Commentary Magazine


Portraits from Memory and Other Essays, by Bertrand Russell

Eminent Victorian
Portraits from Memory and other Essays
By Bertrand Russell
Simon and Schuster. 246 pp. $3.50
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D. H. Lawrence and Bertrand Russell sought each other out because of principle—they were both pacifists during World War I. But temperament soon parted them. They were an almost classic case of opposites; each supplied consummately what the other lacked, but neither appreciated this, and feeling won hands down. Lawrence was as open as a wound, he could not meet a man, a landscape, or even an inanimate Object, a train or a bus, without recording the vivid shock of their stubborn, essential reality. But when he tried to reason or to draw general social laws, as he continually did, from this entanglement of impression, he was helpless. Russell, on the contrary, as this illuminating collection of sketches of his contemporaries reveals, seems to be oddly closed off from other people. There is a curiously prim approach to the great and near-great among whom he lived. He does not reason from the encounter but approaches it with a ready-made didactic system of enlightened sentiments; according to their grades in this system, persons and places pass or fail.

Thus, it comes as something of a surprise to learn that Russell had the deepest, almost Germanically romantic feelings of affection for Joseph Conrad:

At our very first meeting, we talked with continually increasing intimacy. We seemed to sink through layer after layer of what was superficial, till gradually both reached the central fire. It was an experience unlike any other that I have known. We looked into each other’s eyes, half appalled and half intoxicated to find ourselves together in such a region. The emotion was as intense as passionate love and at the same time all-embracing. I came away bewildered, and hardly able to find my way among ordinary affairs.

Then we learn that they never saw very much of each other afterwards. The whole piece on Conrad lacks conviction; it does not convey fire so much as it does Russell’s opinion that in order to lead the “full life” there are times when one ought to be fiery; that he is extending his rational system of what should be to himself. This is a dutiful passion, after the Victorian manner of Mill.

Portraits from Memory is another reminder that there was an extraordinary flowering of diverse and vigorous talents in the first quarter of the 20th century. The fact that many of its figures lived on into very recent days-Shaw, Santayana, and Whitehead come to mind—has obscured just how much of a piece this extraordinary period was, and how far in the past it actually is for us now. Russell’s personal reminiscences raise interesting reflections about the soil and atmosphere in which such talents grew and stimulate curiosity about the care and feeding of the English tradition. For instance, “Some Cambridge Dons of the Nineties” helps us realize how little we know about the late 19th-century and early 20th-century Cambridge that nurtured E. M. Forster, G. E. Moore, John Maynard Keynes, and which was such a center of philosophy. Russell’s stories about the eccentricities of Cambridge’s dons lead us to suspect that the privilege of aping the eccentric behavior of squires, open to children of the middle class who became members of the university, was not unconnected with the subsequent flowering of G. E. Moore, Whitehead, Wittgenstein, and Russell himself.

English intellectual society during Russell’s Cambridge years, these portraits show, was spontaneous and even naive, as if each man were discovering the world for himself. The present habit, already fixed in this country and now catching on in England as well, of mistaking knowingness and technical dexterity for intellectual competence, was notably absent. There was then, thank God, no equivalent for that final seal of cultural approval—having one’s picture in Time or Harper’s Bazaar. Smartness was not then the supreme virtue.

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From the first of the three sections in this little collection, “An Autobiographical Epitome,” we learn that John Stuart Mill stood as godfather to Russell, and that Russell himself lived more than a third of his life a Victorian. Yet in the 1920′s his seemed the most contemporary of voices, his causes the most advanced: individual freedom, pacifism, atheism, etc., etc. But only the specific proposals and the circumstances were new; the pattern was not. Was not his personal example a continuation of the dutiful hedonism of the great Victorians—George Eliot’s living with George Henry Lewes, John Stuart Mill’s friendship with Mrs. Taylor? The ideal scheme of conduct, the broad benevolence we find in Russell’s published social views and ideas of social reform, though most of us seemed not to know it, were largely a product of that mid-19th-century English liberalism and radicalism for which, in its non-Manchester aspects, Mill chiefly spoke.

All this throws a strong light upon the peculiarly thin, black and white character of Russell’s public views. The little autobiographical sketches show that these views have no connection at all with the everyday thrust of his liveliest personal feelings about the people he knew intimately. His public views do not represent conclusions drawn from his own experience, but rather his concurrence in a system which he learned, and which prescribes what our finest feelings and ideal goodness should be.

Though Russell is an eminent “technical” philosopher, the greater part of his work, and certainly of his popular reputation, has been in social philosophy. He speaks often about the conduct of human affairs in the simplest and most direct of English styles. What he has written in this field has had a wide appeal, in part because it offers a luxury of the imagination, sentimentalizing ideas, and hardly pretending to be based on his or our own actual experience of the difficult world of fact. But until liberal philosophy stops dealing with its ideals on one level and concrete experience on another, it will have no deep, compelling persuasiveness; the most it can expect is to be in fashion.

But whatever the failures of Russell’s social analysis, we must always remember that, though his applications of the claims of reason may have been oversimplified, he stood as a rallying point for these claims. D.H. Lawrence’s obsession with the velocities of feeling may not—as his defenders claim—lead to a rationale of fascism or other forms of brutality, but it could never save us from them.

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