Prizing Bertrand Russell

February 2: On this day in 1970 Bertrand Russell died, aged ninety-seven. Like Henri Bergson before him, Russell won his Nobel Prize in literature without ever having published any. In presenting the 1950 award, the most that the 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."

 

Russell is connected to literary greatness in other ways. He was familiar with many in the Bloomsbury group, and close to D. H. Lawrence for a time. His friendship with Joseph Conrad led him to name two sons after him. He gave a major portion of his inheritance to the struggling T. S. Eliot; the other major portion went to the fledgling London School of Economics. Such generosity and commitment are reflected in a lifetime of ideals and causes.

 

But Russell's friends, family, and biographers struggle to draw a complete or consistent portrait. A lifelong pacifist, he advocated a preemptive war with the Soviet Union. At the same time he was supporting Eliot he was having an affair with Eliot's wife. Some portray an involved, attentive father; others hold Russell's radical parenting methods responsible for his son's mental illness. Some blame his many ruined relationships on his cold-hearted rationalism, and try to damn him from his own mouth. The following account of the break-up of Russell's first marriage, triggered by his affair with Ottoline Morrell, comes from his autobiography:

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.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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