|Richard Davenport-Hines, photo by Christopher Phipps|
Richard Davenport-Hines is the author of the new biography Universal Man: The Lives of John Maynard Keynes. His other books include Auden and Proust at the Majestic. He is an advisor to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He lives in London.
Q: You write, "Keynes was the chief intellectual influence on English public life in the twentieth century." How did he become so influential?
A: The rise of this university intellectual to national preeminence was a matter of mental power, flirtatious charm, constructive arrogance, literary eloquence and social influence – what we would now call networking.
As to his mental power, he went to the best school and the most high-powered college in England – and won scholarships, prizes and acclaim at a prodigiously early age. He thought quicker, more decisively and more definitively than anyone else around him.
The force and speed of his intellectual vitality and the relentlessness of his argumentative logic defeated weaker minds. He disliked wasting time with people who were undecided in their ideas.
Keynes’s parents, who in most respects resembled the most supportive, ambitious and sympathetic of 21st century parents, had one odd failing. They thought he was an ugly baby and an ugly child, and instilled in him the same fixed notion…
He compensated for this perceived inadequacy by flirting, by giving people he met a half-caressing attention, giving them frank and intimate looks with his charming, amused eyes….This technique was very effective in England and Europe: it went down less well in Washington, D.C.
Great work is not achieved by ineffectual people who ask, “Is what I do worthwhile?” or “Am I the right person to do it?” It is accomplished by men and women who combine great mental gifts, physical resilience and a willingness to exaggerate a little both the importance of their subject and their own importance in it.
Keynes was never bombastic, but equally he was never ineffectual. His arrogance was constructive: he felt pretty sure he knew best how to improve the world. But he was also self-critical. He knew that it was a measure of greatness to have second thoughts. No one was braver about publicly changing his mind.
Keynes was a witty, ironical writer and attractive public speaker with a musical, resonant, authoritative voice. His lucidity, his powers of explanation and confidence-building, his bewitching tone, his range of vocabulary and his joy in the English language were often likened to Winston Churchill’s. As a journalist, broadcaster, pamphleteer and author he had a tremendous intellectual reach of influence.
Keynes was a workaholic, who toiled for inordinately long hours on his papers; but he was an inveterate socialiser, whose intellectual influence was spread by his tireless socialising.
It was not just that he was a member of the Bloomsbury Group alongside literary intellectuals including Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster. But he was also a dedicated member of select private dining clubs, attended by bankers, international financiers, leading politicians, opinion-formers, editors and fellow academics.
He changed minds, raised new questions, infiltrated new ideas and started people re-thinking in his pyrotechnical conversations at these dining clubs.
Q: What do you think are the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Keynes and his work?
A: There are an amazing number of half-truths circulating about Keynes which are little more than misperceptions. He is seen as a progressive, even a radical figure in economics and social change.
But he was nothing of the sort. Like most of the Bloomsbury Group, he was supremely a nostalgic, who longed for the social privileges, economic stability, mental confidence and jaunty optimism of Edwardian England in the years before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. All his efforts were intended to mend and stabilise the economic system of his prosperous and secure youth.
Keynes changed economic thinking by giving primacy to full employment. He realized that neither 19th century laissez-faire capitalism nor the academic discipline of classical economics were any longer operative after the industrial mobilisation and state intervention of the First World War.
But his admirers and followers turned Keynes turned into an epithet – “Keynesian” – which has identified him with deficit finance….
Q: How did you research this book, and was there anything that particularly surprised you in the course of your research?
A: The time spent in research on a book may give that book substance, but it is not of all-surpassing importance. I’m now in my 60s, and I think everything I do now, including write books, is informed by my experiences of the last 45 years.
My interpretation of people, my analysis of their impulses and motives, my understanding of institutions, and of the way work-colleagues undermine or support one another; my sense of value of money, and of what it can buy; my feelings about what makes people and conduct either admirable or contemptible – all this now comes from 45 years of living, and I think Universal Man is permeated with an understanding of human conflicts, frailties and inspiration that I didn’t have when I was younger.
Keynes’s impatience with people who were dishonest, mindlessly obstinate, complacent, angry and violent – his loathing of bogus patriotism and flag-waving big-mouths – all this struck a lot of chords with me.
My book is a bit of a manifesto about how to live a good life and how not to waste time. I am very aware that when Keynes was the age that I am now he was about to have his final heart attack.
Most of the research for my book was undertaken in the huge, well-ordered Keynes archive at King’s College, Cambridge. I sat at a desk looking out over a spacious courtyard to King’s College Chapel – work building the chapel started in 1446, took a century to finish, and includes the world’s largest fan vault ceiling and exquisite medieval stained-glass.
The beauty and clarity of the chapel architecture transfixed me. Keynes, who was a member of King’s for over 40 years, will have known this view well.
I love working in archives, away from telephone callers, neighbours’ noise, domestic chores and other miserable responsibilities: it is the highest form of escapism.
Apart from King’s, I consulted archives elsewhere in Britain and the United States – most notably in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. It’s a joy to find such a well-funded, well-staffed archive, where everyone wants to help; and I love the moment when one leaves the air-conditioned, shady building to go out into the dazzling sunlight and drenching heat of the Texas campus.
Q: In your discussion of Keynes's work during World War II, you write that his "dealings in Washington were bumpy." Why was that?
A: What Keynes liked most about the United States was its energy and optimism. Pessimism was an abomination to Keynes – unlike most of the Bloomsbury Group, who tended to see their country and culture as doomed, broken and inane.
He was also buoyant and unsinkable – even in crises when other people thought the situation was hopeless and that they were helpless….
He was the first person in London to realize that the financial leadership of the Free World had passed from England to the United States, and that the English must curry favour with the Americans….
The last years of Keynes’s working life, from 1941 until 1946, were dominated by Anglo-American financial negotiations over Lend-Lease, and the formation of the World Bank and of the International Monetary Fund.
There was a combination of stupendous cooperation between the two English-speaking powers, and shocking miscomprehension. The decline of the British Empire was hastened by American policies.
Keynes visited Washington often, knew many officials, never visited Congress and seldom met legislators. He was exasperated by the American reliance on the telephone, by interminable meetings without documentation or recorded minutes, by the habit of oral, unsigned agreements that could be repudiated, and above all by the obtrusive involvement of lawyers…
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have published one big book annually for the last six years – the sort of books that other people take three years to write; and I am just starting to take a break.
I recently finished a book that will be published in February 2016: Edward VII, The Cosmopolitan King. It’s a biography of Queen Victoria’s son, who sat on the English throne from 1901 until 1910.
He was the man who more than anyone else made London one of the great world capitals after 1870; Henry James called him “the arch-vulgarian” because he loved to surround himself with multi-millionaires covered in bling; but like Keynes, he thought of himself as a European, travelled the continent inveterately every year, and understood that world stability, European peace and prosperity, cultural riches all depended on intimate European cooperation – not crude rivalries, racial antagonism, paranoia about borders.
We’re going through a very nasty period in England at the moment, with racist, xenophobic, pig-ignorant people suddenly much too vocal. There is serious consideration of English withdrawal from the European Union with all the economic and strategic disasters that will bring.
My Edward VII is an attempt – among other things – to show that 110 years ago, London was giving leadership to Europe, and understood that unity was far more important than nationalities.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: The “destiny of Europe is no longer in the hands of any man,” [Keynes] wrote in 1919…. “In one way only can we influence these hidden currents,” he had continued: “by setting in motion those forces of instruction and imagination which change opinion. The assertion of truth, the unveiling of illusion, the dissipation of hate, the enlargement and instruction of men’s hearts and minds, must be the means.”
This was the ideal behind the government-funded Committee for the Encouragement of Music & the Arts (CEMA) of which he became head in 1941. Music, drama and paintings were taken to air-raid shelters, hospitals, small halls, factories and mining villages.
Keynes supported factory concerts and touring exhibitions, but he stopped CEMA from financing amateur choirs, for he wanted surpassing excellence, not folksy amiable mediocrity.
Keynes was a most active chairman, despite other wartime commitments, and persuaded the Treasury to fund the Arts Council of Great Britain, which in the year of his death (1946) had secured a £500,000 grant. This was the start of state funding of the Arts in Britain.
It is little known that Keynes became a pioneer of women’s right to control their own bodies and of gender equality. In 1923, early in his affair with Lydia Lopokova (whom he married in 1925), he became vice-president of Marie Stopes’ Society for Constructive Birth Control.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb