Saturday, January 30, 2021

Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness, 1921-1970 II

There is so much day-to-day information on Russell's life in this book that I can only take it in small doses. It doesn't help that Russell was already well past his intellectual peak by 1924, and his personal life is beginning to look like a fiasco. Dora came into her own as a political activist and an advocate of birth control and wrote books that became popular. At times she and Russell agreed in these matters, but, when it came to politics, he was hardly a man of the people. As a Victorian aristocrat, during his life he had previously had little contact with ordinary workers. Though he admired the Chinese, he disliked the Russians and the African-Americans whom he met, and he had no affinity for the working class. Dora was extremely progressive and liked to think that she was helping the human cause. Russell, on the other hand, vacillated, and whenever he became engaged as a political activist he was soon repulsed by the people. He continued to write books when he had enough time and branched out into science journalism. Since he was familiar with mathematics, he described special and general relativity for lay readers and became popular in that genre.

Because both Russell and Dora were interested in childhood education, they founded the Beacon Hill School in 1927. It was located at Telegraph House, in Sussex, and they rented the property from his brother, Frank. They wanted to give their children, John and Kate, good educations that would infuse them with progressive ideas in the hope that they would become well-adjusted adults. Although the school seems to have had some success, there was not enough money in it to support the family, and it interfered with Russell's writing and lecturing. Dora also had a public career, which caused her to be away lecturing at times. Conspicuously, the living arrangement, with all the teachers and students living on the property, seems chaotic. Russell was having an affair with Alice Stücki, a Swiss governess who had originally been hired to teach John French. Dora was having an affair with a man named Roy Randall, who also became part of the staff. During this period, Russell was impotent in his relationship with Dora, probably for psychological reasons.

As far as I've read, the school isn't working well for John and Kate. They were treated the same as the other students and often felt ignored by their parents. Moreover, many of the other students had behavioral problems and were intentionally sent there by their parents for that reason. The environment seems to have been unfavorable for John, who was often bullied by the other boys. This arrangement seems especially bizarre when you consider that Russell supposedly had a deep love for John and wanted to raise him as well as possible. Monk says that Russell was trying to prevent the psychological strains that he had experienced as a result of the early deaths of his parents. So far, John isn't doing very well, even though he is favored over Kate, who seems to be more intellectually talented and more psychologically stable.

In Monk's telling, Dora is beginning to look rather insensitive and self-indulgent. Specifically, he thinks that Russell was emotionally weak and required a lot of female support, though he himself was egocentric. It sounds as if Dora had a rather naïve progressive ideology in which people loved whomever they wanted to love, and everything fell into place. My take is that she was a highly extroverted person who was incapable of maintaining relationships of any depth. Although Russell himself was rather cold, Dora's insensitivity was difficult for him to bear. On a speaking tour of the U.S., Dora began another affair with another man, Griffin Barry, a left-wing journalist who also admired the Soviet Union and had befriended the American radical, John Reed. As you might expect, this free-love scenario is teetering toward disaster, but it's unravelling at a snail's pace in the book. From my point of view, this is an example of how people who live in the world of ideas can become completely detached from reality and, in the process, lose sight of the fact that they are biological entities who have countless genetic constraints, many of which lie beyond their conception. While Russell didn't have a perfect grasp of the situation, in hindsight he certainly seems to have had a better insight than Dora into the weaknesses of the Soviet Union, which subsequently evolved into one of the most corrupt dictatorships in the world.

In general, I am still sympathetic with Russell, because he recognized that the way forward for humanity was to follow science. However, it appears that he himself did not have much of a scientific mind, and he often seems to have jumped to erroneous conclusions because he didn't consider matters carefully over long periods. This is why more plodding thinkers, such as Charles Darwin, are able to produce more significant results than quick-thinking, intellectually adept thinkers such as Russell.

I had hoped to move faster through the book, but I'm afraid it's going to take a long time.

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