BOOK REVIEW / Thought in the act: 'Bertrand Russell: a life' - Caroline Moorehead: Sinclair-Stevenson, 20 pounds

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The Independent Online
THE philosopher R G Collingwood, in a spare and classic self-portrait, wrote that 'the autobiography of a man whose business is thinking should be the story of his thought'. Possibly biography is a different matter - at least in the case of Bertrand Russell, who chose to plunge into the mainstream of public controversy rather than stick exclusively to the austere business of philosophical


Being the scion of a great Whig family doubtless furnished Russell with an irresistible political itch from the start. In any case, the mention of his name today evokes memories of anti- Bomb crusades, denunciations of America over Vietnam and spiky tracts on socio-political issues by a popular sage. One of these books, The Conquest of Happiness, was dismissed as 'vomitive' by Russell's one- time philosophical protege, Wittgenstein.

But Wittgenstein was primarily incensed by what he regarded as Russell's abandonment of his true calling in favour of popularisation. The main fruits of that calling were philosophically innovative works such as The Principles of Mathematics, with its brilliant fusing of mathematics and logic. However, the explanations of these works in Caroline Moorehead's new biography are necessarily truncated by intriguing accounts of the successive imbroglios in the personal life of this peppery


Moorehead's explanations of Russell's philosophical feats are clear as far as they go, but don't go far enough to constitute 'the story of his thought'. And the impression she leaves is of a thinker whose personal conduct at times contrasted sharply with the ethics he so loftily preached to the world's nations; and this compounds the dichotomy in this book between the man and the thinker.

Perhaps a greater integration of these two sides would have been impossible. Indeed, Moorehead's patient, balanced unravelling of the personal tangles is itself a remarkable achievement. Russell's sexual compulsions, spawning four marriages and numerous affairs, are steadfastly tackled by an author tolerant to a striking degree of her subject's haughtiness towards women. For all his panting after their company, in bed and out, Russell, according to Moorehead, considered women his inferiors. 'True, he championed female suffrage; but that was because he felt it to be morally right, not because he was much interested in the domestic needs and social aspirations of ordinary women.' Similarly, he decried Hitler's persecution of the Jews but seemed, from his conversational outbursts, anti- Semitic himself.

Such discrepancy between public declarations and private feelings may also account for the aridity of much of Russell's moralising about geopolitics, just as his ostensibly passionate avowals of love for particular women have - especially in the context of his philandering - a mechanical air not noted by his biographer. D H Lawrence, that expert on cold-hearted English aristocrats, is useful in this connection. 'You simply are not sincere . . .' he told Russell in a letter quoted by Moorehead. 'You are simply full of repressed desires . . . and they come out in this sheep's clothing of peace propaganda.'

Fortunately, comedy abounded in Russell's long life - the spectacle, for instance, of this eminent logician perched on a lavatory at his revolutionary Beacon Hill School, trousers round his ankles, surrounded by children on their pots; or his first wife, Alys, furiously writing letters to him from upstairs in their home while he blithely sat in his study downstairs. Yet Moorehead leaves the comic possibilities of his protracted affair with Ottoline Morrell largely unexploited, possibly because that social butterfly became a sad figure once her supposed friends in Bloomsbury took to backbiting.

Russell himself ultimately strayed from the Bloomsberries - he never relished cliques. Nor is there any gainsaying the forthrightness he showed in his campaign against the 1914-18 war, which cost him much abuse and four months in prison, or the dignity with which he faced being hounded from an American academic appointment two decades later. A host of such episodes are narrated in telling detail by Moorehead, whose crowded book must come close to being the last word on Russell the man, if not the philosopher.