Bertrand Russell: 1921-1970, the Ghost of Madness

Ray Monk, Author Free Press $40 (592p) ISBN 978-0-7432-1215-1
Monk offers the second and culminating volume of his biography of the philosopher and controversialist. Russell's original contributions to mathematics and logic by 1914 had established him as a world-class thinker. But the breakup of his first marriage and his public hostility to Britain's role in the Great War opened up disastrous new paths in his life. In his 40s, he was a compulsive womanizer and prolific intellectual journalist. The demands of the former necessitated the endless money-grubbing of writing and lecturing. His dubious reputation would make a further academic career impossible, and his chaotic domestic life in any case required funds for a lifestyle beyond that afforded by a settled professorship. When he died in 1970, in his late 90s, possessor of an inherited earldom and a Nobel Prize in Literature, he was known primarily as a political and social activist for contrary and unpopular causes (he accused the U.S. of using germ warfare in Korea and opposed the Bomb). He had badly handled four marriages and many mistresses, had been an erratic father with a schizophrenic son and had been manipulated and exploited for years by young radicals who took his money and tarnished what was left of his reputation. Russell's life, writes Monk, ""seems to have been inexorably drawn towards disaster, determined on its course by two fundamental traits of character: a deep-seated fear of madness and a quite colossal vanity."" After 10 years' work on the life, Monk finds little to like about his subject. His chronicle of Russell's failures and enormities does not make for pleasant reading. More dark than dramatic, it will appeal to connoisseurs of train derailments and other catastrophes. Illus. not seen by PW. (Mar.)
Reviewed on: 03/01/2001
Release date: 03/01/2001
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