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 Though they do not seem to have become particularly close, they spent time together, and Russell showed him his unpublished novel, which Conrad criticized tactfully but severely, causing Russell to set aside the idea of becoming a writer of fiction.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.

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