Nightmares of an Eminent Person…

Ray Monk’s biography of Bertrand Russell’s later life, The Ghosts of Madness, is among the most depressing books that I have ever read. For readers who think of Russell as the twinkly grandfather of liberal humanism it will come as a special shock, but even Catholic moralists should end it more sad than smug. This is, after all, a book that ends with the self-immolation of his granddaughter – the horrible climax to a study of a rationalist that is also an exploration of some of the most frightening forms of unreason.

The first book in Monk’s two-part biography, The Spirit of Solitude, ended with Russell sitting atop the ranks of academic philosophers. Principles of Mathematics and Principia Mathematica had won him acclaim as a logician, but he had also been stung by the criticisms of his erstwhile protégé Ludwig Wittgenstein. Insecure, and in need of a higher income than scholarship could provide, he began to devote himself to the more popular work that would dominate his life.

Russell’s books should be bound in two colours,” Wittgenstein once said, “Those dealing with mathematical logic in red – and all students of philosophy should read them; those dealing with ethics and politics in blue – and no one should be allowed to read them.” Monk shares this view of Russell’s popular work and is dismissive to an extent that I think is unfair. For all of the defects of A History of Western Philosophy, for example, it deserved more than a few paragraphs (one of which, ironically, reflects on its omissions). Russell’s periodic virtues of style, curiosity and clear-sightedness could align to good effect.

Nonetheless, Wittgenstein had a point. Russell’s political ideas were incoherent when they were not platitudinous. One year he advocated surrender to Nazi Germany, yet within months he was throwing himself behind the war effort. One year he was calling on the US to use the threat of its nukes to seize world supremacy, yet soon he was railing against its imperialism. There is no inherent shame in altering one’s views, of course, but Monk claims that Russell often avoided saying that he had done so. He made noble and sagacious stands – including forthright opposition to the Soviets, well ahead of most of his peers – and one must applaud the courage that forced him into jail cells up to the age of 90, but with more passion than understanding, and few doubts to restrain him, he lurched between convictions with only his self-assurance to provide consistency.

I do not think Russell was simply arrogant. There were times in his life when he sank into despair and self-hatred. What he did not have, though – and what hardly anyone does – was a consistent scepticism towards his ideas and impulses. He was dismissive of traditional ethics and attitudes, and assumed that he was able to replace them. His moral philosophy fetishised rationalism as a means of self-improvement – which is not to say that he was so reductionist as to believe that reason is all that humans need to satisfy themselves but that he felt that most people are prevented from being cheerful, loving individuals by irrational ideas that can be dispelled with proper thought.

This is often right. Who of us has not sweated with a fear or stewed with a resentment that could not have been eliminated with reflection? Yet our problems often lie too deep for reasoning, and our pleasures can arational. (Reason, indeed, can inspire misery depending on the conclusions it leads to. Faced with what he saw to be the simultaneous suffering and insignificance of human life, Russell endured more than a little “Byronic unhappiness” himself.) Inherited wisdom is by no means a faultless guide but Russell trusted his intellect and intuitions too much and ran aground on the shores of his life.

The Spirit of Solitude displayed Russell mistreating his various wives and girlfriends (and the friends whose wives and girlfriends he consorted with). In The Ghosts of Madness he is generally more sinned against than sinning when it comes to women: putting up with the fantasies of his second wife, Dora, and then bearing the fierceness of his third, Patricia. His children, though, are treated poorly.

Reviewers have suggested that Russell is portrayed as a monster. This is untrue. While Monk clearly disapproves of the man he is not like Paul Johnson in Intellectuals: stalking his subject with fire in his eyes and an axe in his hands. For much of this book Russell is shown as having good intentions. He loved his children, John and Kate, and endured his second marriage so as to avoid damaging them.

That one is well-meaning, though, need not mean that one does well. Russell was afflicted with a common combination of intellectual naivete and assurance, and the latter vice was worsened by his disdain for convention. Thus, he became enthused by intellectual fads and applied them to his thoughts and life with little caution. John and Kate endured his passing attachment to the behaviorism of the charlatan John B. Watson, who maintained that human traits are the result of environmental conditions. He believed, then, for example, that it was a simple matter to educate his children out of their phobias: dunking poor John in water to cure his fear of the sea.

Dora Russell was a radical progressive who refused to send her children to a school where they might be assimilated into the mainstream. With her husband, she established Beacon Hill School both to teach their children and to teach the world of their ideas. Later, in his Autobiography, Russell reflected that “young children in a group cannot be happy without a certain amount of order and routine”, and “left to amuse themselves, they are bored and turn to bullying or destruction”. John, according to Monk, endured a lot of this bullying.

Dora, like Russell, applied her progressive ideals to her romantic life. Monogamy was a stale convention of religious moralists, and once old chains of guilt and jealousy had been unloosed people would be able to love all kinds of partners in and beyond their beds. As a noted philanderer, Russell agreed. As his wife formed an increasing number of attachments, though, and even bore children to another man, he found that jealousy was not easy to shed. After years of enduring their different dalliances, their marriage collapsed into a heap of grievances that were untangled in a long and frustrating legal process. Their children were caught in the middle.

Among the sad subplots in the book is John’s descent into madness. He stumbles through his life, pursuing different ambitions and inclinations that come to nothing, before his mental legs give way beneath him. Monk does not accuse Russell directly of provoking the disorder but one can infer that his should could carry the blame. It is not unfair to say that if environmental factors were significant it would be no surprise given his upbringing. Both parents were attached to their untried moral and psychological theories with an assurance that was totally unjustified, as well as being involved in their romantic pursuits to an extent that was irresponsible. Nonetheless, mental illness can strike the best of homes. Schizophrenia was ingrained in the genes of the Russell family, and may have been an inevitable feature of John’s life.

Russell’s mother had died young and his father had been depressed. He grew up fearing mental illness – states in which it becomes hardest to be rational. Tragically, it not only scarred his life and those of his loved ones but was opening new wounds up to and after his death. John married another victim of schizophrenia, and she bore two children. After their marriage collapsed, Russell and his fourth wife adopted them. It would not surprise Monk if their chaotic home contributed to their downfall. Perhaps. But perhaps they had always been doomed to suffering.

Sarah was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and spent much of her life in hospitals, but Lucy endured an even more hideous fate. A youth marked by self-destructive behaviour culminated in her self-destruction, as she poured fuel over herself in a graveyard and set herself alight. Dora is alleged to have claimed that this was a protest against the bombing of Cambodia but Monk concludes that if it was a protest against anything it was her own existence.

The two most haunting images in this book are of John as a plump, cheerful infant and Lucy as a thoughtful young girl – both of them enjoying the strangeness of the world without awareness of its threats. Kate, who had grown up frustrated with her inability to overcome the “irrational” impulses that her parents had claimed should be surmounted on the road to happiness, went on to embrace Christianity, attracted to a doctrine of Original Sin that informed her that human weakness was inevitable. (Russell, in a display of essential good-naturedness, accepted this with tolerance.) I am not going to end on a theological note but there is wisdom in the acceptance of our propensities towards unreason and despair, of which mental illness is an exceptionally virulent example. Their effects can be ameliorated by thought, love and wisdom but they cannot be eliminated. We should remember this as we attempt to maintain our minds and hearts.

This entry was posted in Behaviour, Belief, Family, From the Archives, Rationalism, Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Nightmares of an Eminent Person…

  1. Pingback: Frankly, Rationalists Should Be Less Aspirational… | Wandering Near Sawtry

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s