October 23, 2017

Prizing Bertrand Russell

On this day in 1970 Bertrand Russell died, aged ninety-seven. Like Henri Bergson before him, Russell won his 1950 Nobel Prize in literature without ever having published any. In presenting the award, the most that the Swedish Academy could offer to justify their selection of a mathematician-philosopher-social activist was the view that Russell often wrote as "the outspoken hero in a Shaw comedy" talked, and that his commitment to "rationality and humanity" was "in the spirit of Nobel's intention."

Buried at the bottom of the list of Russell's bibliography -- over ninety books and thousands of articles, plus tens of thousands of letters, journals and the like -- there are, in fact, two collections of short stories. Whether out of sheepishness or vanity -- the biographies do not often mention sheepishness -- Russell apparently felt that, having just received the world's most prestigious literary award, he might as well try his hand. His first effort, a 1951 story entitled "The Corsican Ordeal of Miss X," was published anonymously in a British magazine, in a competition devised by Russell: readers were told that the author was a famous writer, and invited not only to guess his or her identity but to critique the story. No one guessed the author, and the only two positive comments were from contestants who resided at the same New York address as Edith Finch, the woman who was about to become Russell's fourth wife. First-prize money went to an entrant who thought that the story was "tosh" and that "the author has (1) no sense of humour, (2) a very high opinion of himself." Undeterred, and at eighty years old, Russell went on to his other stories, which were reviewed as his first.

Russell is connected to literary greatness in other ways. He was familiar with many in the Bloomsbury group, and very close to D. H. Lawrence, for a time. His friendship with Joseph Conrad led him to name two sons after him. His friendship with T. S. Eliot led him to give a major portion of his inheritance to the struggling poet; the other major portion went to the fledgling London School of Economics, begun by Russell's socialist friends, the Webbs. Such a sense of commitment -- not just to TSE and the LSE, but to a lifetime of ideals and causes -- put constraints upon Russell himself. Though orphaned at an early age, he came from aristocratic stock, and his inheritance was large enough to have provided him with long-term security. Without it, and with a desire to be socially and politically active rather than an Oxford don, Russell said that he felt forced to earn a living as best he could -- thus, in part, the stream of books, lectures and magazine articles.

But Russell was a man of such varied interests and motivations that his friends, family and biographers struggle to draw, or to come to terms with, a complete or consistent portrait. Some emphasize his life-long pacifism; others wonder at his call for a pre-emptive war with the Soviet Union, and the support which he -- or those using his name -- extended to Che Guevara and international revolution. Some stress the selflessness exhibited by his gift to Eliot; others point out that, behind Eliot's back, Russell was having an affair with his wife. Some portray him as an involved, attentive father; others hold him responsible for his son's mental illness -- though an uncle and a granddaughter were also schizophrenics, the latter a suicide by self-immolation. Those who blame the great humanist for his many ruined relationships damn him from his own mouth, as in this passage from On Education, Especially in Early Childhood describing the raising of three-year-old John Conrad:
    When he showed cowardice, we made him feel that we were ashamed of him; when he showed courage, we praised him warmly. Every day for about a fortnight, we plunged him up to the neck in the sea, in spite of his struggles and cries. Every day they grew less; before they ceased, he began to be asked to be put in. At the end of a fortnight, the desired result had been achieved: he no longer feared the sea.
The same sort of chill can be felt upon reading Russell's account in his Autobiography of the break-up of his first marriage. The last straw was Russell's affair with the literary hostess Ottoline Morrell, or perhaps just Russell's manner of divulging it:
    I then told Alys about Ottoline. She flew into a rage, and said that she would insist upon a divorce, bringing Ottoline's name into it. ...I told Alys that she could have the divorce whenever she liked, but that she must not bring Ottoline's name into it. She nevertheless persisted that she would bring Ottoline's name in. Thereupon I told her quietly but firmly that she would find that impossible, since if she ever took steps to that end, I should commit suicide to circumvent her. I meant this, and she saw that I did. Thereupon her rage became unbearable. After she had stormed for some hours, I gave a lesson in Locke's philosophy to her niece, Karin Costelloe, who was about to take her Tripos. I then rode away on my bicycle, and with that my first marriage came to an end.

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