Universal Man: The Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes review – more than the sum of its parts

Review of Universal Man: The Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes
by Richard Davenport-Hines

Splitting a biography of the influential economist into parts pays dividends

I admit I came to Universal Man: The Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes with a certain prejudice. I knew Richard Davenport-Hines as an accomplished writer and biographer. But he has no background in economics. How could he write a successful life of the most fascinating and influential economist of the 20th century, the economist who gave governments the tools to fight slumps? (Not that they always use them!)

Can one write an effective study of a supreme achiever in any sphere – whether it is mathematics, philosophy, literature, or tennis – without having some feel for the beauty of the idea for which they are trying to find the perfect expression?

True enough, Keynes was, as his Russian wife said, “more than economist”. But the “more” does not explain why Keynes is still a name to conjure with. What it might illuminate is the peculiar nature of his intellectual genius. But then we need to know what exactly it is that needs to be illuminated. Davenport-Hines is disarming about the absence of this essence. “This short book is notable for its technical omissions,” he writes. Not only is the economics omitted, but also the philosophy, which was its foundation.

He solves the problem of being unable to write a properly centred life of Keynes by writing seven lives: Keynes as Altruist, Boy Prodigy, Official, Public Man, Lover, Connoisseur, and Envoy: seven characters in search of a lead.

For example, he gives a splendid account of Keynes’s Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919), his polemic against the allied attempt to extract excessive debt payments (reparations) from the defeated Germans. But everything hinges on the meaning of “excessive”. Davenport-Hines has no problem with the morality of Keynes’s stand, but there is the technical question of Germany’s “capacity to pay”. The defence is incomplete without coming to a view on this. That the author is not fully possessed of Keynes’s intellectual world is also suggested by the slight misquotation of his most famous remark “in the long run we are all dead”, which he has as “in the long run in which we are all dead”.

This is the case for the prosecution. But there is also a strong case for the defence. Treating Keynes’s lives as interesting and valuable for their own sake, and not just as a means to his economics, gives them an extra vividness.

Davenport-Hines is right to root Keynes solidly in the culture of his time. Placing his economics in the context of Edwardian iconoclasm and postwar desolation is a powerful corrective to the standard view of economics as an axiomatic system of universal truths.

With a keen eye for telling detail and social connections, Davenport-Hines brilliantly conveys what one might call the peripheral atmospherics of Keynes’s existence. For example, he finds a literary source for Keynes’s memoir, Dr Melchior, in the Davout-Pierre Bezukhov exchanges of War and Peace: “Keynes probably knew this passage from his mother’s reading aloud of Tolstoy.” On the other hand, the author is curiously blind to the influence of Freud on Keynes’s views about money.

And, finally, Davenport-Hines captures crucial aspects of Keynes’s personality – his generosity of spirit, his optimism, his knack for friendship, his ethical and aesthetic standards, his playfulness, his freedom from cant, his liberal-mindedness, as well as his intellectual arrogance – which emerge only fitfully in his economic treatises, but which colour their standpoint. Keynes was proud of his civilisation, and wanted to preserve it. It’s something that marks out his generation from ours, just as his sense of duty – of which the author might have made more – links his group of Edwardians with their Victorian forbears.

Yet there is an inherent disconnect built into the “seven lives” structure. Patterns of thought and activity which form part of a single whole are split into topics. Shorn of their lateral connections, the topics tend to become lists. The division also makes it difficult to get a sense of how Keynes matured over his lifetime. He was not the same person at 50 as he had been at 20.

Davenport-Hines says that Keynes compartmentalised his lives. But “compartmentalisation” is a figure of speech, and in practice, one thing leads into another. In chapter four, The Public Man, Davenport-Hines writes that Keynes had “no ethical dispute with capitalism”. And so one might suppose from a chapter devoted to the succession of his public appointments. One would not gather that he hoped that before long “love of money” would be consigned to “specialists in mental disease”. This disobliging thought comes only later, in the discussion of Keynes as a connoisseur.

The disconnect is particularly acute when we come to The Lover. “Keynes’s sex life,” writes Davenport-Hines, “was one of the seven activities that made him a universal man.” Presumably, he means by this that Keynes was bisexual. Between 1906 and 1916 – that is, between the ages of 23 and 33 – he kept a tally of his lovers (all male), both friends and pick-ups, together with frequency of copulation. The list of his pick-ups starts with “Stable Boy at Park Lane” and ends with “Grand Duke Cyril of the Paris Baths”. Given that there were many more copulations (200) than pick-ups (23), most of them must have been with his friends, especially Duncan Grant, the first great consummated love of his life. Davenport-Hines’s vivid history of Edwardian cruising habits and venues seems out of proportion to Keynes’s modest tally of one-night stands. Then in his late 30s, he fell in love with the ballerina, Lydia Lopokova, and didn’t sleep with men again.

As the author points out, many of Keynes’s gay friends “settled down” and married in early middle age. Today our only way of understanding these marriages is as disguises, which current law has sought to make unnecessary by making it legal for gay people to marry. But who knows whether Keynes found sex with Duncan Grant more satisfying than sex with Lydia. The fact is that at a certain point in his life he fell in love with Lydia and wanted to spend the rest of his life with her.

Keynes’s gay adventures tell one nothing directly about his economics. But his lack of guilt about them does tell us a great deal about his youthful attitude to the conventional morality of his day, of which Victorian economics were a part. His rejection of the “duty to save”, which he called “nine-tenths of morality”, was intellectual iconoclasm rooted in moral iconoclasm.

In the end it is useless to protest that practically all of this material is already known, that what made Keynes really great is left out. It may be that the only way to bring icons of the past to life is to repackage them for current consumption. This, Davenport has done with grace and insight.