The sage in the aquarium

Brilliant, logomaniacal and self-absorbed, Bertrand Russell led a life of intellectual rejection and social bed-hopping. Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, by Ray Monk, Cape, pounds 25

Because he lived so long we tend to think of Bertrand Russell as a very old man. Many of us grew up with the image of the ancient sage squatting defiantly in Trafalgar Square. He died in 1970, aged 97, an almost disembodied spectral intelligence stranded from another age. To his dying day he railed against nuclear weapons and the Vietnam war. But longevity lends a sort of sainthood even to the most determined subversive, and he died loaded with honours from a Nobel Prize for Literature to the Order of Merit.

More than half a century earlier he had been hounded from Cambridge for opposing the First World War and imprisoned for insulting the Americans. (Consistency was not always Russell's hallmark but in this respect it was impressive). And even then he was in his forties. This first volume of Ray Monk's new biography covers only the first half of Russell's life, ending in 1921 with his second marriage (two more still to come) and the birth of his first child. But already the scale of it is stupendous.

Russell was one of those people who wrote almost continuously; he lived his life on paper. His published writings - on philosophy, politics and social organisation - are nothing beside his letters, some 60,000 of them, mostly intimately autobiographical, plus journals and a number of attempts at thinly disguised fiction. Monk compares him to Virginia Woolf; but the only comparable logomaniac over such a lifespan is Shaw - with the difference that Shaw's verbosity was poured outward upon the world, whereas Russell's private writings are all about himself.

The raw material for biography here is unequalled and almost overwhelming. If it can ever be possible to reconstruct from day to day the mind of another human being, Russell has left his biographer that opportunity. Hitherto Monk's predecessors - most recently Ronald Clark in 1975 and Caroline Moorehead in 1992 - have barely scratched the surface. Ray Monk has dug deep and - quite rightly - quotes extensively. The result is frequently appalling: Russell's self-righteousness is repellent, his self- loathing painful, his self-deception comic. His utter self-absorption is staggering but ultimately, Monk persuades us, tragic. He sought love with a bewildering catalogue of women, he tried desperately to love humanity. But he always felt alone. He once likened himself to a fish in an aquarium, trying to make contact but unable to communicate. All he could ever see in the glass was his own reflection.

Ray Monk is qualified as no previous biographer of Russell has been by the fact that he understands the philosophy. His biography of Wittgenstein was highly praised for humanising that most intractable genius; and one of the most poignant strands of this book is his account of the Russell- Wittgenstein relationship, in which their original roles of teacher and pupil were reversed to the point where Wittgenstein, in 1913, torpedoed the whole basis of Russell's logical system. Non-specialist readers will find Monk's exposition of Russell's mathematical philosophy difficult, if not meaningless. But Monk understands it and, more important, he is able to convey both the sense of struggle at the very limits of the intellect and the importance to Russell of his quasi-religious search for ultimate truths through mathematics, so that we can feel the devastating impact of the discovery that Wittgenstein - far from building on his work, as he had imagined - had demolished it.

Russell was repeatedly let down by those who he persuaded himself shared his deepest beliefs. It was the story of his intellectual life; he suffered another devastating rejection in 1915 at the hands of DH Lawrence, whose mystical instinct- worship he briefly embraced in a deluded attempt to escape from barren intellectualism. Still more it was the story of his love life.

Obsessed with sex, and as desperate to lose his virginity as the most pimply adolescent, he first contracted the most inappropriate possible marriage to a strait-laced American Quaker, Alys Pearsall Smith, under the fantastic illusion that she was an apostle of free love. Having realised his mistake, he subjected her to nine years of callous and priggish cruelty before abandoning her for Ottoline Morrell, whom he almost as hopelessly misjudged. Ottoline loved him in her way - though found him physically repellent - but she also loved a lot of other people, including her husband, whom she refused to leave. (Compulsively unfaithful himself, Russell was nevertheless furiously intolerant of any hint of infidelity in his women). Their bizarre affair lasted six years, during which he broke the heart of at least one other - another American, Helen Dudley, whom he persuaded to come to England to marry him and then rejected the moment she arrived - and toyed fatally with the affections of another, Vivien Eliot. On Monk's account Russell was as responsible as her husband for Vivien's breakdown and committal to an asylum, from which she never emerged; and the evidence is that he knew it.

Then there was Constance Malleson (the actress Colette O'Neil), another married woman for whom he conceived a mismatched passion: she refused to give up her profession and refused him children, which was what he now wanted more than anything. Dora Black, a free-thinking New Woman straight out of HG Wells, was incompatible in several other ways, but she was willing to bear his children, though preferably without being married. Comically the great radical was concerned that the heir to the Russell earldom (his elder brother had no sons) should be legitimate; so against her principles and five months pregnant, Dora became his second wife.

Does this serial bed-hopping sound contemptible or absurd? It is a measure of Monk's achievement that it does not read so. Through the medium of his letters to all these different women (and theirs to him) he manages to make Russell's quest for his ideal woman part of his wider intellectual odyssey. What he always wanted was a woman who would share and help him in his work, which was just what all the women he was attracted to would not do. He was torn all his life between intellect and emotion. He was passionate in his philosophy, but cripplingly cerebral in his analysis of his emotions. It was during his years of miserable celibacy with Alys that he did his hardest mathematical work. In pursuit of sexual fulfilment with Ottoline (and after Wittgenstein's blow to his intellectual confidence) he abandoned abstract philosophy and sought to engage with the real world. But nothing satisfied his demon.

In the end, for all his desire to believe in something, scepticism kept breaking through. In 1920, like other credulous Western intellectuals, he went to Russia to inspect the new Soviet utopia. Where Shaw and the Webbs saw a higher civilisation, however, Russell saw only tyranny. The experience of Russian Communism, he wrote pathetically, only proved that "kindliness and tolerance are worth all the creeds in the world".

A more homespun philosopher reached the same conclusion the year before Russell died: "All you need is love." But poor old Bertie never found it.

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?