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.