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.

No comments:

Post a Comment