Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Unpopular Essays, Chapter 12

Chapter 12 (pages 188-90), “Obituary.” There is an e-version of this chapter available here. [Update: Apparently the entirety of Unpopular Essays is available online here.]

Russell first published this forward-looking obituary in 1937. An initial footnote shows that Russell was overly pessimistic about the date of his death, as he writes: “The obituary will (or will not) be published in The Times for June 1, 1962, on the occasion of my lamented but belated death.” Russell died on February 2, 1970, outliving by nearly eight years the death at age 90 that he foretold.

The obituary continues in tongue-in-cheek fashion, acting as if Russell’s unpopular opinions and politics were clearly mistaken, as was his commitment to rational thought. But it manages to be rather informative of his life in any case. Russell notes that his grandfather visited Napoleon at Elba – so his opening line about how with Bertrand’s death “a link with a very distant past is severed” rings true. (Imagine – a man alive in 1970 had a granddad who knew Napoleon!) Russell accurately predicts a second World War, alas, and mentions (again, correctly) that in its aftermath, “much of what was once the civilised world lies in ruins [p. 190].” A reader who did not know when this obituary was written would think, I believe, that it was written after WWII.

“His life, for all its waywardness, had a certain anachronistic consistency, reminiscent of that of the aristocratic rebels of the early nineteenth century. His principles were curious, but, such as they were, they governed his actions [p. 190].”

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