Tag Archives: Bertrand Russell

Life is Poetry

Life, lived on the same plane as poetry and as music, is my distinctive desire and standard. It is the failure to accomplish this which makes me discontented with myself (3).
Lady Ottoline, quoted in Lady Ottoline’s Album.

Lady Ottoline, by Simon Bussy

Lady Ottoline, by Simon Bussy

As I read Selected Letters of André Gide and Dorothy Bussy the name of Lady Ottoline came up with some frequency. By an odd coincidence I happen to have the book, Lady Ottoline’s Album, in my possession (with a postcard of the portrait of Ottoline by Dorothy’s husband, Simon Bussy, laid in). Last year when I worked as a companion to elderly (mostly) women, I had a client who delighted in knowing and discussing what I was reading, which delighted me, naturally. More often than not she had a personal connection: Isak Dinesen? “My husband had lunch with her, she was like a bird! All she ate was fruit and champagne!” I loved that- to quote my youngest son, that’s  “my always dream!” But I digress.

When it was time for me to move on, she told me to take whatever books of hers I wanted to “start my library.” I hadn’t the heart to tell her that I was  in the process of a massive book downsizing to make my move manageable, not to mention the fact that I am actually a full fledged book-accumulating adult, but when one is 104, I guess I would seem a mere girl starting out in life….Anyway, at the very least, on sentimental grounds, I couldn’t resist. And of course, I cherish them now, as they recall her to my mind.

One of the books I choose was Lady Ottoline’s Album, but I had not yet read it. André Gide and Dorothy Bussy had reminded me, but it wasn’t until yesterday, whilst in the midst of a quasi-quarterly cleaning and reorganization spasm that I came upon it.

André Gide

André Gide

It had not, until this moment, occurred to me that Ottoline was a woman who would allow me to make love to her, but gradually, as the evening progressed, the desire to make love to her became more and more insistent. At last it conquered, and I found to my amazement that I loved her deeply, and that she returned my feeling (38) Bertrand Russell, quoted.

Lady Ottoline seems to have been the type of woman who had an exquisite understanding of the excellence of social interactions- conversation, humor, passion, intellect – the poetry of life. Pursuing the myriad photographs in the book one can’t help being fascinated by her face -her countenance is strangely appealing- she should be unattractive, and yet, she is, in fact, quite strikingly beautiful.

The list of guest that she hosted is extraordinary, she had a knack for attracting artists and writers to her home, Gide and Russell, of course, but also Yeats, D. H.  Lawrence, E. M. Forster, T. S. Eliot, Ian Fleming, Hardy, Henry James, Auden, Huxley, Katherine Mansfield, and Virginia Woolf, among others:

“…I remember spending some dark, uneasy, winter days during the first war in the depth of the country with Lytton Strachey. After lunch, as we watched the rain pour down and premature darkness roll up, he said, in his searching, personal way, “Loves apart, whom would you most like to see coming up the drive?’ I hesitated a moment and he supplied the answer: “Virginia of course.” (78) – Clive Bell, quoted.

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

The book is comprised of her and her famous guest’s writings or letters and a huge array of photographs that Ottoline, for the most part, took. An intimate peek into the lives of a wonderfully influential group of people. The photos of these towering figures in casual moments, is fascinating, and extremely endearing…I can’t stop picturing Yeats, described perfectly by Stephen Spender as having “something of the appearance of the overgrown art student” (100).

Despite Lawrence’s rather scathing sketch (presumably of Ottoline) in Women in Love, which would seriously breach their friendship, (and yet seems a plausible description)…she is a mesmerizing woman. Her relationships, by all accounts burned bright; there is a ferocity about her that makes me trust Lawrence….but still, her insistence that life be lived as poetry – reduced to pure feeling and experience, is so appealing. I suppose Lawrence wondered if she ever really achieved her desire.

Nevertheless, She and Lawrence, have philosophical congress. Concentrated in our bodies, for good or bad, life is meant to be felt, loved, and savoured. It is a lovely little book- an erstwhile golden age, elegantly composed by a passionate woman who had, truly, a genius of repose.

*Lady Ottoline’s Album: Snapshots & Portraits of Her Famous Contemporaries (and of Herself) Photographed for the Most Part by Lady Ottoline Morrell from the Collection of her Daughter Julian Vinogradoff. Edited by Carolyn G. Heilbrun, with an Introduction by Lord David Cecil.

Riverine Mind

Knowledge, like other good things is difficult, but not impossible; the dogmatist forgets the difficulty, the sceptic denies the possibility. (52)
– Bertrand Russell, Education and the Good Life

DSCI0013Seen in the light of 1926, when first published, Education and the Good Life, is an interesting, forward book with an excellent title. Read in 2013, it is an interesting, outdated book with an excellent title.

What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health if no one remembers how to use them? (27)

An excellent question which is still worth asking. Russell argues for good and healthy childhoods and educations for all. He goes into near excruciating detail regarding the best methods of raising infants to babies- perhaps that is simply my own exhaustion of the subject, the chapters may very well keep the newly parented person in rapt attention. Most of what he says was new at the time, and has borne the test of time. I do have to disagree with his dismissal of swaddling. I was late to come to the ancient art, but found it not only helpful but logical. After all, an infant having  so recently been held in the intense confinement of the womb does find a familiar comfort in a tight swaddle- and it is strangely satisfying to make a pretty folded package of a little baby (most people sadly never learn how to do it properly). It is also a comfort for a mother’s immediate nostalgia for the time when the life she carried was safely contained. But this is a small matter and I digress.

It is only through imagination that men become aware of what the world might be; with it, “progress” would become mechanical and trivial. (30)

Bertrand Russell’s ideas are large and small flowing at a terrific rate, but he is at his best when he is in large philosopher mode. What he really wanted to emphasize in this book is the sense and beauty found in a balance between education as a form of utility and education as an aristocratic “ornament.” His ideas regarding that balance are true and beautifully stated. His Dr. Spock-ish manual of child rearing- a little less so. Once he gets off the formative early years where vitality, courage, sensitiveness and intelligence are practically applied to the average 3 or 4 year old, he gets into early education and cites Maria Montessori and her methodology at length.There is some, but little, to argue with his ideas, the problem is largely one of the information being fairly well accepted these days, so no longer particularly compelling reading.

I regard the cultivation of intelligence, therefore, as one of the major purposes of education. This might seem a commonplace, but in fact it is not. (74)

The sustaining interest of this book is the underlying philosophy. Particularly as we find ourselves in an age of “results” oriented and “skilled work force” propelled educations. More and more an argument has to be waged in defense of the classic liberal arts education; as if all subjects and thinking deemed superfluous should be eliminated. In many people’s minds a high score on a bubble test out-weighs anything that is not easily measured in a standardized exam. I would agree with Russell that mastery of precision matters but without art, imagination and critical thinking, it is to empty purpose. Not just for the individual but for humanity.

Perhaps I am old fashioned, but I must confess that I view with alarm the theory that language is merely a means of communication, and not also a vehicle of beauty. (31)