Jona’s Quick Capsule Review: Piece of Shit

A Bit on Bertie Russell

An admirer of Russell’s later works (and embarrassingly unfamiliar with his stuff on logic) I picked up a copy of a biography in a Delhi bookstore the other day called “Bertrand Russell: 1921-70 The Ghost of Madness v. 2” by Ray Monk. After reading the first 150 pages, I really had to the throw the ‘piece of shit’ away. The back cover had such accolades as “Monk’s Russell is, in its seriousness, its intelligence and sheer narrative drive, one of the outstanding biographies of our time” etc. but after reading only the first chapter was the loaded bias of the author evident: a young fascist philosophy lecturer at Southampton university, in love, it appears, with the young Russell, constantly eulogising the charming suave aristocratic philosopher – ‘the greatest in his field since Aristotle’ – that he was in his 20’s, but unashamedly critical and dismissive of his later character: the social activist.

I found the author’s tactless disdain for his political views made the biography unreadable. From the first chapter's loaded title 'Fallen Angel' (others include ‘The Guevarist Years’) he goes on to diminish all of Russell's non-philosophically related excursions - as if he has committed some unforgivable heresy by daring to think outside abstract analytic philosophy; real concerns, such as social justice, education etc. don't seem to count. From the starting date of the biography at 1921 he characterises Russell as having lost his way, his work output in journalism and politics unoriginal and stylistically second rate.

Let us grant that the literary calibre of Russell’s writing in his later years (which is consistently belittled by Monk) is a matter of conjecture, but monk grossly misses the point: Russell wasn’t trying to write a fucking sonnet, stylish rhetoric is neither here nor there in political discourse, but it’s a criticism that subtly betrays Monk’s academic snobbery: the higher the syllable count the better (cf. nc's suspisions of 'dialects' in 'understanding power') – and you can’t say his work was unreadable… it's a while since i've read him, but i remember it as pretty damn good - kept me reading at pace, which is more than I can say for a lot of "serious" modern political philosophers (nozik or rawls)... clear and without mincing words, Russell’s books reached out to an audience that traditionally had little interaction with intellectual circles.

As far as originality is concerned, a lot of Russell’s later work that I’ve encountered seem to be précis of other peoples ideas, digestible introductions, or simple statements of opinion, inspired by authors from lau tzu to bakunin. how original he was i'm not qualified to say - but originality is not always a defining predicate of quality - to be politically effective or meaningful you don't need to say something original or destroy someone else’s ideas (unless you're trying to carve out a career), as is often the case in academic philosophy; the author seems to confuses this with lack of success.

Russell is one of the few intellectuals that I know of to have come down from his ivory tower, to bridge the gap and take the responsibility that his position as an intellectual endows… an example that is increasingly rare in 21st century intellectual communities: abstracted from social concerns, serving institutions rather than questioning them and alienating dissidents that don't conform to pre-established world perspectives. His sacrifice courage and commitment to social change is completely overlooked by Monk, even if he doesn’t share the same political colour. His works have lucidly introduced me to ideas that I guess have changed and sculpted my world perspective and certainly led me to inquire deeper into issues they concern (esp. Roads to Freedom). Monk, however rather sides with the opinion of his pre-1921 socialite friends, ‘Bertie’s become such a bore…” (the biography is littered with quotes to that effect) as if such opinions had any self-edifying, truth preserving logical structure.

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