Sunday, October 23, 2011

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" One

“Adaptation: An Autobiographical Epitome,” pages 1-12

Portraits From Memory opens with a remarkable and lengthy paragraph, describing Russell’s background and the atmosphere in his home when he was a child. “My parents died before I can remember, and I was brought up by my grandparents [p. 1].” Granddad was the former British Prime Minister John Russell, the first in the line of Earls Russell (of which Bertie was the third), and himself the son of a major British political figure. (Later in Portraits From Memory, Russell will devote a chapter to his grandfather.) The political leanings in the Russell household promoted parliamentary supremacy with a grudging toleration for a benevolent monarch, while global progress towards democracy – a democracy tempered by the inclination of the masses to follow the lead of the aristocracy – was the assured future fate. British global supremacy also was part of the presumed path to come, though the supremacy would not involve the continuing domination of Asian and African subjects. “The atmosphere in the house was one of puritan piety and austerity [p. 3],” manifesting itself in the form of morning prayers, cold baths, plain food, and the acceptance of alcohol and tobacco only to the point that was requisite for sociability.

Young Bertie’s interest in mathematics and philosophy was not championed by his grandparents, whose exclusive attention to virtue implied some hostility to such questionable pursuits. Matriculating at Cambridge was a liberating experience after the repression of home. “I had been compelled to live in a morbid atmosphere where an unwholesome kind of morality was encouraged to such an extent as to paralyze intelligence [p. 4].” [Russell indicated the importance of finding a congenial setting for one’s beliefs in The Conquest of Happiness.] Cambridge, where he studied first mathematics and then philosophy, brought an end to young Bertrand’s agonizing loneliness. Bertrand hoped to find some certainty in the truths of mathematics – though he was unimpressed with what passed for the proofs that were offered. Over the next two decades he learned that his hopes for certainty were less than fully realizable.

Bertie’s genealogy ensured that there was a ready-made political career in the offing. Against family objections, he chose to pursue philosophy instead. Following the career-choice tempest, he had a period of personal calm up until World War I. His opposition to that conflict and British participation in it isolated him from many friends and from British society more generally. (He notes that he is not against all war, and that he viewed the Second World War as necessary.) WWI and its aftermath – including the conditions that engendered WWII – have brought untold horrors. These horrors, including Nazism and Bolshevism in power, would have been avoided if Britain had remained neutral in the conflict.

Russell’s isolation deepened after WWI, especially following a visit to Russia in 1920, when he emerged (in part from a meeting with Lenin) as an opponent of the liberty-trampling Bolshevik regime. “I came to the conclusion that everything that was being done and everything that was being intended was totally contrary to what any person of a liberal outlook would desire [p. 8].” So by and large, the few people who could still stomach Russell following his World War I stance were put off by his anti-Bolshevik views.

Russell’s proclaims the Russian visit to be a turning point in his life. “The country seemed to me one vast prison in which the jailers were cruel bigots [p. 8].” Yet Bertrand’s friends supported this vile regime, and Russell had to decide whether he was mad, or they were. Fortunately, he was used to trusting his own judgment, thanks to the crucible of WWI.

Russell spent a happy year in China, returning in 1921 and turning his attention to education – as Reading Bertrand Russell has already noted (along with his views on the Bolsheviks). Russell started his own school to try to address what he saw as the shortcomings of the existing models. “But a school is an administrative enterprise and I found myself deficient in skill as an administrator [p. 9].” The school failed.

Freedom has its limitations, and in education, it must be limited to ensure sufficient discipline to acquire knowledge. Russell follows his godfather on the main principle of individual liberty: “The broad rule is a simple one: that men should be free in what only concerns themselves, but that they should not be free when they are tempted to aggression against others [p. 11].” The specific applications of this rule are complex, of course.

Russell views himself as an abstract philosopher much given to precision in thought – for which he often is mistakenly considered unfeeling. And although philosophy has not answered all of Russell’s needs, during his lifetime much that used to be vague and a matter of opinion has become precise and scientific; his own efforts to effect this progress are a source of self-satisfaction.

Optimism, easily imbued within his youthful milieu, is harder to support now. “But I remain convinced, whatever dark times may lie before us, that mankind will emerge, that the habit of mutual forbearance, which now seems lost, will be recovered, and that the reign of brutal violence will not last forever [p. 12].” Kindness and clear thinking will help us find the right path, and the future for humanity, Russell contends, will be brighter than its past.

[I haven’t yet read Russell’s three volume Autobiography, published well after Portraits From Memory, but this chapter has reminded me, rather profoundly, that I need to do that.]

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Next Up: Portraits From Memory

The Reading Bertrand Russell plan, which now appears to be a more-than-five-year plan, beckons forth Portraits From Memory and Other Essays, henceforth to be referred to as Portraits From Memory. The book was published by Simon and Schuster in 1956. My copy is a hardback, “FIRST PRINTING,” which appears to be identical to the copy at scribd. The book is 246 pages, with vi pages of preliminary material and a one page “About the Author” entry at the end. Russell’s Wikipedia entry and the Bertrand Russell Society both indicate that Portraits From Memory was published in London in 1956 by George Allen and Unwin, so perhaps there were separate British and American editions, as we have seen before with Russell. Parts of Portraits From Memory reproduce addresses broadcast by Russell over the BBC in the mid-1950s. The detailed copyright notice in my version suggests that some of the material dates from as early as 1951.

Portraits From Memory opens with something entitled “Adaptation: an Autobiographical Epitome.” I will call this Chapter One, and number the rest sequentially, but this is for my own purposes; these “chapter numbers” will be placed in parentheses after the name of each essay. Russell’s “Adaptation” is followed by a section entitled “Six Autobiographical Essays;” these essays are:

I. Why I Took to Philosophy (“Chapter” 2)
II. Some Philosophical Contacts (3)
III. Experiences of a Pacifist in the First World War (4)
IV. From Logic to Politics (5)
V. Beliefs: Discarded and Retained (6)
VI. Hopes: Realized and Disappointed (7)

The autobiographical essays are followed by two short pieces, “How to Grow Old” (8) and “Reflections on My Eightieth Birthday.” (9) Then come the nine chapters of the section titled, like the book itself, “Portraits From Memory”:

I. Some Cambridge Dons of the Nineties (10)
II. Some of My Contemporaries at Cambridge (11)
III. George Bernard Shaw (12)
IV. H. G. Wells (13)
V. Joseph Conrad (14)
VI. George Santayana (15)
VII. Alfred North Whitehead (16)
VIII. Sidney and Beatrice Webb (17)
IX. D.H. Lawrence (18)

So much for memory. After these nine chapters are placed 14 essays, most of them rather short, on assorted topics. They are:

Lord John Russell (19)
John Stuart Mill (20)
Mind and Matter (21)
The Cult of “Common Usage” (22)
Knowledge and Wisdom (23)
A Philosophy for Our Time (24)
A Plea for Clear Thinking (25)
History As an Art (26)
How I Write (27)
The Road to Happiness (28)
Symptoms of Orwell’s 1984 (29)
Why I Am Not a Communist (30)
Man’s Peril (31)
Steps toward Peace (32)

Looks like fun to me. If things go according to plan, the large number of chapters suggests that the summentary of Portraits From Memory will involve more posts than any of our previous Russell books. Onward, then.