In the prologue to his autobiography, Bertrand Russell proclaimed that the three great passions that dominated his life were "the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind." Ray Monk follows these three passions in a work whose aim is to "take into account the full force of the `great winds' that Russell describes.to understand the power of each.and the tension that existed between them."
Much of Monk's narrative is devoted to tracking the first of these "great winds": the longing for love, which Russell sought to realize in his marriage to his first wife, Alys, and in his affairs with the flamboyant (and married) aristocrat Lady Ottoline Morrell, the (also married) actress Constance Malleson, and Dora Black (who became his second wife). Monk finds that this first wind was prone to turn into a hurricane, blowing Russell onto rocky coasts and menacing shoals of jealousy and despair.
The second great wind, the search for knowledge, took him through dark caverns where he was sometimes becalmed, punting his way through philosophical puzzles. Even when light broke through, he was assailed by doubts implanted mainly by the criticisms of Wittgenstein.
The third great wind, his pity for the sufferings of mankind, became a storm in 1914, and carried him into a protracted struggle of resistance against the Great War. In this period Russell the pacifist crusader was born.
Ray Monk has been an industrious explorer in the enormous Archive of Bertrand Russell at McMaster University. In this first volume of a projected two-volume biography, he has shown again-as in his life of Wittgenstein, that is-that he can bind the life of a philosopher to his thought, to make one continuous and compelling story. This volume takes us to 1921, covering the tragic death of Russell's parents while he was an infant, his education in the monastic surroundings of his grandparents' estate, his Sisyphean struggle to complete his masterpiece-Principia Mathematica-during his tormented first marriage, and above all a string of other tormented personal relationships, including early love affairs and tense dialogical friendships with Wittgenstein and D. H. Lawrence.
Of his three great passions, the first two (for knowledge and love), take centre-stage in Monk's account. The account of the third (Russell's compassion for mankind), while illuminating and often stirring, does not overshadow his philosophical and personal struggles, as it has in some other biographies. The dramatic centre of Monk's work is the tension between Russell the pioneer of a new age of reason and Russell the lover, whose passions, illusions, and frenzies often made his life so chaotic.
In his acclaimed biography of Wittgenstein, Monk demonstrated his capacity to weave different genres of writing-philosophical, literary, and personal, public and private-into one narrative. In this volume, his lucid accounts of the successive discoveries in the foundations of logic, which in his hands unfold as compelling adventures of the mind, are matched by the care that he devotes to informal material such as Russell's love letters. He analyses these as carefully as a foreign ministry might scrutinize notes from hostile powers. Monk does not offer psychoanalytic theories, but reproduces so much from Russell's diaries and correspondence that his narrative reads like a journey through the interior of Russell's psyche. He finds that Russell, the champion of reason and the most public of public figures, was tyrannized by a fear of madness that compelled him to seek love and something akin to mystical union with the universe.
Monk's portrait of Russell the philosopher emphasizes discipline and, above all, austerity. His portrait of Russell the lover, on the other hand, emphasizes delirium of expectation, invention, and manipulation. The philosopher's education began in childhood under the tutelage of his grandmother, who imposed a regime so severe that his brother Frank ran away. Bertie, however, became secretive, recording his ideas in a notebook written in Greek letters, but in the end received the benefits of a superb education. As described by Monk, Russell's regime in writing Principia Mathematica-he sat at his desk for nine hours a day, year in and year out, doggedly working through puzzles in logic-could hardly have been matched by the most demanding of monastic orders. Russell's later essay "In Praise of Idleness" seems, in retrospect, rather disingenuous. Monk takes us through the phases of Russell's evolution as a philosopher, from Hegelianism and Platonism to logical atomism and analytic philosophy. Contrary to the objections of Wittgenstein and many others now admired by postmodernists, he strove as an analytic philosopher to establish the view "that logic is the study of the most general features, not of language, but of the world." Russell's approach to philosophy is informed by a sort of piety that holds that truth is discovered, not made, and forces us to acknowledge a universe that is impervious to human wishes and hopes.
Russell the lover is in a different world altogether.
He was fond of quoting Shakespeare on the madness of the "the lunatic, the lover, and the poet." Russell was not a poet (except for occasional limericks), was sometimes a lunatic (as when he tried to strangle a friend, Edward Fitzgerald), and in this volume was most of the time a lover. Monk's account of Russell's pursuit of love is very complex, but one of the themes that he stresses is Russell's tendency towards self-deception. He sought sexual bliss with his first wife, who thought that sexuality was disgusting, and with Lady Ottoline, who continually told her diary (to be read by her husband) that she found Russell physically unattractive. He pressed Constance Malleson to have children with him while she was married to another man and about to launch a career as an actress. One scene that Monk describes between Russell and Ottoline, when they compare their philosophies of mystical union, belongs either in one of Shakespeare's comedies or in a film by Woody Allen. Russell does not notice that the two accounts are incompatible. It is as though they were singing a duet, Ottoline's part having been composed by Oscar Hammerstein and Russell's by Wagner. But Monk emphasizes again and again the depth of passion that impelled Russell to love. He was closer to Tristan than to Don Juan.
What in the account is left of Russell's enduring reputation as the champion of reason in our time? He had and has a great following as the man who stood for the rationality of the Enlightenment in a world that became hospitable to malignant ideologies and superstitions. But others, the great economist J. M. Keynes, for example, satirized him as one who believed that "human affairs were carried on after a most irrational fashion, but the remedy was quite simple and easy, since all we had to do was to carry them out rationally." He went on to imply that Russell could not understand that "values can rise out of spontaneous, volcanic, and even wicked impulses." Monk does not subscribe to either of these descriptions, though he obviously admires the public, political Russell. But as against Keynes, Monk shows that Russell was often on the verge of being engulfed by "spontaneous, volcanic, and wicked impulses." Though he is quick to reveal Russell's shortcomings and pettiness, the drama of reason versus passion, logic versus mysticism, remains unresolved.
In one moving sequence, Monk gives an account of one of Russell's early appearances before the public as a defender of reason, against Henri Bergson, who was then a very popular philosopher. Russell, speaking against intuitionism, calls for a defence of intellect, "for between the two it is war to the knife." A few pages later, he is taking a walking tour to cure himself of a mood near to insanity, as he had come to believe that Ottoline had rejected him. The man who had so recently stood in the defence of reason was now possessed of the howling furies of jealousy, mystical longing, and madness, in a scene that has glimmerings of Lear in the tempest. It is a fitting image of Monk's Russell and perhaps even a metaphor for the fate of reason in the twentieth century.
Louis Greenspan is a professor of religious studies at McMaster University and director of the Bertrand Russell Editorial Project. Among his books is The Incompatible Prophecies: An Essay on Science & Liberty in the Political Writings of Bertrand Russell (Mosaic). He is co-editor of Fackenheim: German Philosophy & Jewish Thought (University of Toronto Press).