The machine in the ghost

Bertrand Russell
May 24, 1996

Reading a biography is always at the same time an act of autobiography Q an act of self-reflection and self-evaluation. As one absorbs the life of the subject, one is forced to go over the events and themes of one's own life, making comparisons and drawing lessons. This can be an uncomfortable experience. In the case of Bertrand Russell and me there is a special edginess to the process. Although I never met him, I read Russell with great fervour and fire at around the age of 20, devouring as many of his books as I could. His autobiography was a particularly potent influence upon me, with its mixture of extreme intellectualism and emotional idealism. I let myself be thoroughly Russellised. He has been a voice in my head ever since. (How many others have been indelibly shaped by the Russell persona?) I admit that I idolised the man.

It is not that this callow worshipfulness has remained constant. There has been the small matter of my own life to live, and reading (and reviewing) two earlier biographies of Russell Q by Ronald Clark and Caroline Moorehead Q did much to dampen my idolatry. But ploughing through Ray Monk's massive, thorough and probing first volume has been an especially chastening experience, as it will be for all Russell worshippers. This is not because, as might be expected, I find my admiration for Russell seriously dented Q though it is certainly qualified; rather, it is the sheer unhappiness of the man that is so disturbing. It is hard to accept that one has modelled oneself on a person whose experience of life was so chronically and sharply painful Q a person who felt himself to be so emotionally unhinged, so malformed, so deranged, so desperate. This is not the kind of inner life one wants to duplicate. In later life Russell wrote a book entitled The Conquest of Happiness Q and somehow the very title tells it all: happiness never simply came for Russell, it (or some simulacrum) had to be fought for, acquired by main force. All human idols have feet of clay, but Russell seems also to have existed in a state of living hell.

You think I exaggerate: how could this world-famous, titled, healthy, long-lived, stunningly brilliant, witty, womanising figure be that miserable? The answer lies in the very constitution of his personality, the texture of the Russell self. A recurring image in Russell's self-descriptions, sensitively picked up by Monk, is that of being a ghost. Here is a characteristic burst, from a letter to his lover Colette O'Niel: "The centre of me is always and eternally a terrible pain, a curious wild pain Q a searching beyond what the world contains, something transfigured and infinite Q the beatific vision Q God Q I do not find it, I do not think it is to be found Q but the love of it is my life Q it's like passionate love for a ghost. At times it fills me with rage, at times with wild despair, it is the source of gentleness and cruelty and work, it fills every passion that I have Q it is the actual spring of life within me." Or again, speaking further of his search for the sublime: "The outcome is that one is a ghost, floating through the world without any real contact I I am haunted Q some ghost, from some extra-mundane region, seems always trying to tell me something I But it is from listening to the ghost that one comes to feel oneself a ghost." So much for the coolly rationalistic atheist, or the jovially sybaritic aristocrat, that Russell is sometimes represented as being. The real Russell feels himself to be a wispy spectre from the grave, subhuman, removed, seeking futilely for a religion that will still his torments.

This image has a number of aspects: the ghost is shadowy, bloodless, inhuman, insubstantial, invisible, disembodied, alien, cut off, feared, lost, unloved, dank, disgusting, dead. Each of these adjectives captures some aspect of Russell's personality, his mode of being. Above all, there is the sense of radical isolation and otherness that Russell so often cries out against. Monk reports a dream Russell had in old age: "I imagine myself behind plate glass, like a fish in an aquarium, or turned into a ghost whom no one sees; agonisingly, I try to make some sort of human contact but it is impossible & I know myself doomed forever to lonely impotence." This is a shockingly disturbing image: to feel oneself so removed from others that one exists in a separate insulated sphere in the shape of an unseen wraith. It is the barest kind of existence, and the logical limit to human loneliness.

Why should Russell have felt like this? Monk suggests, with great plausibility, that the roots of Russell's sense of ghostlike isolation go back to his wretched infancy. His mother and sister died of diphtheria in quick succession when Bertie was two; then his father died, apparently of grief, two years later, staying alive just long enough to complete a mediocre book about religion. He was raised by his grandparents, against the will of his deceased parents, until his grandfather died when he was six, leaving the child in the clammy and tenacious embrace of his domineering Presbyterian grandmother. In this repressive puritanical atmosphere of mindless protestant devotion, full of reproachful sighs and soul-cramping discipline, the boy Russell developed habits of solitude, concealment and intensely pensive bookishness. He withdrew into his own ethereal world of mathematics, haunted by his dead parents, cut off from those nearest to him. His more boisterous elder brother, Frank, rebelled outwardly from all this and summarily detested Pembroke Lodge and all that it stood for; while Bertie, more timid, younger, more eager to please, rendered his real nature invisible to those around him, sealing himself into an airtight container, alone with his grief and loss. He became a wandering ghost early on.

The personality that grew from these tragic beginnings also had its explosive and toxic side. Hatred, murder and insanity became part of Russell's mental landscape. Monk is particularly good on the last of these, tearing aside the mask of rationalism to reveal the molten soul beneath. Writing to Ottoline Morrell, Russell himself declares: "I doubt if even you know how nearly I am to a raving madman. It is only intellect that keeps me sane; perhaps this makes me overvalue intellect as against feeling." He seems to have been continually haunted by the fear of madness, of which there was indeed some in his family; and his extremes of emotion are certainly akin to madness. Associated with this came murderous impulses: "I remember when I wanted to commit murder, the beginning was a sudden picture (I hardly ever have pictures at ordinary times) of a certain way of doing it, quite vivid, with the act vivid before my eyes I I took to reading about murders and thinking about them I It was only hard thinking that kept me straight at the time Q the impulse was not amenable to morals, but it was amenable to reasoning that this was madness." He did in his youth try actually to strangle his friend Edward Fitzgerald, and had murderous impulses at other times too. Some of the sudden callousness he could show to people must have had a similar source.

Monk's thesis is that the fear of madness was a controlling theme in Russell's life, causing him to restrain and flagellate his deepest emotions, and to retreat into cloistered abstractions. Part of the appeal of Joseph Conrad's work for Russell lay in his understanding of madness, as well as his acute sense of human loneliness.

Russell's love life veered exhaustingly from fleeting ecstacy to deep despair. To be loved by Russell was no picnic. He was clearly starved of normal female affection as a child and thereafter sought it with a ferocity that could only backfire. In the case of his first wife, Alys, he moved swiftly from joyously kissing her breasts in a treehouse to something close to smouldering disgust, though he stayed with her for nine long years in a sexless and loveless marital prison. His next love, of Ottoline, was powerful and sustained, but (a) she was happily married, (b) she had other lovers, (c) she found Russell physically unattractive. For Russell, the relationship was mostly pain and sexual frustration, with some ecstatic interludes, and an inability to free himself from his feelings for her. With Colette the problem was her itinerant acting career and her affairs with other men, which left Russell ravaged by jealousy. He wanted marriage and children, not the odd weekend with someone with dispersed romantic interests. His affair with Helen Dudley was a sudden flop: having asked her to England to marry him, he lost interest as soon as Ottoline manifested her rivalry with Helen by stepping up her sexual interest in poor Bertie. He undoubtedly treated Helen shabbily, especially in not explaining to her the seriousness of his prior affection for Ottoline. Meanwhile Helen told Ottoline everything that had happened between her and Russell, which was not quite what he had admitted to Ottoline; the result was that Ottoline lost her affection for Russell. Etc, etc.

In all this mess, Monk finds Russell culpable on many counts. But I think he underestimates the emotional desperation that led Russell to these tangled relationships. He did not manage to have a halfway satisfactory love life till his forties. Sex was a powerful force in his life, but it was granted very restricted outlet, leaving him emotionally starved to the point of near-insanity. It is also exceedingly difficult to have any confidence in one's judgements about such matters, the human heart being a mysterious organ, and the realities of romance so complex and impenetrable. I do not myself find Russell's behaviour in this respect particularly low or extraordinary. Nor did Russell fare much better with his male friends; and here I think he really does come out badly. On a pair of occasions he coldly smiles as two of his closest friends Q G. E. Moore and Wittgenstein Q suffer from his insensitivity and lack of human sympathy. He evidently found their very real distress amusing, and it is hard to escape an impression of unsavoury sadism in his responses. Moore ended up wanting to avoid his company whenever possible, and Wittgenstein became remote and condemnatory. His relationship with Conrad was much better, as Monk insightfully explains, but then Russell hardly ever saw him and they were not in the same game. D. H. Lawrence wrote him a stingingly critical letter, pointing out his latent violence and dishonesty, which caused Russell to contemplate suicide momentarily; but he solved the problem by severing his relationship with the writer and withdrawing ever deeper under his intellectual carapace. There is little evidence in Monk's book of good and close friendships between Russell and other men; his loneliness was not to be relieved by ordinary human companionship. All the intensity and need is there, but somehow he lacked the humanity to convert it into the balm of friendship.

Russell did an enormous amount of work, of course, some of it of heroic proportions. Principia Mathematica, ten solid years in the writing, 2,000 pages, probably never fully read by anyone, was a stupendous achievement, and at considerable personal cost. Seventy odd books, numberless articles, thousands of letters Q Russell was a prodigious thinker and writer. That is the reason, after all, why biographies of his life exist. What emerges from Monk's account, perhaps surprisingly, is how much of this work was motivated by religious impulses Q the need to find a substitute for the orthodox Christianity he had so painfully abandoned at age 15. If he could not relieve his loneliness by communion with God, then he would do it by communion with mathematical reality, or with nature, or with women, or anything else that looked suitable. His pen turned to whatever seemed to promise an alternative to traditional theism.

Connected with this, he was also obsessed with achieving intellectual certainty, and much of his philosophical work is shaped by this Cartesian concern. He had doubted God, but was there anything that could not be doubted? He was unable to achieve the kind of Wittgensteinian insouciance about certainty that is characteristic of contemporary philosophy. He just could not emotionally accept that our destiny is to be uncertain, to be prey to scepticism; he felt in his bones that we ought to be certain, and were somehow falling down in our duty when certainty could not be secured.

Russell more than once comments on the dehumanising effect of abstract work. Hence his desire to achieve something in the way of imaginative writing, about which he harboured serious ambitions in his thirties. Perhaps not very surprisingly, he had little talent in this direction Q indeed some anti-talent Q being unable to convey anything but thought and argument. Ottoline always found this hard to take, referring to his stiffness and lack of physical and emotional charm. He was logical through and through Q the machine in the ghost. He was a man of pure intellect, tinged with flippancy, and ultimately lacking a human shape. Nothing seems to have been recorded about his bedroom style, but the question merits some thinking about: for ghosts do not make the best lovers. Russell's finest hour, at least during the first half of his life, which is the period this book covers, was his opposition to the first world war. Here he showed real courage, great independence of mind, boundless compassion, and a sincere concern for things other than his own mental development. One wonders how he would have turned out if this wrenching event had never occurred. The suffering of others seems to be about the only thing that connected him to other people in any deep way. Suffering and mathematics were the real things of the universe; the world of ordinary objects and people was flimsy and conjectural by comparison (his philosophy never did quite manage to find a place for the tangible and perceptible). The war at least made some dent in his instinctive solipsism.

Monk's biography, which awaits its second volume, is an exceptionally skilful and well-documented account of its subject's life, told very largely in Russell's own words, with a minimum of interpretative intrusion. It is perhaps less arresting than his earlier biography of Wittgenstein, but that is principally because Russell's life has already been well chronicled by himself and others. What Monk has achieved, aside from assembling a wealth of material in a smooth narrative form, is an articulation of the central emotional axes in Russell's life Q his sense of isolation, his fear of insanity, the raging forces that propelled him in good directions and bad. Russell was a colossal fiery intellect atop a narrow human stalk, a paradoxical being who could not be a member of himself, a ghost with earthly yearnings. This biography tells us as much as we shall ever want to know about a man described by his second wife as "enchantingly ugly".

Colin McGinn is professor of philosophy, Rutgers University.

Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude

Author - Ray Monk
ISBN - 0 224 03026 4
Publisher - Jonathan Cape
Price - £25.00
Pages - 695

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