Ray Monk


The Spirit of Solitude

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2000).

Ray Monk, himself a philosopher, has previously written a well-received biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Now he has embarked on a biography of Bertrand Russell, of which this is the first volume; it takes his subject up to the birth of his first child in 1921. The two features which distinguish this Russell biography from others which have appeared previously are its detailed nature, with huge numbers of quotations from correspondence, and Monk's ability to comment on Russell's philosophy from a professional standpoint.

Russell was born into an aristocratic family, but both his parents died early and he was brought up by his grandmother. She was strict and deeply religious and Russell found the atmosphere of her house stifling, especially after he lost his own religious faith, which he soon did. Nevertheless, throughout his life he continued to long for mystical or religious experience; this was just one of the irreconcilable contradictions that were deeply infused in his character.

The narrative has two main strands. One is concerned with Russell's intellectual development and his philosophical ideas, and the other with his extraordinarily complicated emotional life. Sandwiched between these, as it were, are his political activities, which resulted in his imprisonment during the First World War.

For readers who are not themselves professional philosophers it is doubtless the emotional part of the story that will have greatest interest. Russell seems never to have been able to be satisfied with one relationship at a time, but constantly attempted to keep up with two or sometimes three women (who were often married) at the same time. This trend to polygamy appears early in his life. His youthful marriage to Alys proved less ecstatic than he hoped and he found himself more drawn towards Mary, her sister, who admittedly seems to have been an altogether more lively and stimulating person. Later he was deeply in love with Evelyn Whitehead, though this was probably not openly acknowledged by either party. By now totally indifferent to Alys or even actively disliking her, he treated her with appalling insensitivity, amounting at times to downright cruelty; but the poor woman continued to love him until the end of her life.

All these emotional entanglements, however, were of minor intensity compared with his affair with Ottoline Morrell. This took the form of a spiritual as well as a sexual awakening and was one of the most important events in his life. Monk provides numerous extracts from their correspondence, from which it is clear that he was always more in love with her than she with him. Russell spent a lot of time trying, unsuccessfully, to persuade her to leave her husband. They had very different temperaments and outlooks on life and Russell tried hard to convince her, and himself, that they were more compatible than was really the case. Eventually, after many years, their relationship changed from that of lovers to one of friendship, and then Russell was able to talk to Ottoline about his other relationships and get the benefit of her advice.

After Ottoline there were numerous other romantic adventures. Russell again behaved spectacularly badly to one of the women concerned, an American named Helen Dudley, with whom he had an affair while in America but whom he jilted when she came to England at his suggestion. But the next great love of his life was Constance Malleson ('Colette'), who obsessed him for many years and who, though herself in love with him, carried on other relationships simultaneously and brought him near to madness from jealousy; he even had to arrange an abortion for her when she became pregnant by another lover. The book ends with his marriage to Dora Black; although certainly attracted to her, he would undoubtedly have preferred Colette, but more than anything else he wanted children, and Dora was prepared to give him these. The book ends with the birth of his son, an event that rendered Russell ecstatically happy.

On the intellectual level, probably the most important influence on Russell's thinking was that of Wittgenstein. Almost from their first encounter, Russell realized that he had to do here with a philosophical mind of genius. Wittgenstein, for his part, seems to have come to disapprove of Russell, whom he regarded as not wholly serious. He criticised Russell's ideas furiously, and this seems to have played a part in causing Russell to move away from pure philosophy towards other kinds of writing, including a lot of journalism. In a curious echo of his relationship with Ottoline, Russell frequently tried to persuade himself that he and Wittgenstein were in perfect agreement, which they manifestly were not.

Two other relationships were of great importance to Russell. One was with the novelist Joseph Conrad, whom Russell met only a few times but with whom he felt an extraordinary, almost mystical affinity. The other was with a very different novelist, D.H. Lawrence. Rather as had happened with Wittgenstein, Russell tried to persuade himself that he and Lawrence were spiritual brothers, of one mind, and when they eventually, inevitably, fell out, Russell was devastated. Lawrence wrote a critical letter to Russell that reduced him for a time to such a state of despair that he contemplated suicide.

Russell emerges from these pages as an extraordinarily complex individual. He was intensely intellectual, yet at the same time passionate to the point of near-madness; indeed, there was a history of madness in the Russell family and Russell himself was often afraid that he might succumb. He was an atheist, yet he quite often used near-religious language and was fascinated by mysticism. Above all, perhaps, he longed to feel close to other people but was haunted by the feeling that he was a ghost, remote from human contact. In his 'Autobiography' he wrote: "Underlying all occupations and pleasures, I have felt since early youth the pain of solitude."

As a stylist, Monk cannot compete with his subject; Russell was one of the best writers of English prose of modern times, making hard ideas seem easy and continually enlivening the most abstruse philosophical discussions with sparks of wit, whereas Monk's writing seems to me rather heavy and pedestrian. But one can't have everything, and the book is certainly going to be the standard Russell biography for a long time to come. Monk was fortunate in having an enormous volume of letters and other material on which to draw for this study. Russell and his friends were indefatigable letter writers, at a time when the postal service was much better than it is today (a letter might easily arrive on the day it was posted); a modern-day Russell would doubtless use electronic means of communicating and in the future detailed biographies of this kind, based on hard evidence, may well become impossible.

%T Bertrand Russell
%S The Spirit of Solitude
%A Monk, Ray
%I Jonathan Cape
%C London
%D 1996
%G ISBN 0-224-03026-4
%P xv + 695 pp
%O Paperback edition

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