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.

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