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.

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