sylvia nasar, New York Times, April 29, 2001

Review of Ray Monk, Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness, 1921-1970 Illustrated. 574 pp. New York: The Free Press. $40.

Bertrand Russell, who was among the 20th century’s most influential philosophers and public intellectuals, began his autobiography by declaring, “Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.” Thus the author of Principia Mathematica and champion of free love and world peace explained his multiple marriages and affairs, towering intellectual achievements and numerous public honors, including a Nobel.

Some of his best friends saw him in a less flattering light. “A fervid egoist,” Virginia Woolf noted dryly in her diary in 1921, shortly before Russell’s 50th birthday – the halfway mark of what would be a remarkably long life. “A fallen angel with Mephistophelean wit,” remarked Beatrice Webb, founder of the London School of Economics, adding, “He may be successful as a littérateur; I doubt whether he will be of value as a thinker, and I am pretty well certain he will not attain happiness.” In the second volume of his prodigiously researched and brilliantly narrated biography, Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness, 1921-1970, Ray Monk, a professor of philosophy at the University of Southampton in England, goes even farther than Russell’s contemporaries in deconstructing the iconic sage with the halo of unruly white hair.

“His great quality was his unfairness” is the mildest of many barbs repeated by Monk to suggest that the philosopher’s professed love for humanity disguised a hatred of most people. The charge of unfairness could apply equally to Monk himself. While accusing Russell of oversimplifying complex issues and caricaturing his opponents, Monk has written an account that reads more like an indictment than a life. Despite his superb grasp of Russell’s philosophical work and confident command of the details of Russell’s private life, Monk, the author of a sympathetic yet rigorous biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein, is far too convinced of Russell’s guilt to do his protean subject justice.

Surveying the eventful second half of the British philosopher’s life, Monk maintains that instead of love and pity, “a deep-seated fear of madness and a quite colossal vanity” drove Russell “inexorably” toward “disaster.” Not only did Russell waste his intellectual gifts by abandoning highbrow philosophy for hack journalism (and political grandstanding), Monk says, but he caused enough emotional carnage in his own home to make the House of Atreus look like an average dysfunctional family. According to Monk, “loving another was, for him, inconceivable.” Russell’s chief victims, he claims, were his son John and his granddaughters Sarah and Lucy – all of whom suffered from the same devastating mental illness, schizophrenia, that afflicted some of Russell’s older relatives.

Monk’s thesis makes for a compelling story line, but it simply isn’t credible – even on the evidence he supplies. Whatever Russell’s flaws – arrogance, grandiosity, glibness, insensitivity and occasionally hilarious flakiness come to mind – he was neither as trivial nor as monstrous as Monk would have us believe.

Take Monk’s first complaint, that Russell churned out gobs of “second-rate journalism” instead of sticking to mathematics and logic. Wittgenstein once said of his former mentor’s work, “Russell’s books should be bound in two colors, those dealing with mathematical logic in red – and all students of philosophy should read them; those dealing with ethics and politics in blue – and no one should be allowed to read them.” Monk couldn’t agree more; “willful shallowness,” “wild exaggerations,” “crass oversimplifications,” “superficiality” and “credulous nonsense” are just a few of his put-downs of Russell’s writings of the 20’s and 30’s. But are newspaper columns meant to be anything but ephemeral?

As it happens, Russell turned to freelance writing and the lecture circuit to support his wife and children – as well as to be able to stay home caring for his young son. And some of Russell’s popular work, including A History of Western Philosophy, was good enough to merit a Nobel Prize in Literature. This cuts no ice with Monk.

Monk’s cruelest allegation is that Russell’s shortcomings as a parent destroyed his son and doomed the granddaughters he and his fourth wife, Edith, raised. One, Sarah, spent “much of her time … in psychiatric care,” and the other, Lucy, immolated herself five years after Russell’s death. Indeed, in a gesture that must be called terminally tacky, Monk uses Lucy’s death to point an accusing finger at Russell, calling it, in the book’s closing lines, “the final visitation of the ghosts that haunted Russell throughout his life.”

Monk’s vivid rendering of this family tragedy masks the speciousness of his underlying argument. Back in the Freudian 50’s and 60’s, schizophrenia was widely thought to be a psychological condition for which awful parents were to blame. But that belief has long since been thoroughly discredited by research, and by the efficacy of drug therapy. Both show that schizophrenia is a brain disorder like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s rather than the product of a traumatic “family romance.” Not a hint of this is to be found in Monk’s volume – a glaring omission for a decade-long research project.

In the book’s second chapter, Monk cautions readers that “of course, the links between cause and effect here are very difficult to determine, and one should be wary of attributing John’s later misfortunes directly to his upbringing.” But Monk exhibits no such wariness. Just a few lines down, he writes: “John did not grow up to be fearless, independent and free, as Russell’s theory demanded that he should, but rather inhibited, withdrawn and anxious. It is only in retrospect, however, that we can say: ‘No wonder.’ ”

After describing the descent of John, whose troubles began in elementary school, into full-blown schizophrenia at 33, Monk leaves no doubt as to the cause of his illness. Referring to a nightmare shared by Russell and his granddaughter Lucy, he writes, “What Russell had sensed was a guilty secret of madness in the family; what Lucy had sensed was a hidden murder.” Monk goes on to speculate: “Might this not be a metaphor for the feeling that her beloved grandfather had himself a dreadful secret, namely that he had destroyed the life of his son?”

Once again, Russell’s actions count for very little. That Russell and John’s mother, Dora, founded a school largely for their children’s benefit, that Russell stayed in a miserable marriage (when his wife had borne two children by another man) to spare his children the pain of divorce, or that Russell provided a home for his troubled son and the son’s equally troubled wife for several years doesn’t alter Monk’s verdict that he was “cold towards those who loved him.” He prefers to see Russell as the sole author of his own and his family’s misery. “At 41 Queen’s Road, therefore, Russell did not just write his Autobiography; he recreated it.”

Witnessing a parent’s grief over a child’s devastating illness inspires sympathy in most people. And most people have some sense of the terrible choices that parents face – choices even bleaker in 1955, when no effective treatments existed. But apparently not Monk. Russell was surely wrong to relegate his son to his ex-wife’s care and to refuse further contact with him. But was that so monstrous? He was, not without reason, afraid of his son and determined to shield his granddaughters. For Monk, however, there are no shades of gray. “Dora struggled to cope with John, who was never again able to work or look after himself, and Russell got on with the task of saving humanity,” he writes. Monk could just as easily have said, “and Russell got on with the task of caring for his granddaughters” – but that would have undermined the case he seems determined to make.

Unfortunately, Monk’s dislike of Russell – which he says is based largely on the fate of Russell’s son and granddaughters – and his seeming ignorance of the most basic facts about mental illness have skewed his judgment badly. Biographers who despise their subjects are evidently just as much at risk of getting the story wrong as those who worship blindly.

Sylvia Nasar, the James S. and John L. Knight professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, is the author of A Beautiful Mind, a biography of the mathematician John Nash.