Books: Even As We Speak — Bertrand Russell Struggles After Heaven |
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Bertrand Russell Struggles After Heaven

Two twentieth-century philosophers whose names are inseparable, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell, were such a great double act that there simply has to be a buddy movie sooner or later. At last, the material is all set to be licked into a script. Ray Monk has now matched his justly lauded biography of Wittgenstein with a fat and equally enthralling first volume wrapping up the earlier half of Bertrand Russell’s long life — Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude 1872-1921 (Free Press) — and is sitting on the hottest Hollywood prospect since Paul Newman and Robert Redford signed on for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Every A-list male star will want to play Wittgenstein — the philosopher who blew away all the other philosophers, including Russell — so, although Lyle Lovett looks the part and Arnie has the accent, Tom Cruise will probably get the job, armed with a Tatlin-tower lopsided bouffant coiffure personally teased out by the great José. (‘Mmm! You look like beeg theenker now!’) Nobody bankable — not even Steve Martin, a philosophy wonk who can actually explicate Principia Mathematica while wearing a plastic arrow through his head — will want to play the physically unappealing Russell, so the way should be clear for the perfect choice: Gene Wilder. Fluctuating uncontrollably between idealism and disillusion, forever persuaded that sexual fulfilment is at hand in the form of a luscious girl in a red dress, Wilder’s persona, like his appearance, exactly fits a part that should revive his career. The only strike against Wilder is that even he has a bit too much gravitas for the role. On the evidence of Monk’s book, Russell, for all his clipped speech and pipe-sucking air of cerebral precision, was a zany, a pantaloon, a fourth stooge. Monk does his best to lend Russell dignity and stature, but that’s the way it comes out, like a fanfare from a whoopee cushion.

It took Russell a long time to get here. While he was alive, he was a sage. Even in his last phase, when he recklessly allowed himself to be set up as the star turn in various World Peace tent shows that had little to do with any known world and nothing to do with peace, he was regarded as, at worst, a supermind whose bonnet had been unaccountably penetrated by fashionable bees. In his early life, he was universally assumed to be a genius. For all most of us know, he was. Most of us, when we give our opinion on such subjects as analytical philosophy and symbolic logic, are only grazing, the way we are with relativity theory, quantum mechanics and how a mobile telephone works: the best we can hope to do is talk a good game, backed by the consensus of those who really know. Ray Monk, who really knows, says that the young Bertrand Russell’s brilliantly original thinking in mathematics and symbolic logic laid the foundations of analytical philosophy and helped open up the field of theory which made our modern computerized world possible. Glad to take all this on trust, I will add it to the store of dinner-table science talk by which I contrive to maintain some kind of communication with my molecular biologist daughter.

The difference between me and the molecular biologists, of course, is that they know what they’re talking about, whereas I know only how to talk. It is a difference basic to the life of the mind in our time — a time that can usefully be thought of as going back to Goethe, who didn’t like Newton’s theories about colour. Goethe had good humanist reasons for his dislike but didn’t have the maths to back them up. Science was already off on its own; there were already two cultures. It could be said — it should be said, in my view — that only one of these, the unscientific one, is really a culture, since the mark of culture is to accumulate quality, whereas science merely advances knowledge. But my view is part of the unscientific culture, and has no weight in the scientific one, which settles its questions within itself, marshalling evidence powerful enough to flatten cities and bore holes in steel with drills of light. If Russell the philosopher had been content to keep his philosophy sounding scientific, his reputation would have remained unassailable, even though, or perhaps because, its published basis was unintelligible. There would never have been any way for the lay critic to get at him.

But, to give Russell his due, he was reluctant to confine his philosophical writings to the safely abstruse. Like most of the great philosophers before him — and unlike many of his successors — he strove to instruct the general reading public in ordinary language. Commendably, and sometimes heroically, he sought the most transparent possible exposition of his ideas, thereby proselytizing for the scientific, critical spirit that would liberate mankind from its perennial irrationality and offer the only hope for reforming a cruel world. Reason was Russell’s religion: he believed in it passionately. The question now is not whether this is a self-contradictory position — surely it isn’t, unless passion becomes zeal — but whether Russell was equipped by nature to promote it. The evidence provided by this book overwhelmingly suggests that he wasn’t. His natural use of language was hopelessly in thrall to high-flown, over-decorated rhetoric. When he wrote passionately, he wrote dreadfully, and he could eschew the ornate only by leaving the passion out. Much of his workaday prose was plain to a fault. The principles he promoted in his voluminous writings on human affairs were unexceptionable — it would be better if people were persuaded by facts instead of myths, loved each other, and sought peace — but the language in which he set them down defeats memory. His heart wasn’t in it, even if his mind was. His professional philosophy, the hard stuff, all sprang, we are told and must accept, from his conviction that our complex knowledge of the world could be analyzed down to its ultimately simple conceptual foundations. But his popular philosophy, the easy stuff that you and I are meant to understand, all too clearly proves that a prose bereft of nuances leaves out the texture of real life. Qualities that Russell entirely lacked were the stylistic density and precision of a writer capable of judging common life in the light of his own most intimate failures and defeats — the density and precision by which a great writer clarifies complexity without simplifying it and intensifies the clarity into incandescence. The last thing Russell could write from was personal experience.

By Monk’s account, it isn’t any wonder. Russell’s personal experience was awful, first of all for himself and later on, crucially, for the women he was involved with. Paradoxically surrounded by the complete apparatus of wealth and comfort, his childhood was all bereavement. In what must have seemed a conspiracy to leave him alone, his parents and everyone else he might have loved departed prematurely, stricken by diphtheria and other then incurable diseases with no respect for rank: in adult life, he would say that he always felt he was a ghost. Nowadays, armed with the knowledge distilled into John Bowlby’s great trilogy Attachment and Loss, those interested in such things would be able to identify Russell’s situation as a casebook example of detachment: undermined from the start by childhood separations of such violent intensity, the victim’s relationships in adult life tend to be more controlling than cooperative and much more eloquent than felt. Russell filled the bill to what would be hilarious effect if you could forget that the women who made the mistake of getting involved with him were real, and really suffered. Russell could forget it, but then he had the advantage of having never fully realized it in the first place. In matters of emotion, he was an almost perfect solipsist: a woman could exist for him not as a separate personality but only as an extension of his own personality. Like conscientious objection, free love was a cause he was ready to suffer for, but the freedom was all for him, and the suffering, it turned out, was all for those he loved.

The pattern was set from the start, when he wooed and won Alys Pearsall Smith as his first wife. Russell, a suitor not to be denied, or even interrupted, talked for hours and covered square miles of paper explaining to her that the great thing about marriage would be sex. Alys, by her own admission, distrusted the whole idea, proclaiming for women in general and for herself in particular what Russell described as ‘an aversion to sexual intercourse and a shrinking from it only to be overcome by the desire for children’. Undaunted, the budding ratiocinative genius pursued the courtship with a heat from him that increased with every glint of ice from her. He attempted to persuade her that sex would be the ideal spiritual expression of their mutual love. When, in a rare moment of abandon, she allowed him to kiss her glacial breasts, he soared into the stratosphere of prose, declaring in a letter to her that the event was ‘far and away the most spiritual thing there has yet been in my life’. Russell then attempted to convince her that, once the knot had been tied, the proper approach to conjugal bliss would be a plenitude of indulgence, thus to tame in his otherwise elevated soul the disruptive element of testicular agitation. Using the Quakerish ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ familiar form with which the two betrothed conspired to elevate their discourse to the empyrean plane, Russell declared:

It would be a good plan, for me at any rate, to indulge physical feelings a good deal quite at first till they no longer have that maddening excitement to the imagination which they now have. I lie in bed and they come before my mind and my heart beats wildly and I begin to breathe heavily and sometimes I tremble with excitement — I feel almost sure that when once all the physical feelings have been indulged, this intense and almost painful excitement will subside, and whatever is pure and good and spiritual in them will survive.

The poor schmuck had blue balls, but it would have been a better gag if he had been fooling only himself. Unfortunately, he was also fooling her, and one feels for her even at this range. Dynastically, the alliance of a British aristocrat scholar and a well-connected American bluestocking looked good on deckle-edged paper. In fact, it was hell, and the partner who suffered its most acute torments was Alys, although Russell, typically, managed to convince himself that he was the patsy. Having cajoled her ruthlessly into a cryogenic marriage, he felt within his rights not only to fall for her sexier sister, Mary, during a Continental holiday but to tell Alys all about it: ‘I am trying to fall in love with her and make these last days pass, and I think I shall succeed enough to avoid too much impatience — she’s a fearful flatterer.’

Sharing a sitting room in a Paris hotel, Russell and Mary read Nietzsche together by day and wallowed in Wagner by night. Probably they weren’t having full sex, because Russell would never have been able to withhold the glad tidings from Alys, thee can bet thy life. He certainly told her about his and Mary’s tender goodnight kisses after midnight discussions about the Zeitgeist. ‘Why should I mind thee kissing [Mary]?’ Alys told him. ‘Cried most of the morning,’ she told her diary. She cried most of the rest of her life. The immediate cause of their estrangement, six years later, was Russell’s unrequited but spectacular passion for Alfred North Whitehead’s wife, Evelyn — a permanently convalescent beauty whose spiritual reluctance to put out was matched by an earthy willingness to soak up Russell’s money in the form of gifts, trips and other freebies. Alys had a closeup of the proceedings, because the Russells, fulfilling all the requirements of Strindbergian claustrophobia, were sharing a house in Grantchester with the Whiteheads, where Evelyn faithfully reported to Alys everything Russell was saying — a possibility that failed to occur to Russell even while Evelyn was faithfully reporting to him everything Alys was saying. As Russell’s last embers of feeling for Alys chilled to grey, he wrote her a letter that can be said to epitomize his ability to analyse his own emotions:

Dearest, thee does give me more happiness than I can say — all the happiness I have, in fact. Thee is the only person I know well and yet really and thoroughly admire. I love the absolute certainty that all thy thoughts will be magnanimous and free from all pettiness. Since last winter I have known that life without thee would not be possible.

The writing was on the wall — though backwards, like Leonardo’s. Life without her became possible two months later. His renowned account of how he got the idea in a flash, as enshrined in his ostensibly frank but deeply self-serving three-volume Autobiography (1967-69) — ‘I went out bicycling one afternoon, and suddenly, as I was riding along a country road, I realized that I no longer loved Alys’ — turns out to have more truth in it than you might think: there really was a bicycle. But there was no suddenly about it; he was merely bringing to a head what had been festering for years. As Alys went from being miscast to being cast off, she began a slow, limping exit to the wings of the drama, there to await in vain her cue for re-entry, with death a longed-for but elusive alternative. (She despaired when a lump in her breast turned out not to be cancer.) She always hoped that he would come back to her. He must have had something.

Mostly, he had a brain, and the ladies went for it, even when they didn’t think much of his body. Lady Ottoline Morrell was grandly married but sported an impressive track record of adulterous bunk-ups with prominenti of all stamps. Anyone but the great philosopher would have spotted that this was a good reason not to try to get her all to himself. But Russell was so bowled over by an actual, consummated, thrashingly carnal love affair that he went ape. He counselled her to tell her husband, Philip, so as to avoid ‘deceit and sordidness’. Typically, Russell had misread the object of his adoration completely. Ottoline, who, unbeknownst to Russell, was still pursuing long-term affairs with Henry Lamb and Roger Fry, liked her life. She was loyal to her complacent husband. She was a realist. Russell, even though the warm impact of Ottoline’s physicality had made him uncertain that he could now maintain contact with the cool world of mathematical logic, was, in emotional matters, still and forever an idealist. For once, the result was less Strindberg than Shaw, with the philosopher Russell spouting high-flown balderdash and the layperson Ottoline talking all the sense. His ‘morality of passion’, he explained to her, demanded the ability ‘to behave as one might in a grand opera or in epic poetry’, and he went on to vaporize about how ‘rapturous it would be to die together like the people in Rosmersholm’. Sensibly planning to die in her comfortable bed like people in real life, Ottoline became much more sparing with her favours. ‘His intellect is supreme, but he lives up there so much that all the rest of him seems to have lost motion,’ she told her journal. ‘I feel it exhausting, as I have to keep in step with his intellect all the time, and also satisfy his heart.’ Russell’s intellect was at that time keeping in step with that of his dazzling new discovery, Wittgenstein, so he perhaps found it hard to slow down the pace. Satisfying his heart was not easy, either: satisfaction bred hunger.

When Russell was lecturing in America in his forty-third year, he fell for Helen Dudley, a Bryn Mawr graduate and would-be poet in her late twenties. She was glad to go to bed with him, and Russell responded to that gesture by offering her his hand in marriage, convincing himself that he was doing so principally because of his high esteem for her writing. He was not yet divorced from Alys. Nor was his love affair with Ottoline exactly over, though he filled her in on the news in the confident expectation that she would understand. ‘My darling,’ he wrote, ‘please do not think that this means any lessening of my love to you, and I do not see why it should affect our relations.’

Ottoline understood, all right. When he got back to England, she refused to see him. When that stratagem failed to reignite his ardour, she saw him and threw him one. This time, she surprised him — and, presumably, herself — by manifesting an unprecedented physical desire. The delighted Russell immediately forgot all about his commitments to Helen. ‘I am less fond of H.D. than I have tried to persuade myself that I was,’ he told Ottoline. ‘Her affection for me has made me do my utmost to respond. This has brought with it an overestimate of her writing.’ Though Helen was about to set sail for England as had been arranged, she was clearly on her way to the wings. As war approached in Europe, Russell commendably sympathized with a generation’s suffering, which he guessed to be forthcoming. But as Helen approached from America his sympathy for her evaporated.

Monk tellingly notes that Russell could think in terms of abstract populations but not of concrete individuals, unless the individual was himself. He knew he was a ghost, but he couldn’t see how that fact might help explain why ordinary people were ciphers to him. In particular, he believed that females, as a sex, suffered from ‘triviality of the soul’: they didn’t see the big picture, as he did. Helen, with her awkward insistence on arriving as requested, obviously had a bad case of it. ‘I feel now an absolute blank indifference to her,’ he told Ottoline, ‘except as one little atom of the mass of humanity.’ When Helen arrived in England with suitcases full of pretty clothes she fondly imagined to be her trousseau, he refused to see her.

Blind to the possible consequences, Russell contrived that the desperate Helen should take refuge in the household of none other than Ottoline Morrell. Helen told Ottoline everything and showed her Russell’s letters, which the appalled Ottoline discovered to be full of the same exalted flapdoodle that had once been lavished on her. She found Helen’s trousseau more tasteless than pathetic, but she had enough heart to be devastated by the revelations of Russell’s pettiness and the capacity of his smarm to spread straight from the refrigerator, like margarine. Unimpressed by his reassurances that his ‘sense of oneness’ with her had only increased, Ottoline cooled to him. Soon Russell transferred his affections to Irene Cooper-Willis, with Ottoline playing the go-between. (This is The School for Scandal updated by Tom Stoppard. Don’t try to figure it out now; just enjoy the flash and filigree as the principals rocket in and out of the parlour.) Irene, a celibate but bewitching young beauty, was ready to be Russell’s research assistant but not his mistress. The affair aborted on the pad, but there was enough flame and smoke to bring Ottoline back at full speed. Into the cot with him she duly dived, for one last paradisiacal thrash, inspiring Russell to the whitest heat of his epistolary style:

My heart, my Life, how can I ever tell you the amazing unspeakable glory of you tonight? You were utterly, absolutely of the stars - & yet of the Eternal Earth too — so that you took me from Earth & in a moment carried me to the highest heights…it blended in some unimaginable way with religion & the central fires…the mountains & the storm & the danger, & the wild sudden beauty, & the free winds of heaven…the depths & wildness & vastness of my love to you…a flood, a torrent, an ocean…what the greatest music yearns for, what made the Sunflower be weary of time, what makes one’s life a striving & straining & struggling after Heaven.

Striving and straining and struggling for a single halfway original phrase, he sent such letters day after day, like the artillery barrages then lighting up the Western Front. Everyone writes badly to a lover, but for specifying Russell’s kind of badness — an interstellar bathos ready to gush at the touch of a button — there are no words in English, although there is possibly one in German: Mumpitz, meaning the higher twaddle. But not even his prose was enough to turn Ottoline off altogether. As people would later say in California, she was always there for him: there to be informed of his latest depredations, incomprehensions, and marvels of self-deceit. On the basis of extensive research, Monk is reluctant to lay the blame for the madness of T. S. Eliot’s wife Vivien on Russell’s treatment of her during their affair, but it could scarcely have helped. For this reader, however, the prize episode of the book is Russell’s deep, intimate misunderstanding of the divinely beautiful twenty-one-year-old actress Colette Malleson, who should have been one of the great loves of his life. No doubt he believed she was, to judge from his prose. ‘I want to take you into the very centre of my being,’ he wrote in 1916, ‘and to reach myself into the centre of yours.’ Russell said goodbye to Ottoline all over again and invited Colette, who was already married to the actor Miles Malleson, to the peaks of spiritual union: ‘I love you, & my spirit calls out to you to come & seek the mountain tops.’ But the mountaintops, it transpired, held no place for her aspirations to the stage: it wasn’t a worthy ambition for any companion of his, and he did his eloquent best to talk her out of it. Luckily, she had the strength to read him the news about the necessity of her staying true to her gift, but you can’t help wondering why he needed to hear it instead of figuring it out for himself. Why was the philosopher always the most blatant dunderhead on the scene?

The best that can be said for him in this instance is that he was concerned about the sexual temptation that Colette’s vocation might put in her way. He was right to be: a handsome young director won her affections. That development threw Russell into such paroxysms of jealousy that her husband, a natural philosopher who was clearly better qualified in emotional matters than the professional, very generously worried about Russell’s fate more than about Colette’s. Russell resorted to composing a long, mordant analysis of Colette’s allegedly deficient character, emphasizing her vanity and her inordinate need of sexual adventure. Whether or not this was projection, no term except damnable effrontery can cover the fact that he sent the character study to Colette. She stuck to her guns and went on seeing other men, thereby spurring Russell to a rare statement identifiable as normal human speech: ‘You said the other day that you didn’t know how to repulse people, but you always knew how to repulse me.’

Luckily for him, there was yet another young knockout on the scene — the twenty-five-year-old Dora Black, armed with a first-class degree in Modern Languages from Girton and an all-embracing hero-worship for Russell, whom she found ‘enchantingly ugly.’ She was the girl in the red dress. Truly desired, Russell responded as might be expected, cranking up his prose style into transgalactic overdrive even as she strove to hold him earthbound with her encircling arms. Colette did an Ottoline, returning to his bed to fill it when it was empty of Dora. Russell, who lied to each of them about the other and told Ottoline the truth about both, was at long last getting all the affection he could take. At this point, any male middle-aged non-philosopher who has become absorbed in Russell’s emotional career to the point where the man’s requirements have started to seem normal will find it hard to suppress an exhortation from the sideline: Hang in there, don’t muck this up, you’re doing better than Errol Flynn. But not even Russell could flourish forever in an atmosphere of total unreality. Along with the stars, the storm, the highest heights and the central fires, he wanted children. Dora was ready to give them to him. He ends the book married to her, and we close it with something like relief, as if after watching an unusually obtuse chimp navigate its way through a maze all the way to the bunch of bananas.

None of this, I believe, is a travesty either of Russell’s love life or of Monk’s account of it: Russell’s love life was a travesty. The same is true for many men, and perhaps most: sooner or later, sex will make a fool out of any of us, and we are never more likely to talk balls than when they rule our brains. But most of us have not set ourselves up to instruct the world concerning what it should think and feel. Russell did. Fortunately for his memory, there is a parallel tale to be told, and Monk tells it well. All the generosity and forbearance that Russell so conspicuously did not bring to his emotional life he brought to his intellectual one, and there his true magnanimity is to be sought and found. When he learned that his work on the logical foundations of mathematics had been anticipated by the German scholar Gottlob Frege, he was generous to Frege instead of spiteful, and did everything he could to confirm the primacy of Frege’s work over his own. Not even Wittgenstein, who shared Russell’s proclivity for telling the brutal truth, was able to arouse his enmity. Russell, who arranged for the publication of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and promoted Wittgenstein’s career in all respects, had every right to regard the astounding young Austrian as his protégé, but the protégé felt no obligation to protect his mentor’s feelings; quite the reverse. Wittgenstein was worse than blunt in undermining Russell’s confidence in his own achievement as a professional philosopher, and unrelenting in his contempt for everything Russell did as a popular one. When their friendship was broken off, however, it was at Wittgenstein’s instigation, not Russell’s. This showed true greatness of soul on Russell’s part. It must have been a blow to discover that Wittgenstein did not share his conviction that a scientific philosophy was possible, but worse than a blow — a death threat — to be told that he was a bad writer.

Wittgenstein’s qualifications for saying so were impeccable, because he himself was a very good writer indeed. He can be seen as one of the jewels in the glittering German aphoristic tradition that began with Goethe and Lichtenberg and included, in Wittgenstein’s own time, Arthur Schnitzler, Karl Kraus and Alfred Polgar. Even in English translation, the habitually terse Wittgenstein inexorably emerged as the artist-philosopher that Russell, inspired originally by the poetic element in Spinoza, had vainly dreamed of being. But Wittgenstein, though a born master of language, was determined not to be seduced by it. Russell was seduced by it every day of his life. Wittgenstein set limitations on philosophy: ‘What we cannot speak of we should pass over in silence.’ Russell recognized no such limitations, and there was nothing he could pass over in silence. He gushed even when he turned off the faucet. Talking about ordinary life instead of the heady realm of love, he could leave out the stars, the mountaintops, and everything else in the instant mysticism kit, but his plain language still took off under its own power, clear as crystal and no more yielding, as convinced of its elevated reasonableness as it was unconvincing about the stubbornly unreasonable texture of real life.

There are exceptions, and one of them is likely to remain a great book. A History of Western Philosophy, which was published in 1946 and is still the first general book for the lay man to read on the subject, shows what Russell’s plain prose could do when the subject was safely in the past and some of his earlier exaltation of pure reason was in the past, too. However abstruse the topic, every sentence is as natural as a breath: for more than eight hundred closely printed pages, the exposition flows without a hitch. ‘Whatever can be known,’ he says in its concluding pages, ‘can be known by means of science; but things which are legitimately matters of feeling lie outside its province.’ Even this is open to question (there are very few important truths about politics, for example, that can be known by any means except a combination of science and feeling), yet at least it shows signs of the old man’s having momentarily attained a measure of negative capability. Unfortunately, the bulk of his popular philosophizing was about current events, and was written, even into his old age, with all the overconfident flow of his initial, natural assumption, which was that political and social unreason was most easily to be explained by the mass of humanity’s not being as bright as he was. A conviction of his superiority to mere mortals was part of his nature: we know that — know that now better than we ever did — because he was always inviting his latest love to join him on the heights above them.

There is a lot to be worried about in the current vogue for biographies of the great. To find out in advance that Picasso was a monster could be an invitation to underestimate his art, and to wolf down the details of Einstein’s infidelity is certainly easier on the nerves and the ego than trying just once more to imagine those lights on the moving trains. Monk must have been aware of the dangers: after all, Russell behaved no worse than Einstein, better than Picasso, and a lot better than Matisse. But surely Monk has done the right thing in making Russell’s personal life so prominent. Like the creatively fecund but personally unspeakable Brecht, Russell was a great man who used his prestige to back up his political opinions, and when someone does that we want to find out how he treated the people he knew, so as to assess the validity of his exhortations to the millions of people he didn’t know. The unsung hero of this volume is D. H. Lawrence, who put his finger on what Monk bravely calls the central conflict of Russell’s nature — or, rather, put his finger painfully into it, because it was a wound. Lawrence pointed out the irreconcilable discrepancy between Russell’s ideal of universal love and his alienation from humanity. The devastated Russell generously declined to withdraw his lasting admiration of Lawrence, but one can’t help feeling that this might have been partly because he didn’t see all the implications of what Lawrence had said. As the autobiography reveals over and over, Russell could come to know things about himself after he was told often enough, but somehow he still couldn’t take them in. He was in this respect the opposite of an artist, since the mark of the artist is to take in more than he can know.

It shouldn’t have mattered, but in the long run it did. While Russell had no objections to colonialist wars against ‘primitive’ peoples (in his view, such wars spread enlightenment), he deplored wars between civilized nations. Unremarkable at first blush, this stand required courage in the war fever of 1914. Having consecrated his vows with a stretch in prison, Russell unwisely went on to pursue pacifism as part of his religion of reason. He erected peace into a principle instead of just espousing it as a desirable state of affairs: if enough people believed in peace, there would be no more war. The principle started looking shaky when Hitler came to power and set about incarnating the intractable truth that unless absolutely everyone believes in peace the few who don’t will subjugate all the others. Einstein, a clear candidate for subjugation, gave up his pacifism straight away: he didn’t have to be a physicist to figure it out. But Russell the philosopher was slow to get the point. And, even when he did, the principle was never given up. It was there waiting to lead him on to his biggest absurdity: unilateral nuclear disarmament.

To an issue that he might have helped clarify he added nothing but confusion. While there was a good case to be made for multilateral nuclear disarmament, there was none at all to be made for unilateral nuclear disarmament, since it depended on presenting a moral example to a regime that was, by its own insistence, not open to moral persuasion. Russell knew this: he had been one of the first visitors to the Soviet Union to warn against what was going on there, and when the Americans were still the only possessors of the atomic bomb he had recommended threatening the Soviets with it in order to change their ways. He knew it, but somehow he had not taken it in. I myself, as a multilateralist who did my share of marching from Aldermaston in the early sixties, well remember the hard-line-unilateralist Committee of 100 and its adherents: talking to them about modern history was like talking to a Seventh-Day Adventist about Elvis Presley. They were fatuous, but with the support lent them by Russell’s immense prestige they could believe that they had been granted a vision of a higher truth, beyond the sordid realities of politics. The eventual effect, transmitted through the left wing of the Labour Party, helped to keep the Conservatives in power for a generation, because the public was unable to believe that Labour could be trusted with the deterrent — a distrust that proved well founded when Michael Foot, during his doomed general-election campaign, bizarrely promised to keep the deterrent for only as long as it took to bargain it away.

Russell spoke and thought as if the mass of humanity needed convincing that war was a bad thing. Somehow, he never quite took in the fact that most people already knew this but were genuinely divided as to what should be done about it, and something he never took in at all was that there is no such thing as the mass of humanity — there are only individuals. Failing to grasp that, he was, for all his real sympathy with the sufferings of mankind, paradoxically orating from the same rostrum as the century’s worst tyrants. Trying to wake us all up, he could never believe that we were not asleep; that our nightmares were happening in daylight; and that his religion of reason could do little to dispel them. How could he not realize it? In this courageously frank first volume of what could well amount to a classic study of the personality of genius. Ray Monk shows us how — by showing us that no matter how brilliant a mind may be, its stupidity will still break through, if that is what it takes to assuage its solitude. With his eyes on the heights, Russell never noticed that his trousers were around his ankles: but now we know. They’re ready for you on the set, Mr Wilder.

(New Yorker, December 1996)