The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, 1914-1944

by Bertrand Russell
Atlantic-Little, Brown, 418 pp., $8.95

Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell; drawing by David Levine

As there are religious conversions, there must be philosophical conversions also. Since the eighteenth century, philosophy has taken over some part of the ground that once belonged to institutionalized theologies, as a focus of divided feelings. As soon as God is no longer well defined and can be either invented anew or dismissed in each generation, the relation of man as a species to the rest of Nature becomes open ground for philosophy. It is to be expected that natural protestants, who are skeptics, and whose emotions follow their intellect—such men as Hume, Mill, James, Russell—will meet sudden crises of belief, moments of conversion, in which they see Nature as overwhelming them, or as supporting them, or as offering them reconciliation and rest.

Russell’s Autobiography, no less than Mill’s, is clearly constructed around such movements of conversion. It has the form of a pilgrim’s story. The pilgrim progresses through various philosophical trials and uncertainties toward a final resting-place, from which, looking back, we can see his progress as emblematic. In successive episodes of disillusionment, he changes his way. He passes under the influence of men who have shared one or another of the conflicting attitudes to Nature which are present in his own mind, unreconciled. G. E. Moore, Whitehead, Gilbert Murray, D. H. Lawrence, Wittgenstein, each had some role in a crisis of belief, which was at the same time a turning point in a continuous unfolding of unrealized emotions. Alys Russell, Ottoline Morrell, Constance Malleson, Dora Black, are each associated with a new phase of moral commitment or of moral exploration. Every attachment is given a meaning and a direction. The author’s requirement that the phases of his life should all have a legible significance has its natural satisfaction in autobiography. The form allows a signposted story, with clearly marked transitions and conclusions, as in the best Whig histories.

Russell’s original need to understand his place in Nature, and to render some definite account to himself of the value of his existence, has often amounted in its urgency to a kind of rage. His recurring disappointments, as he describes them, became moods of battled fury. If the world will not be as it ought to be, he will imperiously call for an immediate explanation, or he will rail upon it like Timon with an extraordinary energy of pessimism. And then, as the story is told, he is picked up once again, and enabled to continue on his path, by some other superior spirit who equally cannot submit to the tawdry contingencies of a common fortune. Or he may meet on high ground, and with almost wordless understanding, another aristocrat who will neither bend nor break before the wretchedness and triviality of events: this happened with Conrad. The search can then proceed with some relief from loneliness and under a new encouragement.

There is no hint of autobiography as comedy, as in…

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