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.

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