Sunday, May 23, 2010

Russell and Russellian: A Personal Testament

Few intellectuals in this century perhaps have been more avidly read and feted, passionately argued, and yet faced such senseless calumny than Bertrand Russell. The man who started out as a mathematician turned to philosophy, then to pacifism, and thence in turn to politics, pedagogy, history, economics, psychology till his humane soul championed the campaign against nuclear disarmament. The man who was incarcerated by the British government was the one on whom the king bestowed the Order of Merit; the man who was denied to teach logic and philosophy in an American university for his unorthodox ideas on sex and marriage embodied in Marriage and Morals was awarded the Nobel Prize for the very same book. Paradoxes such as these few combined; more creditable, he proved the majority wrong and made the world eats its humble pie.

Bertrand Russell was a savant who began as a Cambridge mathematician, and made its study scientific by his contribution to the evolution of logic and mathematics, which upset and contradicted the views of Aristotle that had led to “three thousand years of important error.”

A browsing of Russelliana would reveal a cool, clinical monster of popular fallacy who launched a lone crusade against sham, hypocrisy and claptrap. If he wrote Why I am Not a Christian it was because religion failed to stand up to his scientific test. There was much of the astral and the absurd in the realm of religion that Russell pooh-poohed. Not being particularly secure in my religious pretensions I found immense strength in Russell. His essay An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish fired my imagination. I read it thrice over and yet the novelty and essence never evaporated.

Russell is trenchant in his observations: “The whole conception of ‘sin’ is one which I find very puzzling, doubtless owing to my sinful nature. If ‘sin’ consisted in causing needless suffering, I could understand, but on the contrary, sin often consists in avoiding needless suffering. Some years ago, in the English House of Lords, a bill was introduced to legalize euthanasia in cases of painful and incurable disease. The patient’s consent was to be necessary as well as several medical certificates. To me, in my simplicity, it would seem natural to require the patient’s consent, but the late Archbishop of Canterbury, the English official expert on sin, explained the erroneousness of such a view. The patient’s consent turns euthanasia into suicide and suicide is sin. Their Lordships listened to the voice of authority and rejected the Bill. Consequently, to please the Archbishop and his God, if he reports truly, victims of cancer still have to endure months of wholly useless agony, unless their doctors or nurses are sufficiently humane to risk a charge of murder. I find difficulty in the conception of a God who gets pleasure from contemplating such tortures, and if there were a God capable of such wanton cruelty, I should certainly not think Him worthy of worship. But that only proves how sunk I am in moral depravity.”

If Russell’s ideas on religion met with open vitriol from the conformist post-Victorian generation, his notions on sex and marriage shocked and startled the Puritans and the liberals alike. More iconoclastic, stimulating, and heterodox than any of his peers, his views on trial marriages, childless sexual relationships among adults – particularly university students – marital infidelity, were concepts which earned him the appellation of “the master-mind of free-love, of sexual promiscuity for the young and hatred for parents”. The work which produced such a fusillade of arrant criticism was the Marriage and Morals published in 1929.

Like any other Russelliana work, this book too pluckily defied the conventional combine of prudery and specious moral through Russell’s incisive analysis which scythed through the much-vaunted liberals ideals of marriage and healthy sex-life; maybe never was the Passionate Sceptic more vigorous than here. “Sex outside marriage is sin; sex within marriage is not sin, since it is necessary to propagation of the human species, but it is a disagreeable duty imposed on man for the Fall, and to be undertaken in the same spirit in which one submits to a surgical operation.... It is held to be illegal in England to state in a cheap publication that a wife can and still derive sexual pleasure from intercourse.”

Russell makes the moderns’ prudery risible in the extreme – in the choice of language. “It is permissible with certain precautions to speak in print of ‘coitus’, but it is not permissible to employ the monosyllable synonym for this word. This has recently been decided in the case of Sleeveless Errand. Sometimes this prohibition of simple language has grave consequences; for example, Mrs. Sanger’s pamphlet on birth control, which is addressed to working women, was declared obscene on the ground that working women could understand it. Dr. Marie Stopes’ books, on the other hand, are not illegal, because their language can only be understood by persons with a certain amount of education. The consequence is that, while it is permissible to teach birth control to the well-to-do, it is criminate to teach it to wage-earners and their wives. I commend this fact to the notice of the Eugenic Society, which is perpetually bewailing the fact that wage-earners breed faster than middle-class people, while carefully abstaining from any attempt to change the state of the law which is the cause of this fact.”

Small wonder the conventional moderns fulminated at Russell’s code. He was described in the United States as “the philosopher anarchist and moral nihilist of Great Britain whose defence of adultery became so obnoxious that one of his ‘friends’ is reported to have thrashed him.” People who viewed him as a mere idol-smasher and patron-philosopher of immorality considered him as the “desiccated, divorced and decadent advocate of sexual promiscuity... in his libertarian rules for loose living in matters of sex and promiscuous love and vagrant marriage”. Perhaps, the crowning glory of their condemnation came when Russell was debarred to teach at the College of City of New York on grounds of his propagation of heterodox ideas in matters of sex and marriage.

I was struck by his singular anticipation of the Keynesian doctrine in his essay In Praise of Idleness by challenging the orthodox economists who appreciated saving and denounced spending. “As long as a man spends his income, he puts bread into people’s mouth... The real villain,” from his point of view, “is the man who saves”. What he once called “the detestable vice of thrift” could lead to unemployment. Spending in any form – even on drink or gambling or in parties – is better, Russell concluded. This, at the time, was outright heresy, and the professional economists dismissed Russell’s ideas lightly as the amusing fallacies of a philosopher straying into their domain. It was only in 1936 when Keynes developed a detailed argument in his General theory of Interest, Employment and Money that the idea seeped into the economists’ mind.

Russell’s political realism was founded on a psychological understanding of human personality. His scientific mind revolted against the imposing historicism and systems built by Hegel and Marx, which to him stand on fallacious, sweeping generalizations. To Russell, man’s congenital nature – pugnacious and belligerent – needs psychological reorientation and nursing. Yet he would not opt for any straitjacket philosophy – Fascism, Marxism or any – for fear that liberty might be stifled. He finds that in the modern age freedom is being threatened by a host of factors – big organizations, manipulation of education, a general mechanistic outlook, propaganda technologies et al. To overcome these tendencies he favours re-structuring the society on the basis of federalism, introduction of democracy, protection of the rights of minorities, fostering of sceptical frame of mind, secularism, vocational representation, provision for the basic necessities of life, elimination of war and the taming of power.

The value of his pacifism and his tireless crusade against nuclear weapons are the ones that the world is realizing today. Denouncing war, he had preferred to go to prison in 1918 and it is a measure of the man’s humanity that he cheerfully underwent a second prison term at the age of eighty-nine – by then a Nobel laureate and Order of Merit recipient – again for his pacifistic fervour. Few today know that the Pugwash Movement was Russell’s brainchild and that he was its founding father.

If in his early life Russell wrote on mathematics and philosophy, his later life was taken up in producing books ranging from history, politics, sociology to pacifism, general science and short stories. Among his best known books of his later years, mention may be made of Unpopular Essays (1950), The Impact of Science on Society (1951),Portraits from Memory (1956), Why I am not a Christian(1967).

His Autobiography published in three volumes is one of the most stunningly candid self-portrayals ever to be written in the English language. Like anything Russellian, it is lucidly, crisply and humorously told with the same confident cadences that mark his prose. “It contains episodes more exciting than most novels, details more intimate than most exposes, and more intensity of emotion, sexual, spiritual and intellectual, than most fiction writers would dare ascribe to a single hero.” As Newsweek commented: “Any man in his late 90s is of more than routine interest, but when he has also revolutionized mathematics, won the Nobel Prize for Literature, led the fight for advanced causes ranging from marriage reform to nuclear disarmament, known well a lion’s share of the significant figures since the 1880s, and married four times to boot – when a man has done and lived through what Lord Russell has, his memories command attention.”

When about eighty, he cheerfully took to the rather novel art of a raconteur. His short story volumes Satan in the Suburb and Nightmares of Eminent Persons are marked by his puckish humour and ironic wit and give a sparkling demonstration of Russell’s humanity and his cherubic perception of the absurd.

If any book of Russell has fascinated me more, it is the History of Western Philosophy. I approached it with considerable trepidation, half-hoping that I shall fail to grasp philosophy written by a polymath – thinking it might be too abstruse for my small mind. I was altogether delighted by the simplicity and lucidity of expression and his utter commitment to clarity. Russell spoke the vocabulary of the specialist but in a language reeking of so much logic that it is easy for a lay reader to follow. His definition of What is Philosophy? is one of the most profound and one of the most vital ever. “All definite knowledge,” Russell explained, “belongs to science; all dogma as to what surpasses definite knowledge belongs to theology. But between theology and science there is a No Man’s Land, exposed to attack from both sides; this No Man’s Land is philosophy.”

I would seek my reader’s indulgence to state that my fascination for Russell drew its pep from yet another fount: his four marriages and innumerable dalliances with such diamantinely charming women as Lady Ottoline Morrell and Lady Constance Malleson. At the cost of sounding risqué I would admit that the many correspondences between Russell and Ottoline, well-documented and running into more than 3000 letters, were the ones I treasured as my prized possession, tucking away a few purple passages in my heart. In it, I saw my own adolescent shadow, the shadow of much repression and so much suffering. My mind wandered about, pottered around the Russell-Ottoline nexus, traveller-like. In my senseless adolescent anxiety I missed the beauty of the letters, prying merely on the prurient and the off-beat. Years later I was to discover that it has the quality of art; it bristles with shocking frankness and lays bare the emotional recesses of two ardent lovers with all its attendant bouleversement, penitence and puzzlements. In the world of Russell there was no wincing or crying aloud, a straitjacketing of the impulses compounded in his case by a cerebral sparkle that posed its own trauma and tortures. Much as Russell was well-known, much emotion demanded much concealment.

It is naïve on my part to end this piece without adding that I am acutely conscious of sounding a hagiographer of sort. But it is so difficult to be otherwise. Anyone who has gone through the mass of Russelliana – he once called it ‘logorrhoea’ – would readily testify to this acute shortcoming of the present writer. It is difficult to find a streak of folly in Russell’s ratiocination, or so it appears. In the world of Russell there were no half-measures, no half-truths, no hesitations, diffidences, and waffling. The cool, clinical monster of popular fallacy often gave no scope to his detractors and traducers to rate him on logical lines.

If latter day critics have found it difficult to point an accusing finger at him it was doubtless of Russell’s making; perceptive almost to a fault, he often saw the two sides of an argument and this, coupled with his long life, gave him the opportunity to modify his own ideas. Perhaps, he would require an equally versatile genius with equal measure of interest in myriad topics and equal fund of wit to analyze and draw up a critique on his work. A humble soul like me would much rather settle for a no-comment quip than dare hazard to take him on. This, in a way, is a silent tribute of an unrepentant, inveterate Russellophile.

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