Cultural Cohesion, p.62Clive James
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 analysed 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 aristocratic 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 close-up of the proceedings, because the Russells, fulfilling all the requirements of Strindbergian claustrophobia, we
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 backward, 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 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 th
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