When loathing defeats logic

Why write a biography of a figure whose work you despise and whose private life disgusts you? Could this assault on Bertrand Russell as man and thinker be utterly misconceived
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Ten years ago, Ray Monk wrote an outstanding biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Five years ago, he completed the first volume of his life of Bertrand Russell. While not in the class of the Wittgenstein book, it could still be regarded as an acceptable take on Russell's early years. But with this final part of the Russell biography, Monk has gone off the rails. The volume is a brilliant piece of forensic pleading by an incisive prosecuting attorney but, to my mind, it is not biography.

Ten years ago, Ray Monk wrote an outstanding biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Five years ago, he completed the first volume of his life of Bertrand Russell. While not in the class of the Wittgenstein book, it could still be regarded as an acceptable take on Russell's early years. But with this final part of the Russell biography, Monk has gone off the rails. The volume is a brilliant piece of forensic pleading by an incisive prosecuting attorney but, to my mind, it is not biography.

Ray Monk is self-confessedly obsessed by two alleged facts: that the late Russell was a mediocre hack journalist and a political simpleton; and that he was a cold, inhuman husband and father, incapable of love. As for philosophy, Monk thinks that Russell produced nothing of value in his last 50 years.

These are serious accusations. The charge of philosophical incompetence is made from the vantage-point of the late Wittgenstein and the dreadful Oxford school of ordinary language philosophy. It never seems to occur to Monk that there are people for whom the late Wittgenstein is Hans Christian Andersen's naked emperor come to life or that Heidegger, Dewey, Whitehead and Quine, to name but a few, are far more significant figures.

Monk takes it for granted that Russell's conception of philosophy as the handmaiden of physics must be wrong. Russell's 1940 volume An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth has been widely admired, containing as it does superbly lucid expositions of coherence and correspondence theory, Dewey's "warranted assertability," Reichenbach's probability theory, and the relationship of "naive realism" to physics.

But since it contains no discussion of the absurd, onanistic non-problems posed by Ryle, Austin, Strawson and the rest of the Oxford "ordinary language" gang, it follows for Monk that it has no value. He does not even bother to discuss the book but says of Quine's assessment that it is Russell's best book: "I find this an extraordinary, and barely explicable judgement."

A professor of philosophy, like Monk, is supposed to argue for his propositions, not enunciate emotive waffle. The distortions implicit in Monk's assessment of Russell the philosopher can be looked at in another way. Monk is adamant that Russell's only great work is contained in The Principles of Mathematics, Principia Mathematica and the 1905 article "On Referring".

He is aghast that Russell should have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Order of Merit for the "hack work" produced after 1921. But A J Ayer, who confessed that he lacked the mathematical ability to tread in Russell's footsteps in the early great works, declared that he would be happy to be remembered in philosophy as a footnote to Russell.

A footnote to what? According to Monk, there was nothing significant in Russell's epistemology or cosmology to be a footnote to. Yet Monk can happily quote, as a credible critic, the Wittgenstein worshipper Norman Malcolm, whose ludicrous 1959 work Dreaming is widely considered to be the worst book ever written on that subject.

If Monk's sins on Russell the philosopher are largely those of omission (he simply refuses to take him seriously), those on Russell the man are assuredly of commission. In his final 50 years, Russell endured two turbulent marriages and sired a schizophrenic son and a tribe of unhappy children (who, in turn, produced unhappy grandchildren). If we are to judge a person adversely by their failure to rear happy, well-adjusted children, then Russell was a failure - though why he should be singled out from millions of other such failures for special excoriation is not clear.

Of course, Monk's beloved Wittgenstein could never be indicted on this score as he was homosexual, but I do not recall Monk attacking him for "shirking life's tasks". The chapters dealing with Russell's marital break-ups and the long saga involving the schizophrenic John seem interminable, and Russell himself vanishes for pages at a time.

In any case, this is shooting-in-the-foot corner. If Russell in his last 50 years was principally a hack journalist, as Monk claims, why do we need an exhaustive account of every holiday his children took and a blow-by-blow recital of his correspondence with solicitors?

For Monk, Russell is always wrong. His relations with women went wrong because of his coldness, and his political interventions were always disastrous because of his overweening vanity.

Monk, presumably on the principle of kicking a man while he is down, predictably has a lot of fun with the 1960s, CND, the Committee of 100 and the whole sad episode with Russell's controversial assistant, Ralph Schoenman. But I would be more inclined to accept Monk as an analyst of the Cold War if his account of the Cuban Missile crisis did not read like a CIA handout. And his nit-picking "refutations" of Russell's ideas by long-forgotten academic figures would come better from an author who was not vulnerable to nit-picking himself: Joseph Conrad died in 1924, not 1922, Keynes in 1946 not 1937, the Test Ban Treaty was signed in 1963 not 1964.

The real problem is that Ray Monk seems to loathe and detest Russell, and takes every opportunity to distort the man and his work. A flippant remark about circumcision is read as serious anti-Semitism; a speculative aside written in 1921 is interpreted by the canons of modern PC and found to be "racist", and Monk manages to bowdlerise Russell's views on eugenics by conflating "mentally defective" with "mentally ill" - two very different concepts, as Monk must know.

Monk has no appreciation of Russell's brilliant wit and humour and seems oddly po-faced throughout. He appears to gloat when Russell's friends - T S Eliot, Virginia Woolf and Beatrice Webb - deserted him in the 1920s. Yet one does not, despite their achievements, have great respect for this trio as human beings. So, pace Monk, the main reaction is, so what?

Biographers often turn violently against the subjects they are writing about during the research period, but this defence is not open to Monk. When I reviewed his fine Wittgenstein book, I pointed out that the omens for a successful Russell life from this author were not auspicious.

He must surely have known that he and Bertrand Russell were a mismatch from the very start. The most he can expect from this disastrous second volume is the kind of succÿs de scandale Richard Aldington achieved with T E Lawrence.

Frank McLynn's latest book is 'Villa and Zapata' (Cape)

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