Saturday, December 26, 2020


My life, which is generally dull to begin with, has been extremely dull due to the pandemic, so I haven't felt inclined to make a "Diary" post. Of course, I'm still thinking about Donald Trump and the circumstances that permitted him to become president. Actually, it is not a great surprise, because, as I've been saying, the democracy-plus-capitalism formula is dangerous and hasn't been working for decades. For at least fifty years, wealthy people have been controlling who gets elected to Congress and, to a lesser extent, the presidency. Now, media companies such as Fox News are directly influencing voters even in non-election years, and they have paved the way for completely unqualified, incompetent and corrupt political candidates such as Donald Trump; the emphasis has changed from placing people in Congress who will protect corporate interests and keep taxes low to directly increasing corporate profits by drawing more viewers to programs. The only thing that is surprising about Donald Trump's presidency is how uncritical the public has been and the extent of its tolerance of his behavior, even as it results in a high unemployment rate and thousands of preventable deaths. To be sure, the pandemic is not entirely Trump's fault, but the fact is that he made a bad call on it at the beginning and never changed course. Even today he is obstructing congressional action and playing golf, yet he still has millions of enthusiastic supporters. Public stupidity in an age of ubiquitous media propaganda remains a threat to civilization.

Fortunately, I live in a state where Trump is unpopular, and I've been thinking that this fact may be related to the fact that Vermont has the lowest rate of COVID-19 cases of any state. The governor, Phil Scott, who happens to be a Republican, has done a very good job, but it probably helps that most of the residents are sensible enough to ignore Trump's rhetoric. Vermont may have done the best because it's less industrialized than other states, and the level of complaints about a lack of jobs is much lower here than elsewhere, making it more difficult for political opportunists to gain traction. Trump never established credibility here, so fewer people were susceptible to his propaganda. Another advantage that Vermont has may be that the population has a higher percentage of introverts than other states. Since introverts don't need to socialize as much as extroverts, they are less avoidant of isolation and therefore less likely to be exposed to COVID-19. In fact, this thought led me to the idea that introversion may be an evolutionary adaptation that allowed our ancestors to avoid infections in the pandemics that have occurred over the centuries. I think that introversion is inherited, and that eventually the genes for it may be identified.

For an update on William, he is now fully acclimated to his cat door in the basement. This had stopped his damage to the porch screens while chasing mice and allows us to sleep without the interruption of his pawing at the bedroom door in the middle of the night. On the downside, most of the animal carcasses are now appearing on the basement floor instead of on the porch. Sometimes the prey escapes in the basement, but the mice and voles usually run right into a trap, and I release them outside during the day. William is a very picky eater, and he never eats the voles, so I often find an intact dead vole on the basement floor in the morning. He definitely likes mice, but is messy about how he eats them, so I still have mouse parts to clean up from the basement floor in the morning. Often there are mouse organs on the mat at the foot of the basement stairs. I have been thinking about what Jared Diamond said about cats killing songbirds. In William's case, because he is nocturnal, he hardly ever catches birds. I don't know exactly how many rodents he catches a year, but it is probably in the 500-to-1000 range. I wonder whether animal rights activists are as defensive of rodent rights as of songbird rights: they're probably guilty of speciesism. The basement is unheated, and gets down to about 48 degrees during the winter, so sometimes William prefers to be upstairs. During the day in the winter he usually sleeps upstairs near the fire.

The stargazing conditions were poor once again during 2020, and I spent less time on it than most years. My main hobby became investing again, and this was my best year since 2009. I think these circumstances – with millions of people suffering while a few people become wealthier and live in comfort – are yet another example of the failure of human self-governance. So far, the pandemic has had little effect on us or any family members, which includes both coasts. With any luck, vaccines will be more widely available soon. I have mixed feelings about the Republican family of my Democratic friend who lives in Missouri. I got a Trumpish treatment from them when I visited there in 2019, and, though I don't wish them ill, if they were to contract the coronavirus I wouldn't be surprised or sad.

We're getting off to another global warming winter. We've already had two significant snows that have completely melted. Fortunately, global warming causes erratic weather patterns, so we will probably still have frigid winters, but less often.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, 1872-1921 XII

When Russell left prison in 1919, the war was about to end, and he began to rethink his future. His physical relationship with Ottoline Morrell was over. Vivien Eliot had become friendly with Ottoline and they had probably compared notes: she seems to have lost interest in him. That left him with Colette. He was getting old and wanted children, whereas Colette did not want children or to get married. To complicate matters, Colette became pregnant by her other boyfriend, and she got an abortion with financial assistance from Russell. He was contacted by Dora Black, an Oxford graduate whom he had met in 1917. She was then a graduate student studying French literature but was tired of university life and wanted to leave it. Dora quickly became a contender for Russell's attention, because she wanted to have a baby and preferred to remain unmarried. She was attracted to Russell because of his political activism, and she was more or less a radical bohemian at the time. 

In 1919, Russell also heard from Wittgenstein, whom he had thought was dead. Wittgenstein had been fighting in the Austro-Hungarian army and was being held in a prisoner-of-war camp in Monte Cassino, Italy. He had written what was to become the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and wanted to discuss it and receive help in getting it published. They did eventually meet, and Russell wrote an introduction, which helped influence publishers, since the text was essentially unintelligible and Wittgenstein had no name recognition. However, as always, Wittgenstein was argumentative and thought that the introduction didn't explain the book accurately. Nevertheless, the book was published with Russell's introduction. As an aside, I must say that I am finding both Russell and Wittgenstein to be of far less importance as thinkers than they thought of themselves. In his academic work, Russell was constantly changing his ideas, and the entire field of mathematical logic is an obscure one that is of little interest to most people. Although Wittgenstein was highly intelligent and his writing seemed important, he was not actually an effective communicator, and, later on, he was treated as a savant who usually required an interpreter. Between the two of them, I feel that they missed the boat entirely, because I think that language, which includes the symbolic notations used in mathematics and logic, is best seen as a product of evolution. For billions of years, organisms have been implicitly connecting events in their environments in a manner that increases their chances of survival. Birds make noises that other birds recognize and respond to. A specific noise might mean "A predator is approaching" or "Stay away from my nest." Humans possess the same gene as songbirds and evolved in a manner that allowed them to produce far more complex languages, but the origins of human languages are not fundamentally different from those found in other species. This is not an area that I have spent any time studying, but I think that it is far more productive to explore it from a biological standpoint than from an arcane logical standpoint. If there is any depth to language, it stems ultimately from the evolutionary advantages that it conferred upon its users. Russell and Wittgenstein, at least in their early years, seemed to think that there was some sort of strange, mystical connection between language and reality. There isn't.

In any case, by 1919 Russell was moving away from academic philosophy and becoming prominent as a public intellectual. Although he still retained an urge to produce high-caliber academic works, he felt more comfortable living the journalist's life. He was good at taking an article which he had written for one publication and revising it for other publications or lectures, and through this process he was not only able generate greater income than he could as an academic, but could also increase his public stature and influence. After the war, his friend, G.H. Hardy, the mathematician, arranged for him to receive a lectureship at Trinity College, but Russell chose not to take it that year. In 1920, he joined a British delegation to visit the newly-formed Soviet Union, during which he toured the country and met the leaders, including Trotsky and Lenin. He was completely unimpressed by Lenin, and perhaps the only person he met whom he liked was Maxim Gorky, the writer. He found the Soviet mindset and the industrialized nature of its society, which emphasized conformity and uniformity, completely abhorrent. 

Later in 1920, he traveled to China to lecture in Beijing. By then, he had reached an agreement with Dora Black that she would accompany him, and that they would have sex without contraception; if she became pregnant, when they returned to the U.K. he would divorce Alys and marry Dora. Both Russell and Dora were enchanted by China, and Russell thought of it as a pre-industrial society that contained far more refinement than the Soviet Union. His only complaint was that, as a society, those who faced unfortunate circumstances were simply ignored. He was a popular lecturer, and one attendee was a young Mao Zedong, who wrote about it to a friend. This trip was more inspiring than his trip to the Soviet Union, and the only negative aspect of it was that he became infected with influenza and nearly died. He was bedridden in China for some time and, after a few days in Japan, they returned to England, arriving in August, 1921.

Dora was then five months pregnant, and this caused Russell to break off with Colette and divorce Alys. Russell and Dora's son, named John Conrad Russell, was born on November 16, and Joseph Conrad became his godfather. This brings to a close the "solitude" period of Russell's life, at least as Ray Monk sees it, and another volume is devoted to the remainder of his life. 

I have found this book satisfying in ways that I didn't expect. The discussion is so fine-grained, with the use of multiple sources, that you almost feel as if you were there. Also, as I have experienced with other good biographies, the subject of the biography becomes demythologized in a manner that I find informative. It became apparent to me that Wittgenstein would probably never have had a career as a philosopher if Russell hadn't taken an interest in him and put up with his tantrums. My only complaint is that reading this book carefully has been extremely time-consuming, and I will be reading other things before starting on the second volume.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, 1872-1921 XI

Russell continued his political activism in 1917 while pursuing Constance Malleson, who went by her stage name of Colette O'Niel. Because of her work, which involved travel to different venues, they were rarely able to see each other, and he was growing tired of the activist life, which caused him to interact with people whom he found common and unpleasant. Colette came with baggage similar to that of Ottoline: she also had an open marriage and liked to avoid tying herself to any one man. She differed from Ottoline in her commitment to her career as an actress, and later as a writer. A major problem arose when she became interested in another man, and Russell immediately became upset.

In 1918, Russell got into trouble for a poorly-conceived editorial that he had written, and he was tried again under the Defense of the Realm Act; this time he was sentenced to prison. However, his prison term at Brixton didn't turn out badly. He wasn't treated as a regular prisoner, and his conditions were more like those of an artist's retreat, with room service and special meals brought in from the outside. He had a regular stream of visitors, but eventually missed social contact. He used the prison term as an opportunity to read, write and think about philosophical issues again, though his writing didn't go as well as he had hoped. He was released early for good behavior and did not serve the entire six-month sentence. 

At this point I am growing tired of Russell's romantic shenanigans. A pattern has been established in which he falls madly in love, imagining himself to be a romantic figure like Shelley. Then, if the woman is actually available and they could settle down (Alys Pearsall Smith or Helen Dudley), he soon loses interest in her. He is beginning to look like a drama queen, preferring the tension that arises when the object of his desire isn't fully available. In that situation he can express his angst and try to convince the woman (Ottoline Morrell or Colette O'Niel) that he loves her intensely and is of greater value than other men. It may be that he was highly competitive and liked to beat other men; this circumstance permitted him to establish his importance in the world. The situation with Vivien and T.S. Eliot was somewhat different: there was little or no tension, because T.S. Eliot behaved as if he were either asexual or homosexual, and therefore there was no sense of competition for Vivien. In fact, there has so far been no discussion of why Vivien married T.S. Eliot in the first place. In any case, Vivien does not seem to have been all that attractive to Russell. One of Monk's main themes is Russell's sense of lacking an identity in the human world. That may have been the result of his upbringing, during which he had little exposure to people, but, more likely, was the result of a preexisting psychiatric state. In my view, Russell, at forty-six, is getting too old for this kind of identity crisis. Thankfully, I think that he's about to meet woman number six and finally settle down.

While he was in prison, Russell studied the latest theories of behaviorism and attempted unsuccessfully to link them with his thoughts on mathematical logic. He hoped to abandon his political activities and become a freelance philosopher, with no academic affiliations. In my mind, Russell is an example of how philosophy became a subject in search of a purpose after 1900. The fields that philosophers attempt to attach to philosophy can generally function quite well without help from philosophers, especially when they are based on empirical research. These days, the leading English-speaking philosophers cover subjects such as animal rights, AI and consciousness, fields in which they have no special expertise and which can function perfectly well without their help. In the case of these philosophers, and perhaps Russell, they are asserting their importance while in fact having little or nothing to offer. 

Russell also maintained an active correspondence while imprisoned, and Ottoline thought that he wrote some of his best letters then. He explained how he thought of himself as a Victorian rather than an Edwardian, and had absorbed a kind of high seriousness in which the idea of progress was valued. Younger people, he felt, tended to be more frivolous, and in particular he found it difficult to relate to the artsy Bloomsbury people, who seemed superficial to him.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, 1872-1921 X

I think that this is the first biography that I've read that contains way too much information. I can't really blame Ray Monk, though, because the information was available, and he would have been remiss in his duty as a biographer if he hadn't used it. What I am finding is that, with this level of detail, few biographical subjects are likely to retain whatever heroic patina history has bestowed upon them. In the case of Bertrand Russell, there are so many different accounts of his daily activities that mythologized depictions of him become essentially untenable. Still, it is worthwhile to know what transpired within his intelligent and talented milieu.

1916 turned out to be a significant year for Russell. He ramped up his opposition to World War I and spoke in support of conscientious objectors. Although he disliked the administrative aspects of political work, writing and speaking were easy for him, and he enjoyed the attention and approval from the public. This quickly led to his being tried for violation of the Defense of the Realm Act. He was found guilty and fined, and when he refused to pay the fine, some of his property was confiscated (though friends bought it back). Following this, he was fired from his fellowship at Trinity College, and for a period he became a fulltime antiwar activist.

While this was going on, he continued to see Vivien Eliot, who had moved into an apartment with her husband. Russell remained secretive about this relationship, and some aspects of it are still unclear, since Vivien's journals were never published. Apparently Russell spent a lot of money on Vivien, with gifts including fancy underwear and dancing lessons. He also seems to have spent a lot of time with her while concealing that fact. To Ottoline he presented this as a fatherly interest, though that seems misleading. Chances are that they had a sexual relationship, since Vivien and her husband slept in different rooms and didn't get along well. Furthermore, the evidence seems to show that T.S. Eliot was homosexual and went to great lengths to conceal that fact. Though Monk doesn't go into depth discussing this situation, it appears that Eliot intentionally remained married as a cover for his homosexuality, and he does not seem to have worried much about the consequences for his wife: later on Vivien was confined to a mental institution.

Russell's love life significantly ramped up during 1916. While his relationship with Ottoline was waning (she disliked his disingenuousness and preferred literary writers and artists), and Vivien seems to have been a filler. During a tour in which he gave speeches, Russell met Constance Malleson, an actress. They hit it off well, and it looks as if she will be replacing both Ottoline and Vivien. Finally, at the end of 1916, Russell met Katherine Mansfield at Garsington. This had been thought to be a propitious meeting, since she and Russell had recently participated in an enthusiastic correspondence, but, even though they spoke for hours (with Ottoline eavesdropping), nothing ever came of it. I don't know whether Monk will have anything to add later.

By 1917, Russell was becoming despondent about the popularity of the war, and his differences with Whitehead effectively ended their collaboration in mathematical logic. For the most part, I am finding him clear-minded in his stances, and I think that historians have subsequently corroborated his view that World War I was a pointless war (i.e., this was not a simplistic antiwar stance). The same year, optimism returned to Russell with the Russian Revolution, though no doubt he would have been even more depressed if he had known then how it would turn out.

The political aspects of Russell's life don't interest me much, except for comparison to more recent intellectual activists such as Noam Chomsky. The picture that is emerging is that neither of them ever actually worked things out or offered viable proposals. Both Russell and Chomsky advocated individual freedom without accounting for the destructive effects that follow, such as irrational public manias and dangerous populist leaders. In Russell's case, I'm willing to cut him a little slack, because at that point psychology had only got as far as Freud. Chomsky is already a bit of a dinosaur himself; if he understood recent developments in psychology such as those put forward by Daniel Kahneman, he would have to completely rework his obsolete concept of libertarian socialism. There is ample evidence now as to how and why leaving everything up to "the people" is a recipe for disaster. Individual freedom always feels good, but there is no evidence that it can be reliably used to solve complex collective problems. As I've been saying for years, some autonomous intelligent system of governance would be much better than anything we've had so far.

I'm nearing the end of the book and should finish up in two more posts.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, 1872-1921 IX

Russell and D.H. Lawrence hit it off very well initially, but it appears that they misunderstood each other, and over time Lawrence became critical of Russell, who usually took criticism very badly. When Lawrence visited Russell in Cambridge, he was extremely put off by John Maynard Keynes when he met him, because he was homophobic, or perhaps scared of homosexual impulses. By the end of 1915, Russell had reached the conclusion that Lawrence's ideas were incoherent, and he stopped communicating with him. It took Lawrence a while to catch on, because he was used to berating people without ruining his relationships with them. Although it isn't entirely clear, it seems possible that Lawrence saw in Russell an inroad to form the kind of utopian community that he envisioned. For his part, Russell saw in Lawrence the hope of curing his lifelong condition of feeling irremediably isolated from other people – which I doubt that Lawrence could fully understand.

On a more positive note, Ottoline and her husband, Philip, purchased Garsington, a country manor in Oxfordshire, which quickly became a salon and retreat for artists and writers. It is portrayed by Aldous Huxley in Crome Yellow and by D.H. Lawrence in Women in Love. Other regulars included Vanessa and Clive Bell, Duncan Grant, Lytton Strachey, Mark Gertler and Gilbert Cannan. According to Monk, Russell didn't feel comfortable in this crowd, because, besides not being artistic, what he really sought was companionship with Ottoline, who was increasingly shutting him out. For me, though I'm neither an artist nor an intellectual, Garsington presents an appealing image, since I have never found a comparable group of like-minded people with whom to mingle. At this point, my feeling is that the U.S. must be the crassest of crass countries – where, unfortunately, I'm probably going to spend the remainder of my life.

In my reading, I am starting to like Ottoline Morrell a lot more than Bertrand Russell, though she seems to be fading out of his life at the moment. Like Russell, she left a lot of letters and autobiographical writings, and I find her quite perceptive, but also warm and loyal in her friendships. She immediately noticed that Frieda Lawrence was rude and uncivilized. When she met T.S. Eliot, she found him boring, and didn't think much of his wife, Vivien, either: she seemed crude. Ottoline was also quick to see through Russell's little schemes to manipulate her. I'm not sure that I approve of her open marriage, but she seems to have brought a rare spirit to Russell and others who knew her.

At around this time, T.S. Eliot had been studying in Oxford. He had very hastily married Vivien, a British woman, for reasons which Monk doesn't fully explain. I read elsewhere that in Eliot's mind it was an excuse for staying in the U.K. rather than moving back to the U.S. Apparently it was a bad marriage from the start, and he was in an employment quandary. He had completed his work for a Ph.D. in philosophy at Harvard but never returned for the oral exam. He had met Ezra Pound in London and was thinking of becoming a writer while earning his primary income from teaching. Immediately after his marriage, he left without Vivien on a trip to the U.S. to visit his family. He had been in touch with Russell, who offered to take care of Vivien while he was away. Vivien was a good typist and was able to type while Russell dictated. Monk suspects that Russell may have had an affair with Vivien, though there is no clear evidence. It would, however, fit Russell's pattern of using female competition in order to draw back Ottoline, and perhaps have a little sex on the side. In any case, Russell, in a rather over-the-top manner, allowed Eliot and Vivien to live in his apartment when Eliot returned, and he got Eliot's approval to live there himself even when Eliot was away. Russell wasn't really all that close to Eliot, nor was he normally this generous, so this brings into question his motives. This all plays out later in the book, and I'll probably comment on it again then.

Russell had taken time off from Trinity College to write a series of political essays, which were to be delivered as lectures in London and published. The lectures proved to be popular, and, because they were also profitable, Russell became more inclined than ever to leave academia.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, 1872-1921 VIII

I apologize for moving so slowly in this book. Before long, I will finish it and will take a break before continuing on the second volume. Bertrand Russell is becoming a little tiresome to me, but new aspects of his life are opening up, so there is still hope that in the end I won't consider this a pointless exercise. Ray Monk spends an exorbitant amount of time on Russell's personal relationships, and although I am coming to consider Russell's behavior far from exemplary, and there are always signs of his mental illness, he has reached the point, by 1914, in which he is ready to abandon academic philosophy entirely, and while this turn of events may not be of much interest to most of my readers, it is of some interest to me, as I went through a similar process myself about forty-five years ago. His relationship with Ottoline Morrell is also quite interesting to me, particularly as you rarely see relationships examined this closely, even in what people think is the best fiction. At this point, I think that whenever there are good biographies available, you may as well skip fiction entirely unless you prefer to read fabricated stories created by fiction writers for your entertainment.

The situation with Helen Dudley was quite appalling. Monk doesn't exactly explain it in blunt terms, but it seems that Russell had no qualms about deceiving her simply for the opportunity for sex while in Chicago. The surprising thing to me is that he never bothered to take responsibility and even drew in Ottoline Morrell to assist him in a plan that was intentionally deceptive. When Helen arrived in England, he pretended that he was busy and avoided seeing her. He enlisted Ottoline to take in Helen at her London home without revealing to Helen anything about his relationship with Ottoline. Thus, Ottoline became Helen's confidante, and whatever she said was passed on to Russell. At the same time, having Helen around seems to have increased Ottoline and Russell's sexual excitement about each other, and their relationship improved at Helen's expense. Russell was exposed when Helen told Ottoline about the gushing letters that she had received from him at exactly the same time that he was declaring his undying devotion to Ottoline. Helen also revealed to Ottoline that, since arriving in London, Russell had engaged in opportunistic sex with her without telling Ottoline. This led to some tension between Russell and Ottoline. Helen stayed in London for a while with a job that Ottoline found for her, returned to the U.S., returned to England for exposure to the literary circles there, and then returned to Chicago again. It appears that her rejection by Russell ruined her life, and that she later was considered insane.

After this episode, Ottoline's opinion of Russell seems to have suffered, and, since he was such a high-maintenance lover, she found another woman to deflect his attention. That woman was Irene Cooper-Willis, who was hired by Russell to help him on a new project of writing about the history of British politics leading up to World War I. The presumption was that Irene would be attracted to Russell, and that eventually they would develop a sexual relationship, taking some of the pressure off Ottoline. However, this plan backfired, because Irene, apparently, was asexual, and though she was intellectually attracted to Russell, she was not at all physically attracted to him. She moved on, never married, and probably died a virgin.

From an intellectual standpoint, World War I completely changed Russell's orientation. He was shocked and disappointed that most of his friends, including the Whiteheads and Joseph Conrad, like the general public, were war hawks. He saw from the beginning that the war was pointless, but found that few people agreed with him. Although some of his reasoning may have been tainted by a prejudice in favor of Germanic culture and a dislike of Russia, which became a British ally during the war, his reasoning generally seems sound. However, I don't think that he was intellectually equipped to deal with the phenomenon, because it was more psychological in nature than anything that he had studied. Groupthink and group opposition to perceived enemies have profound effects on how people think, and the phenomena occur in a manner that can hardly be considered rational. If you've ever noticed the behavior of the people around you when a war is started, such as the Gulf War or the Iraq War, the enthusiasm is shocking when you consider that there is no real threat to your country. Russell felt quite alone, except for Ottoline, during this period, because he thought that the war was pointless, and he did not feel comfortable with the people in the pacifism movement at the time. His opinion of academia also declined significantly, because most of the academics he knew were avidly pro-war. He hoped that his future writings would sway public opinion, but so far he isn't having any luck, and the war is so popular that some publishers won't even publish his essays.

On a brighter note, Ottoline, who was always up-to-date in literary matters, had been reading works by the up-and-coming author, D.H. Lawrence, and decided to meet him in early 1915. They had both grown up in Nottinghamshire and had fond memories of it. Lawrence was flattered that she wanted to see him, because her family was held in very high regard there. Soon Russell also met Lawrence, and they had some common interests, particularly in their antiwar stances. It will be interesting to read how their relationship develops, because, like Russell, Lawrence was obsessed with sex. However, unlike Russell, Lawrence resembled a utopian visionary and fit an artistic profile completely unlike Russell's intellectual profile. I am looking forward to reading about Russell and Ottoline's interaction with Lawrence and his circle, which included Katherine Mansfield, because that represents to me a high-water mark in British literature.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, 1872-1921 VII

Russell's favorite author was Joseph Conrad, whom he admired for his depictions of loneliness and the chaos that lies in the backgrounds of our lives. They met in 1913, and, following his earlier pattern, Russell seems to have read more into their relationship than was really there. In a sense, they did have something in common, because their mothers had both died while they were young, and this may have left them with similar scars. However, I don't think that they could have been very similar, because their social and geographic backgrounds were quite different. In this stage, Russell was toying with the idea of giving up academia and becoming a creative writer, and Conrad was an opening for that. Though they do not seem to have become particularly close, they spent time together, and Russell showed him his unpublished novel, which Conrad criticized tactfully but severely, causing Russell to set aside the idea of becoming a writer of fiction. I have read some of Conrad's writing and don't myself see what the fuss was all about.

Much of 1913 and early 1914 was spent by Russell preparing for a major lecture tour in the U.S. In 1914 he delivered the Lowell Lectures at Harvard and taught there, and also traveled around the country lecturing at universities as far off as Madison, Wisconsin. This is the first episode in the book in which Russell seems to have a sharp eye about anything, and I am impressed that he was able to see the shortcomings of the U.S. and articulate them well. In Boston and at Harvard, he was given a hero's welcome, and the Lowell Lectures were initially packed, though he was a poor lecturer, and the number of attendees declined with each subsequent lecture. He was quite put off by the shallow and pompous behavior of Bostonians:

From the very beginning Russell was contemptuous of America in general, and of Boston in particular, and especially so of the pompous Bostonian dignitaries by whom he was fêted. Indeed, the higher their social position, the more scornful he was of them. Thus, President Lowell he found 'an intolerable person – a deadly bore, hard, efficient, a good man of business, fundamentally contemptuous of learned people because they are not businesslike'....Boston, he told Margaret Llewelyn Davies, 'prides itself on virtue and ancient lineage – it doesn't impress me in either direction...I often want to ask them what constitutes the amazing virtue they are so conscious of – they are against Wilson, against labor, rich, over-eating, selfish, feeble pigs.'

Americans in general he found too conservative and too bland (commenting to Ottoline on 'the American tendency to slow platitude'), and American society alarmed him by being too mechanical, too preoccupied with the material and the mundane aspects of life.

He also disliked some of the other universities that he visited during the trip:

Princeton, for example, was 'full of new Gothic like Oxford as monkeys can make it', while his hosts at Smith College, Gerald Stanley Lee and his wife, were 'awful bores – "fancy" bores, with woolly pretentious ideas of their own'.

In contrast, he found Manhattan refreshing and the Midwest better than the East Coast. Over time, he came to see Harvard in a better light through interaction with the students. T.S. Eliot was then studying philosophy there and impressed him, though he disliked Eliot's reserve and formality. He much preferred an expressive and intense Greek student, Raphael Demos, who reminded him of Wittgenstein.

Russell was now forty-two, and, just as I was starting to think that he was beginning to mature and gain some insights, he engaged in a disappointing episode. On the Chicago leg of his trip, he stayed at the house of Dr. E. Clark Dudley, a surgeon and professor at Northwestern University. He had met Dudley's daughter, Helen, previously in England; she had studied at Bryn Mawr and Oxford and knew Alys's family. Helen was an aspiring writer, and at this time Russell was still thinking of dropping out of academia and becoming a full-time writer. He slept with Helen and bizarrely suggested that she come to England and live with him. This occurred just before the outbreak of World War I, and after Russell had returned home Helen soon followed. He was still engaging in his on-again-off-again relationship with Ottoline Morrell. One week it would be "We must break up permanently and stop seeing each other." Another week it would be "We can see each other occasionally but not have sex." Another week it would be "We can see each other often and have sex." The latter option seems to have been in play when Helen arrived, and, as far as I've read, Russell is preparing to tell Helen that it's all over between them. I can't imagine acting so irresponsibly.

The sense I have is that Russell's academic work was boring and attracted mostly boring people. Russell wanted to be "with-it" and hang around with creative people, though he does not seem to have been especially creative himself. He also had many selfish tendencies, particularly regarding sex, and by 1914 his relationship with Ottoline had devolved to a kind of theatrical routine that suited each of them but was not, in my opinion, entirely honest.

I am finding the reading entertaining, though so much detail is provided that Russell's life begins to seem mundane and trivial. Monk overall is doing a good job describing Russell, but, being in the intellectual thrall of both Russell and Wittgenstein, he is not always as objective as he might be.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, 1872-1921 VI

During 1912 and 1913, Russell's relationships with Ottoline Morrell and Ludwig Wittgenstein evolved. I think that he was confused by both of them and tended to draw false conclusions. He clung to Ottoline partly because he often feared that he would go mad if he didn't have stabilizing influences in his life. His attraction to mathematical logic was largely driven by a need to find stable truths that might put him at ease. In this respect, he reminds me a little of John Nash, Jr., the schizophrenic mathematician portrayed in A Beautiful Mind. Though Nash was a far more accomplished mathematician than Russell, his drive for mathematical clarity was probably similar to that of Russell, who had schizophrenia in his family. If Russell was schizophrenic, his case was relatively mild compared to that of Nash. Nevertheless, Lady Russell was probably quite serious when she admonished him not to have children. When Russell wasn't either working on logic problems or seeing Ottoline, he soon became frantic and manic. His efforts to educate Ottoline in mathematical logic were completely futile and contributed to the deterioration of their relationship. Perhaps to impress her, demonstrating an artistic side to himself which he actually did not possess, he wrote a novel, which sounds as if it was pretty bad. The protagonist was a man just like him, and the book was all dialogue, with no plot or action. Ottoline was at heart more of a bohemian than he was and preferred the company of Bloomsbury people such as Lytton Strachey, who was not only more fun to be around, but also gay, which removed the sexual pressure that women often find onerous. Ottoline seems to have been quite experienced sexually, whereas Russell was not, and it seems that she disliked his scrawny body and bad breath, and perhaps other aspects of his anatomy. Compared to her other friends, Russell was often insensitive, lacking in feeling and demanding. She increasingly spent long periods away at a spa in Lausanne, and finally, in 1913, they agreed to see less of each other, and Russell stopped writing to her daily. 

The problems with Wittgenstein are a little harder to sort out. At first, Russell was impressed by Wittgenstein's enthusiasm and sharp mind, and he liked to use him as a sounding board for his ideas. However, Wittgenstein was always blunt when he disagreed with something, and his manner was so intense that he was difficult to manage in the dignified setting of the university. In fact, it seems to me that Wittgenstein would never have had a career in philosophy if Russell hadn't taken on the role of his advocate from the beginning. With encouragement, Wittgenstein joined the Apostles, but he disliked the format and soon resigned. Apparently he was an introvert, because he preferred very small groups. He also became extremely critical of Russell's writings when he thought that something was incorrect. I think that Wittgenstein was a more complex person than Russell, and that Monk doesn't really capture his essence here or in Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. Wittgenstein was the runt in a family of wealthy, talented and musical nonpracticing Jews in Vienna. He was also homosexual, or possibly bisexual, but lived mainly an asexual life. He had a more nuanced drive to discover the mystical than Russell: in Russell's case, I think mysticism related only to the existential crisis that he experienced as a result of his latent schizophrenia. We may never know exactly why Wittgenstein behaved like a tortured soul – I wouldn't rule out the possibility that it became part of his act. On the other hand, he did seem to have a stronger drive for intellectual purity than Russell. For me, when you look at Wittgenstein in his context at Cambridge, it is bizarre that he managed to lead a successful career as a philosopher without following any of the norms: most of his ideas were expressed enigmatically, and it would be difficult to sum them up. Wittgenstein represents a paradox in modern philosophy, because, rather than providing a model in clarity, his recorded words are often open to various interpretations.

By 1913, Russell considered Wittgenstein to be his successor, whatever that meant, though they were no longer seeing eye-to-eye on several questions. As I mentioned earlier, I have little or no interest in the substance of their philosophical disagreements, so I'm not going to spend time on them. I still haven't arrived at the point when I am reading a lot, but hope to pick up my pace whenever winter finally arrives.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

The Election

Since it looks as if the U.S. presidential election has been decided in favor of Joe Biden, and I've been wasting so much time following it, I thought I'd say a few things so that I can move on to other topics.

Donald Trump's fitness for office has proven to be lower than ever this year. It's hard to imagine anyone doing a poorer job handling the coronavirus pandemic, and the scale of his lies would have been unfathomable a few years ago. What stands out to me is that he has come this far, given that we can now see how stupid many of his decisions have been, even when you examine them within his framework of corrupt self-interest. He unquestionably lost votes by willfully ignoring scientific advice on the pandemic; he could simply have followed the advice of a competent medical team, and the death count would have been considerably lower. The pandemic has slowed the growth of the U.S. economy, and if it had been controlled sooner, the medium-term economic outlook would be better than it is now. It is also surprising to see how much time and effort Trump wasted on the fabrication of corrupt behavior by Hunter and Joe Biden in Ukraine. There was nothing to find there, and he risked removal from office by precipitating his impeachment. If the Republicans in the Senate weren't also corrupt, he would have been removed from office in February. At the moment, he is spouting fantasies about voter fraud, which are going nowhere. It is obvious that he is completely indifferent to the responsible transfer of power and the stability of the federal government.

Because Donald Trump himself is an inherently uninteresting topic, I find it more fruitful to think about the conditions that allowed him to be elected in the first place and gave him a good chance of winning a second term. There is more to be concerned about here, because those conditions will be in place long after Trump is gone. From my point of view, the main underlying problem is voter gullibility. Almost half of the voters in 2016 and 2020 voted for him, acts that I find fundamentally irrational. It was well known in 2016 to anyone who took the time to study his past that Trump had no experience or interest in governing and was guaranteed to engage in self-serving behavior. It was also clear that whatever policies he had were uninformed and would be used primarily for his own benefit. During his years in office, he took credit for the strength of the economy, which he didn't deserve, and alienated many foreign allies. Most dictators around the world were glad to see him in power. Those voters who supported Trump seem to occupy a different sociological group from those who voted against him.

I have a reasonable amount of experience in Republican versus Democratic thinking, because I have lived in both geographic regions. The contrast between so-called "conservatives" and "élites" has some basis in reality, though those terms hardly describe the actual complexity. In the U.S., practically everything comes down to money, and the grievances of the conservatives usually amount to thinking that they deserve more of it, meaning that they should have better jobs and lower taxes. Jobs were not always an issue for conservatives, but have become more so in recent years, with the rapidly changing economy. In my view, particularly in rural areas, many of the economic woes are the result of increased automation and competition from abroad in manufacturing, as well as the decline in extractive industries such as coal mining. The élites, or, more generally, liberals, tend to be urban-based and work in service and tech industries that aren't affected by declines in manufacturing or mining. I have little sympathy for conservatives who listen to nonsense from politicians like Trump when they should be thinking about what kind of education they need and where they should live in order to get good jobs. Many of the so-called élites simply got good educations and were willing to move for job opportunities. Rather than getting government off the backs of people, the government should be incentivizing poor conservatives to get the proper training and move if necessary, as suggested by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo. If you accept the premise that capitalism is good, as most conservatives do (I don't), you must accept that the responsibility of corporate executives is to move jobs to wherever the costs are lowest. It is a contradiction of capitalism for conservatives to demand that jobs be brought to their regions simply to provide them with well-paying jobs. 

Besides the above, I think that Americans have become lazy, self-entitled and jealous, and that for purely political reasons the Republican Party has chosen to cater to whiny conservatives just so that they can remain in office. The so-called Republican vision is actually a farce with no economic basis, and it is clear that Donald Trump has no understanding of or interest in economics. On the global stage, the Chinese are laughing about how their cooperative culture doesn't cause them to go through the pains that Americans inflict upon themselves with their culture of selfishness. Looking at Trump's personal characteristics, what stands out to me is that his supporters would probably like to emulate his selfishness and narcissism. With respect to world history, this is a sign that the U.S. may be on the verge of a serious decline in both political and economic leadership, and that China is on the ascent and may soon be calling the shots. Given the degraded nature of Trump's personality, I'm not sure that I would object. The question is ultimately whether China's leaders represent the most eusocial aspects of mankind.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, 1872-1921 V

 1911 was a busy year for Russell. He lectured at Trinity College, became president of The Aristotelian Society, wrote essays on popular philosophy, proofread subsequent volumes of Principia Mathematica, courted Ottoline Morrell, split with Alys and met Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Early in the year, he spent an evening alone with Ottoline, and although they didn't consummate their relationship then, they planned to pursue one. Ottoline had an open marriage with her husband, Philip, and they lived together with their daughter. Ottoline was slow to reveal facts about herself, and Russell wasn't exactly quick to catch on. She was in the process of breaking off an affair with the artist and critic Roger Fry and was continuing one with the artist Henry Lamb. Initially, Russell naïvely insisted that she stop having sex with her husband. He also suggested that they could have a child together, not knowing that she had already had an operation to prevent pregnancy. Alys's brother, Logan, became enraged when he heard about Ottoline and Russell's affair, and, with Alys, informed him that Russell and Alys could remain separated and not divorce as long as Russell never stayed in the same building as Ottoline. This marked the end of Russell's relationship with Alys, though, apparently, she continued to love him for the rest of her life.

Russell's relationship with Ottoline seems to have been problematic from the start. Obviously he had made a serious mistake by marrying Alys, but there is little evidence that he reflected on that mistake and arrived at a better alternative. I think that Alys was a rather ordinary American woman, and that Russell probably wasn't aware of the relevant cultural differences. She had a predictable do-good Quaker orientation with little interest in ideas per se. Ottoline was an improvement in the sense that, like Russell, she was an English aristocrat and was not explicitly interested in having a positive impact on mankind. However, she had a highly developed personal sense of religion which Russell attempted to argue away. Though he correctly believed that the Christian God does not exist, he rather insensitively forced his ideas on Ottoline and persuaded her to read Spinoza, something that she never would have done on her own. Ottoline was above all a high-society woman and a patron of the arts: she was not especially intellectual and understandably had no interest in arriving at a logically consistent and accurate view of the world. My guess is that she was dazzled by the attention of someone with Russell's intellect, but that alone was not enough to sustain a lasting relationship. To make matters worse, she was not physically attracted to him. By early 1912 she seemed stressed out by her relationship with him and seemed ready for a change.

Ludwig Wittgenstein had been studying aeronautical engineering in Manchester but was losing interest in it. He read The Principles of Mathematics, became interested in mathematical logic and visited Gottlob Frege, who suggested that he study with Russell. He descended on Cambridge and followed Russell around, aggressively engaging in arguments. At first, Russell thought that he was a demented eccentric. However, at that time hardly anyone attended Russell's lectures, and Russell became impressed by Wittgenstein's intellect. By then, Russell associated his mathematical work with depression, because his serious works were all written when his relationship with Alys was in a dismal state. His relationship with Ottoline seems to have lowered his opinion of formal philosophical work, and he was starting to think that academic philosophy wasn't all that important. Wittgenstein played into this, because he was able to understand Russell's work without any formal philosophical training. This was the beginning of Wittgenstein's illustrious career as a philosopher, and I am once again surprised to see how personal bonds that originated in a haphazard series of events made it possible. This arrangement may have worked for Russell, because later on it permitted him to ease out of academia by replacing himself with his protégé. 

The Aristotelian Society hosted Henri Bergson, then a famous French philosopher. For the occasion, Russell read Bergson's works and didn't think much of them. I often find it interesting to see how divergent British and French culture are, when you consider their long history as neighbors. The British have historically seemed willfully ignorant of French culture, and the French, perhaps accurately, have seemed to consider the British crude. When you recognize that the Norman conquest was a seminal event in British history, it is a little surprising how different the two countries seem today. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, 1872-1921 IV

Russell's relationship with Alys deteriorated continuously during the early 1900's. He told her that he didn't love her, but that they could stay married if she wished. Since money was not a problem for them, they lived separately for periods, but Alys was so visibly depressed that at one point Beatrice Webb took her away on a vacation to Switzerland. Evelyn Whitehead was also sympathetic. There was an episode, when she discovered a lump in one of her breasts, in which Alys was disappointed to learn that it wasn't cancerous and that she would live. I am reminded of Simone de Beauvoir's story, "The Woman Destroyed." Russell was sporadically interested in other women but does not appear to have acted on it. The problem was more than just not being in love with Alys: he disliked her and didn't think his friends liked her either. He found her dull. I think that Russell must have been naïve and impetuous at times or he would never have married Alys. He preferred racier women, such as Alys's elder sister, Mary, and others whom he ran into over time. Although Alys wasn't stupid, Russell found her boring, and he was no longer sexually attracted to her.

The decline in their relationship coincided with a heavy workload between writing The Principles of Mathematics, and then, with Whitehead, Principia Mathematica. Russell corresponded with Gottlob Frege, the eminent logician, and other scholars of mathematical logic. Monk sums up the works as follows:

Assessing what was achieved by the Herculean labors involved in writing Principia Mathematica is difficult. What it set out to do was to demonstrate conclusively that the whole of mathematics could be derived from logic, but, whereas, in The Principles of Mathematics, it was remarkably clear what this meant (it meant, essentially, that all propositions about numbers could be re-cast into propositions about classes), in Principia, with the complications to the basic logical theory that Russell had felt compelled to add, it is much less clear. The picture is still further muddied by the fact that, for technical reasons, Russell and Whitehead were impelled to add to their stock of 'logical' axioms some that hardly fitted the notion of trivial truisms with which Russell had begun....

Principia Mathematica was published in several volumes by Cambridge University Press, starting in 1910. Since it was guaranteed not to sell well, Russell and Whitehead had to pay for part of the printing costs and lost money on it. To this day, practically no one has read Principia Mathematica in its entirety. By 1910, Russell's professional credentials were well-established. To me, this is the least interesting aspect of Russell's life, as I don't see a value to mathematical logic except as an obscure branch of mathematics: I don't consider it to be philosophy. In psychological terms, Russell didn't have what it took to be a great mathematician, and his strategy therefore evolved into annexing mathematics to the field of philosophy, a move that I don't think clarified anything, though it provided the appearance of elevating the importance of the field of philosophy.

In my view, Russell was more significant as an essayist and political activist than as an academic or philosopher. His essay writing and political activism were spread out intermittently throughout his life. I think that he was more effective as a public intellectual than the ones we have today, both in the U.S. and the U.K. We have, for example, Noam Chomsky, whom I think of as an old academic windbag, and Paul Krugman, whom I think of as a younger academic and an ineffectual journalist. One of Russell's early interests was women's suffrage, and he opposed the use of tariffs proposed by Joseph Chamberlain.  He also became directly involved in politics by supporting the reelection of Philip Morrell in South Oxfordshire in 1910. Morrell was an Oxford friend of Alys's brother, Logan. Through this connection he came to know Ottoline, Philip's wife, and they were mutually attracted, leading to Russell's first affair. 

I'm not moving any faster through the book, but may pick up speed when the presidential election is over and winter finally arrives. Russell was starting to feel old in 1910, when he was thirty-eight, but still had sixty years to live.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, 1872-1921 III

Bertrand and Alys continued their honeymoon throughout Europe for several months and returned to England in the summer of 1895. Russell had to write a dissertation as part of his qualification for a six-year fellowship at Trinity College, and his topic was the stability of geometric shapes in space. As it turned out, his examiners, one of whom was Whitehead, completely disagreed with his thesis and found it to be incorrect. Although this was an embarrassment to Russell, it didn't prevent him from receiving the fellowship. In any case, the fellowship had few specific requirements, and he donated his pay to the newly-formed London School of Economics. Russell's social rank seems to have benefited him professionally even more than Charles Darwin's did. I am reminded of Darwin's first paper, the one about the geology of Glen Roy, which was also completely wrong, but didn't prevent him from joining the Royal Society. It is important to know that, especially in a country like England, social background can be a significant determinant of who succeeds and who doesn't in a professional context.

At this stage, Russell and Alys were both interested in socialism and became friends of Beatrice and Sidney Webb. They traveled to Berlin in 1895, and on their return to England Russell presented a paper to the Fabian Society. Russell was also writing An Essay on the Foundations of Geometry around this time. In 1896, he and Alys went on a trip to the U.S. to meet her extended family, who made arrangements for him to lecture at Bryn Mawr and Johns Hopkins. On that trip, besides flirting with a few women, Russell realized that the mathematics taught at Cambridge was a little behind the times compared to that in Germany and the U.S. He was in a transitional period in which he was losing interest in the Hegelian concepts of J.M.E. McTaggart, the Cambridge idealist philosopher, and becoming more interested in mathematical certainty. Russell's first important book was The Principles of Mathematics, which was written and rewritten over several years and was a considerable intellectual effort. It was published in 1903. Monk is covering Russell's intellectual development quite thoroughly, but I find it mostly boring, as I'm not interested in math and, frankly, don't see any value in Russell's contributions to philosophy. So, while Monk is being quite conscientious, I am tending to ignore those aspects of the biography in favor of the sociological aspects of Russell's life.

During this period, it became clear that Bertrand and Alys had little in common. For a time, they lived with the Whiteheads in Cambridge, and Bertrand developed an interest in Whitehead's wife, Evelyn. Nothing came of it, but it is representative of the kind of attention Bertrand paid to women, presumably because he noticed something about them that was lacking in Alys. Monk is very slowly drawing out Russell's personality, and, on the whole, it doesn't seem very pleasant. While he was quite sociable, he was snobby and ambitious, and he seems to have been emotionally detached most of the time. He had a theatrical way of describing himself, and Monk believes that he manufactured unconvincing accounts of having had meaningful epiphanies following certain events. When Lady Russell died in 1898, he made no mention of it in his writings, which seems rather odd, considering that she had been the most important person in his life up to that point. He also seems to have been insensitive to Alys's plight as she became visibly depressed about their failing marriage. Looking at Russell from this distance, it seems that the whole point of his marriage was, for him, the ability to have sex without disobeying any rules. He doesn't seem to have had the slightest idea of what his responsibilities would be in a reciprocal relationship. Ironically, as Monk points out, Russell had some sort of sexual problem during this time, and it may have been impotence.

Let me briefly explain my views on why I don't think that Russell's professional work is important. The main reason is that his central idea was decisively refuted by Kurt Gödel in 1931. I haven't reached that point in the book yet, but Monk is going to make a case that Russell paved the way for Alan Turing, John von Neumann and the theory of computing, which seems like a stretch to me. I think that Russell was probably trying to glamorize philosophy by linking it to mathematics, which offered the promise of greater certainty. For me, philosophy is an inherently murky subject and ought to remain so. Russell's effort may be similar to the later fetishization of mathematical beauty by physicists and the overuse of mathematics by economists. I see mathematics as an exotic form of language that is chiefly beneficial in the sciences, because it offers new ways of describing reality – exotic ways which allow us to develop concepts which could not be readily attained by means of ordinary language. Pure mathematics may have appeal to some, but I don't think that mathematics in general would be of much importance if it didn't have practical applications. Mathematics opens a window far wider than the languages that we use in our daily lives, because it permits us to describe phenomena, such as quantum mechanics and non-Euclidean space, which fall completely outside our daily experiences. In the case of Russell, as far as I can tell, he had little interest in science, so, if anything, he was not likely to produce any practical ideas. Chronologically falling between Darwin and Einstein, and never himself having produced any scientific ideas, I think that Russell was mainly a popularizer of some complex ideas, but not a major thinker by most measures. One might say that Russell, though highly intelligent, was significantly surpassed in mathematics by others during his lifetime.

Monk had enormous resources available to write Russell's biography, since Russell wrote about two thousand words a day throughout most of his adult life. To put this in context, I am currently writing about eight hundred words a week at best. The going is so slow in Monk's book – and this is only the first of two – that I'll have to pick up my pace, or I'll be on this for many months. However, I like to spend a lot of time on the early years, because that is usually the best period for seeing a person's true nature.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, 1872-1921 II

One of the benefits of Russell's acquaintance with Whitehead was his nomination to the Apostles, the Cambridge debating society reserved for those who were considered the most intellectually astute. Through the Apostles, Russell met his closest friends. Another rising star was G.E. Moore, whom Russell also befriended, but Moore was even less worldly than Russell, and, his conservative, Victorian moral outlook soon put them at odds. Moore is an interesting case for how certain intellectual fads become almost unintelligible to later generations. He became the rock star of British moral philosophy when he published Principia Ethica in 1903, and it is difficult for me to see how anyone saw any value in him as a thinker. Wittgenstein had the same reaction when he arrived in Cambridge a few years later.

Russell continued his mathematical studies until 1893, when he took the exam and passed with good but not spectacular results. Surprisingly, he had lost much of his interest in mathematics by then, and he immediately sold all of his math books. This had to do with the fact that he liked well-rounded people who could engage on a variety of topics, and he had found that the faculty and students in mathematics were too narrow in their outlooks for him. In particular, he seems to have noticed that some students were quite proficient in math but not in anything else. At that point he switched to philosophy, and distinguished himself to a greater degree, such that he was nominated to become a fellow at Trinity College after he completed the exam in 1894. His initial interest in philosophy concentrated on Spinoza, and he particularly focused on pantheistic monism in search for a religious model more satisfactory than Christianity.

Throughout his university years, Russell was interested in advancing his love life, but had little success. He had met Alys Pearsall Smith in 1889, and that relationship began to flourish in 1893. Uncle Rollo had his own house in the country, and the Russells usually spent their summers there. Among their neighbors were the Pearsall Smiths, a family of wealthy Quakers from Philadelphia, and Alys was a daughter five years older than Russell. She attended Bryn Mawr College and studied English and German literature. For the first few years, Russell let no one know of his interest in Alys. 1893 was a crucial year for him, because he reached the age of twenty-one, and Lady Russell and Uncle Rollo ceased to be his guardians. Furthermore, he inherited £20,000 from his father, and in those days that provided income sufficient for financial independence. Russell let Alys know of his interest, and they slowly pursued a relationship under the watchful eyes of Lady Russell.

It is a little embarrassing to read their letters, in which they refer to each other as "thee" and always try to maintain the highest moral tone. However, Russell was obsessed with sex, and the most amusing anecdote so far in the book concerns Russell letting Alys know his favorite Walt Whitman poem in Leaves of Grass. It was quite explicit for the time in its expression of sexual passion, though Russell would have been horrified to know that it may have referred to homosexual passion. What is amusing is that Alys was personally acquainted with Walt Whitman, and he had given her a copy of Leaves of Grass, from which she had removed the section containing that poem, because she thought that those poems were improper. In some respects, Alys and Bertrand had little in common; not only was she religious, but she was also an active participant in the temperance movement.

Lady Russell did everything in her power to keep Alys and Bertrand apart and disapproved of their proposed marriage. Her first line of argument was that Alys wasn't an aristocrat. From there she delved into family history, arguing that if they had children, they would suffer from mental illness. She brought up his father's epilepsy and his uncle's schizophrenia. She also revealed to him for the first time that his Aunt Agatha, who lived with them at Pembroke Lodge, had never married her fiancé because she had come under the insane delusion that he had murdered Lord Clanricarde. There were also suspicions about Alys's uncle. When her arguments failed to persuade Alys and Bertrand, she brought in medical advice on hereditary insanity. At that point, Alys and Bertrand agreed not to have children, but then Lady Russell's medical advisor said that contraception was unhealthy. Finally, Alys and Bertrand agreed not to have sex and to sleep in separate rooms. Bertrand's impression was that Lady Russell was just opposed to sex. Actually, Alys herself had very little interest in sex and was certainly less enthusiastic about it than Bertrand. Finally, they did get married in December, 1894, though Lady Russell, Uncle Rollo and Aunt Agatha did not attend the wedding. Bertrand's best man was his brother, Frank. They honeymooned in The Hague, where, with the predictable fumbling about, they had sex for the first time.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, 1872-1921 I

I'm getting off to a very slow start on this biography by Ray Monk. That isn't because I dislike it, but because I go through periods in which I don't feel like reading. So far I am finding it very interesting, and Monk is a good writer. As a philosophy professor, he is also in a good position to evaluate Russell's ideas. The biographies I read of Rousseau and Darwin were sometimes lacking in this respect, because the authors weren't as ideas-oriented as Monk seems to be.

Bertrand Russell came from an aristocratic, wealthy family. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, he distributed the lands among the aristocracy, and Bertrand's ancestors were major beneficiaries. Bertrand's grandfather was John Russell, 1st Earl Russell, and served as Prime Minister. Earlier in his career he had met Napoleon. Like Charles Darwin's family, the Russells were Whigs, roughly the equivalent of current liberals. Bertrand was a son of Lord Russell's eldest son, John Russell, Viscount Amberley. He had an older brother, Frank, who was born in 1865, and a sister, Rachel, who was born in 1868. Bertrand was born on May 18, 1872. The children were initially raised at their family's house, Ravenscroft, in Monmouthshire, Wales. However, in 1874, when Bertrand was only two, both his mother and Rachel died from diphtheria. Viscount Amberley, who was said to be introverted, depressive and epileptic, himself died from bronchitis on January 9, 1876. This left Frank and Bertrand orphans, and they soon came under the care of their paternal grandmother and moved to Pembroke Lodge in Richmond Park, now part of London. Their grandfather, Lord Russell, was still alive then, but died in 1878.

There was a notable difference between the atmospheres at Ravenscroft and Pembroke Lodge. Ravenscroft was extremely liberal, and Viscount Amberley allowed his wife's lover to live with them in the house. They were not religious, and John Stuart Mill became Bertrand's godfather. Lady Russell at Pembroke Lodge was not especially conservative, but she was religious and insensitive to the needs of Frank and Bertrand. Bertrand managed to fit in, because he was introverted and non-confrontational, but Frank was extremely rebellious. As a consequence, Frank was eventually sent away to Winchester College, while Bertrand was educated at home by tutors. Frank considered Bertrand a prig, and they don't seem to have been on friendly terms. The house was also occupied by their uncle Rollo, whom both Frank and Bertrand disliked. Rollo is described as being both introverted and ineffectual.

One of the developing themes that interests me is the variety of mental illnesses within the family. Besides Rollo, Viscount Amberley had another brother, William, who was diagnosed as schizophrenic early in his life and lived most of it in an institution. As noted, Amberley was disposed toward depression. Bertrand felt detached from people and had difficulty relating to his environment. Frank was highly temperamental and often got into conflicts. After Winchester, he enrolled at Balliol College, Oxford. However, he became embroiled in a mysterious scandal when a friend from Winchester visited him, and there were rumors of homosexuality. Because Frank remained vitriolic, he was expelled from Balliol, an unusual measure at the time, and never returned. These kinds of things have interested me for many years, because there has always been what I think of as a unique English oddness that is never quite defined, but which probably exists as a result of an unusual collective psychiatric state that has a genetic basis.

It sounds as if Russell was very stiff and uncomfortable growing up, and the lack of exposure to a variety of people probably hampered his social development. In his teens he studied mathematics at a school in London and found the other students very crude. He was interested in girls and sex, but was extremely awkward in establishing relationships. Similarly, he enthusiastically sought friendship with another boy whom he thought was just like him, but that proved to be a mistake. He developed a rich private life in which he came to appreciate the poetry of Shelley. However, his real talent was in mathematics, and, like many mathematicians, he was attracted to the field because it conveyed greater certainty than other fields.

As far as I've read, Russell has been tutored for the Trinity College, Cambridge entrance exam and passes it. Arriving in Cambridge in 1890, he immediately makes friends and is greatly excited to be able to engage in conversations with intelligent people. He gets off to a very good start, because Alfred North Whitehead, a fellow at Trinity, immediately recognizes his talent and recommends him to others. Of course, his aristocratic credentials are also highly beneficial for him, though it seems that he still would have done well without them.

Saturday, September 5, 2020


I had been reading a book on AI that seemed promising at first, but the further I got into it the methodology seemed inappropriate. The author teaches law, and, with a perspective that emphasizes legal theory and analytic philosophy, he constructs arguments about what counts as good. The beginning of the book argues that work isn't good by examining several propositions and includes some empirical research, and later in the book he apparently writes about how the absence of work could enable a utopia. However, I got tired of his reasoning process and gave up before the halfway point. My default method for thinking about these kinds of things rests on knowledge of human behavior, particularly behavior that is encoded in our genes, and a book about humans that relies primarily on abstract propositions and logical arguments from those propositions reminds me of a bad philosophy class. It is possible that I would have appreciated the author's ideas more if he had presented them differently, but I found it difficult to take his arguments seriously. His manner of presentation rendered his ideas unconvincing. This author was on a podcast with Sean Carroll, which I didn't listen to. It is surprising to me that people such as Sean Carroll, who otherwise seem exceptionally intelligent, are unable to see the limitations of contemporary philosophy. I have yet to find a truly compelling book on AI, but the popularity of the subject is increasing, and there will probably be a better one sooner or later. It is such an important field that people from various academic disciplines are attempting to colonize it and take over. I'm rooting for the zoologists, not the physicists or the philosophers.

As things stand, I will be reading a long two-volume biography of Bertrand Russell. Russell is interesting to me because he had a life that spanned many periods. He was alive in 1872, when Charles Darwin, George Eliot and G.H. Lewes attended the séance that I mentioned, and he was still alive in 1970, when I was an undergraduate in college. Although he is considered one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century, his significant work in the philosophy of mathematics was completed when he was quite young, and no one pays much attention to it now. When I was in college it wasn't covered at all. His purely philosophical work is probably part of mathematics, and Russell wouldn't have been famous if it hadn't been for his popular writings and political activism. I am confident that I will enjoy this particular biography, because it is written by Ray Monk, who wrote a good biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein, which I read about thirty years ago. I am a little hesitant to read about analytic philosophers, but I now feel that I have a strong enough understanding of the strange context in which they wrote that I can properly assess their work.

Finally the heatwave has ended, and we are getting a satisfying preview of fall. There are too many tomatoes at the moment, and we will probably have to give some away. The variety of Brandywine tomatoes that I grew this year is quite good, and I plan to grow them again next year. I have grown tomatoes intermittently for about twenty-six years and am always looking for ones which both taste good and fit the environment in which I live. I have more or less finished my outdoor chores for the season and am awaiting leaves and snow. All of the firewood from the property has been cut, split and stacked, and there will also be kiln-dried firewood coming from Pittsfield in October and November. We will have more than enough for even the coldest winter.

Over time, weird things happen on this blog. For unknown reasons, there is a web crawler that shows up as being from Hong Kong that has been visiting this site constantly for over three weeks, with 3600 hits. Also, all of a sudden, I got several hits from Facebook on my Meliorism post. There may not be any meaning to any of this, but it still captures my attention.

Because the number of COVID-19 cases here remains low, we have been socializing a little more. We recently invited an elderly friend over for dinner, and we were invited to dinner with friends in town. We also picked apples at the property of some other friends in Cornwall who have eight acres of apples which currently have no commercial market. The college has opened for the fall, and so far they have only two cases of COVID-19. There is a chance that the pandemic will intensify after Labor Day – we'll have to wait and see. Life is easier when you don't spend all day every day with the same person.

Monday, August 24, 2020


In some respects, this summer feels like winter. The coronavirus restricts social activity, and the high temperatures keep us indoors in a manner similar to low temperatures. But there is still quite a bit of outdoor activity. The electric company decided to finish off the Enos Severance apple tree, because they thought that the rest of it could fall over and knock down wires. They left large logs for me to deal with, and I have been cutting and splitting them gradually. Between this and the maple that blew down during the winter, there are about two cords of firewood, but I haven't finished splitting the apple tree yet – the work is physically demanding without a log splitter. I was a little irritated that they cut down the apple tree, because it was still alive. Fortunately, there are new shoots growing out of the stump, and it will probably regrow.

I've also been touching up the paint on the house, as I do most summers, and found some rotten wood that required someone with greater carpentry skills than I possess. It is hard to find carpenters here for small jobs, because they don't think they're worth their time. Even if you know them and they've done work for you before, they don't even bother to call you back, and you have to search for someone new. I find this a little ironic, since most of the ones we've had are not all that proficient: they're usually a little sloppy. This time I found a man who, though he didn't reveal himself fully, was probably desperate for work. We never discussed it, but I looked him up, and he was in the newspaper last year for voyeurism. He normally works as a massage therapist, and he was found guilty when female customers noticed that he had installed a camera in his room, which, it turned out, he used to record them in various stages of undress. I think that he was efficient and skilled as a carpenter – he did a good job.

The high temperatures, along with heavy watering, have been good for the tomatoes. This is another high-yield year. Each year the insect pests and fungal attacks vary. This year there have been fewer hornworms, but there have been some stinkbugs, and there is an average amount of fungal damage. The hornworms get very large if you don't remove them in time. If left alone, they can do serious damage to plants. They eventually metamorphose into hawk moths, which are so large that they resemble hummingbirds. The stinkbugs damage individual tomatoes by making them inedible. They haven't been a serious problem this year. It is interesting to note the changes in insect populations from one year to the next, because you can get some sense of a highly complex ecosystem. For example, the hornworms have gradually increased in number over the last few years, but, starting last year, the numbers have declined, probably because they are being attacked by parasitic wasps which lay eggs inside them; the wasp larvae eat the hornworms and form small white cocoons on their exteriors. Those wasps first appeared last summer. The stinkbug population varies for unknown reasons and usually doesn't present much of a problem. It may be that they prefer hot, dry weather.

I am also observing what I hope will be the denouement of the Trump administration. As each week passes, it becomes increasingly apparent how appallingly bad a president he has been. This is turning out to be an excellent example of the corrosive effects of capitalism on human well-being. I think the main picture that is emerging is that Trump has no qualifications for the job, but that he was identified and developed as an asset for Fox News and other right-wing media purely for their profit. Peripherally, it could be argued, the entire news media have been complicit in the ascent of Donald Trump. Time has shown that Trump has none of the skills necessary for the job, and that there was ample evidence of this four years ago. The primary attribute of Trump is that he became a cash cow for the news industry, and, with the profit motive driving news coverage, there were no news outlets with an incentive to encourage or accelerate his removal. However, the case is now incontrovertible that Trump, as president, is a menace to society and the world. Trump is like a defective consumer product that should have been taken off the market long ago. Because he is ideologically incoherent, it seems that his wealthy backers are primarily interested in money, and that their so-called conservative principles are a sham.

I have a suitable nonfiction book lined up to read and will be starting it shortly.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Bouvard and Pécuchet III

I finally got around to finishing the book. After philosophy, Bouvard and Pécuchet become interested in religion. Bouvard, who is more or less an agnostic, doesn't exhibit much enthusiasm for the topic, but Pécuchet becomes a complete fanatic, and Bouvard observes him flagellating himself in private. Pécuchet begins to harass the local priest with theological arguments, but, as in every other episode, his enthusiasm soon dies out. Next, they both become involved with the adoption of two children, Victor and Victorine, whose mother is dead and whose father is a jailed convict. To no avail, they attempt to instruct them, exposing them to many of the works that they have found important, and they employ various educational concepts from sources such as Émile, by Rousseau. Although at first the children seem to respond somewhat positively, Victor becomes violent, as he had been previously, and boils a cat that they give him as a pet, killing it. Victorine is less problematic initially but she soon becomes pregnant by one of the locals. Because of the pregnancy they are later forced to give up the children, whom they hadn't formally adopted. Bouvard eventually agrees to assume financial responsibility for Victorine.

In the meantime, Bouvard and Pécuchet decide that the layout of Chavignolles is improper, and they take it upon themselves to survey the town with the goal of remodeling it, in much the same way that Haussmann redesigned Paris. This would involve tearing down much of the center of town. They engage more in village life, and Bouvard becomes a highlight of the local café, where he debates whomever he meets. Both of them take on a pedagogic role in Chavignolles, and they hold public lectures for its benefit. This precipitates their downfall, unleashing all the grievances that have been building up among the townsfolk. By this point, Flaubert himself had died, and the remainder of the novel is his summary of what he intended to write. Pécuchet's lecture is pedantic and criticizes the local government and administration. Bouvard's lecture is more conventional but also meets with disapproval.

The next day, Bouvard and Pécuchet discuss the lectures at home. Pécuchet takes a gloomy position on the future of mankind: "America will conquer the earth....Widespread boorishness. Everywhere you look will be carousing laborers." Bouvard, on the contrary, believes in progress and thinks that the cultures of Europe and China will converge. He thinks that "philosophy will be religion," with "communion of all people." While they are still talking, the police enter the house and serve them with a warrant for "desecrating religion, disturbing the peace, seditious rhetoric, etc."

After this, Bouvard and Pécuchet give up their studies and revert to their earlier habits. They begin copying documents together at the close of the book. The edition I have includes the Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, written much earlier, and the unfinished Catalogue of Fashionable Ideas. I don't think these add much to the text and may not have been planned to appear with it, though the choice of including them does give the impression that the novel was intended to be facetious.

As a reader, I have mixed feelings about the book. Understandably, the villagers found that Bouvard and Pécuchet were pedantic and dismissive of local practices. What is striking to me is how insensitive the two were to how people reacted to them and how unprepared they were to anticipate ideas that didn't match theirs. There is no evidence that either of them engaged in self-criticism, and that includes their obliviousness to the fact that sometimes the subject under study remained beyond their comprehension. Flaubert seems to be making Bouvard and Pécuchet look like fools, but I did not see signs of a wider, more inclusive view of reality, and this makes it unclear to me what his point was. In the case of Madame Bovary, the novel seems realistic, while highlighting the tragic follies of the protagonist. Sentimental Education is also realistic, but has an autobiographical tone that seems straightforward, without exaggerated characters. Therefore, since Bouvard and Pécuchet seem like aberrations, and the realism is less palpable, I am less confident in assessing Flaubert's objectives. All I can say is that Flaubert may have thought that conscientious study can be a naïve pastime, perhaps because the answers aren't really there. It is possible that Flaubert was making a case for human limitations, even in an era of progress. In this instance, book learning comes across as ineffective. The assessment is further complicated by the fact that the context for the events that occur in the book is well in the past, and this potentially renders some of the satirical intentions that Flaubert seems to have had less clear than they would have been at the time – 140 years ago. Certainly, he establishes that Bouvard and Pécuchet are eccentrics, but, since they themselves never seem to find a path to more intelligible behavior and nowhere does the narrative offer much guidance, the overall effect for the modern reader is somewhat ambiguous. For this reason, I was less impressed with this novel than I was by the other two mentioned and found the going a little tedious at times. On the whole, I think it is best suited to French literary specialists, especially those who have an affinity for Flaubert.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Bouvard and Pécuchet II

I'm not finding this novel exceptionally exciting, though, to some extent, it is satisfying at least in the sense that French culture, in many respects, is vastly superior, despite some weaknesses, to American culture. In comparison, life in the U.S. sometimes seems like a low-budget Western. After geology, Bouvard and Pécuchet take up archaeology and start a museum in the house. Archaeology gradually evolves into history and historical novels, and before long they are trying to write novels. Gradually they become familiar with the citizens of Chavignolles, the town in which they live, and socialize with them. In 1848, their usual lives are disrupted for a period by the overthrow of King Louis Philippe and the beginning of the Second Republic. After this, they lose their zeal for learning and become depressed temporarily. Bouvard begins to court Mme. Bordin, a widow, and Pécuchet, who had been a virgin, has a brief affair with one of the servants and contracts a venereal disease from her. Nothing comes of this, they decide to give up on women, and before long they embark on a new hobby, gymnastics. That doesn't last for long, since Bouvard is fat and, at their age, neither of them is cut out for a lot of exercise. Following this, they take an interest in séances and the occult, and then they move on to philosophy and read Spinoza, Locke and other philosophers. Their relationship with the townspeople is somewhat unclear. One would guess that they are considered eccentric and amateurish, though they are generally accepted. It is probably evident to the locals that Bouvard and Pécuchet are more than a little dilettantish and are putting on airs, though the townspeople themselves are not particularly sophisticated. As far as I've read, there are signs that Bouvard has been imprudent with his money and may face financial difficulties in the future. He has acted a bit like an ordinary, uneducated person who has won the lottery and is spending injudiciously in order to achieve sophistication and worldliness, with the corresponding social status, all of which he is unlikely to attain. However, Bouvard and Pécuchet are not complete fools and seem to absorb much of the material that they study, though their lack of focus makes them seem frivolous. Their main flaw seems to be a lack of awareness of their limitations. Of the two, Bouvard seems more extroverted and worldly, while Pécuchet seems more introverted and inexperienced. They do not fit well into a modern context, because it is now generally accepted that one cannot successfully study as many fields as they do and gain sufficient mastery of each. They are repeating this mistake countless times without changing their behavior. This situation may have been more common in Europe in the late nineteenth century, when social status could be reached with general learning, as part of the process of moving from a lower class to a higher class. However, Flaubert does not accentuate class consciousness. Of course, this all contrasts wildly with current life in most of the world, where it is now possible to be completely crass and ignorant and still attain high social rank simply by being conspicuously wealthy. I will try to finish up the book on my next post. This is sort of a diversion for me, and I generally prefer more serious books. Although I like Flaubert and think that he does a good job portraying his environment realistically, I still don't find fiction to be a particularly effective vehicle for understanding the world. Still, I like this period in this part of the world, and, despite many drawbacks which I probably would have felt if I had lived there, in some respects the quality of life would have been better than what we have now. In particular, we seem to be living in an age of crass materialism while, as Tony Judt argued, we are collectively demonstrating a puzzling incapacity to secure favorable future living conditions for ourselves and our descendants, even when such a process lies well within our reach.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Bouvard and Pécuchet I

I'm in my usual summer lull, in which I don't read much, and have chosen this novel by Gustave Flaubert because, for literature, it is fairly light reading. On the surface, it is simple, about the lives of two middle-aged French copy-clerks who take up various hobbies and, after failing at one, simply move on to another. The tone is that of a farce or comedy, but I am hoping that something more substantial will emerge – it may not. So far, in some respects, it isn't entirely different from Madame Bovary, in the sense that a person's obsessions can be a sign of poor judgment, and, if never examined, can lead to tragedy. I was never sure how sympathetic Flaubert felt toward Emma Bovary as she pursued a life of folly until it did her in. Something of the same mood exists in this book, but, since Flaubert never finished it, dying at the age of fifty-eight, there may be no clear answer. It is possible that, like me, Flaubert noticed the role of stupidity in people's lives, and that he wanted to sum up his thoughts on the topic in a literary fashion. Now as much as at any time in the past, it is easy to identify the blunders that people make and the sometimes-disastrous consequences. However, I'm not counting on that from Flaubert and am just taking the book as I read it. Flaubert did an enormous amount of research for this book, because he wanted to familiarize himself with the subjects that Bouvard and Pécuchet pursued. It is a bit of a challenge to contextualize much of the action, given that most of the books available to someone at that time would have been riddled with inaccuracies. But it is still relatively simple to identify the conspicuous blunders made by the protagonists. 

Bouvard is a widowed bachelor who runs into Pécuchet, a never-married bachelor, one day on the streets of Paris. They discover that they both have a passion for exploring new fields, and when Bouvard inherits a large sum from his deceased father, he and Pécuchet retire in order to pursue their ideal lives. Bouvard buys a manor house and farm in Normandy, near Caen, and farming and gardening become their first hobbies, though they had some experience with gardening in Paris. They rush headlong into the latest techniques that they've read about, and one plan after another backfires. Though they do consult local farmers, their farming experience culminates in a huge fire, apparently caused by spontaneous combustion, which destroys their haystacks. After this, they turn over the farming to a tenant and become interested in medicine. That leads them to try out cures on the locals and eventually brings them into conflict with the town doctor, who threatens to have them arrested for practicing medicine without a license. Their next hobbies become geology and natural history, which result in their causing a landslide while digging for fossils on a coastal bluff. Since Flaubert was a contemporary of Darwin, it is interesting to me that he knew something about evolution and modern geology – yet Bouvard and Pécuchet are unable to persuade a priest that the biblical flood doesn't explain some geological formations. After hearing the priest's arguments, they give up on geology.

I still have seven chapters left and will comment as I go. It occurs to me that Flaubert lived at a time when the phenomenon of the amateur hobbyist was at a peak. As Thomas Piketty has noted, during the late nineteenth century in France and England there was excessive wealth. Hobbyists in England were churning out inventions and scientific ideas at a phenomenal rate, and I assume that the same occurred in France. I am reminded not only of people like Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, but of literary people such as G.H. Lewes. After working as a failed dramatist and novelist, although he lacked the resources to become a full-time hobbyist, Lewes undertook private research in marine biology. It seems likely that Flaubert was acquainted with many such hobbyists, and perhaps, in combination with a personal skepticism regarding scientific progress, he found them to be a good topic for satire. Some reviewers think that Bouvard and Pécuchet represents the first postmodern novel, but I think it is more likely that it is a satirical skewering of some of Flaubert's contemporaries. Even so, Flaubert usually portrays his characters sympathetically.

In any case, Flaubert writes with such precision that he's always a pleasure to read – even in translation. Describing Bouvard and Pécuchet during their brief infatuation with chemistry, he writes:

What a marvel it was to find that human beings were composed of the same substances as minerals. Still, they felt a kind of humiliation at the thought that their persons contained phosphorus like matches, albumen like egg whites, and hydrogen gas like street lamps. 

Monday, July 20, 2020


I finished reading Mary Trump's book and didn't find it enlightening at all. From reading it, you would never know that she is a Ph.D. psychologist, and the book was obviously rushed to press: it contains typos. I think that her level of analysis is crude, and too much of the book is devoted to salvaging the reputation of her father, Fred Trump, Jr., and blaming Fred Trump, Sr. From the information provided, I think that Fred Trump, Sr. was a fairly typical entrepreneur, not a sociopath, as she describes him. Successful entrepreneurs tend to be miserly, scheming and slightly dishonest, and that more or less sums him up. The fact that he had a cold, Germanic personality, I think, is incidental. Though his wife was Scottish, everyone in the family, including Mary, seems cold and tone-deaf. At times she also tries to portray Donald as a victim of abusive parenting, offering the standard theory used in developmental psychology. I think that the primary cause of coldness is in the family's genes.

The actual story of interest, which Mary doesn't describe accurately, is simply one of management succession in a family business, and in this respect the Trumps were hardly unique. The only one who knew the business – or cared about it – was Fred, Sr. The eldest son, as is usually the case, was the designated successor, and, as is quite common, he took no interest in it. Fred, Jr. grew up wealthy and liked rich-kid hobbies such as flying and boating, which his father considered frivolous. Fred, Jr. also seems to have been psychologically weak: he married badly, became an alcoholic, and died at the age of forty-two. Although Donald was not by disposition suited to running a real estate company, his father propped him up and allowed him to be the front man for the company, which was about all that Donald was good for.

Mary doesn't mention another obviously problematic real estate company succession example: the Durst family. The Dursts were far more prominent in New York City real estate than the Trumps and had done well in Manhattan, where Fred, Sr. hadn't. As a family, if anything, the Dursts were more dysfunctional than the Trumps. The successor to Seymour Durst was expected to be his eldest son, Robert. However, Robert didn't like the work and dropped out of management there. The current head of the Durst Organization is Robert's younger brother, Douglas. Rather than dying young from alcoholism, Robert went on to become a probable serial killer and is currently on trial, at the age of seventy-seven, for the murder of his friend, Susan Berman. Although the Dursts have their share of problems, on the whole they seem more sophisticated than the Trumps.

Mary Trump's book does include some new information, such as the fact that Donald hired someone to take the SAT for him, which helped him gain admission to the University of Pennsylvania. She also discusses Donald's attempt to assume full control of the Trump Organization by adding a codicil to Fred, Sr.'s will – which failed. There is also some discussion of probable tax evasion by Fred, Sr. and his children, which came to light earlier in the New York Times. Where Mary is accurate, I think, is in her depiction of Donald as a narcissistic person who eschews details and is used to getting his way by bullying. She makes clear that Donald was never a success in business and was propped up financially by Fred, Sr. for years. As soon as he started his own initiatives, such as his casinos in Atlantic City, they began to fail. His depiction of himself as self-made is a lie. The more that you look into Donald's background, the more obvious it becomes that he could never be anything other than a completely incompetent president.

In other news, I've been doing a little more stargazing and looked at the comet NEOWISE. It was larger than expected, and you can see it with the naked eye, but it shows more detail in binoculars. This comet was only discovered in March and won't be back for 6766 years. If you look north after sunset, it sits below the Big Dipper. It can be seen whenever it's dark, but will soon be moving out of view. Since it's far to the north, it may not be visible from the southern hemisphere.

I also came across these photos, which I think are very good. Most were taken locally in Addison County.