Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Nineteen

“Lord John Russell,” pages 117-121

Bertie’s granddad was born in 1792, as the French monarchy fell. As an MP, John Russell opposed using military force to counter Napoleon’s post-Elba activity, but his views did not carry the day. The political battle that John did win was the Reform Act of 1832, which moved Britain on a course towards full democracy. Bertie finds his granddad’s subsequent stints as Prime Minister to be less momentous. “In his later years he was only moderately liberal, except in one respect, and that was his hatred of religious disabilities [p. 118].” Bertie recalls a gathering shortly before his grandfather’s death (and hence, some 78 years prior to the publication of Portraits From Memory!) to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of John Russell’s first major political victory, winning the repeal of the religious test for office holders and MPs. Bertie traces his own commitment to civil and religious liberties to such events.

“In public life he [Bertie’s granddad] was often accused of coldness, but at home he was warm and affectionate and kindly in the highest degree [p. 119].” He could deliver speeches in French, Italian, and Spanish; he loved Don Quixote, and was honored by the Italians for his efforts on behalf of Italian unity. His passion for liberty drew from classical, not contemporary sources; it was the same romantic spirit that impelled Byron’s fight for Greek independence. He was nourished on literature and poetry, and eschewed the cold economic realism now in fashion. Edmund Cartwright, the inventor of the power loom, tutored John Russell when he was growing up, but Bertie’s granddad didn’t even know that Cartwright had created one of the chief machines for spurring the Industrial Revolution; rather, he admired Cartwright “for his elegant Latinity and for the elevation of his moral sentiments, as well as for the fact that he was the brother of a famous radical agitator [p. 120].” 

Democracy was a goal for John Russell, but he was content to move there gradually, and tacitly believed that aristocratic Whig families like his would chart the course.

Bertie lived with John Russell in Pembroke Lodge. Many famous personages and foreign diplomats came through its doors; Bertie met Queen Victoria there. “Every corner of the house was associated with some nineteenth-century event or institution which now seems as remotely historical as the dodo [p. 121].” All has changed, despite the conviction then held at Pembroke Lodge that the only change the world would see would be the gradual spread of British-style government. Bertie’s granddad would be shocked to learn of the disasters that the world fell into. How quickly longstanding political states and traditions, no longer appropriate for their times, can be swept off the stage! Such revolutions can be disheartening, but they are full of promise for creative thinkers.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Portraits From Memory, End of the Second Period

The preceding nine chapters comprise the “Portraits from Memory” subsection of the book, so perhaps it is an appropriate time for our second (of two) intervals, even though in terms of length, there is still half of the book to go. (Here's the report from the first interval.) Despite some negative judgments that are sprinkled within most of the short biographical pieces – such as the view of Santayana as an enemy to progress – Russell’s Portraits generally are admiring: it is Lawrence alone who emerges as “a positive force for evil [p. 112].” Indeed, Lawrence and Conrad turn out to be opposites for Bertie: superficially, Conrad and Bertie were quite different, but deep down, they were of a piece. Bertie and Lawrence, alternatively, were superficially in agreement, while fundamentally at odds or even at war. But Bertie cannot help but to admire independence of mind, whether it arises in Cambridge Dons, George Bernard Shaw, or H. G. Wells.

The spiritual bond between Joseph Conrad and Bertie is perhaps what I found most surprising in the Portraits. My untutored (indeed, almost completely uninformed) view of Conrad would not have suggested that he and Russell were soul mates. The praise of Moore, Conrad, and Whitehead joins the previous admiration for Wittgenstein as tributes that make me want to know more about the men who inspired them.

One of the implicit messages that comes through is how typical short lifespans were in Bertie’s era – thanks be that Bertie himself was a notable exception. What if other members of Russell’s generation had Bertie-like lifespans? How much more might we have gotten from Keynes, Strachey, and even that force for evil, Lawrence? Imagine Keynes and Strachey, for instance, taking public positions on the Vietnam War – both were considerably younger than Russell. Because of their relatively short lifespans, however, they (particularly Strachey) seem as if they are part of the olden days, while Bertie seems (and is) almost like one of our contemporaries.

The next chapter, however, deals with someone whom Bertie knew, and who himself knew Napoleon. How close we are to those olden days.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Eighteen

“D.H. Lawrence,” pages 111-116

“My acquaintance with Lawrence was brief and hectic, lasting altogether about a year [p. 111].” Russell and Lawrence shared rebellious attitudes and some superficial features of viewpoints, but these disguised deep differences. Lawrence was passionate, imaginative, and full of loathing. “It was only gradually that I came to feel him a positive force for evil and that he came to have the same feeling about me [p. 112].”

Lawrence was a proto-fascist, having developed the theory before the politicians put it into practice; his views included a rejection of democracy and support for a Caesar-like sovereign. Presumably he was the model of the Caesar he envisioned. Lawrence had vague ideas about communicating truths to the populace, but these were airy nothings, unmoored to any practical plan of implementation. “Gradually I discovered that he had no real wish to make the world better, but only to indulge in eloquent soliloquy about how bad it was [p. 113].” He was happy to lead a small cultish band that would revere his utterings.

Lawrence, while requesting a monetary bequest from Russell, nevertheless took Bertie to task for being a critic of society from within, as opposed to someone who abandoned society – and the potential to build an estate to bequeath – altogether. Lawrence had some mystical belief in a non-mental but inherent, blood-based form of knowing. Lawrence was intolerant of claims that people could feel kindly towards each other, and distrusted Russell’s objections to war and the attendant suffering. Lawrence’s epistolary attacks on Russell were intense, and, briefly, they undermined Russell’s confidence in his own path. But then Bertie lost confidence in Lawrence, instead. They agreed, like Jaques and Orlando, to be better strangers.

Russell felt that his own attraction to reason might be excessive, and at first he welcomed Lawrence’s challenge, his championing of unreason. The challenge probably even made Russell’s Principles of Social Reconstruction a better book. But Lawrence’s ideas were pernicious, “the ideas of a sensitive would-be despot who got angry with the world because it would not instantly obey [p. 115].” He had complete disregard for others, except when they came to his notice, and then he despised them. His focus on sex is a reflection of his solipsism, because sex required Lawrence to notice at least one other human being. The personal torment of having to give that notice is what made Lawrence view sex as so destructive.

Lawrence’s views were of a piece with a general embrace of unreason between the wars, displayed most overtly in Nazism. “I am not sure if the cold inhuman sanity of Stalin was any improvement [p. 116].”