email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
"Are You There Alone?""How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?""My Madness Saved Me"10% Happier365 Days49 Up56 UpA Beautiful MindA Beautiful MindA Beautiful MindA Book of ReasonsA Can of MadnessA Child's Life and Other StoriesA Dangerous LiaisonA Fight to BeA First-Rate MadnessA Good Enough DaughterA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering GeniusA Lethal InheritanceA Lethal InheritanceA Life ShakenA Life Worth LivingA Little PregnantA Message from JakieA Million Little PiecesA Numerate LifeA Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth CenturyA Slant of SunA Special EducationA Tribe ApartAbout FaceAddicted Like MeADHD & MeAEIOUAgainst Medical AdviceAgents in My BrainAileen - Life and Death of a Serial KillerAlgernon, Charlie and IAll Out!All Seasons PassAlphavilleAlways Too Much And Never EnoughAlzheimer'sAn Anthropologist on MarsAn EducationAn Unquiet MindAngela's AshesAngelheadAnna Freud: A BiographyAnnie's GhostsAnother Bullshit Night in Suck CityAnthology of a Crazy LadyApples and OrangesApproaching NeverlandAre You There, Vodka? It's Me, ChelseaAs I Live and BreatheAs Nature Made HimAt Home in the Heart of AppalachiaAt the End of WordsAvalancheBad BoyBad GirlBeautiful BoyBeautiful WreckBecoming AnnaBen Behind His VoicesBequest and BetrayalBereftBertrand RussellBlackoutBlanketsBloodlettingBodies in Motion and at RestBoneBorn on a Blue DayBoyBoy AloneBoyleBrain on FireBreaking ApartBreaking the SilenceBrokenBulimics on BulimiaBuzzCamus and SartreCharles DarwinChasing the HighCheeverCherryCity of OneCluesClumsyComfortComplications Compulsive ActsConfessions of a Cereal EaterConfessions of a Former ChildConfessions of a Grieving ChristianConfessions of the Other MotherConfidingConquering the Beast WithinContesting ChildhoodCrackedCrazyCry Depression, Celebrate RecoveryDamned to EternityDancing at the Shame PromDante's CureDaughter of the Queen of ShebaDavid Sedaris Live at Carnegie HallDays With My FatherDefeating the VoicesDementia Caregivers Share Their StoriesDepression and NarrativeDescartesDetourDevil in the DetailsDiagnosis: SchizophreniaDirty DetailsDirty SecretDivided MindsDivine MadnessDon't Get Too ComfortableDown Came the RainDress Your Family in Corduroy and DenimDrinkingDriving My FatherDrunkardDryEarly Embraces IIIEarly ExposuresEinsteinEinstein and OppenheimerElectroboyElegy for IrisElijah's CupElliott Smith and the Big NothingElsewhereEnough About YouEpilepticEvery Girl Tells a StoryEverything In Its PlaceExamined LivesExiting NirvanaFaces of Huntington'sFamily BoundFast GirlFearless ConfessionsFind MeFinding Iris ChangFirst Person Accounts of Mental Illness and RecoveryFirst Person PluralFixing My GazeFlanneryFolie a DeuxFor the Love of ItFortress of My YouthFrank Ramsey (1903-1930)Franz KafkaFraudFree RefillsFreudFreudFreudFriedrich NietzscheFrom Joy Division to New OrderFumblingFun HomeFuriously HappyGalileo Get Me Out of HereGirl in Need of a TourniquetGirl Walking BackwardsGirl, InterruptedGirl, InterruptedGirls on the VergeGoing BlindGoing Through Hell Without Help From AboveGraysonGrowing Up JungGuttedHalf a Brain Is EnoughHardcore from the HeartHead CasesHeal & ForgiveHeal & Forgive IIHeavier than HeavenHeinz KohutHeinz KohutHello from Heaven!Hello to All ThatHer HusbandHer Last DeathHigh PriceHole in My LifeHolidays On IceHolidays on IceHope's BoyHouse of Happy EndingsHouse of Happy EndingsHow I Stayed Alive When My Brain Was Trying to Kill MeHow to Lose Friends & Alienate PeopleHow to Make Love Like a Porn Starhow to stop timeHumeHunger Makes Me a Modern GirlHurry Down SunshineI Feel Bad About My NeckI Never Promised You a Rose GardenI Remain in DarknessI'd Rather Eat ChocolateI'd Rather LaughIf I Die Before I WakeImagining RobertIn Search of FatimaIn the Realms of the UnrealIn the Wake of SuicideInside TherapyInternInvisible No MoreIt Happened to NancyIt Takes a Worried ManJack Cole and Plastic ManJean-Paul SartreJohn Stuart MillJourneys with the Black DogJust CheckingKafkaKantLa SierraLab GirlLast Flight OutLearning to FallLet Me Make It GoodLife As We Know ItLife InterruptedLife ReimaginedLimboLincoln's MelancholyListening in the Silence, Seeing in the DarkLittle PeopleLive For Your Listening PleasureLive Through ThisLiving in the Shadow of the Freud FamilyLiving With SchizophreniaLiving with SchizophreniaLockeLonelyLong ShotLook Me in the EyeLooking for The StrangerLoose GirlLosing Mum and PupLosing My MindLove Is a Mix TapeLove SickLove Times ThreeLove Works Like ThisLove You, Mean ItLuckyLudwig WittgensteinLyingMad HouseMad PrideMadame ProustMadnessMagical ThinkingMalignant SadnessManicMarcel ProustMarcus AureliusMary BarnesMaverick MindMe Talk Pretty One DayMeaningMelanie KleinMemoirMemoirs of an Addicted BrainMemoirs of My Nervous IllnessMen-ipulationMisconceptionsMiss American PieMockingbird YearsMomma and the Meaning of LifeMommies Who DrinkMonkey MindMore, Now, AgainMortificationMy Age of AnxietyMy Body PoliticMy Brain Tumour AdventuresMy DepressionMy Father's HeartMy First Cousin Once RemovedMy Flesh and BloodMy Horizontal LifeMy Life Among the Serial KillersMy Sister LifeMy Stroke of InsightName All the AnimalsNeural MisfireNietzscheNietzsche: The Man and His PhilosophyNinety DaysNo Hurry to Get HomeNo Impact ManNo More ShavesNo One Cares About Crazy PeopleNolaNotebooks 1951-1959NothingOdd Girl Speaks OutOedipus WreckedOf Spirits & MadnessOn Being RapedOn the Edge of DarknessOn the MoveOne Hour in ParisOne Hundred DaysOphelia SpeaksPagan TimePassing for NormalPeople Who Eat DarknessPerfect ChaosPerfect ExamplePermanent Present TensePersepolisPlanet of the BlindPlaying with FirePlease Don't Kill the FreshmanPoisoned LovePollockPOPismPortraits of Huntington'sPoster ChildProzac DiaryPsychiatrist on the RoadPsychosis in the FamilyPuppy Chow Is Better Than ProzacQuitting the Nairobi TrioRaising BlazeReasons to Stay AliveRebuiltRecovered, Not CuredRelative StrangerRescuing JeffreyRestricted AccessRevengeRewind, Replay, RepeatRichard RortyRiding the Bus With My SisterRobert Lowell, Setting the River on FireRoom For JRosemaryRough MagicRunning After AntelopeRunning with ScissorsScattershotSchizophreniaSchopenhauerSecond OpinionsSectionedSeeing EzraSeeing the CrabSet the Boy FreeSex & Single GirlsSex ObjectShakespeareShe Bets Her LifeShe Got Up Off the CouchShut the DoorSickenedSilencing the VoicesSimone de BeauvoirSinging in the FireSkin GameSlackjawSlut!SmashedSome Assembly RequiredSome Kind of GeniusSometimes Amazing Things HappenSometimes Madness Is WisdomSongs from the Black ChairSongs of the Gorilla NationSoren KierkegaardSpeak to MeSpeaking Our Minds: Revised EditionSpecial SiblingsSpentStandbyStick FigureStill LivesStretchSunset StorySurviving OpheliaSwing LowTales from Both Sides of the BrainTales of PsychotherapyTalk to HerTell Me Everything You Don't RememberTellingTelling Tales About DementiaThe Accidental BillionairesThe AddictThe Anatomy of HopeThe Anti-Romantic ChildThe Art of MisdiagnosisThe Bastard on the Couch CDThe BeastThe Bell JarThe Best Seat in the HouseThe Big FixThe Body SilentThe Boy on the Green BicycleThe Boy Who Loved Too MuchThe Boy Who Loved WindowsThe Bright HourThe Buddha & The BorderlineThe Burn JournalsThe Camera My Mother Gave MeThe Cancer Monologue ProjectThe Center Cannot HoldThe Chelsea WhistleThe Churkendoose AnthologyThe Day the Voices StoppedThe Devil WithinThe DisappearanceThe Discomfort ZoneThe Doctor Is InThe Eden ExpressThe Family SilverThe Farm Colonies: Caring for New York City's Mentally Ill In Long Island's State HospitalsThe Fasting GirlThe First Man-Made ManThe First TimeThe Geography of BlissThe Glass CastleThe Good DoctorsThe Hillside Diary and Other WritingsThe Incantations of Daniel JohnstonThe Infidel and the ProfessorThe Last AsylumThe Last Good FreudianThe Last Time I Wore a DressThe Liars' ClubThe Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet HiltonThe Lives They Left BehindThe LobotomistThe Long GoodbyeThe Looked After Kid: Memoirs from a Children's HomeThe Loony-Bin TripThe Madness of Our LivesThe Making of a PhilosopherThe Making of Friedrich NietzscheThe Man Who Couldn't EatThe Man Who Shocked the WorldThe Man Who Tasted ShapesThe Marvelous Hairy GirlsThe Maximum Security Book ClubThe Me in the MirrorThe Memory PalaceThe Mercy PapersThe Mistress's DaughterThe Mother of Black HollywoodThe Naked Bird WatcherThe Naked Lady Who Stood on Her HeadThe Night of the GunThe Noonday DemonThe Notebook GirlsThe NursesThe Only Girl in the CarThe Orchid ThiefThe Other HollywoodThe OutsiderThe Philosopher's Autobiography The Philosophical Breakfast ClubThe Philosophical IThe Pits and the PendulumThe Pornographer's GriefThe Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner The Professor and the MadmanThe Psychopath TestThe Quiet RoomThe Red DevilThe Rescue of Belle and SundanceThe Ride TogetherThe Rules of the TunnelThe Secret of LifeThe Shaking Woman or A History of My NervesThe Shared HeartThe Shiniest JewelThe Siren's DanceThe Statistical Life of MeThe Story of My FatherThe Strange Case of Hellish NellThe Summer of a DormouseThe SurrenderThe Talking CureThe Thought that CountsThe Three of UsThe Undoing ProjectThe Vagina MonologuesThe Velveteen FatherThe Winter of Our DisconnectThe Woman Who Walked into the SeaThe Years of Silence are PastThe Yellow HouseThe Yipping TigerThick As ThievesThinThis Close to HappyThomas S. SzaszTiger, TigerTits, Ass, and Real EstateTo Redeem One Person Is to Redeem the WorldTo Walk on EggshellsTransforming MadnessTrue CompassTruth & BeautyTruth Comes in BlowsTuesdays with MorrieTweakTwitch and ShoutUltimate JudgementUndercurrentsUnholy GhostUnlikelyVoices of AlcoholismVoices Of Alzheimer'sVoices of CaregivingVoices of RecoveryVoluntary MadnessWaiting for DaisyWar FareWashing My Life AwayWastedWaveWe're Going to Need More WineWe're Not MonstersWeather Reports from the Autism FrontWeekends at BellevueWhat Did I Do Last Night?What Goes UpWhat I Learned in Medical SchoolWhat's Normal?When a Crocodile Eats the SunWhen Breath Becomes AirWhen Do I Get My Shoelaces Back?.....When It Gets DarkWhen the Piano StopsWhen You Are Engulfed in FlamesWhere Did It All Go Right?Where is the Mango Princess?Where the Roots Reach for WaterWhile the City SleptWhile They SleptWho Was Jacques Derrida?Why I Left, Why I StayedWhy I'm Like ThisWildWill's ChoiceWinnicottWinnieWish I Could Be ThereWith Their EyesWomen Living with Self-InjuryWomen, Body, IllnessWrestling with the AngelYou Must Be DreamingYour Voice in My HeadZeldaZor
On 23 October, 1916, aged 44, Russell wrote to Lady Constance Malleson, with whom he had just started an affair. She was a young married actress with the stage name Colette ONeil and Russell was at that time also having affairs with Ottoline Morrell and Vivien Elliot (wife of T.S. Elliot), and he also was falling in love with Katherine Mansfield. Russell's attraction to Melleson largely derived from the fact that they agreed about the folly of the Great War and saw eye to eye on politics. In his letter to her, Russell wrote:I am strangely unhappy, because the pattern of my life is complicated & yours is simple, because I am old & you are young, because with me passion can seldom break through to freedom, out of the net of circumstances in which I am enmeshed; because my nature is hopelessly complicated, a mass of contradictory impulses; & out of all this, to my intense sorrow, pain to you must grow. Ray Monks biography of Russell (this is the first of a two volume biography, dealing with the first half of Russells long life) shows a man full of self-deception, struggling with passions and intellect. Whats more, Russell was haunted by a family history of insanity, and his own life exhibited strong mood swings and his passion for writing has a manic touch. His clinging on to relationships despite terrible ambivalence and his readiness to manipulate others and treat them as reflections of himself could earn his a diagnosis of a personality disorder. He suffered powerful self-doubt, and at the same time was often extremely arrogant. He could also be kind and generous to others, and he devoted much of his life to trying to make the world a better place. In brief, he was a complex man.
Before I go on, I should say that Ray Monk is a friend of mine, so my position is not as an objective reviewer. Ive known Ray since 1986 when we were both at Oxford University; he was in the D.Phil. program in Philosophy, and I was an undergraduate. I rarely hear from him these days, I suppose because we live on different sides of the Atlantic, and he has been hard at work, directing the Centre for Post-Analytic Philosophy, co-editing The Great Philosophers (both a series and an individual book), writing the book on Russell for the series himself, and finishing the forthcoming second volume, Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness 1921-1970. He has also become one of the more well known public intellectuals in Britain, appearing on TV, writing book reviews for newspapers and magazines; praise from him in a blurb is highly valued by publishers. You may wonder why I took five years to get round to reading my friends book. The truth is that Bertrand Russell is a big book about a philosopher whose views I was prejudiced against. Russells most important work was on the philosophy of mathematics and the philosophy of language. These are dry subjects, and I generally prefer to think more about philosophical issues that touch everyday life. So reading about Russells life wasnt high on my list of priorities.
It turns out that Russell himself thought much of his work dry: his greatest writing was done by the time he was in his early thirties, and after then, the question of the place of philosophy in life was one that preoccupied him much of the time. While he is famous for his lecture Why I am Not a Christian, and was for most of his life hostile to religion, it is striking how much of his thought was occupied with mysticism, the infinite, and the power and limits of a scientific approach to life. It is somewhat ironic that Russell was to a large extent responsible for the rise of analytic philosophy, which is often condemned for its narrow focus and its neglect of real life, since Russell himself devoted much of his own thought to bringing his philosophy and his personal life together.
The result of Russell's efforts at putting his life in an intellectual framework sometimes verged on the comical, like the stereotype of the philosophy professor with high ideals who doesnt grasp some of the most obvious truths of life. One glaring example came at the start of the First World War. For years Russell had been having an affair with Ottoline Morrel, a woman married to a British member of parliament who had also had other affairs going on at the same time. Russell had a stormy relationship with her, during which they managed to make each other massively unhappy, frequently split and reunited with temporary bliss, for Russell if not Ottoline. She found Russell intellectually fascinating, but physically unattractive. Russell had just visited the United States, spending a semester lecturing at Harvard, and during his travels he met Helen Dudley. They had a quick romance, and Russell rashly asked her to come to England to live with him. She rashly accepted. Russell returned to England, told Ottoline of his new love, and she became much more attracted to him. Their affair rekindled in passion. Then Helen turned up, just as the war was starting. Russell at first refused to see her, and then told her he was no longer interested. Helen soon considered returning to the US, but Russell told her she should make the acquaintance of people in literary circles. In an utterly perverse move, he somehow convinced Ottoline to let Helen stay with her! Soon Helen was telling Ottoline of all the declarations of love Russell had made to her, and this put a strong damper on the newly revived passion Ottoline had been experiencing for Russell.
Not only was Russell often impulsive, but he frequently believed with passion that he had sorted out a problem or has come to an agreement, only to dramatically change his mind and even his recollection of events within a few days. It is his astonishingly large collection of letters that records his changes. He was an incredibly prolific writer: he would write long letters to people on the same day as seeing them in person, and he would write long letters to people in this thoughts (such as Ottoline) several times a day if separated from them.
While Russell did have some insight into his own emotional failings, mostly he kept on making the same mistakes over and over. It makes reading about his life hard work, and I can only speculate how difficult it was for Monk to write about it. Russell has his admirable side in both his intellect and his emotional complexity, and theres also some entertainment value in the stories of his meeting with some of the best-known philosophers, artists and politicians of his day. But for the most part, his life was just such a mess. Time and again, he insisted in his letters with apparent sincerity that he has changed; yet he manifestly stays the same. It is hard to remain sympathetic with him as he shows such readiness to involve other people in his problems.
Russell is a striking philosopher compared to most philosophers alive today, because he attempted to give a philosophy of life. These days any philosopher who made bold recommendations about how people should live would risk being labeled a second rate crank by his or her peers, who are suspicious of would-be gurus. The very idea of a philosophy of life seems closer to religion or new-age thinking than modern academic philosophy. Although Russell was an atheist, he searched for something else to take the place of God in providing meaning in life. Writing to Ottoline from prison, in 1918, (his punishment for his anti-war activity) he explained that one of his most important motivations in his work and life was the quest for something elusive, and yet omnipresent, and at once subtle and infinite. But he also believed that this quest was bound to fail, with the result that one is a ghost, floating through the world without any real contact. This is why Monk gives his biography the subtitle The Spirit of Solitude, and one can see much of Russells emotional life as a series of doomed attempts to overcome his sense of isolation.
Of course philosophy still tries to find hidden truths, but philosophers today tend to be wary of the kind of truths that Russell yearned for in his personal and professional life. In his meetings with the novelists Joseph Conrad and D. H. Lawrence, and in his correspondence with his lovers, he was often looking for the essential truths about people and life. There is plenty of philosophical anti-theory (such as post-structuralism) that pours scorn on such a project, but even at a more mundane level, for those who have a more visceral sense of the postmodern condition, this now seems like a romantic dream.
So, in reading this life of Russell, I was struck by how interesting it is as an example in contemplating the question of whether, and how, philosophy can be useful in ones personal life. Some people are of a naturally philosophical bent, and are drawn to abstraction and generalization combined with an intense desire to make sense of the world. Some of these people go on to be professional philosophers, but most do not. They are drawn to philosophy, even if they find it frustrating. Other people are not particularly philosophical, but they might still benefit from thinking clearly and systematically about their lives and their place in the world.
Russell was profoundly philosophical and sought to formulate philosophical ideas about almost every element of his experience. His effort was fascinating, and he managed to gain some insight into himself. But, as I have already said, ultimately his philosophizing seemed largely unsuccessful as a way of bringing him peace of mind: he was trapped within a certain set of emotions, which routinely overpowered any intellectual insight into himself he had gained from his introspection. Even though Russell was in many ways a tragic, even pathetic, figure and though much of his behavior towards his friends and lovers was insensitive, manipulative, and ill judged, he nevertheless was a remarkable person. The philosopher in me finds it admirable that he constantly strove to make sense of his emotions, and no one can deny that he was astonishingly prolific in his writing or that he showed a wonderful energy and confidence in much of his political work. Monks account of Russells life leaves me hungry to read the forthcoming second volume, which describes his continuing life as a political activist and public philosopher, and his new life as a father.