Thursday, February 25, 2021

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

According to Monk, there is no record of what Russell spoke about or how people reacted to the 1940 William James Lectures. John and Kate remained in California until 1941 and grew to enjoy their independence. When they moved to Pennsylvania to live with Russell, Peter and Conrad, they became despondent. Then, probably with help from Russell in John's case, John and Kate transferred to Harvard and Radcliffe, respectively, in the fall. Russell's job at the Barnes Foundation initially went well, and he continued to take other jobs on the side. However, Peter became increasingly restless and troublesome. In 1941 she was thirty-one years old to Russell's sixty-nine years, and, compared to Russell's earlier wives, she was more emotionally demanding. Russell merely attempted to humor her, but that didn't work. It was a rather ironic situation for Russell to be working at the Barnes Foundation, because the purpose of the Foundation was to enrich the lives of underprivileged people by exposing them to the arts. Barnes had acquired one of the best collections of Impressionist paintings in the world (which I would like to see at some point). In contrast, Russell was a closet elitist who usually hid his disdain for ordinary people. Perhaps intentionally to stir up trouble, Peter attended events at the Foundation and routinely offended the staff by being snobby and disruptive. This became so significant that Barnes fired Russell in 1942. However, the situation worked out well for Russell, because he successfully sued for breach of contract and was awarded $20,000, which covered his expenses for some time.

Russell remained in the U.S. until 1944, when he was offered a position at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1943, before he got the position and sailed back, he spent time in Princeton, New Jersey, where he met Albert Einstein, Kurt Gödel and Wolfgang Pauli. It does not appear that Russell enjoyed their company. Knowing Russell well by now, I think that he was probably hobnobbing with people at the Institute for Advanced Study in order to obtain a position there. The main complaint I have about Ray Monk's narration is that he doesn't sufficiently emphasize the importance of Gödel's work in relation to Russell's work. This may be in part because, by 1943, Russell's interest in mathematical logic had evaporated, but the fact remains that Gödel's incompleteness theorem of 1931conclusively refuted the central argument of Principia Mathematica by proving that it is impossible to use the axiomatic method to construct a mathematical theory that entails all of the truths in any particular branch of mathematics. Gödel was one of the preeminent mathematicians of the twentieth century and the final word on mathematical logic, but both Monk and Russell act almost as if he were just some guy who worked at the Institute for Advanced Study. It is conceivable that Russell never read any of Gödel's work – indicating to me that Russell's intellectual curiosity was rather limited, and that he was primarily motivated by the desire for fame. In major thinkers such as Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein – or Kurt Gödel – there is a doggedness that one does not see in Russell, and Russell's drift from serious academic work to popular writing and lecturing probably reveals his intellectual limitations. The most productive thinkers often dwell on the same questions for many years, a process which probably leads to greater insights than those produced by more superficial thinkers.

Because of the war situation, John chose an accelerated graduation program at Harvard and finished in 1943. He returned to England, joined the Royal Navy and trained in Japanese language translation in London before being sent to Washington, D.C. While living in Washington, he ran into Griffin Barry, the father of his half-siblings by Dora, and they occupied the same apartment for a time. This probably facilitated John's reckoning with his homosexuality, because he apparently confided in Barry, who was bisexual. John had taken an interest in Barry's children, Harriet and Roddy, while living in London. In 1945, John led a futile letter campaign to resolve family issues so that Harriet and Roddy wouldn't have to live through discordant childhoods similar to those that he and Kate had experienced.

Russell had been working on A History of Western Philosophy with help from Peter while still living in the U.S., and it was published in 1945 in the U.S. and 1946 in the U.K. The book was popular and increased his renown. He also became a BBC broadcaster. Nevertheless, at Trinity College, his estrangement from academic philosophers continued. He attempted to write essays which would appeal to both the public and academics, but the academics generally had lukewarm or negative responses. Wittgenstein was then at Trinity College and had many followers in ordinary language philosophy, a subject in which Russell took no interest. I think that philosophy had become a faddish academic subject by then, and it was hard to take seriously, even for Russell. To this day, philosophers often cannibalize other subjects without saying anything memorable to people other than academic philosophers.

In 1946, Peter made a serious suicide attempt, for which her stomach had to be pumped, and Russell subsequently shipped her off to live in a house in North Wales while he remained in Cambridge. Though their relationship hadn't completely collapsed yet, Russell took the opportunity to meet Colette O'Niel, his old girlfriend, whom he hadn't seen in years. There is a good example of Russell's dishonesty to be found here: at the time, he wrote to Colette, "Every moment of my visit to you was a joy," yet, in about 1949, he wrote to Peter saying, according to Monk, "that Colette was by this time middle-aged, very fat, nearly stone deaf and without any traces of her former beauty." Russell also made overtures to the wife of a Cambridge academic and unsuccessfully tried once again to interest Gamel Brenan, the writer. The unraveling of his marriage to Peter is ongoing.

I am slowly creeping toward the end of the book, but probably won't finish for another month.

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