Friday, February 5, 2021

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

I've reached the point at which Russell's credibility as a thinker and a decent person becomes trying, to put it mildly. In 1929, Russell went on another fund-raising lecture tour of the U.S. Since the Beacon Hill School wasn't sufficiently profitable, Russell's income from the U.S. had become crucial for his financial survival. He continued to churn out popular writing of increasingly lower quality and even became a syndicated columnist in the U.S. This was the easiest possible work for him, because he could churn it out with little or no effort. By 1929, Russell detested his American lectures and on his tours had begun to have one-night stands with enthusiastic women from the audiences. He dutifully reported them to Dora, and she took them lightly. However, while he was away she became pregnant by Griffin Barry, and that was the beginning of the end of her marriage to Russell. There were other complications associated with Barry. Apparently he was bisexual, and he had had a relationship with an Englishman named Paul Gillard, who was homosexual. Gillard's background is largely unknown, but he apparently had connections with communists, and he lived under the pretense of having an adventurous secret life, though he probably didn't. Dora was extremely attracted to Gillard, whereas Russell, when he met him, couldn't stand him. Dora's baby, Harriet, was born in July, 1930, and this began to put a strain on her relationship with Russell.

Dora hired Patricia Spence, who went by the name "Peter," as a governess for John and Kate. Peter was twenty years old and an Oxford undergraduate, and soon Russell, who turned fifty-eight in 1930, began an affair with her. In 1931, Peter became pregnant, presumably by Russell, and either had an abortion or a miscarriage in July. She dropped out of Oxford and did not complete her degree. Dora became pregnant again by Barry at the same time as Peter, and their second child, Roderick, was born in 1932. During this period, the Russells usually spent their summers at their house in Cornwall and the rest of the year at the Beacon Hill School. At various times, Dora, Russell, Peter, Barry and Gillard could be found at the school, along with Dora's four children. However, Barry eventually left for the U.S. looking for literary work.

As of 1932, Dora and Russell's marriage started to collapse. Russell had lost interest in Dora several years earlier but had played along with her to humor her, and she hadn't noticed his insincerity. They had discussions about how to organize their lives, but Russell became extremely concerned about the potential passing of his aristocratic credentials to Barry's children. With Barry away, Dora imagined herself to be in love with Paul Gillard, but Gillard died under mysterious circumstances in 1933. By then, Russell was actively pursuing a divorce from Dora that would leave him with rights to see John and Kate in the aftermath. The divorce became extremely acrimonious, with Russell and his lawyer seeking dirt on Dora in case they needed it. That wasn't difficult, since there were disgruntled employees at the Beacon Hill School, and John and Kate were unhappy. Kate preferred Peter to Dora. Peter was quite beautiful and had a lively, playful personality. Because of protracted negotiations, the marriage was not dissolved until July, 1935, with John and Kate, then aged thirteen and eleven, becoming the wards of trustees, and neither Russell nor Dora had custody.

Ray Monk comments on the underlying psychology of Russell and Dora, but I don't think that he takes his analysis far enough. In the case of Dora, she comes across as an extremely naïve progressive who thought that she could have an open marriage, support communism and speak her mind without any negative repercussions. She must not have been very perceptive, or she would have noticed that Russell didn't particularly share her beliefs and was just leading her on in order to achieve his objectives. His primary goal in the relationship was to have children, and in fact Dora had not been his first choice for the mother. Ottoline Morrell didn't want more children and Colette O'Niel didn't want to interrupt her acting career for children. Dora was Russell's third choice, and several of his older friends disliked her. The way Monk describes her, Dora seems to have been unaware of the precariousness of her situation. By the time Dora had given birth to John and Kate, Russell was already becoming tired of her, and their sexual relationship ended. Dora reminds me of the American feminist progressives of the 1970's who felt empowered at the time but actually just alienated men and for the most part didn't even find good jobs or have happier lives than their mothers. Dora had an ideological frame of mind, but lacked the ability to modify her ideas on the basis of real-world experience.

Russell himself is far more annoying than Dora, because he was disingenuous and manipulative. He could talk up a storm convincing women to have sex with him, but he quickly lost interest in them and eventually displayed bald indifference toward them. Besides being a shameless sexist, he was also an unapologetic elitist. However, it seems to me that Russell's most significant failings were in his actual lack of intellectual achievement. His early works, which had provided the basis for his academic reputation, were, to my understanding, incorrect. For the rest of his life he churned out what can reasonably be described as journalism. His popular philosophical writing is generally considered unsuitable for academic use. I also find that his conception of psychology was primitive by today's standards. There were several occasions in which he instantly decided that someone he met was just like him, which later proved not to be the case. This may have occurred in his relationship with Joseph Conrad, but Conrad conveniently died in 1924, before Russell could be disabused. After his grandmother, Lady Russell, warned him in no uncertain terms that if he had children they would be mentally ill, rather than heed her words, which were firmly based on her experience of raising mentally-ill children, he seemed to delude himself by thinking that he was fine but had simply been raised badly. I think that part of his motivation to have children was to prove that if they were raised properly they would turn out to be well-adjusted adults and disprove Lady Russell's argument. He dabbled superficially in behaviorism and Freudian theory and pretended to be involved with his children's upbringing, but they do not seem to have been close to him, and there is no evidence that they benefited from either his or Dora's parenting. By 1935, his theory was blowing up in his face, with both John and Kate exhibiting psychiatric disorders which may actually have been exacerbated by their parents.

On these fronts, conditions in Russell's personal life only continue to deteriorate. In the next chapter, he commences his third bad marriage, with Peter, and I'm already depressed thinking about it.

1 comment:

  1. I would add that his one insight into Category theory is not what it's cracked up to be. It's an interesting paradox. A footnote. Nothing more.


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