Prizing Bertrand Russell

February 2: Onthis day in 1970 Bertrand Russell died, aged ninety-seven. Like Henri Bergsonbefore him, Russell won his Nobel Prize in literature without ever havingpublished any. In presenting the 1950 award, the most that the Academy couldoffer to justify their selection of a mathematician-philosopher-social activistwas the view that Russell often wrote as “the outspoken hero in a Shawcomedy” talked, and that his commitment to “rationality andhumanity” was “in the spirit of Nobel’s intention.”

Russell is connected to literary greatness in other ways. Hewas familiar with many in the Bloomsbury group, and close to D. H. Lawrence fora time. His friendship with Joseph Conrad led him to name two sons after him.He gave a major portion of his inheritance to the struggling T. S. Eliot; theother major portion went to the fledgling London School of Economics. Suchgenerosity and commitment are reflected in a lifetime of ideals and causes.

But Russell’s friends, family, and biographers struggle todraw a complete or consistent portrait. A lifelong pacifist, he advocated a preemptivewar with the Soviet Union. At the same time he was supporting Eliot he washaving an affair with Eliot’s wife. Some portray an involved, attentive father;others hold Russell’s radical parenting methods responsible for his son’smental illness. Some blame his many ruined relationships on his cold-heartedrationalism, and try to damn him from his own mouth. The following account ofthe break-up of Russell’s first marriage, triggered by his affair with OttolineMorrell, comes from his autobiography:

I then told Alys about Ottoline. She flew into a rage, andsaid that she would insist upon a divorce, bringing Ottoline’s name into it….I told Alys that she could have the divorce whenever she liked, but that shemust not bring Ottoline’s name into it. She nevertheless persisted that shewould bring Ottoline’s name in. Thereupon I told her quietly but firmly thatshe would find that impossible, since if she ever took steps to that end, Ishould commit suicide to circumvent her. I meant this, and she saw that I did.Thereupon her rage became unbearable. After she had stormed for some hours, Igave a lesson in Locke’s philosophy to her niece, Karin Costelloe, who wasabout to take her Tripos. I then rode away on my bicycle, and with that my firstmarriage came to an end.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.