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.