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.

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