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Bertrand RussellReview - Bertrand Russell
The Spirit Of Solitude 1872-1921
by Ray Monk
Free Press, 1996
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Aug 31st 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 35)

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 O’Neil 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 Monk’s biography of Russell (this is the first of a two volume biography, dealing with the first half of Russell’s long life) shows a man full of self-deception, struggling with passions and intellect. What’s 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. I’ve 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 friend’s book. The truth is that Bertrand Russell is a big book about a philosopher whose views I was prejudiced against. Russell’s 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 Russell’s life wasn’t 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 doesn’t 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 there’s 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 Russell’s 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 one’s 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. Monk’s account of Russell’s 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.


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