Dealing with Disappointment

Adam Phillips

  • Bertrand Russell 1921-70: The Ghost of Madness by Ray Monk
    Cape, 574 pp, £25.00, October 2000, ISBN 0 224 05172 5

In the introduction to the first volume of his biography of Russell, Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, Ray Monk was clear, as his title indicated, about the story he had to tell, though also daunted by the amount of material he had to work with. The bibliography of Russell’s work lists more than three thousand publications, and this doesn’t include the letters he wrote – over forty thousand of them. It was, of course, a long life, but even so, as Monk noted, ‘the quantity of writing that Russell produced in his lifetime almost defies belief.’ Russell may have experienced himself as a ghost: but he was an unusually articulate one. Monk was even more struck by what he called, in a characteristically prudent phrase, Russell’s ‘detailed self-absorption’. All this, one might think, would be something of a gift to a biographer: a dispersed autobiography to accompany the known facts. And yet in retrospect – in the light of this troubled and troubling second volume – one can see that Monk was uneasy about something. ‘A perhaps surprising amount of this vast output,’ he wrote, ‘was concerned with himself.’ ‘Concerned’ as in ‘worried’, ‘preoccupied’ and ‘baffled’; and ‘concerned with himself’, as it turns out, because he was quite unable, in Monk’s convincing account, to be concerned about anyone else. People become self-absorbed when being absorbed in others has become a problem. And so to be fascinated by the self-absorbed can be an especially lonely (and therefore enraging) task.

‘To a large extent’, Monk wrote in the first volume, the story of the first half of Russell’s life is ‘the story of those battles to overcome the distance he felt between himself and the rest of the world’. And in his largely sympathetic portrait of these fifty years Monk seemed to join forces with Russell, making him sound at once the poignant victim of a terrible childhood – by the age of three he had lost his mother, his father and his sister – and a man passionately perplexed by the meaning of life. If there was disillusionment everywhere in Russell’s life – if he was a person who, out of a benighted, furious innocence, wreaked emotional havoc – it was, Monk intimated, understandable. And to wreak havoc among such distinguished and talented people (the Eliots, the Woolfs, Ottoline Morrell, Wittgenstein . . .) was an enlivening story, even when it was a dismaying one. Sympathetic, as he obviously was, to his larger-than-life subject, Monk made it all but impossible not to feel for him, not because Russell was a ‘genius’, but because of what being a genius couldn’t help him with. Intelligence, it can sometimes seem, is the last refuge of the emotionally deprived. If you are never given the opportunity to be ordinary, extraordinary is all you can be.

So for Monk, at the outset, it was essential to see Russell’s life as an attempt to find answers to ‘a single problem: the problem of his acute sense of isolation and loneliness, a problem that was for him compounded by his extraordinarily deep-seated fear of madness’. Russell’s bereftness and sense of exclusion, as Monk showed in painful detail, started in early childhood – when there was no hope of making sense of it and all he could do was endure it. It is reductive but probably true to think that his later philosophical quest for really reliable truths had some connection with his childhood experience: he was always wanting something secure on which to base his life. Excessive suffering in childhood often makes people cruel because it makes them unduly self-protective. The self Russell had to invent, quite early on, as a refuge from other people – its callousness, its wit, its stringent scepticism, its emotional evasiveness, its craving for flattery but not for other people, its abstracted version of love – was not, as this book makes abundantly clear, an appealing one. But it was better suited to the brilliant and aristocratic young man of Monk’s first volume than to the ‘famous philosopher’ of later years, who did more and more work that he never really valued. If the story of this second volume is of two bitterly failed marriages, and the acknowledged end of Russell’s original contribution to philosophy, and of Russell, in Monk’s view, turning into a caricature of the inspiring liberal political idealist he had been (and been for so many people) in his youth, it is also the story of how both Russell and his biographer dealt with their disappointment in him.

Russell seems to have begun to believe in middle age that he had nothing left to offer anyone: not a rare experience, but one’s own case must always feel special. And Russell, after all, had been more than famous both for his extraordinary gifts and for reinventing the idea of the public-spirited philosopher, the genius as public man. Disappointment with other people is easier to deal with, and rather more exhilarating, than disappointment with oneself. If one can bear it, though, disappointment with oneself may lead somewhere: once you realise you’ve got your ideal self wrong you can come up with a new one. In Monk’s view, Russell wasn’t able to do this; and vanity became a cover for self-contempt. Instead of discussing things and reconsidering them he postured with half-baked opinions. He became, in short, a caricature of the man of conviction, the uneasy double of the man of strong feeling.

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