Previous issues
Contact Us

Winter 2001 cover

National Observer Home > No. 49 - Winter 2001 > Book Review

Bertrand Russell, 1921-1970: The Ghost of Madness

by Ray Monk

New York, Free Press, 2001, pages 680 and index.

In 1961, the eighty-nine-year-old Bertrand Russell assured humanity that J.F.K., Khrushchev and Harold Macmillan had become, through their respective nations' nuclear arsenals, "the wickedest people in the history of man". Readers of Ray Monk's new volume, the second panel in his biographical diptych (1996's "The Spirit of Solitude" is the first), might well find themselves allotting a similarly depraved status to Russell himself. They will also sympathise with Dr. Monk, who spent no less than a decade on the scholarly labour needed for his task, and whose earlier publications (including the definitive biography of Russell's friend-turned-foe Wittgenstein) surely accustomed him to a scholastic rigour in his subjects that nothing in Russell's later career displayed.

Russell's sheer survival power he attained the age of ninety-eight implies a sense of cerebral progression which he never actually experienced.

His tragedy (if so humdrum an event can be dignified by so sonorous a word) lay in the fact that by 1921, the year "The Ghost of Madness" begins, Russell the philosopher was completely dead. Everything he could achieve in the philosophical sphere, he had achieved long since. Aesthetically illiterate and for all his intellectual distinction astonishingly uninformed outside his own discipline, Russell had few inner resources to fall back on. He knew this, and his last half-century is the chronicle of a profoundly bored man who, unlike his fellow tedium-connoisseur George Sanders, retained just enough spurious vitality to avoid suicide. "A fallen angel with Mephistophelian wit" was how Russell struck Beatrice Webb, who before her appointment in Stalin's Samarra had some claims to acute discernment.

To almost every consolation by which homo sapiens has distinguished himself from the apes whether it be religion, or music, or painting, or astronomy, or simple caritas rather than pubescent rut Russell remained immune. One might call his condition pitiable, had he not brought anguish and sometimes death to all who cared for him. These included his schizophrenic son John; his devoted,intermittently psychotic daughter-in-law Susan (with whom the evidence is ambiguous he may or may not have repeatedly slept); and his profoundly depressed grand-daughter Lucy. The culminating familial horror came when Lucy, to whose hero-worship he responded with patrician scorn, poured paraffin over herself, struck a match, and died just after hospitalisation. A friend who implored Russell for news of Lucy's health was informed: "Ah yes, Lord Russell asked me to tell you that, compared with the Vietnam War, Lucy is a very small problem."

With four wives, three major extramarital affairs, numerous one-night stands and still more numerous attempts at seduction (one female poetically described his geriatric gropings as resembling "dead leaves rustling up your thighs"), Russell's qualifications for peddling marital content were about on a par with Henry VIII's. Following the best traditions of the sex-criminal who assures police that "she was begging for it", Russell repeatedly blamed his priapism on its victims:

"Poor things, they [American women] get no male companionship, and they want it . . . So they try to rape the mind of every lecturer who comes along."

Like most debauchees, he cultivated an impressively strong line in "little boy lost" pathos, which led the aforementioned daughter-in-law to view his cognition with a reverence that a blend of Aristotle, Leonardo and Newton could scarcely have justified. Admittedly several ex-students still attest to Russell's persuasive powers, though why these powers should be considered more meritorious in an intellectual (let alone an intellectual on record as praising "immunity to eloquence") than in a used-car salesman or a Ted Bundy remains unclear to this reviewer.

Along with most self-proclaimed twentieth-century iconoclasts (H. G. Wells is a spectacular example), Russell was surprisingly deficient in fundamental forensic skills. Seeking the true nature of what he loathed before loathing it would have been, for Russell, a waste of time. Thus he committed the most elementary errors in argument, where with a modicum of diligent research he might at least have given the impression of competence. Such Russellian diatribes as "Why I Am Not A Christian" could with perfect accuracy have been renamed "Why I Am Too Bone-Idle to Find Out What Christianity Is Before I Attack It". Sub-editing by the average ten-year-old catechumen could have saved Russell from the worst of his howlers.

Russell inspires, along with many other examples of tea-and-scones atheism, the ability to prompt persistent nostalgia for old-style Latinate anticlerical thugs. At least a Spanish cadre in 1936, when pouring petrol over nuns, truly understood what he hated. It is curious, though scarcely surprising, that Russell's spoken voice on sound-recordings retains a decidedly sermonical character, suggesting the aggrieved pomposity of a monsignore facing morals charges.

Now and then an opponent well and truly exposed Russell's nescience. In an exceptionally crass 1924 feuilleton, Russell alleged that "when one views the nineteenth century in perspective it is clear that science is its only claim to distinction." Not, be it noted, "main", "greatest" or "most obvious" claim to distinction, but its "only" claim. Having thereby dismissed such nineteenth-century no-hopers as Goethe, Nietz- sche, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Tennyson, Macaulay, Thackeray, Dickens, Goya, Corot, Manet, Turner, Beethoven, Schumann, Verdi, Wagner and Brahms, Russell incurred to his stupefaction a dignified rebuke from T. S. Eliot, whose unflawed courtesy could not hope to conceal a thinker's freezing contempt for a rabble-rouser. "One is immediately struck", Eliot wrote,

"by the arrogance of the scientist. No literary man would pretend to sweep aside the whole of science in any century with the magnificence with which Mr. Russell dismisses the nineteenth century literature and art . . . One draws furthermore from Mr. Russell's paragraph an edifying commentary on the ability of the scientist to think clearly outside of his own sphere."

Almost as offensive to Eliot as Russell's cheery ineptitude was Russell's possession in youth of educational, financial and social advantages beyond the timid Missouri-born expatriate's most lurid dreams. Instead of benefiting from such advantages, Russell had donned a carapace of cocksure know-nothingism that soon turned from a raiment into a second skin. Virginia Woolf experienced his notions of politesse in extreme form: "He is brilliant of course", she noted, "perfectly outspoken . . . talks of his bowels."

And how painfully démodé Russell's strenuous attempts to be shocking in print now are! These days we can discover several dozen more flagitious sexual experiments recommended on any page of "Cleo". Hazlitt is no more time-bound by his Bonapartist stupidities than was Jane Austen by her Regency hats. Chesterton's defiantly anachronistic outlook remains at least as fresh today as it has ever been. Macaulay's polemic virtuosity still deserves homage even from those who have grown out of his Whiggism. By contrast, Russell's frantic attempts at causing scandal now inspire the same frisson of embarrassment as a pornographic Edwardian postcard, or a what-the-butler-saw machine on Brighton Pier. The man who has no understanding of evil can never inspire genuine outrage, however hard he tries; and Russell's whole career can be interpreted as a furious attempt to avoid such understanding. That agonised, neo-Pascalian perception which inspired the allegedly frivolous Clive James to write of Satan "the Beast drives a car and knows what time our daughter leaves school" was, to Russell, as foreign as Swahili.

In 1940, our moaning and snarling hero who appears to have viewed Hitler's military plans as no more than individual spite against Bertrand Russell found himself washed up, in more ways than one, on Californian soil. His benefactors there included an egregious zany of vague pedagogic intent named Albert Barnes, whose bizarre notions of educational discipline transcended even Russell's. Barnes explained his failure to answer correspondence on the unforgettable grounds that letter-writing would interrupt his own attempts to break the world's record for goldfish-swallowing. Naturally Barnes, eager for the reflected splendour of Russell on his institution's payroll, offered him $8,000 per annum for a "work" schedule so undemanding that it would not have inconvenienced the most narcoleptic Australian stevedore. Equally naturally, Russell mocked Barnes' mispronunciations of philosophers' names, while gobbling up Barnes' money anyhow.

He needed such support, having fallen out with his quondam friend John Dewey, who strangely took offence at Russell lumping him with progenitors of Hitlerism. (In the same category Russell bracketed Henri Bergson, although his equation of a French Jew with German Nazis suggests both amateurishness and a dire need for remedial geography lessons.) Not only was American philosophical dialectic tougher than anything Russell had ever known Sidney Hook once dangled Dewey from a window to reinforce a particular epistemological point but America's church pressure-groups eschewed British timidity. Residence in a land where religion mattered so disoriented Russell that his mad-professor persona, brilliantly successful in England, now profited him nothing. A Jesuit magazine called him, accurately, a "divorced and decadent advocate of sexual promiscuity"; New York's Episcopalian Bishop had earlier used similar language about him. Russell's notion of answering his challengers' arguments consisted of ad hominem abuse when his case came to trial he publicly derided the judge's Irish Catholic birth and the prediction that "within a few years, all the intellect of America will be in concentration camps". (He acquired an awesome track record in moronic prophecies: assuring a Michigan newspaper in 1938 that Munich would probably ensure Hitler's downfall; announcing during Britain's 1955 general election that if all governments ceded their rights to the United Nations, "the beauty of the world would take possession"; and contending in 1959 that moratoria on existing nuclear weapons would stop other countries joining the nuclear club.)

Soon after World War II Russell's shrill protestations of anti-Communism took the form of demanding a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Moscow. Subsequently, having concluded that the Soviet slave state had its pluses, he took to denying persistently that any such demand had ever passed his lips. Those who ask "How could Russell, a self-declared anti-Communist, have grovelled to Communist régimes?" have the question exactly the wrong way around. They should ask, rather: "What serious objection could the conscienceless materialist Russell have had to the conscienceless materialism of Communist life?" The answers then become obvious. Communist societies never countenanced Russell's blend of erotomania and physical cowardice (the latter condition dignified by him as "pacifism"). Only in the 1960s, when to quote Kenneth Tynan's memorable words the puritan scowl was wiped off socialism's face, could Russell and the hard Left kiss and make up. When they did, it was a love-in of exceptional lubricity.

Should Hollywood crave a scenario for its eventual remake of "Dumb and Dumber", it need look no further afield than Russell's dotage. Russell avoided the miseries of second childhood by the simple expedient of never leaving his first. Whenever he seemed to have plumbed the abyss of folly, he found another abyss, deeper yet. One blot alone mars Russell's otherwise perfect record of unresisting 1960s imbecility: his visage's puzzling, still unexplained failure to grace the "Sergeant Pepper" album's cover art.

He attributed the Cuban missile crisis' end to his own antic campaign of strafe-bombing world leaders with telegrams and pamphlets. (Good Soldier Schweik discerned a similar causal relationship between his own geo-strategic activities and the Habsburg empire's collapse; but then he, unlike Russell, was a deliberate joke.) Later he eulogised those great humanitarians Fidel Castro, Patrice Lumumba and Che Guevara, while invariably maintaining his genius for what Orwell called "always being somewhere else when the trigger is pulled". At least Che, however sinister his dogma, showed enough courage to die for it. Che's comrade Regis Debray paid for his own Marxist doctrine with bestial captivity in a Bolivian cage. Russell, per contra, derived his own notions of bold military leadership from the Duke of Plaza-Toro's well-known approach to enemy action. In 1967 he set up a Stockholm "trial" of America's government for Vietnam war crimes: a move that, far from saving a single Vietnamese life, merely aroused Washington's amusement. Death alone, surely, prevented still grander exercises by Russell in counter-cultural performance art. Who can seriously dispute the eagerness with which a centenarian Russell would have advised Gough Whitlam's Cabinet, or appeared in court as a character witness for that much-maligned logical positivist Charles Manson?

Alas, it was not to be; and we must comfort ourselves, not with the Russellian legacy that we would wish, but with the Russellian legacy that we actually have. Thanks to Dr. Monk's energies, we can now do so with an ease hitherto impossible. The result is not flawless. Dr. Monk's bibliography, while omitting Alistair Cooke's renowned and penetrating 1977 essay on Russell, includes diatribes of little if any discernible merit (example: Tariq Ali's meretricious memoir "Street Fighting Years"). Of the ghost-writing dishonesty which foisted on Russell a whole book bearing his name a book that he not only did not write but seems never even to have read Dr. Monk says nothing, though two Australian philosophers separately identified the ghost-writer in print as long ago as 1960. Yet at least Dr. Monk refutes the (still widespread) delusion that Russell's 1968 autobiography was the great man's unaided work; we now know it to have been largely stitched together by his widow, a fact that explains Russell's otherwise weird show of nonagenarian feminism. And Dr. Monk's narrative, always vividly worded, flows with such disconcerting swiftness that at almost 700 pages it seems too short.

Where can we find Russell's truest epitaph? Perhaps it occurs, not anywhere in his own prose outpourings, but in the incisive verdict (originally from another context) by R. P. Oliver, who for decades held the Classics Professorship at the University of Illinois. In the year of Russell's death, Oliver summarised with one devastating sentence his fellow-atheist's mindset:

"The ultimate dishonesty . . . [is] lying by persons who have been trained as scholars and who use their expert knowledge not only to swindle the uneducated but to destroy the very civilisation that made scholarship possible".

R. J. Stove



National Observer No. 49 - Winter 2001