The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, 1872-1921

by Ray Monk
Free Press, 695 pp., $35.00

Bertrand Russell lived until the age of ninety-eight, and at the end of the six hundred pages of the first volume of Ray Monk’s biography he is only forty-nine. Yet Monk is a pleasantly economical writer and at no point does the story drag or seem unnecessarily drawn out. The length is justified, for Russell was an articulate genius who followed several independent careers, each fully documented, even in this first half of his life.

He was not only a compulsive writer, outgoing and fluent, but a particularly compulsive writer about himself. From his early youth onward, he kept up a running commentary on his development, his emotions, his virtues, and his failings, and on his intellectual projects and ambitions. He continued to talk to himself about himself, as he had done as an orphaned child in the garden of his grandmother’s house, Pembroke Lodge, where he was brought up. His extrovert brother, Frank, accounted him “a prig” because of his separateness.

Much of this autobiographical material survives in the vast accumulation of letters to friends and to lovers, particularly in the two thousand or so letters to Ottoline Morrell, the deepest and most long-lasting of his attachments. Monk estimates that Russell could rarely have passed a day without writing, in one form or another, at least two or three thousand words. He evidently hated to destroy his written words; he kept everything.

The whole story of his life eventually came to an end in the Russell Archives at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, which every Russell biographer must now visit. There is even an embarrassment of riches in this record, because Russell so eagerly provides in his letters and memoirs the dramatic turning points, the epiphanies and metaphysical revelations, which add splendor and excitement to the story. He was always composing his own legend, and he designed his life as the proper path of genius, stressing always his perpetual sense of isolation from the ordinary ranks of humanity, who would not understand the craving for perfection, a craving which he found could be satisfied only in mathematics.

Following in Russell’s footsteps, as to some extent he must, Monk is suitably dry in tone, and sometimes even explicitly skeptical, especially when recording Russell’s soulful epiphanies and self-revelations. Russell obviously adapted his rhetoric to fit particular correspondents, and Ottoline Morrell received letters expressing his grandest religious or metaphysical flights, having strong religious feelings herself and an inclination toward the mystical romanticism that Lawrence satirized in Women in Love. “What holds me to you for ever and ever is religion. Everybody else hurts me by lack of reverence,” Russell wrote to Ottoline Morrell while he was involved in an affair with Constance Malleson. “In a gay boyish mood I got intimate with Constance Malleson, but she doesn’t suit serious moods.” One would have guessed that this was written by H.G. Wells, but Russell, majestic in his intellect, did often cause his friends, including Ottoline Morrell, to shudder …

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