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Cultural cohesion, p.63
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       Cultural Cohesion, p.63

           Clive James
 

  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 1945 and is still the first general book for the layman 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 tol
d 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 1960s, 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.

  The New Yorker, December 1996;

  later included in Even As We Speak, 2001

  POSTSCRIPT

  My idea for a movie about Russell and Wittgenstein was meant to depend for its effect on its manifest absurdity. But a Hollywood producer was on the phone the week after the piece came out, talking large talk about writing a treatment. Since then I’ve heard nothing, which I suppose is a relief, because it was evident that he wanted to make the kind of comedy that says it’s a comedy up front, like Nuns on the Run. I probably put him off when I told him the truth: as Russell proved, it isn’t funny unless you play it straight.

  On reflection, I should have said one thing in favour of Russell’s pacifism. There were writers more sensitive than he was who shared the same conviction. One of them was the most subtle essayist of his time, Alfred Polgar, then as famous in the German-speaking countries as he was unknown outside their borders. Even Thomas Mann bowed to Polgar as the living master of German prose. Like Einstein, Polgar was of Jewish background, and well before the Nazis reached power he was aware of what they were after. But unlike Einstein he did not alter his pacifism to fit. He went on writing as if war could be avoided through evoking its cost with sufficient intensity. The first war had so horrified him that he thought a second war unthinkable, and he went on declaring his aversion as a principle even as it became clear that it was only a wish, because Hitler was thinking of nothing else. Polgar was still a pacifist when he was forced into exile by the threat of death. In so rational a man, the tenacity of so irrational a view raises the question of whether it is really a view at all. It might be better appreciated as a kind of pre-emptive panic reflex, like the strange, strained serenity with which we go on failing to open a letter from the tax office. Russell understood everything about the belligerent force of totalitarian power, but he was still speaking against rearmament when Hitler had already declared war in all but name. Russell’s message was that the war would be a disaster for human values, and therefore should not be fought. The first part of the message was too true to be interesting. The second part made no sense at all, because Hitler had removed the choice. Whether this utter deficiency of ordinary logic on the outstanding political issue of the day retroactively undermines the validity of Russell’s symbolic logic is for symbolic logicians to decide. One guesses that it doesn’t: the two mental processes are different in kind. But social commentators should certainly keep in mind Russell’s public performance before World War II when they try to assess his public performance after it. Presumably for the benefit of anyone who though that atomic bombs were toys, he correctly said that they were terrible things: so terrible that that the Soviet Union should be left to possess them on its own until shamed into abandoning them by the example of more enlightened nations. Once again, the first part of the message was a commonplace, and once again the second part was ludicrous. The fact that he had had been one of the pioneers in detecting the real nature of the Soviet regime made it more ludicrous still. He didn’t even have the excuse of being a dupe. One of the most intelligent men alive, he could scarcely be diagnosed as lacking the capacity for reason, so the answer to the conundrum must be sought in his personality, in which his superior knowledge reinforced his narcissism instead of chastening it. As so often when contemplating the political follies of great minds, we are forced back to the definition of democracy bequeathed to us by Camus. Democracy is the regime conceived, created and sustained by people who know that they do not know everything.

  2003

  PART

  IV

  VISUAL

  IMAGES

  43

  THE NEW DIAGHILEV

  Discreetly increasing itself a few titles at a time, the “MGM Classic Collection” (MGM/UA) has already reached the point where you need a month to take it all in. But unless your first allegiance goes to Elizabeth Taylor modelling lingerie for the fuller figure in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, there can be no doubt that the musicals are what validate the word “classic” in the collection so far. Just follow the dancing feet.

  Not that even MGM had a sure-fire formula. Musicals could be either mechanical or successful, but not both. What MGM had was an inspired producer, Arthur Freed. Opinions differ about which was the very best musical with his name on it, Singin’ in the Rain or The Band Wagon, m
ade in 1952 and 1953 respectively.

  Those with ambitions towards forming a library will have already purchased or stolen a video of the former, but they should note that the latter is also there for the asking, at an advertised playing time of 108 minutes, which the first-time viewer will find is far short of how long it takes to see once. Some of the numbers will have you lunging for the rewind button before they are half over. The awful, addictive thing about video is that if you can’t bear the visual high to end, it doesn’t have to. The Band Wagon is the video drug in its pure form: cocaine for the corneas.

  Freed usually made sure, sometimes too sure, that the numbers, while never clashing with the story, weren’t crowded out by it. Fred Astaire is ruminatively crooning “By Myself” only ten minutes into the picture and ten minutes after that he is in full flight with the shoeshine dance routine, which expands into the amusement arcade production number, which in turn ends with a sight gag so good it makes you laugh even when alone. Direction by Vincente Minnelli, screenplay by Comden and Green, choreography by Michael Kidd—everything fits together straight away because of the producer’s sense of proportion. Away from Freed, no-one concerned was immune from the self-indulgence that spins things out.

  Even Astaire, unless advised to the contrary, would chew his dialogue ten times before swallowing. But he always danced economically even when the routine going on around him limped. The Band Wagon never limps, but it does sometimes swan about, especially while establishing Cyd Charisse as a ballerina, so that she can kick over the traces later on. Astaire has to do a lot of standing around flat-footed, and you would be left feeling short-changed if it were not for “The Girl Hunt” production number at the end.

  The pre-war musicals usually spaced numbers of even length evenly throughout. The post-war musicals favoured a tease-play approach by which numbers that weren’t long enough led up to a flag-waving finale that went on longer than you could believe, or—as happened particularly when Gene Kelly was involved—could bear. But “The Girl Hunt” brings The Band Wagon to a blissful climax. Astaire and Charisse finally get to strut their full range of stuff, including a two-minute jump-time jazz dance duet which is the most exhilarating thing of its kind on film.

 
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