Bertrand Russell:

The Spirit Of Solitude, 1872-1921

By Ray Monk.The Free Press. $35.00. 720 pages.

Reviewed by Marjorie Perloff

Washington Times, 20 Oct. 1996, B7-8.

Ray Monk’s 1990 biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein was, by any measure, a milestone. A philosopher by training who happens to also have a great talent for story-telling, Monk was able to bridge the gap between the narrative of an extraordinary complex and contradictory life and the exposition of Wittgen-stein’s extremely difficult, and always evolving philosophical concepts. The life and the work, Monk showed as no one had before, were entirely intertwined.

Now, six years later, here is the first volume of Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein’s mentor-turned-antagonist Bertrand Russell, and it should be said right away that the new book is just as brilliant as was Wittgenstein. Again Monk succeeds in producing a biography as attentive to complex philosophical ideas as to the psychological nuances of Russell’s personal life as well as to the culture in which they took place. The task must have been daunting for, as Monk explains in his Introduction, the Bibliography of Bertrand Russell lists over three thousand publications and the Russell Archives contain more than 40,000 of his letters. When Russell died in 1970, he was just short of ninety-eight; thus, by Monk’s estimate, he must have written an average of two or three thousand words a day!

Two earlier biographies of Russell– Ronald Clark’s The Life of Bertrand Russell (1975) and Caroline Moorhead’s Bertrand Russell (1992)– did relatively well by the private life but, in Monk’s words, “suffered from . . . a more or less complete lack of interest in Russell’s philosophical work.” As he explains it:

The issue of the relevance of a writer’s life to his or her work has been much debated in recent times, but often, it seems to me it is approached from the wrong direction. The question for a biographer is not whether a writer’s work can be understood in isolation from his or her life (of course it can, as Shakespeare’s work amply demonstrates), but rather whether the life can be understood in ignorance of the work. Biography is not a service industry, it does not receive its purpose from the help it gives to literary criticism, intellectual history or any other ‘discipline’. It is an autonomous literary genre. . . . understanding an interesting person is justification enough.

This reversal of the usual biographical formula strikes me as not only important but necessary, especially in Russell’s case, where, as Monk is the first to admit, the “personality revealed” in Russell’s own writings “is one that many people will find repellent.” The challenge, then, is to try to understand how this, to say the least, difficult individual produced work of such “philosophical clarity and rigour.” And further–although Monk does not claim any sort of emblematic value for Russell– to determine how the life and times of this one great British philosopher sheds light on an upper-class culture that, in retrospect, seems often to mirror his own particular quirks and vices. It is also fascinating, now that we have both biographies, to compare the two great analytic philosophers, Wittgenstein being, in my view, and I would guess in Monk’s, although he tries to be scrupulously fair, as sympathetic and endearing, as Russell is irritating and frequently “repellent.”

Volume 1, The Spirit of Solitude, covers the first half (1872-1921) of Russell’s very long life; it concludes with Russell’s initiation into fatherhood at the age of forty-nine. “The highest point of my life,” Russell was to recall in his later years,” an “intellectual honeymoon such as I have never experienced before or since,” was the turn-of-the-century period when he was preparing himself for his magnum opus, the Principia Mathematica.. At Trinity College, Cambridge, in the nineties, Russell had made friends with Alfred North Whitehead, John McTaggart, and G. E. Moore; it was from Whitehead’s Universal Algebra that he first learned to regard mathematics as the study of “all types of formal, necessary, deductive reasoning,” and to regard analysis as an ontological activity. By 1900, in his own Principles of Mathematics, Russell was arguing that the whole of mathematics could be based on a mere handful of logical notions and axioms, and his notion of “class,” as logically prior to the notion of “number,” was considered an astonishing breakthrough. “He could look upon himself, at the age of twenty-eight, as the author of the most important contribution to the philosophy of logic and mathematics since Aristotle.” Indeed, the great multi-volume Principia Mathematica, written with Whitehead during the first decade of the twentieth century is perhaps best understood as the fruition of Russell’s early discoveries, even though the whole issue of “propositions” and “judgments” doesn’t come up until the Principia. Russell’s work during the six-year period from 1904-1910, writes Monk, “is one of the wonders of the history of modern philosophy.” And he places Russell’s work carefully in its anti-Hegelian, anti-idealist scientific setting.

The fact remains that by the time the young Wittgenstein arrived in Cambridge in the spring of 1912 to meet the great author of the Principia and to work with him, the best of Russell’s philosophical work was behind him. Wittgenstein soon started finding contradictions in his mentor’s theory of propositions, classes, and judgments, and Russell had to admit that Wittgenstein was often right. Another cause of Russell’s disillusionment with pure philosophy and especially with logic was that Lady Ottoline Morrell, whom he met in 1909 and with whom he was soon deeply involved, disliked “dry” mathematical subjects and was much more interested in Russell’s more popular writings on religion and value. The Problems of Philosophy (1912) for example, which argues that philosophy “receives its value from providing us with a glimpse of an eternal, immutable world beyond impulses, passions and ordinary life,” was admired by Ottoline just as much as it was disliked by Wittgenstein, who found that its easy generalizations lacked all rigor, all “hard reasoning.” And by 1920, Russell, who had fifty more years to live, had admittedly given up such “hard reasoning” altogether in favor of political writing, pamphleteering, polemic, and popular philosophy with an educational mission.

Partly, of course, this was the case because the complex and minute logic worked out in the Principia may have been a young man’s sport. But as Monk shows us, the gradual transformation of Russell’s intellectual activity had much to do with his daily life and especially with his love life which preoccupied an enormous amount of his time and energy. The story of Russell’s sad and lonely childhood has often been told: although he was born to one of the greatest aristocratic Whig families in England, Russell lost both his parents before he was four and was brought up by his paternal grandmother, the strict, cold, and devout Lady Russell. Throughout his life he was to complain that he had suffered as a child from lack of love, but deprivation doesn’t quite account for the curious perversity of his relations with other people, especially with the women in his life.

Russell met his first wife, Alys Pearsall Smith, the daughter of a wealthy Quaker family from Philadelphia, when he was seventeen and she twenty-two. Almost immediately, he decided that she was the woman he intended to marry. Wooing her assiduously (she was at first quite reluctant and his family dead-set against the match), he finally won her assent, but even before the wedding took place in December 1894, he was arranging meetings with her sister Mary (the mistress of Bernard Berenson) in Paris and writing to Alys how brilliant her sister was, whereas “one doesn’t imagine thee would do any brilliant original thinking but thee might form part of the indispensable intelligent audience, which involves a lot of exertion and severe thinking.” “Russell’s letters to Alys during this time are so appallingly insensitve,” observes Monk, “that it is hard not to see in them some animus against her.” Not long after the wedding, in any case, Russell began to lose all interest in the Alys he had so desperately wanted, to find her nothing but “irritating,” and by the time he and Lady Ottoline Morrell became lovers in 1909, the marriage was all but over.

Lady Ottoline was in many ways Russell’s match: brilliant, mercurial and spoiled, she often kept him at bay, had other lovers, lied to him, and for the better part of their affair, which spanned more than a decade, confided to her diary that she found him mentally exciting but sexually unattractive. Still, one marvels at Russell’s actions. In 1914, right before the outbreak of the war, he was on a lecture tour in the U.S. In Chicago, he stayed with a Professor Dudley, whose daughter Helen, a young classicist, fell in love with him. They were soon sleeping together, and he urged her to come to England where they would marry. By the time Helen arrived in London, right after the outbreak of the war, Russell had lost interest in her completely and was totally preoccupied with the newly passionate relationship he was having with Lady Ottoline. He talked the latter into putting Helen up during her London stay and, with her help, finally got the poor girl to give up and go back to the U.S., brokenhearted. This was how Russell operated, even though these antics hardly gave him pleasure; on the contrary, he was always writing Ottoline of his despair, his fear of the future, his sense that everything was “darkness” and “unreality.”

In the U.S., Russell has to this day the reputation of have been a great liberal, a noble anti-war activist who fought valiantly, during World War I, for the NCF (No-Conscription Fellowship), was willing to risk prison for his published declarations that England should end the war, and so on. But as Monk shows in great detail, Russell’s “liberalism” (later socialism) had a curious cast. His anti-war sentiment was largely motivated by the belief that Germany was the “other” civilized nation of Europe, that, in any case, “little Belgium” was not worth going to war for and that France was a dubious ally. He declared, moreover, that England could not be allied to a nation as “primitive” as Russia, although after the 1917 revolution, he changed his mind and had a brief period of ardent devotion to the Soviet cause, praising Lenin as a great hero. A brief trip to the Soviet Union in the early 1920s quickly dispelled the illusion. “I don’t like the spirit of Socialism,” he wrote his then mistress Colette (the actress Constance Malleson), “I think freedom is the basis of everything.”

But freedom for whom? During his 1914 stay in Cambridge, Mass., Russell had his first encounter with blacks–the servants at the Colonial Club. “I find the coloured people friendly and nice,” he wrote Ottoline, “they seem to have something of a dog’s liking for the white man–the same kind of trust and ungrudging sense of inferiority. I don’t feel any physical recoil from them.” “The odd irrelevance of this last remark,” says Monk, “suggests perhaps that it was not true.” As for Jews, Russell had no use for the famous Harvard psychologist Hugo Münsterberg for he was “not the sort of man I could ever like because of the touch of Jew vulgarity.”

It is in the context of such remarks that one must reevaluate Russell’s purported radicalism. If he was a pacifist, it was primarily because he regarded the Germans as more “civilized” than most other European nations and besides England being Number #1 did not need to engage in war with its European neighbors. “Wars of Colonization, on the other hand, as Russell explained in “The Ethics of War” (1915), were, wholly justified in that they spread the great parliamentary system devised in Britain. Indeed, Russell’s England was a class-based society through and through. He could declare himself, right after the war, against Capitalism but of course the debate as to who would own which industries had nothing to do with the noblesse oblige that made it possible for the Russells and their friends to have a staff of servants wherever they happened to be living for whatever length of time. Even when he was in prison, Russell had a servant who went out and got food for him; he never ate the prison fare.

What emerges so forcibly from Monk’s biography is that Russell’s particular strain of patrician culture, which in the twenties would emerge as Bloomsbury, and which is usually represented as enviably intellectual and artistic, high-minded and democratic, could hardly have been more racist, xenophobic, and, in keeping with its geographical location, deeply insular. Russell’s hatred of Americans is carefully documented by Monk, and one of the most interesting episodes in the biography details Russell’s abortive friendship with the working-class D. H. Lawrence, who came to despite the philosopher and all he stood for. The relationship to T. S. Eliot is also fascinating: Russell more or less patronized the young American and, as family friend to the fledgling menage, immediately started an affair with Mrs. Eliot, whom he claimed needed amusement, her husband evidently being impotent. One foreigner Russell did revere was Joseph Conrad, but then Conrad was, after all, himself an aristocrat, even if an impoverished one from Poland.

What complicates the picture is that Russell had no more in common with most of his fellow aristocrats than with lower-class Englishmen or “vulgar” Americans. Unlike the leisured Edwardians, he worked terribly hard almost every day of his life. His productivity was truly stupendous. His knowledge of English literature, of Greek philosophy, of Marxist theory– all these are impressive. Yet–and here Russell may well be representative of a larger late-Edwardian/ Georgian phenomenon– the peculiarity of the Russell ethos is its appalling self-absorption. Philosopher, public figure, writer, Cambridge professor, world traveller, and activist for dozens of causes, Russell seems, on the evidence of his letters, journals, and private remarks, to have spent most of his time thinking about himself, analyzing the motives of his mistresses and friends, and planning strategy, revenge, or a needed change of course. Between 1916 and 1920, when he was already very famous, he was carrying on with both Constance Malleson and Dora Gray as well as writing daily letters to Ottoline and paying many visits to Vivien Eliot. In letters to the first three, he engages in endless introspection, self-analysis, recrimination, petty jealousy, and vindictiveness. Every move made by Colette is discussed with Dora, every move with Dora hashed over with Ottoline. Every “ecstatic” night with one is followed by a quarrel or a cold rebuff; nothing is ever satisfying for more than a day or two.

Wittgenstein, in contrast, was always trying to “become a better person.” For Russell’s frenetic activity, he substituted asceticism, and when he was in love (in his case, with young men rather than young women), he said as little about it to anyone including himself as possible. He was hard on others but hardest on himself. Much wealthier than Russell, who often had to scrounge around to make enough money, Wittgenstein gave all his money away: at Cambridge in the thirties and forties, he lived in a monkish room furnished with a couple of deck chairs. Most ironically of all: while Russell talked about war and polemicized against it, Wittgenstein fought in it–on the other side of course. And it was in the last years of the war, when he was a prisoner on the Italian front, that he completed the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the book for which Russell kindly wrote an introduction, but which also brought on the recognition that serious philosophy was no longer his game. Monk’s first volume ends on this note and makes us long eagerly for the next installment.