evening, so I heard, he rang the porter at King's College. When the porter appeared, Richard pointed to a large cupboard in the corner of his study. "Nicky Kaldor is on top of that," he said in a quiet voice. "Would you please ask him to leave?"
 
By this time I had decided that there must be three volumes, since in my first, I had only got Keynes up to 1919, or 36, and barely started on his economics. Barring the way stood the "Keynesian Revolution", hardly an under-excavated topic. Thousands of articles and books had appeared analysing what Keynes had said, what he was meant to have said, what he should have said, what others said he had said, etc. Where, amid all this exegesis, did my comparative advantage lie? What value could I add?
 
Here begins the second round of my defence. As I got deeper into my work I became obsessed with two questions: how does a historian write about an economist? And what is the value of biography? Over the period I was writing about Keynes, many of the old conventions were breaking down. Historians' range was increasing as they were becoming better trained technically. Biographies were becoming franker, and biographers were becoming more self-conscious about their craft.
 
The answer to the first question was obvious: learn economics. I am amazed this had not occurred to me before I embarked on the project. I had picked up some economics while working on my first book, Politicians and the Slump, an account of the Great Depression of 1929-31. My real economic education started with my "tutorials" with Nicky Kaldor in the late 1970s. But reading Keynes himself was the greatest of all lessons in economics, especially for its revelation of how an economist's mind works. I was convinced that any account of Keynes which failed to engage with his "theology" would be seriously incomplete as history.
 
But in learning economics it was equally important, I felt, not to lose one's historical bearings, the sense that economic doctrines are heavily contextual, and that biography is above all about character and context, not about propositions. Even though there is a logical core to all economic thinking, a biographer of Keynes, nevertheless, always had to keep in his mind the question of why Keynes's doctrines were developed at that particular time and why they succeeded in the world of action, while those of his opponents failed. These are historical, not economic, questions. My own biographical enterprise spanned exactly the years when Keynesian economics was fading, and when it started to be possible for Keynes to be seen as a historical figure - as an exemplar and product of the problems, virtues and defects of his age. Knowledge of economics is necessary to understand Keynes' "theology"; a strong historical sense is necessary to maintain the necessary detachment from the theology. Today I would describe myself not as an economist but as an economically literate historian.
 
The second volume of the trilogy was published in 1992. I had got Keynes through his great book, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, published in 1936. I now think there was too much economics in this volume, so keen was I to show that I could "do" it. What Keynes demonstrated - what he is famous for - is that employment could be limited by lack of effective demand. This overturned the "classical" view that the amount of employment depended on individual choices for work or leisure. This implied that all unemployment was in some sense voluntary, as it undoubtedly was for that small class of persons who used to be called the "idle rich". But to use this kind of model to explain why millions of workers suddenly found themselves out of work was absurd. Only an economics long since detached from common sense could view the Great Depression from this standpoint. Today it is generally accepted that unemployment can occur for "Keynesian" reasons, though what can cause demand to be deficient is hotly disputed between rival sects of economists. In one very important sense Keynes has "won" the argument, despite all Thatcherite backslidings. There are Keynesian economists and non- Keynesian economists, but no pre-Keynesian economists. And the same goes for governments.
 
With volume two published, there were nine years only of Keynes' life to go, though these covered the years of his greatest public activity, during and immediately after the Second World War, and included his greatest practical achievement, the Bretton Woods Agreement of 1944. But volume three was published only in 2000. For this last gap between the volumes there is no defence, only explanation.
 
Most of the 1990s were taken up with other activities. In 1991 I was made a life peer and became chairman of the Social Market Foundation. In 1994 I made my first trip to post-Communist Russia and spent a year writing a short book, The World After Communism. From 1992 to 2001 I took the Conservative whip in the Lords, before joining the cross benches. However, I played my political cards in such a cunning way that I was able to resign or get dismissed from all the political jobs to which I was appointed, which in due course precluded further offers. Thus the road to Keynes' death was kept open.
 
Along that road I had been wrestling with a dense thicket of problems peculiar to biography. The chief of these were: what is the relationship between a thinker's life and his thought? And what difference do individuals make?
 
In his obituary of Keynes the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter had written: "He was childless and his philosophy of life was essentially a short-run philosophy." My account of Keynes' homosexuality gave critics of Keynesian economics their chance. William Rees-Mogg argued in The Times in 1983 that Keynes' rejection of moral rules led him to reject the gold standard which provided an "automatic control of monetary inflation". Admirers of Keynesian economics moved, with a kind of reflex action, to insulate the "thought" from the "life". Thus Maurice Peston wrote in the New Statesman in 1983 that "it is obvious philosophical nonsense to suggest that there is a connection [between Keynes' sexuality and his economics]; the logical validity of a theory and its empirical relevance are independent of its progenitor. (What help is knowledge of the lives of Newton and Einstein in predicting the movements of the planets?)" Rees-Mogg and Peston, it seems to me, were guilty of opposite errors. The riposte to Rees-Mogg is that a correlation is not a cause, and to Peston that economics is not a science like physics.
 
The most powerful theory of the connection between life and work is Freud's, and Freud's theory of the mind has spawned a great many biographies of uneven quality. I have a temperamental antipathy to Freudian explanations of "achievement". It seems to me that they are incurably reductionist. They give the biographer warrant to treat the psychological provenance of an idea more seriously than the idea itself. In any event, I found the Freudian approach unhelpful in writing about Keynes. The specific psychological mechanism used by Freud to explain rebellion - the Oedipal Complex - seemed irrelevant in Keynes' case - either as an explanation of Keynes homosexuality, or of his revolutionary economics. He was a rebel against Victorian orthodoxies, but this was not a revolt against his father, or his family's values. Sociology offered a better clue. The idea of Keynes as an Edwardian, who tried, by manipulating economic facts, to restore a post-Victorian sense of security after the horrors of the First World War, seemed to me, as it still does, a better biographical setting for Keynes' economics than any circumstances of his childhood.
 
I am more sympathetic to Freud's poetry than to his psychology. He had a tragic vision of life, and saw the suppression of the instinctual desires as the price of civilisation and progress. It is possible to write about Keynes in this way: duty triumphed over inclination, Bloomsbury was sacrificed to Whitehall. But even this is to get things off-beam. One has no sense of a tragic life, but of a happy, successful and fulfilled one. He succeeded in getting the best of all his possible worlds. It is significant that Freud, with his wealth of classical stereotypes, never discussed Odysseus, the classical hero "soft of speech, keen of wit, and prudent," whom Keynes most resembled.
 
I have some sympathy for the neo-Marxist view that Keynes was a product of his class and background, who tended to see the economic problem from the standpoint of the "educated bourgeoisie" located at the centre of a declining empire. One can add a great deal of sophistication to this kind of approach. But it does not absolve the biographer from taking Keynes's ideas seriously, and leaves out the value added by genius, that residual of universal significance.
 
A work of genius is a complex subject and there is light to be shed about what went into the making of it. Even in the case of scientific and mathematical achievement we can say a great deal about the intellectual background from which it was fashioned: the existing state of knowledge, the puzzles left unsolved by the orthodoxy of the day, why those puzzles were, or had become interesting, the particular capacities which the solver brought to their solution. At the other extreme is a work of art which seems to have much more immediate roots in the personal life of the artist or writer. In between is the area in which Keynes worked, which was partly scientific, partly artistic. This gives a wide justification for a biographical approach. As I put it in the introduction to my first volume: "If underlying Keynesian theory was Keynes' vision of his age, knowledge of his state of mind and the circumstances which formed it is essential, not only in order to understand how he came to see the world as he did, but also in order to pass judgment on the theory itself."
 
This said, I don't want to argue the case for biography on utilitarian grounds. People do, of course, read biography partly to understand what formed the character and work of an outstanding person. But they also read it because it is the oldest form of story- telling, which long antecedes fiction. We want to know, and seem always to have wanted to know, how famous people lived their lives and to hear the stories of their exploits and the great events in which they were involved. There is no dimunition of this interest, which is why biography remains one of the most popular reading genres.
 
What, finally, is biography's relation to history? The famous lines from Ecclesiasticus, which start: "Let us now praise famous men," were read at Keynes' memorial service in Westminster Abbey in 1946, and it is in these terms that I have finally come to see him. This is a Great Person view of history. But this is my belief. Individuals do make a difference; Keynes made a difference. No doubt, all the separate influences are absorbed in the long course of history. But I doubt if any serious historian today would deny that great men and women are one of these "separate influences". This is the justification for writing about them.
 
"But, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or ill," Keynes wrote, in one of his most famous passages. I have often puzzled about the word "dangerous". Keynes was a most careful user of words. How can ideas be dangerous for good? A more obvious word would be "powerful"; the thought behind it being that ideas have a stronger influence on events, for good or bad, than have interests. And this is how the passage is usually interpreted. But the word "dangerous" adds a subtlety characteristic of Keynes: the thought that ignorance is dangerous, but that knowledge, too, is dangerous, because it tempts to hubris - the usurpation by men of divine powers - whose inevitable fruit is nemesis. That Keynes great revolutionary manifesto, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money should have ended on this oblique note of warning is striking testimony to a greatness that transcended economics. An intellect that could soar, seemingly without limit, accepted the discipline of earth- bound limits in the management of human affairs. This is the Keynes I love, and whose personality and achievements I have tried to convey.
 
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