- 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.
At 11 he delightedly discovered Euclid, and so inaugurated what he was to call ‘a life of intellect tempered by flippancy’, or ‘a life of flippancy tempered by intellect’, whichever you choose of the two versions Monk quotes (and there is a difference). This was an early epiphany. Russell had a passion for epiphanies – again and again he suggests that some important decision or discovery struck him like a bolt from the blue. Breaking off his studies to go out to buy a tin of tobacco, he ‘suddenly saw the truth of Descartes’ statement of the ontological argument for the existence of God. I threw the tin in the air and exclaimed out loud “Great God in boots, the ontological argument is sound ...” So I became a Hegelian.’ Finding Mrs Whitehead, with whom he was secretly in love, in extreme pain from angina, he experienced what Monk, though well aware that Russell was ‘perhaps over-fond’ of retrospectively organising his past in this way, nevertheless endorses as a genuine conversion experience, one which left him convinced that ‘the loneliness of the human soul is unendurable’ and impenetrable save by ‘the highest intensity of love that religious teachers have preached ... A sort of mystic illumination possessed me ...’ Yet another epiphany occurred when Russell and Joseph Conrad looked ‘deep down into each other’s eyes’. At other times whole books presented their arguments to him in the twinkling of an eye (and it must be admitted that when he got an idea he often developed it with prodigious speed). To view one’s life as punctuated in this way by uncovenanted transcendental interventions surely indicates a high degree of egotism, but then St Augustine was, on that criterion, a supreme egotist, though that isn’t the first thing one wants to say about him.
Plainly there is an analogy between these epiphanic experiences and the experience of falling in love; indeed Russell was clearly conscious of it. Writing to a woman, especially to Ottoline Morrell, he would say that his last night with her had produced in him a change so great and sudden that he had never known the like before. But his attitude to women was complicated; he needed them to console his solitude and to give relief from the intensity of his professional work, but most of all to go to bed with: ‘I know that my nature makes it impossible for me, however hard I try, to go on long giving active love to a person I don’t see and have easy sex relations with.’ His engagement to Alys Pearsall Smith created expectations of extraordinary passion, but the wedding night was not a success (both were virgins) and his fervid predictions were all falsified; the marriage soon failed, though it was legally ended only after many painful and rancorous years.
Although he had a strong preference for well-educated women (most of whom, like Alys, wanted their own careers) he generally assumed that they were of most use as assistants – researchers, secretaries, admirers of his talk – and not as intellectual equals. ‘It is difficult for me to understand a mind so genuinely unaffected by argument as yours,’ he tells Ottoline Morrell, who in turn remarks that he expects her ‘to be entirely at his disposal, morning, noon and night, and becomes very angry if I am not. He told me that I could never accomplish anything important in life by my reading, while I could help him by being with him.’
Of course, he did not expect many men to match his intelligence, either. His time at Cambridge put him on terms with the great men of the period – McTaggart, Moore and his collaborator Whitehead – and he early enjoyed the correspondence of such great Europeans as Cantor and Peano; and such, along with a very few more, were the people he wanted to impress with his philosophy. Not even all of these stayed the course. For the rest of the world he wrote popular philosophy, within the capacity even of women, who could not be expected to lie awake pondering the logical status of such propositions as ‘the present king of France is bald.’ Despite his dependence on women he accused the whole sex of ‘triviality of soul’.
In his letters he spoke copiously and freely to a great many correspondents. It is hard to read the dozens of amorous effusions here quoted without some distaste. The language of love is tediously extravagant, and often deserves the criticism Monk applies to Russell’s attempts at imaginative writing: ‘weak and affected’. Moreover, though he professed to hate cruelty and dishonesty, he was often disingenuous, false and cruel in his amorous dealings. His affair with Vivien Eliot, Monk calls ‘odd and strangely interminable,’ having discovered that it was by no means a matter of one night, as Peter Ackroyd conjectured in his life of Eliot. It was also, to say the least, opportunistic; he professed to be having it in order to help the Eliots in a time of trouble, and as it ended he told Colette O’Neil, as it were with a complacent sigh, how much he regretted having to break Mrs Eliot’s heart. A young American woman, Helen Dudley, whom he met and seduced at Bryn Mawr, travelled to England at his invitation – not without difficulty, for the 1914 war was about to begin – only to find that he had no use for her, being otherwise engaged. He blamed her for the ensuing embarrassments: ‘her selfishness does not make me dislike her, tho’ it might make me hate her if I were made to suffer by it.’ So he told his long-term lover Ottoline Morrell, assuring her that he would never ‘go an inch beyond friendship’ with this young rival. Nevertheless he did, and Helen told the patient Ottoline all about it. ‘I broke her heart,’ he sighs; and in a sense he did, for it seems Helen Dudley never recovered from the wretchedness he inflicted on her. He hated women to be unhappy because it upset him: ‘I cannot endure her misery.’ In the time before Dora Black solved some problems by becoming pregnant he was energetically lying to Colette O’Neil, a strong-minded woman who was nevertheless capable of unhappiness. At lovers’ perjuries they say Jove laughs, but most do not go so far towards making perjury a profession. Russell’s description of the pragmatist F.C.S. Schiller as ‘a bounder and a cad’ makes one wonder what his biography would be like. Russell was fond of a quotation from Jeremiah 17: ‘The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?’
The long affair with Ottoline Morrell was the most important, and it continued despite endless vicissitudes, all perhaps too fully chronicled here. Conducted with the tacit consent of Philip Morrell, who himself had other interests, it did not preclude rival attachments on both sides, and was the cause and subject of hundreds of letters, some celebrating a recent ecstasy, others announcing an end that was always endlessly deferred, like meaning in Derrida. Rather surprisingly in view of the longevity of the affair, Ottoline found Russell physically unattractive; it must have been the wonderful talk, and the extravagant letters, that kept her interested for so many years. With others, such as Katherine Mansfield, the spell worked only for a few moments, but it worked.
To T.S. Eliot he was Mr Apollinax, devouring the afternoon with his dry, passionate talk; but apparently the afternoon wasn’t all he devoured with it. And considering that his lovers were usually married women in permissive relationships, it isn’t delightful to learn that he was ferociously and miserably jealous, trying, for instance, to insist that the Morrells should sleep in separate beds, and, during his time in prison, agonised by the thought that Colette O’Neil might have taken another lover.
Monk devotes much of his ample space to the equable description of these goings-on, and is calmly condemnatory when necessary; but they would be of small interest if Russell wasn’t, for quite other reasons, a great man. It isn’t difficult to imagine that the pleasures of logical and mathematical discovery resembled those of sex. Having received an illumination which enabled him to rewrite The Principles of Mathematics, a work of some 200,000 words, in less than three months (‘one of the most astonishing bursts of intense creativity in the history of the subject’), he described this period as ‘an intellectual honeymoon such as I have never experienced before or since’. Like other honeymoon experiences, this one faded into the light of common day when it was subjected to the damaging scrutiny of Wittgenstein.
Monk remarks on Russell’s admirable ability to surrender a cherished position when convinced of his opponent’s correctness. In collaboration with Whitehead he laboured long on Principia Mathematica – Monk speaks of ‘its inexorable growth towards complete unreadability’ – only to see its foundations undermined by Kurt Gödel’s proof that what they had attempted couldn’t be done: ‘there can, in principle, be no logical theory within which all truths about numbers can be derived as theorems, all logical theories of mathematics are destined to be “incomplete”.’ This conclusive dismissal of its premise does not mean that Russell’s work was without value, for it enabled other mathematical logicians to develop a theory of computing, the practical applications of which are all around us; but at the level of achievement to which he aspired this was a blow, made no more tolerable by further criticism from Wittgenstein.
Russell’s relationship with this difficult man must be thought to do him credit. At their first encounter he thought Wittgenstein an odd sort of German, ‘very argumentative and tiresome’, even a bit of a fool: ‘He thinks nothing empirical is knowable – I asked him to admit that there was not a rhinoceros in the room, but he wouldn’t.’ It was a waste of time talking to him. But before long he discovered that Wittgenstein, really an odd sort of Austrian, was a man devoid of ‘the false politeness that interferes with the truth’, a man with whom he felt ‘the most perfect intellectual sympathy’. While others continued to find Wittgenstein a contentious bore, Russell was happy to become a sounding-board for his ideas, and soon began to think of him as a sort of intellectual son, his chosen philosophical successor. Monk believes that he quite failed to understand that there were ‘decisive differences between their philosophies’, that ‘Wittgenstein was rejecting at its very root the conception of the subject that provided Russell’s motivation: the idea that philosophy receives its value from providing us with a glimpse of an eternal, immutable world beyond impulses, passions and ordinary life.’ But he loved Wittgenstein’s ‘theoretical passion’, and did not mind that he was a destroyer.
Wittgenstein had come to Cambridge as a pupil, but before long could find no one there of any use to him, not even Russell. The teacher-pupil relationship was inverted, Wittgenstein becoming the master. The moment in 1913 when Wittgenstein demolished his ‘theory of judgment’ was a genuine though painful turning-point in Russell’s life. And his delight on learning that his friend – ‘glorious and wonderful, with a passionate purity I have never seen equalled’ – had survived the war, and that his Tractatus – ‘a really great book’ – would at last be published, is very touching. Russell wrote popular philosophy (wanting to write ‘things of human interest, like bad philosophers, only without being bad’) which is something one can’t imagine Wittgenstein doing; but Russell had patience and intelligence and a respect for intellectual purity that made him admire and even love Wittgenstein (though Monk seems to doubt whether he ever fully understood him). There is a sharp contrast, which he himself might well have appreciated, between the candour of this response and the devious, hypocritical mess of his sex life.
Russell obviously had a gift for recognising genius as well as an engaging readiness to accept criticism from people he respected. His enthusiastic admiration for D.H. Lawrence is another instance of these qualities. The initial enthusiasm waned as they planned to work together, but Russell was remarkably patient when Lawrence used the same privilege of plain speaking as Wittgenstein, though in an even more offensive tone. ‘You simply don’t speak the truth, you simply are not sincere ... You are simply full of repressed desires, which have become savage and anti-social ... The enemy of all mankind you are, full of the lust of enmity. It is not the hatred of falsity which inspires you. It is the hatred of people, of flesh and blood. It is a perverted, mental blood-lust.’ This letter is profoundly and deliberately offensive. Of course Russell probably knew that Lawrence, particularly in the war years, was prone to writing intemperate letters, but this must still have been a shock, for, as Monk remarks, ‘it was as if Lawrence could see straight into Russell’s soul and knew what would hurt it most.’ Though much the younger man, Lawrence accused Russell of ‘the inexperience of youth’, ‘knowing little of personal contact and conflict, almost juvenile’. Russell, after reading the letter, briefly contemplated suicide, but he recovered and ‘was never so vulnerable again’.
Political work, and especially anti-war agitation, was partly what rescued him from this depression. As a politician he was a Liberal in the family tradition, but to particular problems like the war he applied his own mind and came up with highly unpopular solutions. He was by his formation pro-German and rather anti-Russian and did not endear himself to the bellicose public and press by suggesting that the Germans could be expected to behave reasonably if our side showed a comparable desire for peace. Though associated with pacifist causes, he was not a pacifist pur sang, believing that some causes had to be fought for, but the present cause was not of that sort. He did oppose conscription, though with a certain distaste for those conscientious objectors who declined any alternative service, finding them ‘Sunday-Schooly’ and unaware of ‘the volcanic side of human nature’, a side he considered that he understood very well by introspection. He deplored the Allied refusal of German peace offers, and genuinely hated the savagery of the mob and the dishonesty of the press.
These attitudes divided him from his professional colleagues and his class, as well as from the population in general, and he was being closely looked at by the Government. In the end it was an editorial he wrote for the Tribunal that landed him in jail. He had claimed that American troops were being used to intimidate strikers, and this was judged an offence under the Defence of the Realm Act. He escaped the arduousness of imprisonment in the second division, and served his term in the first, more comfortably than the conscientious objectors, and with facilities for reading and writing. He suffered mostly from jealous speculations about the possible activities of his mistresses. And he meditated at length on his own character, as well as working on a book at the rate of 10,000 words a day.
Soon after the war he got his divorce from Alys and married the pregnant Dora, who alone among his lovers was willing to give him the child he so longed for. There this volume ends. Perhaps the most remarkable of his philosophical achievements are already recorded here, but almost a half century of celebrity and industry are still to come. This book, despite the longueurs of the love letters, provides an extraordinarily full and fascinating account of the earlier phase. Monk understands and admires his man, yet doesn’t conceal the applicability of Jeremiah’s observation that the heart is deceitful – perhaps not in all things, but in almost all that have nothing to do with the purest operations of intellect.