The immaculate Bertie

BERTRAND RUSSELL: The Spirit of Solitude by Ray Monk, Cape pounds 25
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BERTRAND RUSSELL is not much liked. He attracts copious and confident moral condemnation. His work in philosophy and logic is greatly admired, but with reservations. Principia Mathematica (1910-13), a massive, brilliant attempt to reduce mathematics to logic in 2,000 pages, which he wrote with A N Whitehead, remains movingly unread, full of fine unseen detail, like a huge cathedral.

His 1905 paper "On Denoting", about the logic of the word "the", is still required reading (he wrote the best version in Brixton prison in 1918, serving a sentence for statements "likely to prejudice His Majesty's relations with the United States of America"); "On the Notion of Cause" (1912) is regularly consulted; his "shilling shocker" The Problems of Philosophy (1912) still holds a place on any good list of introductions to philosophy; his History of Western Philosophy (1945) is still influential. The latter is cherished as much for its irresponsibility as for its acuity, however, and while many of his more popular political and fictional writings continue to sell, the rest of his philosophical work has not survived so well, except as the object of historical study.

One reason for this is that he kept changing his mind. His position lost distinctness. I remember a philosophical discussion that took place in "Freddie's group" (named after its founder, A J Ayer). A position was correctly attributed to Russell. The opposing view was expounded and seen to be equivalent to something else Russell had said. A short silence was broken by a quiet-voiced member of the group who spoke with gentle exasperation: "Russell said everything."

Nevertheless, in Russell (Oxford Past Masters pounds 5.99), A C Grayling makes a strong case for the claim that it is Russell rather than Gottlob Frege or G E Moore who is the principal founding influence on 20th-century analytic philosophy. This influence becomes especially clear when one pays attention to the subject matter of analytic philosophy, as well as to its distinctive methods. Russell survives as a whole climate of opinion, even if he is not remembered in detail: "a measure of the extraordinary pervasiveness of his influence is that many 20th-century philosophers" are barely aware of it.

Grayling has written a neat, sympathetic introduction to Russell in 100 pages. Ray Monk has written 600 pages - the first volume - of an intellectual biography that covers exactly half of Russell's life, from 1872 to 1921. The first chapter sets out the sad facts of Russell's childhood. His mother and sister died in 1874, when he was two; his father, Lord Amberley, when he was three. His parents were free-thinkers, but his paternal grandparents overturned Amberley's will, which had appointed two agnostics as guardians, and took Russell and his brother Frank, who was the older by seven years, to live with them at Pembroke Lodge in Richmond Park.

Frank ran away. Classified as a limb of Satan (in Russell's later phrase), he was sent to boarding school. The grandfather (who had been twice Prime Minister) died when Bertie was six, and he was left with his sanctimonious Scottish Presbyterian grandmother, speechless Uncle Rollo, "halting, inconclusive and nervous", and his white-shawled spinster Aunt Agatha. "Conversation was generally conducted [in] a sort of hushed and pained undertone," according to Frank. "The most frequent and maddening ... expression was that it was 'so sad' ... my father's later life was 'so sad': any attempt to draw the immaculate Bertie into mischief of the most innocent kind was 'so sad'." The boys were given to understand that their parents were sinful, and that it was fortunate they were dead.

Frank rebelled, Bertie developed into an "unendurable little prig". He acquired - in his own view - a habit of deceit and a great capacity for hatred ("most of my vivid early memories are of humiliations"). He was "unusually prone to a sense of sin", and one thing he had to conceal was his passage into agnosticism. This followed an early religiosity painfully lost. "The sea, the stars, the night wind in waste places, mean more to me than even the human beings I love best, and I am conscious that human affection is to me at bottom an attempt to escape from the vain search for God." The pattern of Russell's life confirms the truth of this claim.

His childhood is well described. Monk makes the right connection with "Satan in the Suburbs", a story Russell wrote in his eighties, in which the evil Dr Mallako explains how he lost both his parents and was brought up by a philanthropic old lady: "To please her I would seem always what she considered 'good' ... but never for one moment have I been able to forget those early years ... the friendlessness, the dark despair, the complete absence of hope - all these things, in spite of subsequent good fortune, have remained the very texture of my life."

The first sign that something is wrong with this biography comes at the end of Chapter One. Monk quotes the 18-year-old Russell writing in his diary about his loss of faith:

"I remember an instant of the same pain at Southgate once in thinking of the sadness which is always suggested by natural beauty, when the idea flashed across my mind that when most in harmony with Nature I felt most sad, and that therefore the spirit of Nature must be sad and the Universe a mistake. Then I could not have borne it another instant, for though it came and went like a flash I felt as though I had been stabbed."

Monk calls this "an intriguing and rather baffling passage", although it is clear. He searches for other meanings: "what it seems to be saying is ..."; "but perhaps the thought is ..." This is the first but not the last time Monk seems more concerned with an appearance of biographical virtuosity than with his subject.

The main problem, however, is one of hostility. Monk's book is mostly well written. It is only moderately afflicted by the speculative "perhaps". It has Russell's powerful autobiography, his 70 other books, 2,000 articles, and 40,000 available letters to draw on, along with many other people's writings, and for long stretches Monk's job is to link quotations. He deals competently with Russell's undergraduate years at Cambridge, his early enthusiasm for Blake, Shelley, sexy Whitman, Ibsen, Turgenev and Dostoevsky, his courtship of Alys Pearsall Smith and his marriage to her in December 1894 in spite of intense opposition from his family (his grandmother made the couple agree never to have children, on account of the danger of hereditary insanity).

He is, however, much too quick to endorse the usual inadequate judgement that the young Russell, in his passionately earnest, idealistic, lustful and ignorant virginity, showed himself to be a prig. In general, he would have done better to leave the criticism of Russell to Russell ("my self- righteousness ... seems to me in retrospect repulsive"). In the course of the book he calls Russell or his behaviour "callous", "evasive", "outrageous", "smug", "crass", "insensitive", "disingenuous", "appalling", "vitriolic", "brutal", "unfeeling", "bloodchilling". Many of these descriptions are unjustified, and seem to fit the biographer better than his subject. Monk lacks the sympathy essential to biographical intelligence, as he did not when he wrote his outstanding biography of Wittgenstein, who was Russell's pupil from 1911 to 1913. (His misunderstanding of Russell resembles Wittgenstein's in certain respects.)

Biographers must select. Monk's principles of selection are adversarial and his tendency is sensationalist. The seven years from 1904 to 1911, during which Russell is engaged in the "continuous deep heave" of writing Principia Mathematica, and miserable about the persistent vegetative state of his marriage, get 27 pages, and are much better covered by Nicholas Griffin in his edition of Russell's Selected Letters. The next six months get 30 pages, as Russell, 39 years old and with little sexual experience, meets Lady Ottoline Morrell and becomes one of four lovers she is running in parallel (I include her tolerant husband along with Roger Fry and Henry Lamb). Monk's accounts of Russell's work are seriously squeezed by his fiercely biased prosecution of Russell's affairs with women and passionate friendships with men like D H Lawrence and Joseph Conrad. He completely fails to provide an adequate picture of Russell's more general social life.

The first act of overt hostility occurs in Chapter Four. In his Autobiography, Russell ends an account of his happy honeymoon with Alys by recording a curiosity: "sexual fatigue" briefly caused him to feel hatred for his wife, and to wonder why he had married her. This is probably a common occurrence, especially when loss of virginity and full cohabitation begin together in conditions of leisure. Monk, however, hypothesises that Russell is speaking of sexual difficulties, contrary to the evidence of the Autobiography, and that the problem is Russell's impotence. He lapses into interrogative sarcasm. It is as if he wants to hit Russell for being mean to Alys. Russell wasn't being mean at all.

In Chapter Five Monk quotes a diary entry which, he claims, "gives the lie" to Russell's own account of the day on which he realised that he no longer loved his wife. It does no such thing. Monk's later outburst about "an outrageous piece of mythologised autobiography" is also skewed. Russell certainly got confused, but Monk's allegation that he claimed to have dictated a 242-page book in a single day is unproved.

He is no better in his account of what was almost certainly an episode of clinical depression in 1913: Russell's affair with Morrell seemed to be over; Wittgenstein had criticised the book that he was writing so forcefully that he had abandoned it after having deceived himself that the criticisms were not serious ("it is the first time in my life that I have failed in honesty over work"). Everything seemed "as if it were happening to people in a book", he wrote to Morrell. "Please don't think I am hurt or angry or anything like that - I am only dead." Monk plays with this, suggesting that Russell's deadness was merely "professed", and "wishful thinking". He seeks the worst lights while trying to maintain an appearance of balance, choosing his quotations meanly and therefore irresponsibly.

Russell was "full of shame" about his behaviour to Helen Dudley, with whom he had slept and become infatuated in Chicago in May 1914, and who came to England in August 1914 expecting to live with Russell, if not marry him. His behaviour looks bad in hindsight, but Monk's righteous indignation prevents him from pursuing what matters: how a man of intrinsic probity, desperate for love, sex and children, could have got into such a duplicitous mess. He seems to forget Kierkegaard's remark that although life "must be understood backwards ... it ... must be lived forwards". He does not record Morrell's remark to Virginia Woolf that only Bertie fell in love in the all-out romantic way.

When Monk closes in on Russell's affair with the flirtatious Vivien Eliot (T S Eliot's wife) he gives another hostile and irresponsible account of a complex matter. In 1917 Russell wrote to his inconstant lover Colette (Lady Constance Malleson) that he'd spent a night with Vivien Eliot, that "it was utter hell" and that "the one and only thing that made it loathsome was that it was not with you". Monk attributes to Peter Ackroyd (in Ackroyd's biography of T S Eliot) the view that what made Russell find it loathsome was Vivien Eliot's "ever-present menstrual discharge". He claims that this explanation is "certainly more convincing" than Russell's claim that what made it loathsome was that it was not with Colette. But this, as Monk would say, is outrageous - and very ignorant. There is nothing more loathsome in love than to be in bed with the wrong person, and Russell's love for Colette was deep: it seems likely that he left her for Dora Black only because the latter wanted children, whereas Colette did not.

Monk also condemns the Colette-Dora transition, and the fact that Russell wrote love letters to both at the same time. But it is possible to love two people at once, to love one with the depth of long association and another with the curiosity of unfamiliarity. There is no intrinsic dishonesty or lack of truth to self in this. It may lead to the deception of others; deception can be more a burden on the deceiver than a wrong to the deceived. If anything, Russell told the truth too often rather than too little. White lies can be better than truth. Monk has it both ways, attacking Russell's honesty and also his attempts at dissimulation.

The morality of biography is a small part of morality as a whole, but it is peculiarly interesting and exemplary. In the most common case it involves an intimate personal relation between two human beings that allows no two-way communication, is conducted at a distance that includes the distance of death, and in which one party has extraordinary powers of search and the opportunity to pass public judgement with the benefit of hindsight. The biographer's obligations are heavy and delicate. Monk abuses Russell.

If you want real squalor in the life of a famous philosopher, consult Heidegger's or Sartre's. There is nothing like this in Russell's. His lack of innocence is innocent, although he staggers under his childhood and the weight of his faults. He suffered deeply from a sense of isolation; he dreamt recurrently of being a ghost whom no one could see. Fear of madness forced him into what he called "a life of intellect tempered by flippancy" (at one point, quoting this, Monk gets flippancy and intellect the wrong way round). He is moving in his wit, his sardonic brilliance, and his passion for truth ("exact truth - the bottom truth"). Those with generous spirits loved him, in spite of his appetite for epistolary excess. He was very self-concerned, but self-concern doesn't imply egotism. Our inner worlds are extraordinary (Russell's more than most). Some of us are naturally absorbed by what occurs there, others are not. But this is just to say that we differ in which aspects of the world interest us. In itself, self-absorption is no more egotistical than absorption in football.

Monk on Russell is a bit like Don Juan before the stone Commendatore, although he lacks Don Juan's courage or form. In his second volume, it's said, he will go into great detail about how Russell handed on his misery to his descendants in accordance with Larkin's Law. In effect, he is going to argue that Russell, whom he dislikes, was as destructive as Wittgenstein, whom he deeply admires.

Both men lived extraordinarily rich and painful lives. Russell probably did more actual damage because he lived closer to other people and had more sex, but he also gave more happiness. Russell was more sentimental than Wittgenstein, but he was also more human, more courageous, more bedevilled by God (in particular, by his non-existence), less duplicitous, and cleaner-souled. No moral judgement is correct that puts one above the other. Monk doesn't see this, and this is his great mistake. !

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