Remembering Bertrand Russell, the philosopher, the lover and the rebel

Wednesday, 18 May 2011 - 1:29am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

If Russell’s ideas on religion met with open vitriol from the conformist post-Victorian generation, his notions on sex and marriage shocked both the Puritans and the liberals.

Of all 20th century intellectuals, none perhaps was more avidly read, feted, passionately argued, and yet faced such senseless calumny as Bertrand Russell, whose 139th birth anniversary is today.

A browsing of Russelliana would reveal a cool, clinical monster of popular fallacy who launched a lone crusade against sham, hypocrisy and claptrap. There was much of the astral and the absurd in religion that Russell pooh-poohed.

If Russell’s ideas on religion met with open vitriol from the conformist post-Victorian generation, his notions on sex and marriage shocked both the Puritans and the liberals. His views on trial marriages, childless sexual relationships among adults, marital infidelity 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 Russelliana, this book too pluckily defied prudery and specious moral through Russell’s incisive analysis; 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.”

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. Professional economists dismissed Russell’s ideas lightly till Keynes wrote his “General theory of Interest, Employment and Money” in 1936.

If his early life was devoted to mathematics and philosophy, in later life he wrote on history, politics, sociology, pacifism, general science and short stories. Among his best known books are Unpopular Essays (1950), The Impact of Science on Society (1951), Nightmares of Eminent Persons (1954), Portraits from Memory (1956), Why I am not a Christian (1967). His Autobiography is one of the most stunningly candid self-portrayals ever 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.

I would seek my reader’s indulgence to admit 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. The many correspondences between Russell and Ottoline were the ones I treasured as my prized possession, tucking away a few purple passages in my heart. In it, I saw my own shadow — the shadow of much repression. My mind wandered about, pottering around the Russell-Ottoline nexus. In my senseless adolescent anxiety I missed the beauty of the letters, prying merely on the prurient and the off-beat. Years later I discovered it has the quality of art — bristling with shocking frankness and laying bare the emotions of two ardent lovers with all its attendant puzzlements.

It is naive on my part to end this piece without adding that I’m conscious of sounding a hagiographer. Anyone who has gone through 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. The clinical monster of popular fallacy often gave no scope to his detractors. Perceptive 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. This, in a way, is a silent tribute of an unrepentant, inveterate Russellophile. 

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