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.

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