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.

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