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.

At the same time one of the fascinating aspects of this second volume of what must be one of the most striking biographies of our time – and of the fashions of our times – is watching the biographer lose sympathy with his subject; and, as a sympathetic man, not quite knowing what to replace sympathy with. Monk is perhaps too scrupulous in not thinking about roads not taken, about what Russell might have done. Yet Russell, much more than Wittgenstein, the subject of Monk’s previous biography, provides the occasion for speculating about alternative lives within the Life. As it is, his growing dislike of Russell has obliged him to reveal more of himself than he would have wanted to. Biography, after all, is an unusual form of coupledom, in that only one person gets to make the choices. It isn’t surprising that there may have to be a certain amount of disentangling.

Perhaps the main reason, Monk writes in his preface,

that this has been a difficult book to write has been my growing realisation of the tragedy of Russell’s life . . . I do not just mean that there was sadness in Russell’s life, though, to be sure, the degree of suffering he endured – and caused – has been one of the hardest revelations of my work on this book . . . what I mean when I speak of tragedy is principally that Russell’s life seems to have been inexorably drawn towards disaster, determined on its course by two fundamental traits of character: a deep-seated fear of madness and a quite colossal vanity.

Monk is not a rhetorically coercive writer or a sentimental one, but what he is describing here is something like a distasteful ordeal. When ‘colossal vanity’ is seen as a trait – rather than, say, a forlorn and pernicious self-cure for the fear of madness, for the fear of worthlessness – repulsion has begun to replace the work of explanation. Monk, in other words, doesn’t want to be complicit with the things about Russell that appal him; and having come upon something in Russell’s character that he calls vanity, with all the history and associations this old-fashioned word brings with it, he implies that understanding may be precisely what isn’t called for, even if a certain amount of blame and punishment come in to fill the vacuum. Madness and vanity make rather different demands on a biographer. In the first volume Monk spoke of ‘isolation and loneliness’ and madness: in this second volume the tables have been turned. The first volume ended with the birth of Russell’s first child and the biographer and his subject full of hope. The best, most ordinary redemption seemed to be at hand. ‘In their various ways,’ Monk wrote,

his early religious beliefs, his belief in the Platonic realm of mathematics, his faith in revolutionary socialism and even the ecstasies of romantic love had all disappointed him . . . But fatherhood, the binding love and loyalty (as Conrad put it) between a man and his son – that, surely, was as real as any contact can be between one person and another. And in that contact, equally surely Russell thought, he would find the lasting release from the prison of the self, from the feeling of being a ‘ghost’, for which he had longed all his life.

Instead of his quest to find ideas and people to believe in (and to believe) Russell might have wondered why his life had been driven by the need to believe. Or, indeed, what kind of experience belief – or ‘surety’, to use Monk’s more alert term – was for him such that he felt it to be the thing most lacking in his life. Ghostliness, the prison of the self, had made some things possible: they suited him for work in analytic philosophy, and they drew him to the counter-life of that philosophical tradition in which love dissolves the scepticism needed to sustain the solitariness of the self. An early commitment to logic, socialism and romantic love had put Russell at the forefront of contemporary life: but after the war the glamorous genius who had been, among so many other things, a hero to the younger generation for his resistance to the war, and especially to conscription, became, as Monk says, ‘famous, not for his philosophy, but for his politics’. And Russell’s politics sometimes get short shrift in this book because for Monk Russell’s political ideals are vitiated by the unscrupulousness of his private life.

Russell’s ‘best philosophical writing’, he writes, ‘is subtle, nuanced and unafraid of complexity’:

He supports his views with rigorous and sophisticated arguments, and deals with objections carefully and respectfully. In most of the journalism and political writing that he produced in the second half of his life, however, these qualities are absent, replaced with empty rhetoric, blind dogmatism and a cavalier refusal to take the views of his opponents seriously. The gulf in quality between Russell’s writings on logic and his writings on politics is cavernous. The question that must be raised, therefore, is why he abandoned a subject of which he was one of the greatest practitioners since Aristotle in favour of one to which he had very little of any value to contribute.

In Monk’s view, a certain kind of ‘civilised’ (i.e. liberal) ideal has been replaced by its opposite – John Stuart Mill has turned into the Ayatollah. If Russell’s subtle consideration of disagreement was replaced by vacuous dogmatism, as Monk asserts it was – and everything he quotes in this book supports this contention – it may say as much about the precariousness of these values as it does about Russell’s psychological make-up. Indeed, the two are inextricable. It would, on the one hand, be legitimate to ask what the so-called emotional problems of childhood are that certain liberal values might seem to be a solution to. Monk’s biography is not psychologically-minded in this way, but there is nevertheless an implication – partly obscured by the inevitable time-lag between the two volumes – that the traumas of Russell’s childhood made his attachment to values and people inherently unstable. But one could equally well ask what it is about these values, so impressively represented by the younger Russell, that makes them vulnerable to reversal. The tragedy of the second half of Russell’s life, as Monk tells it, is that he tried to devote his life to fatherhood and politics – that is, to persuading people to live in a certain way – and in doing so revealed himself to be an opinionated egotist who would listen to no one, and speak for everyone.

And yet if there is something monstrous about the older Russell – about his chronic insensitivity to the needs of his wives and children, the mercenariness of his lecture tours in America where he is endlessly contemptuous of his audiences, the absurd self-importance of his political positions on the Cold War – he was a strangely evocative presence for those who knew him, and they were likely to be more revealing about him than he was about himself. Or rather, he afforded other people the opportunity to say interesting things that were only apparently about him. ‘Bertie,’ Keynes said, ‘held two ludicrously incompatible beliefs: on the one hand, he believed that all the problems of the world stemmed from conducting human affairs in a most irrational way; on the other that the solution was simple, since all we had to do was to behave rationally.’ When Virginia Woolf noted in her diary that Russell was ‘brilliant of course; perfectly outspoken; familiar . . . His adventures with his wives diminish his importance,’ she was also saying something about certain connections in her own mind that Russell’s conversation had elicited. Wittgenstein’s comment, in the same period, about Russell’s views on marriage, sex and free love – ‘If a person tells me he has been to the worst places I have no right to judge him, but if he tells me it was his superior wisdom that enabled him to go there, then I know he is a fraud’ – is startling in its clarity. But all these remarks, and there are many more in the book, show, as Monk suggests, that there was something about Russell’s much vaunted (often by himself) intelligence that disturbed people – including his biographer – into correcting him. But also into having their own thoughts about things that were important to them. Russell couldn’t quite accept himself as he was, couldn’t ever take himself on his own terms. And it was this perhaps that turned the people who knew him well in the second half of his life into devoted fans or obsessive critics.

Monk may not have been a devoted fan, despite the comparison with Aristotle, which is pushing it a bit, but he has turned in this second volume into a persistent critic. He speaks of the ‘glibness and wilful shallowness’ of Russell’s remarks, describes him as ‘intellectually careless’ and capable of the most ‘credulous nonsense’, and insists on the ‘self-delusion to which Russell was prone whenever he wrote on social, political and historical subjects’. If the tone is often one of amazed outrage – ‘Seeking the intellectual roots of Fascism in the adoption of a pragmatist theory of truth seems almost breathtakingly naive and implausible’ – it is partly because there is now in Monk an unflagging distrust of Russell’s motives reminiscent of D.H. Lawrence’s suspicions about him. Or rather a new-found, narrower surety about what was driving him. The young Russell may have been seeking love, truth and justice, but the older Russell is in search of his own importance (‘Russell now began to see himself as a world leader in his own right’). What Monk can’t stand about the later Russell is the way he is always, whatever else he is supposedly doing, privileging himself, exercising the ghost’s need for exceptional visibility. If Monk flaunts Russell’s incoherence – and he is sometimes crudely reductive in his account of Russell’s political thinking – it is because, like Russell, he seems baffled by his own disappointment. ‘Vanity’ speaks more of frustration than of explanation.

‘A world in which the superiority of the British over the rest of mankind was safely assumed, and the virtues of reason, moderation and aristocratic leisure accorded their proper respect was, one suspects, a world to which Russell yearned to belong,’ Monk writes. When the clever, neglected child turns into the snobbish, neglectful adult, it is difficult to take his side. And yet what is remarkable about this book is that Monk’s turning against his subject, far from marring the book as it might have, raises its emotional pitch and often heightens its intellectual interest. This is partly because Monk writes in a way, and quotes in a way, that makes it clear that he is not, despite his disappointment, on a fault-finding mission, but rather, in the position of someone who has come upon a kind of scandal, even though scandal is not something he would have chosen, ideally, to have dealt with. He cannot abide the way Russell began now to trade on his ‘genius’ through the writing of popularisations and pot-boilers – Why I Am Not a Christian, A History of Western Philosophy, Unpopular Essays and so on; and he is notably unimpressed by Russell’s supposedly passionate espousal of causes. After the war Russell had ‘argued repeatedly and consistently that the abolition of nuclear weapons would be fut-ile’, but then in 1958 he was elected president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Suddenly, Monk intimates, Russell wants to Ban the Bomb: ‘Having formulated this view, Russell characteristically came to regard it as the only view consistent with common sense, and became inclined to think that anyone who rejected it must either lack intelligence or positively want to see the spread of nuclear weapons to all the nations of the world and (therefore) the total destruction of human life.’

But Monk’s vehemence about Russell’s intellectual opportunism – the eagerness with which he took positions, the ruthlessness of his self-regard – is never merely high-minded or even high-handed. The reason, I think, is that for Monk the scandal (or what he calls the tragedy) of Russell’s life lay in his relationship with his children; and Monk, who pointedly dedicates this book to his own children, sees the children, as Russell himself had wanted to do, as the heart of the matter. Russell, it seems, treated his children rather as though they were ideas. Everyone adores their children: it is liking them and living with them every day that is difficult. Russell’s solution to the difficulty was to turn them, his first child John especially, into projects; as Monk suggests, his relationships with his children were not dissimilar to the relationships he had to the causes he took up and the beliefs he professed: intransigent, subtly (and not so subtly) domineering, and infinitely rationalised. They were there to reflect him, and to reflect well on him. Russell, as Monk documents in patient and disturbing detail, could only spread the estrangement that he had felt as a boy. Despite his always good (i.e. justified) intentions, Russell left what Monk lists as a catalogue of disasters: ‘two embittered ex-wives, an estranged schizophrenic son and three granddaughters who felt themselves haunted by the “ghosts of maniacs”, as Russell himself had described his family back in 1893.’ Put like this, Russell sounds like the anti-hero of a contemporary (i.e. sanity, madness and the family) gothic horror, in which the transgenerational haunting is unstoppable, and every life seems ghost-written. ‘Especially haunted’, Monk writes, was Russell’s granddaughter Lucy: ‘In the early morning of 11 April 1975, Lucy caught the bus from Porthcurno to Penzance and got off at the village of St Buryan, where she walked into the churchyard, climbed on top of one of the graveyard monuments, poured paraffin over herself and set herself alight.’

Monk doesn’t suggest that Russell in any simply malicious way caused what happened to his families. Nor does he dignify the story in a House-of-Atreus kind of way. But if as a biographer you are able to avoid the traditional options, what do you do to make the story intelligible? Monk’s solution is to be meticulously critical of Russell’s writing and as straightforward as possible in the recounting of his family affairs. He never underestimates the terror Russell lived with for most of his life. So, for example, in describing ‘quite how hard’ it was for him to bear the fact of his son John’s insanity (‘talking to John himself, Russell seemed to assume . . . was a waste of time. John was mad, irrational, and there was simply no point in consulting him about anything’) he quotes Russell’s Autobiography as a way into the vexed question. For over sixty years, Russell wrote, he had been ‘subject to violent nightmares in which I dream that I am being murdered, usually by a lunatic’; this fear ‘caused me, for many years, to avoid all deep emotion and live, as nearly as I could, a life of intellect tempered by flippancy’. By not overplotting the book or overdetermining the connections, Monk makes it plain that it was Russell’s personal solution to his own terrors that terrorised his children, just as it was the way in which he estranged himself from the problems of his life that ultimately disabled him. In short, he couldn’t bear his children’s vulnerability and this made him very harsh.

All modern biographies, not to mention modern lives, are hexed by what to do about the childhood. If we are to all intents and purposes morally and emotionally formed when we are morally and emotionally undeveloped – as both Russell and Monk, among others, seem to suggest – then our accounts of childhood become, at worst, an all-purpose alibi and at best, an opportunity to reconsider our moral judgments. Punishing adults for their childhoods is a pernicious form of moral confusion. And Monk works hard to avoid it. To have made this a history-of-ideas biography and not to have bothered with the childhood would have been to collude with Russell’s own attempt to think himself too intellectually out of his predicaments. And yet taking Russell’s childhood terrors as seriously as Russell himself took them has created an instructive dilemma for his biographer. With his two biographies, first of Wittgenstein and now of Russell, Monk has changed the way we think about the lives of our most distinguished eccentrics.