Wednesday, March 31, 2021


 We had a fairly normal winter compared to last winter, with snow on the ground until recently and typical cold temperatures. There is also snow in the forecast for tonight. The only unusual thing was a tornado near our house on March 26. It was the first tornado to strike Vermont in March in sixty-five years. As tornados go, it was weak: only about seventy-five yards wide, traveling a mile and lasting five minutes. However, it did injure two people and damage some houses, as shown in the video. It occurred on Painter Rd., about two miles from here. 

The pandemic persists, and Vermont hasn't been doing as well lately. Its overall record has slipped behind that of Hawaii, to put it in second place among the states. Addison County is doing better than most of the counties, and Middlebury College has done exceptionally well. I'll be getting my second Moderna vaccine tomorrow, which will be a relief, though it seems that the coronavirus will be around for quite some time. At least the atmosphere in the country seems to be improving with Trump gone and Biden, so far, seeming to be competent. I am once again finding the daily news too boring to pay much attention to.

My life continues to be unexciting. Other than reading a little, going on walks and preparing for spring, there hasn't been much to do. I am getting ready to plant seeds indoors for transplanting outdoors in late May. There have been a few clear nights, and I set up my refractor telescope and have done a little stargazing. You can still see the Orion Nebula, and I always like looking at the Trapezium Cluster in it, which consists of newly-formed stars in a region with visible gas. However, the moon has been up, making most deep-sky viewing difficult. You can always look at the moon, but that doesn't excite me much. I am still spending time on investing, though the large stock market rally slowed down in February. But, if the coronavirus subsides, the rally will probably resume, because of the massive stimulus provided by the government. I have enjoyed outperforming hedge fund managers and getting rich. The last year has been one of those rare periods in which it has been possible to pick stocks and produce a higher return than the overall market. It is a satisfying feeling to become wealthier after fourteen years of retirement. I am looking forward to a little inflation, which has been almost nonexistent since 2009. 

William has been appreciating the warmer weather and spends more time outdoors when there is no snow on the ground. This means that he is starting to bring prey into the basement again. So far there has only been one vole and one mouse. Before the heavy snows, he caught a northern flying squirrel that escaped in the basement. It came upstairs and ran past me while I was sitting by the wood stove, and then it ran back down into the basement. I let it out by opening the basement door to the outside. I had never seen one before and it was rather cute, with large eyes, since they are nocturnal.

Although I found the Bertrand Russell biography rewarding, it was also a little tedious. It was one of the most thorough biographies I've read, but if you look that closely at anyone there will be things that you don't like. Russell was, in some ways, very creepy, and he never had to account for himself or the wreckage that he caused in the lives of some people. He claimed to have a normal moral sense, yet, time after time, he abruptly broke off relationships with friends, wives, children and grandchildren without offering any explanation or apology. Even his lawyer was shocked. I think that his daughter, Lady Katharine Tait, is still alive, at the age of ninety-seven, living in the same house in Cornwall, near Penzance, that her parents bought in 1922. 

I'm beginning to worry that I may be running out of good biographies to read, meaning ones that I would consider worthwhile. Good writing is hard to come across if you are at all selective. After having spent many years doing close readings of high-quality books, it is easy for me to become impatient with conventional books. I have started a new nonfiction book – short for a change – and will report on it in my next post. 

Thursday, March 25, 2021

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

 As the 1960's progressed, Russell became increasingly dependent on Ralph Schoenman. He founded the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, which, among other things, sought to draw attention to war crimes. Schoenman managed most of the day-to-day operations and traveled frequently while Russell remained at home. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, the focus shifted to the Vietnam War. Although Russell remained relatively lucid up to the time of his death in 1970, his ideas during this period were often inconsistent and interspersed with Schoenman's ideas. While Russell's rhetoric was sometimes over-the-top, equating Lyndon Johnson with Hitler, Schoenman's rhetoric became explicitly Guevarist, which directly contradicted Russell's focus on peace. For a time, Schoenman seemed to emulate Ché Guevara, hopping around countries and inciting violent revolutions. Eventually, Russell was forced to disassociate himself completely from Schoenman.

Russell's family life remained problematic right up to the end. He did finally see his son, Conrad, who grew up to become a successful historian. He remained estranged from his son, John, who continued living with Dora after Harriet and Roddy had grown up and moved out, and he tried unsuccessfully to block John from seeing his children, Anne, Sarah and Lucy. Though Lucy had been a promising student in her early teens, she became a poor student and was sexually promiscuous later on. She was unable to gain admission to Oxford or Cambridge, and for a period had a Moroccan boyfriend who was subsequently deported. She traveled to Kathmandu and studied Buddhism. Both Lucy and Sarah were diagnosed with schizophrenia. The final tragedy occurred after Russell's death, when, in 1975, Lucy, at the age of twenty-six, poured kerosene on herself in a cemetery in Cornwall, ignited it and burned to death.  

My primary reaction to this biography is that I find it extremely depressing. However, there is a lot to think about, and the main categories that interest me concern what intellectual contributions Russell made, the nature of his relationships with other people, and the extent to which schizophrenia influenced his life. These three categories seem intertwined, and I find it difficult to unravel them. Ray Monk has provided a lot of information, but he wisely leaves the ultimate assessment to the reader.

Though I am not an expert on mathematical logic, my sense is that Russell was a failure as a thinker in that realm. Generally, he wanted to prove that mathematics could be derived from formal logic. My understanding is that this idea was disproven conclusively by Kurt Gödel, and, despite Monk being fuzzy on this point, I think that Russell realized that his main mathematical ideas were incorrect. I think that Russell intentionally moved from mathematics and philosophy to popular writing because he lacked the skills to be a major thinker. In my opinion, that was a good idea, because he was completely outclassed by Gödel and others. My sense is that, although Russell had a high IQ and was verbally fluent in an impressive manner, he was not really an original thinker. He reminds me of a book by Robert Sternberg that I read long ago, called The Triarchic Mind. That book isn't completely supported by research, but I think that it contains an important insight into what it means to be a good student. Sternberg discusses how students with high IQ's often sail through their undergraduate years with excellent academic records but, when they arrive in graduate school, they sometimes struggle, because there is a shift in emphasis from analytical skills to creative skills. The impression I have of Russell is that, after obtaining his degree at Cambridge, he found it difficult to work autonomously and came to rely heavily on Whitehead and, later, Wittgenstein for new ideas. He drifted into popular writing and public causes because they didn't require much creativity.

This lack of creativity also affected his personal relationships. I found it bizarre that Russell paid attention to Wittgenstein under the circumstances that they met, because Wittgenstein perfectly fit the description of a crank. Most academics would have ignored someone like that – Gottlob Frege did – but Russell must have been desperate for help. Eventually, the relationship broke down when Wittgenstein began to criticize Russell. Looking at this psychologically, Wittgenstein was seeking an intellectual niche in which he might excel, and Russell encouraged him, though, in my opinion, Wittgenstein ultimately contributed nothing of lasting value to philosophy. Russell completely cleared the way for him in academia by selling him as a genius, when, all things considered, Wittgenstein might have done better in a different field.

Wittgenstein is a good window for looking into how Russell misunderstood people. As mentioned earlier, he showed the symptoms of autism, and, though that wasn't a known psychiatric condition at the time, many recognized his odd behavior. Russell tended to think that people thought the way he did even when they didn't, and there are examples throughout the biography: Wittgenstein, D.H. Lawrence, Ottoline Morrell (whom he tried to teach mathematical logic), Joseph Conrad and Ralph Schoenman. Something similar occurred with his wives, and what is odd is that he broke completely with them when the relationships ended. Though that may partly have had to do with his pride and ego, I suspect that even when he thought things were going well with the women there were schisms that he was unable to see. It is possible that his schizophrenic tendencies caused him to react sharply once the bubble burst on what had been an artificial construct in his mind. Why did he consistently refuse to interact with his ex-wives? In every case, there is no evidence that the wives were in breach of any understanding that they had with him. Russell's extreme reaction must indicate some sort of psychological self-protection.

One example in which Russell seemed to misunderstand human nature, with hints of schizophrenia, occurred in his relationship with Dora after their divorce. When they were married, they were both completely idealistic about living without following oppressive social norms. Apparently neither of them had the common sense to recognize that if Dora had children with another man this could lead to dire consequences in their relationship. In fact, that is exactly what happened. Russell, as a nominal progressive, was initially happy to accept Griffin Barry's children as his own. Later, when he realized that they would be entitled to the aristocratic privileges associated with his name, he did a complete reversal and began to communicate with Dora only through his lawyer. The situation developed into absurdity when their son, John, proved to be seriously schizophrenic. Because John reflected badly on Russell, he completely abandoned him, along with Dora. Although this is a pretty murky area, I think that a case could be made that Russell experienced a significant cognitive dysfunction in his interpersonal relationships, and that schizophrenia was a likely culprit. Given Russell's behavior, one might simply conclude that he was selfish, but it seems probable that psychiatric conditions beyond his control affected him. Although he wrote an autobiography (which was partly intended to finance the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation), I don't think that it contains any explanation of why he treated some of his closest family members as badly as he did.

Regarding Russell's public life, I think that it is best described as trivial. As he grew older, he increasingly chose to emulate his grandfather, Lord John Russell, who was in fact one of the most significant British politicians of the nineteenth century. Russell never became a leader by any definition, and most of his political ideas were disorganized clichés – even his friend, Beatrice Webb, thought so. I found it embarrassing to read about his years with Ralph Schoenman. The main lasting influence from that period in his life, I think, is the enabling of other unproductive thinkers to follow his model as a public intellectual. The first example who comes to mind is Noam Chomsky. Like Russell, Chomsky appeals to younger generations, usually college students, who want to change the world for the better. But what you find in both Russell and Chomsky is a mishmash of uninformed and obsolete ideas that provide no outline for how a better society might be structured and what it might look like. This becomes obvious if you examine traditional Marxist rhetoric in terms of actual political conditions in recent years. According to the standard radical playbook, the proletariat must rise to overcome the bourgeoisie. However, if you look closely at what has happened lately, the populist groups in the U.S. and Europe, which may once have been labeled as the proletariat, seem mainly interested in becoming more bourgeois, i.e., although their economic situations aren't dire, they want higher incomes, larger houses, expensive cars, etc. It seems to me that neither Russell nor Chomsky had much of a sense of human nature. By painting various governments and people as evil, they achieve nothing more than arousing gullible youth.

On a more positive note – one less emphasized by Monk – Russell also advocated reason and science. This is a model that has been followed by Richard Dawkins and others in recent years. For most intelligent people, it is obvious that God, in the traditional Christian sense, does not exist. Thus, the non-existence of God is sort of a low-hanging fruit for people like Russell and Dawkins to expound upon. Perhaps Dawkins and Chomsky both follow Russell's model in the sense that they can use their writing skills to write popular books and receive a modicum of fame without actually producing any original or useful ideas.

I found it grueling to work though this very long biography, but in the end it was rewarding. Russell's mind was an unpleasant place to inhabit, though understanding it can produce insights. Whether all readers would benefit equally remains to be seen – I think not.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

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

In 1960, Russell met Ralph Schoenman, a young American activist who quickly ingratiated himself with Russell through flattery. Schoenman almost became part of Russell's family at their house in Wales, and he had a major influence on Russell for several of the remaining years in Russell's life. Russell became involved with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Committee of 100, and before long he was speaking at large rallies in London and participating in demonstrations, which authorities grew tired of. He was jailed briefly in 1961. By then he had become an international spokesperson against nuclear armament, though his positions varied over time. Usually he proposed unilateral disarmament, but on one occasion he seemed to support nuclear weapons as a deterrent. This activism was initially connected with the Labor Party, but soon took an independent turn. As previously, Russell had disagreements with others and proved once again to be poor at reconciling differences with real or perceived foes. I must confess that my eyes glaze over almost immediately when I read about politics, in which the underlying issues are almost never addressed and the discussion is endless.

Perhaps the pinnacle of Russell's fame occurred in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He sent telegrams to world leaders such as John F. Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev and U Thant, and though, in his mind, his actions contributed to a reconciliation, that seems unlikely according to knowledgeable sources. In 1963, he and Schoenman also became involved in a Sino-Indian border conflict, during which Schoenman made a fool of himself while visiting China on Russell's behalf. Schoenman was, as Monk describes him, a simplistic radical, and, with Russell, engaged in complex international conflicts which far exceeded their expertise. I think that Russell loved being the center of attention, but the truth was that all he was good for, particularly when he was in his nineties, was a few good slogans: war is bad; nuclear was is very bad; a world government could reduce conflicts; there are too many people.... One of Russell's weaknesses throughout his life was a tendency to make sweeping statements without understanding all the facts, and this condition only worsened in his old age. He liked playing the oracular philosopher for effect, but often had little to back it up. In this respect, he took advantage of the fact that most people didn't have the slightest idea that modern academic philosophy was merely an esoteric subject with no significant applications. His political views wavered over time. Initially he favored socialism, but when he saw what the U.S.S.R was like, he decided that, though he disliked capitalism, the U.S. was the best country to follow in the immediate future. Then, when nuclear weapons came into existence, he perceived the U.S. as a threat to mankind. It is notable, particularly during the Cuban Missile Crisis, that Russell did not have command of all the facts, and he misattributed the defusing of a potentially catastrophic nuclear confrontation to his shrewd negotiation techniques. In his house and in the village of Portmeirion, Wales he was treated as if he were the savior of mankind, but that sentiment didn't spread very far.

I should mention that at this point Russell's household was freefalling into chaos, just as his previous households had. His grandchildren, Anne, Sarah and Lucy (though Anne was not biologically related), disliked the family environment and felt ignored by both Russell and Edith. They spent most of their time away at school, but it is significant that they felt displaced by both Edith and Ralph Schoenman in Russell's attention. No one seemed to have cared about their emotional needs, and this is reminiscent of the experiences of John and Kate. I have peeked ahead, and there is yet another family disaster looming.

As you may be able to tell, the further I delve into this biography, the less impressed I become with Bertrand Russell. Fortunately for me – and you, if you're sick of reading about Bertrand Russell too – I have only a few pages left and will finish up on my next post. I have little criticism of Ray Monk, because, unlike many biographers, he has refrained from idealizing his subject and has dutifully reported his concerns about Russell's character. Our misery will be over soon. I am reserving my final conclusion for then.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

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

Up until mid-1955, John spent time in various psychiatric institutions with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Russell wanted nothing more to do with him and attempted to have him certified as insane and live in psychiatric hospitals for the rest of his life. However, authorities decided that John's mental state wasn't serious enough for that, and he ended up living with his mother, Dora, in London. Russell sold his house in Richmond and moved permanently to Wales with Edith and the three children. Although Russell hated all interaction with Dora, an agreement was reached in which he would pay her to take care of John. Her financial situation at the time was grim, and she had been living in London with Harriet and Roddy. 

While these problems with John were occurring, Russell returned to public life with radio broadcasts. He was concerned that a nuclear war could occur and worked to convince world leaders to take steps to avert that outcome. He organized an international panel of physicists with both capitalist and socialist orientations to discuss the risks and report to political leaders. He contacted Albert Einstein, who supported his efforts but died immediately after sending his letter in 1955. The Russell-Einstein Manifesto was published in 1955, and an international meeting called the Pugwash Conference occurred in 1957 and in successive years. Russell also wrote editorials encouraging Eisenhower and Khrushchev to meet. 

During this period, Russell attempted to engage the philosophy community in England. The center of gravity in the field had moved from Cambridge to Oxford, and Russell wrote essays attacking the views of prominent philosophers there, such as Gilbert Ryle and Peter Strawson. He also painted the Oxford philosophers as effete academics. One of the unfortunate characteristics of Russell was that, especially as he grew older, he tended to personalize his views in a manner that attempted to put him in a superior light. Thus, although he may have had a point, his efforts always came across as self-aggrandizement, and they fell flat. Increasingly, Russell saw himself as a towering intellectual icon, though only the general public saw him that way, and the professionals simply dismissed him. 

Russell's daughter, Kate, had stayed in the U.S. and dropped out of academia. She married a graduate student and had three children. In 1960, her family traveled to England and visited Russell and Dora separately. Besides completely losing interest in John, Russell had never been very engaged with Kate. Overall, she was much more stable than John, though she did suffer from depression, and academically she seems to have been considerably more talented. The enormous rift between Russell and Dora had had a significant effect on her childhood, and she had hoped to discuss it with him on this visit, but she never had the opportunity. Ironically, the solution that Kate had found for herself was Christianity, which seems, for her, to have filled the vacuum created by her father's callous intellectual approach to everything.

I will probably have more to say later about Russell's foibles, but I'll make a few comments now. When you look at his life, there is a fairly clear picture in which, when he was young, he concocted various theories completely in the abstract, and they usually turned out to be incorrect. The main example, insofar as his family is concerned, has to do with the idea that the puritanical environment created by his grandmother while he was growing up made him uncomfortable and guilty, stunting his development as a person. The theory was that if he had an open marriage and his children were raised without inhibitions, they would grow up to become psychologically robust adults. In the comments that Ray Monk has provided so far, there is no evidence that Russell ever conceded that his theory of child-rearing was merely a convenient position to hold, and that it failed miserably because, even if it had some basis in fact, his execution of it was a complete failure. In my view, Russell mainly wanted to have free access to as many sexual partners as possible, and he was not at all interested in making sure that his children were raised properly. In the end, the way that he handled family matters was quite similar to the way that his Victorian grandparents had: children have no rights, and the goal is to maintain the family's social standing at all costs. It has been noted that the attitudes of his last wife, Edith, did in fact resemble his grandmother's in some respects. Thus, he didn't really care what happened to Kate, because she was a female and not the male heir. He paid far more attention to John, but when John was unable to live up to his expectations, he simply dumped him. There is a pattern in Russell's behavior that indicates an unusual coldness towards others when he no longer finds any use for them and they represent a challenge to his self-image. Thus, when Wittgenstein, D.H. Lawrence, Dora and Peter criticized him, he demonized them and broke off the relationships with no discussion. As a reader, my sense is that Russell did have some schizophrenia-related cognitive misperceptions, which, though not debilitating, provide an explanation for his coldness, which I think was inborn and had nothing to do with his childhood. I think that many of his views reflect his particular personality and are not applicable to most others. One might argue that his grandmother was trying to do him a favor when she told him not to have children, but he was unable to recognize the soundness of her reasoning due to an inherent lack of understanding of other people.

Friday, March 5, 2021

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

Russell was so active over such a long period and so many details of his daily life survive that it is a strain to read this biography at times. He rose to great prominence in England after World War II, in part because he had supported the war, unlike World War I, during which he had been a pacifist. In 1948, while on a lecture tour, his plane crashed into the sea between Oslo and Trondheim, and only those in the smoking compartment, where Russell sat, survived. He was awarded the Order of Merit in 1949 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. He was dumbfounded by the latter, since he had never published any fiction or poetry, but it encouraged him to write short stories, which, according to Monk, weren't very good. He also came to represent the U.K. in semi-official international meetings. Throughout this period, Russell continued to lecture, and his main concerns at the time were the possibility of a nuclear war and the dangers of the Soviet Union under Stalin and his successors. His last lecture tour in the U.S. occurred in 1951. 

Russell's marriage to Peter did eventually collapse, and Peter left with Conrad, whom Russell didn't see again for nearly twenty years. Because his divorce from Dora had been extremely contentious, he did not engage in a legal battle with Peter. His relationship with Colette O'Niel never revived, and they broke up permanently. While Russell was in the process of separating from Peter and seeing Colette, he had another short affair with a woman named Nalle Kielland. After this, he took up a relationship with Edith Finch, who was a friend of a friend from Bryn Mawr whom he had met many years earlier. They were married in December, 1952, when Russell was eighty and she was fifty-two. Edith was different from his previous wives in that she liked order and had a more conservative personality, and they had a harmonious marriage. She seems to have been more supportive than Dora or Peter had been, thereby not triggering his animosity. It may also be relevant that Russell had prostate surgery shortly after the marriage and perhaps no longer had a roving eye.

The main event in the section I'm reading concerns the disastrous developments in the life of his son, John. In 1945, John traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts to attend a party given by Kate, who was just beginning graduate school. On that trip he met a college friend, Maurice Friedman, and Susan Lindsay, the daughter of the poet Vachel Lindsay, who was then nineteen. Susan had given birth to a baby from her previous boyfriend, and Friedman married her in December. However, the marriage collapsed after just two months, and John decided to marry Susan. This situation grew into a major family disaster. Susan's mental state can hardly be considered stable. Besides the indications of her promiscuity, her father had committed suicide by drinking lye. Moreover, although John was clearly homosexual, he held the mistaken idea that his homosexuality was caused by his mother and could be cured. To make matters worse, Griffin Barry, himself a failed writer, had convinced John to become a writer. I think that this was all an obvious disaster-in-progress, but perhaps because it was occurring on a different continent and Russell refused to communicate with Dora, no action was taken to remedy the situation until it was too late.

John and Susan married in the U.S. in 1946, and John adopted Susan's daughter, Anne. They had their own daughter, Sarah, in 1947 and moved to England that year. John had received an inheritance from his father and proceeded to run through it by living in luxury in London, hiring an expensive governess and seeing an expensive psychoanalyst. To complicate matters, John and Susan had another daughter, Lucy, in 1948. Neither John nor Susan were interested in taking care of their children, and their household became chaotic. Susan continued her affairs with other men. John could not hold down a job, and they began to run out of money. In early 1949, when John was twenty-eight, a plan was made for Russell to buy a large house and share it with John, Susan and the three children. Russell found a house in Richmond, near the house where he had grown up, and had major renovations made to accommodate the family. 

The chaos continued at the new house, though, for a time, Russell seems to have developed a close relationship with Susan. When Russell married Edith in 1952, she moved in and apparently put her foot down regarding household behavior. On the surface, the home seemed calm initially, but on Christmas, 1953, after dinner, John and Susan announced that they were "tired of children" and left the house forever, "taking the remainder of the food, but leaving the children." John and Susan moved to Wales, where their psychiatric conditions continued to deteriorate. Susan launched a new affair with a man named Wordsworth, and John proceeded to divorce her with the help of his father. By December, 1954, John had become psychologically unhinged, and he was taken to a psychiatic ward and began a long period of hospitalization. The children were temporarily left in Russell's custody.