Saturday, March 04, 2006

BOOK: Bertrand Russell, "Autobiography" (cont.)

Bertrand Russell: Autobiography. London and New York: Routledge, 2000. 041522862X. xv + 742 pp. (Initially published in three volumes, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1967, 1968, 1969.)

[Continued from part 1 and part 2.]

Some of the highlights from the numerous letters included in the book:

  • A completely bizarre letter from Russell's friend Gilbert Murray, editor of the book series which also included Russell's Problems of Philosophy. He pretends that the publishers are taking Russell's rhetorical questions and philosophical examples seriously: “Messrs Williams and Norgate [the publishers] will be glad to meet Mr Russell's wishes as far as practicable [. . .] About the earwig, for instance, they are ready, if Mr Russell is inconvenienced by his suspicions of its presence in his room, to pay a rat-catcher [. . .] to look for it and make sure [. . .] Mr Russell's further complaint that he has not the acquaintance of the Emperor of China cannot be regarded by Messrs W & N as due in any way to any oversight or neglect of theirs. Mr R should have stipulated for an introduction before signing his contract.” (P. 225.)
  • A few curious letters from Georg Cantor, in delightfully quirky English. “I am quite an adversary of Old Kant [. . .] yonder sophistical philistine, who was so bad a mathematician.” (19 September 1911, p. 227.) “[I]n this quarrel [with Poincaré] I will not be the succumbent.” (Ibid., p. 228.) “You must know, Sir, that I am not a regular just Germain, for I am born 3 March 1845 at Saint Peterborough, Capital of Russia” (19 September 1911, p. 229.) Cantor had hoped to see Russell during a visit to England, but unfortunately had to return to Germany sooner than he had planned because of news of his son's illness.
  • Letter of introduction for Norbert Wiener, who later became a famous mathematician. This letter was written by Wiener's father, a professor at Harvard, to ask if Norbert could study under Russell at Cambridge. The letter spends a good deal of time enumerating Norbert's many intellectual and academic accomplishments. “In philosophy he has pursued studies under Professors [6 surnames follow] at Harvard and Cornell Universities.” Russell adds in a footnote: “Nevertheless he turned out well.” (P. 233.) See also pp. 219–20 for more poking fun at Harvard professors.
  • An absurdly florid, ceremonious, pompously formal letter from ‘The General Educational Association of Hunan’, inviting him to visit their region. “We beg to inform you that the educational system of our province is just at infancy [. . .] so that the guidance and assistance must be sought to sagacious scholars.” (Pp. 369–70.) This reminds me somewhat of the style of Nigerian scammers (“I crave your distinguished indulgence”)... :-)
  • Letter from cousin Claud Russell, commenting hilariously on the Treaty of Versailles and on European imperialism. It seems that Germany had not returned certain astronomical instruments to China, as it was required to: “Perhaps you might suggest to your friends in China the occupation of Swabia or Oldenburg to secure its enforcement. I must say, however, in fairness to the Treaty of Versailles, that you do it less than justice. You have overlooked article 246, under which ‘Germany will hand over to H.B.M.'s Government the skull of the Sultan Mkwawa...’ ” (P. 380.)
  • A letter from and to a journalist, preparing an “article on the subject of parasitic nuisances who bedevil authors” and asking Russell for “an account of your grievances”. Russell's answer includes a number of funny examples (pp. 415–16). I'm very curious what the resulting article was like.
  • A letter from Malinowski: “On the occasion of my visit to your School I left my only presentable brown hat in your anteroom. I wonder whether since then it has had the privilege of enclosing the only brains in England which I ungrudgingly regard as better than mine;” (p. 434).
  • A letter from Will Durant, who later became known as the author of the bestselling series of books on ‘The Story of Civilization’. In this somewhat pompous letter from 1931, Durant asks: “I am attempting to face, in my next book, a question that our generation, perhaps more than most, seems always ready to ask, and never able to answer — What is the meaning or worth of human life?” (P. 443.) He continues with a long jeremiad suggesting that the progress of science and technology has deprived people of the sense that life has a meaning; “the greatest mistake in human history was the discovery of truth” (p. 444); truth “is not beautiful, and did not deserve to be so passionately chased”; it merely robbed us of comforting delusions. He ends the two-page letter with a list of the books he has written, of academic titles he holds, and of the people to whom he is sending this letter (a bunch of presidents, prime ministers, notable scientists, artists, etc.). Russell deflates this pompous windbag with a splendidly terse five-line reply: “I am sorry to say that at the moment I am so busy as to be convinced that life has no meaning whatever [. . .] I do not see that we can judge what would be the result of the discovery of truth, since none has hitherto been discovered.” (P. 445.)
  • A letter from J. B. S. Haldane about the ‘language’ of the food dances by which bees describe the location and type of a food source to other bees (p. 585).
  • A certain H. McHaigh wrote to complain about Russell's voice, ending with: “When, or if, you ever entertain shame and self-disgust (and I pray it may be soon), I suggest that you gather and destroy every sound-record of your voice: you owe that reparation at least./ God help you./ Yours truly/ H. McHaigh.” (P. 586.)
  • A funny exchange of letters between Russell and another aristocrat, Lord Russell of Liverpool. The latter writes: “I am forwarding the enclosed as Monsieur Edmund Paris, and he is not alone, has got us mixed up. The first paragraph of his letter refers to you. The others are for me and I shall be replying to them.” (P. 622.) They ended up by sending a joint letter to the editor of The Times: “In order to discourage confusions which have been constantly occurring, we beg herewith to state that neither of us is the other.” (P. 623.)
  • From Max Born, praising his History of Western Philosophy: “I have been tortured at school with Plato, and I have always thoroughly disliked German metaphysics.” (P. 630.) No wonder then that he enjoyed Russell's History.

Other letters from notable people: Tagore (pp. 230–1); Francis Younghusband (p. 271); E. M. Forster (pp. 311–2); Toynbee (pp. 675–6); Einstein (pp. 446, 551–3).

This is a fairly long book with lots and lots of interesting passages. Russell is quite an admirable person in many ways. Not only he maintained his humane and progressive opinions throughout his life, but he was willing to actively promote these opinions and try to do something good for humanity, even at the age of ninety years and more. Even though much of his anti-nuclear work seems to be an obscure footnote to history given that his efforts were ignored by the governments of the great powers (and also given that the cold war is now over); even though many of his plans and efforts seem utopian; I cannot help admiring his persistence, his determination, his willingness to persevere in believing that humanity is not mired beyond help (pp. 527–8). And, not least of all, there's the wonderful clarity of his prose. This is certainly a book well worth reading, despite the occasional boring passage.


  • Especially in the inter-war years, Russell wrote quite a lot of books aimed at the general public. Some of the titles mentioned in his autobiography sound interesting: What I believe (p. 412); Power, a new social analysis (p. 432); The Conquest of Happiness (p. 440).
  • I'd also like to read some of his fiction eventually. He mentions two or three collections of short stories: Satan in the Suburbs (p. 525); Nightmares of Eminent Persons (p. 527); Fact and Fiction (p. 528).
  • Books about nuclear war. Neville Shute: On the Beach (p. 602). Herman Kahn: On Thermonuclear War (p. 638).
  • On p. 673, there's a letter from Russell to Miss Alice Mary Hilton, thanking her for sending him a copy of her book on Logic, Computing Machines and Automation. I am fond of automata theory, so this sounds like a possibly interesting book to read.
  • Constance Malleson: In the North, Autobiographical Fragments in Norway, Sweden, Finland: 1936—1946. She and Russell were lovers for some time. I found this book mentioned in her Wikipedia page.


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