Monday, February 20, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Thirteen

“H. G. Wells,” pages 81-85

Russell and Wells met in 1902 as part of a grouping of a dozen or so fairly notable personages; the group was formed through the efforts of Sidney Webb. Russell and Wells bonded over the fact that they, alone within this group, were anti-imperialists and not supportive of war with Germany. Wells was the only member of the Webbinar to agree with Russell’s view that the Entente with France and Russia would soon lead to war.

Mr. and Mrs. Wells visited Russell at his home near Oxford, though the trip was not all sweetness and light. Russell puts a little of the blame upon his younger self, for not being sufficiently understanding of Wells’s unwillingness to publicly profess his (Wells’s) private view of the desirability of free love.

Wells’s pacifism evaporated with the onset of World War I, and Russell attributes (rightfully, it seems) the phrase ‘a war to end war [p. 83]” to Wells. Sidney Webb also supported the war, but fell out with Wells for other reasons, and was rewarded with ill treatment in some of Wells’s future novels.

Russell regained warm feelings towards Wells after the war, in part through shared opinions and admiration for the Outline of History (recommended by Russell in Education and the Good Life, Chapter 15). Wells “had immense energy and a capacity to organize great masses of material [p. 84].” He was a good conversationalist who took a disinterested approach when debating issues.

Wells made his mark through the quantity, not the quality, of his output – though there was high quality in some dimensions, too. “Politically, he was one of those who made Socialism respectable in England [p. 84].” Wells, to his detriment, was willing to shade his opinions for personal popularity.

“Wells’s importance was primarily as a liberator of thought and imagination [p. 85].” He influenced young people, and could initiate streams of thought in his readers. Wells was scientific, not superstitious, and he remained optimistic. [Russell sounds like he could be describing himself here.] His overall impact is as a force for good.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Twelve

“George Bernard Shaw,” pages 75-80

Bernard Shaw came to public notice first as a music critic, Fabian socialist, and novelist, then as a playwright, and finally “as a prophet demanding equal admiration for St. Joan of Orleans and St. Joseph of Moscow [p. 75].” Russell’s strong admiration for Shaw did not survive the Stalinist phase.

Russell and Shaw first met in 1896 at an International Socialist Congress, and they began to spend time together; Russell recounts one joint and slightly ill-fated bicycle trip, which worked out better for the vegetarian Shaw than for Russell. Bertie speaks highly of Shaw’s wife, who showed great solicitude towards her husband and (barely) tolerated his repetitive storytelling.

“Shaw’s attack on Victorian humbug and hypocrisy was as beneficent as it was delightful, and for this the English undoubtedly owe him a debt of gratitude [p. 77].” Part of Shaw’s attack involved indicating that the norm against showing more regard for oneself than for others was wearisome; he himself not only was willing to show self-regard, he seemed to have an excessive amount of it to show.

“Shaw, like many witty men, considered wit an adequate substitute for wisdom [p. 78].” Shaw was skilled at making the worse appear the better reason, leaving debate rivals in the dust. His contempt for science cannot be defended, but can be explained -- by his unwillingness to highly rate anything he couldn’t understand. In political controversy, Shaw excelled at exposing the silly parts of his opponents’ platforms. This admirable trait, though, was lost when he succumbed to Soviet applause. He was never as strong at presenting a positive case for his views as he was at criticizing the views of his opponents, though in old age, his embrace of the Marxian system lent coherence to his opinions.

Fearless, Shaw was willing to say unpopular things. His unrelenting attacks sometimes fell on targets who deserved better. “As an iconoclast he was admirable, but as an icon rather less so [p. 80].”