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Frank Kermode

  • Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude by Ray Monk
    Cape, 720 pp, £25.00, April 1996, ISBN 0 224 03026 4

This enormous book covers the first 49 years of Bertrand Russell’s life, from his own birth in 1872 to the birth of his first son in 1921. It is not clear how many volumes are still to come; this one gives little more than half the life, and there are crowded years ahead, though it is possible they may be less interesting. Ray Monk’s much-admired biography of Wittgenstein made one feel, for a while at any rate, that the subject’s weird ascetic life and his philosophy, which he himself felt sure no one would understand, could be represented as an intelligible whole. Now he turns to Russell, another baffling philosopher, but one who enjoyed or endured a far longer, more varied and more public life, and documented it with almost incomparable abundance. The archive at McMaster University contains about sixty thousand letters, a high proportion of which must be love letters; and among Russell’s seventy books and two thousand articles (the bibliography of Kenneth Blackwell and Harry Ruja lists over three thousand items) many are autobiographical in character.

Russell was, on occasion, capable of unusual generosity and courage, but it must be said that one closes this volume convinced that some of the harsher opinions of his friends were justified. There was a celebrated moment when he asked G.E. Moore point-blank if he liked him, and Moore, after protracted deliberation, replied: ‘No.’ Clifford Allen, with whom for a time he shared a Battersea flat, found him to be ‘very childlike in his engrossment with his own emotions, virtues, vices and the effect he has on other people’. The actress Colette O’Neil, wife of the actor Miles Malleson, wrote a novel à clef in which a character based on T.S. Eliot called Russell ‘a man exhausting other men by his intellect; exhausting women by his intensity; wearing out his friends, sucking them dry, passing from person to person, never giving any real happiness – or finding any.’ It is clear from his correspondence with Colette O’Neil (until recently under embargo) that Russell treated her badly, but that seems to have been his way with most of his lovers, and there is plenty of evidence in this book that her judgment, though embittered, was not unjust.

Monk, who excels, as one might have expected, in the deft exposition of arcane speculations in mathematical logic, is equally thorough in his treatment of the spiritual and erotic aspects of the life of his subject. Russell was born into the Liberal aristocracy and inherited its habits of free thought along with its assumptions of privilege. The darker side of the inheritance was a lifelong fear of madness (an uncle became hopelessly insane), a sense that one needed to struggle to stay happy and a hidden violence of temper which for the most part he controlled well enough, though always ready to believe himself capable of murder. He lost his parents as a young child, was unhappy with their replacements and suffered a little from the administrations of an apparently rather evil tutor; but as a child he was on the whole docile and clever – in the view of his more boisterous elder brother, ‘an unendurable little prig’. He had a strong sense of sin, and through most or all of his life felt a need for religion, though he found its conventional forms quite unacceptable. At 16 he was already lamenting this lack, and in the course of his life he often tried to supply it with religions of his own invention, designed to be proof against his profoundly sceptical temperament.

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