Share this article

print logo

The lively genius who knew about so much more than ‘The Dismal Science’


Universal Man: The Lives of John Maynard Keynes

By Richard Davenport-Hines

Basic Books

418 pages, $29.99

By Michael D. Langan


“John Maynard Keynes was the twentieth century’s most influential economist.”

Now there’s a sentence that ought to put you to sleep.

But you’d be making a huge mistake in thinking that this book is about impenetrable economic theory. There’s some careful explanation of principles and practice – Donald Moggridge and Robert Skidelski’s urbane intelligence about the subject have been credited – enough to please savants.

However, this is a book with much more in it to help you understand a genius about whom many have only name recognition.

Here’s a surprise: the great economist, Keynes, who published his “General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money” in 1936, said to be as important as Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations,” took economics for eight weeks as an undergraduate and never sat for an exam in it.

How did this happen? Keynes loved Cambridge and wanted to be back near his friends. That’s why he took a lectureship there in economics.

Richard Davenport-Hines, his biographer, is an elegant, capacious writer. He’s a historian who has written biographies of W.H. Auden and Marcel Proust, and a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He explains the dismal science’s lack of popular interest, “No one ever becomes an economist by an uncontrollable impulse.”

Keynes may have had other uncontrollable impulses – “a bisexual living under Oscar Wilde’s persecution” – but economics wasn’t one of them.

This new biography gives us a look at Keynes with seven snapshots (chapters) of his life highlighted: First, we get a picture of him in “Altruist,” in which we are given insight into Keynes as a universal man.

“Universal” seems an awkward adjective to me. I know what’s meant by it. I would have argued for “Complete.” The Sunday Times put the broader meaning better, saying that Keynes was “the last and greatest flowering of Edwardian Liberalism.”

After the introductory chapter, we pick up on the usual classifications of a genius making his way through life, with chapter headings that signal accordingly: Boy Prodigy, Official, Public Man, Lover, Connoisseur and Envoy.

Our author does go on about his subject, but not overmuch given Keynes’ scope. He describes Keynes’ working methodology this way, “A disciplined logician with a capacity for glee who persuaded people, seduced them, subverted old ideas, installed new ones; a man whose high brilliance did not give people vertigo, but clarified and lengthened their perspectives.”

Davenport-Hines notes that “Keynes was of a type that was more common in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries … whose ardent curiosity, knowledge, imagination and activity were directed at almost every aspect of humanity.”

Keynes’ most famous book, says Davenport-Hines, “The Economic Consequences of Peace,” was published in 1920, and is still important.

Keynes was beyond good. But this is not a hagiography. Keynes had a dark side that he clearly recognized. His biography treats him in turn “as an exemplary figure, as a youthful prodigy, as a powerful government official, as an influential public man, as a private sensualist, as a devotee of the arts and as an international statesman.”

Shall I note this now? For those interested in Keynes’ love life, it begins on page 247 and runs 56 pages. He felt he had a horrid appearance. But that didn’t stop him from flirting with men and women. He told Lytton Strachey the year they became lovers that he found himself so physically repulsive “that I’ve no business to hurl my body on anyone else’s.”

The author is straightforward in dealing with Keynes’ fascination with homosexuality and later bisexuality (noting the broader social implications as homosexual activity was, at the time, illegal).

Late in life Keynes married the Russian dancer, Lydia Lopokova, who loved him madly. The author quotes Sir Kenneth Clark, who worked with Keynes in the 1940s, as saying that he thought “Keynes had the happiest of marriages and the best of wives …”

A summary paragraph establishes Keynes’ bonafides: “Each snapshot shows the same man in similar postures: a disciplined logician with a capacity for glee who persuaded people, seduced them, subverted old ideas, installed new ones; a man whose high brilliance did not give people vertigo, but clarified and lengthened their perspectives. That man was John Maynard Keynes.”

Sir Dennis Robertson, a fellow at Trinity and a friend of Keynes, said Keynes favored “hope against despair – of taking, where the future is at best uncertain, the risks of generosity rather than the risks of meanness. Perhaps – perhaps Mr. Keynes himself is a bit of an old theologian, after all; and not a bad thing to be, either.”

Keynes had an intense interest in money, our author writes, but “there was never a moment’s covetousness: he wanted to share his gifts and to spread abundance.”

If that is so, Keynes didn’t care for what he called “the decaying religions around us.” Nor did he care for the love of money and its hoarding. Western economies, Keynes said, “depended upon the inequality of the distribution of wealth.”

Instead, he thought that money should do some good by governments’ proper handling of it for the poor. He argued in normal times for balanced budgets. Keynes didn’t care much for “American working methods,” but he was foursquare for the energy and the optimism of the United States.

Our author calls Keynes a man of joyous vitality. Always optimistic, he had enormous faith in the power of reason and persuasion – especially his own. His regimen was always the same: identify an intellectual solution, devise an administrative technique to apply the solution and, finally, persuade others of the sense of his recommendations.

If there were conflicting alternatives, Keynes would always argue, “When choosing the way forward in practical matters, the sound principle is to take the most generous course.”

A small matter: I wish there were more photos in the book. There’s a lovely picture opposite page 360. It’s of Keynes and his wife on their balcony overlooking Gordon Square, London, in 1940.

Keynes says our author “was a sunny man who never iced over. Napoleon’s last words in ‘The Dynasts” provide his immediate epitaph:

Great men are meteors that consume themselves

To light the earth. This is my burnt-out hour.”

According to Davenport-Hines, selflessness killed Keynes by overwork. He chose to dissipate the last remnants of his strength in public service in 1944-45.

Michael D. Langan is a longtime reviewer for The Buffalo News.