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Clark, who has written lives of Einstein (1971) and J. B. S. Haldane (1969), is the very antithesis of his present subject--neither brilliant, mercurial, oracular, nor charming. His prose style jars by comparison with Russell's Augustan felicity; he treads with studied caution on intellectual precipices which Wittgenstein's mentor negotiated with the ease of a mountain goat. Yet this book is a model of intelligent, responsible biography, for reasons which can be summed up in the epithets ""workmanlike"" and ""unawed."" The first is not simply a matter of serious research, but of imposing order and proportion on 97 years of polymath activity. Clark has worked exhaustively with primary documents, notably the Russell Archives of McMaster University; Russell's own correspondence is skillfully made the backbone of the narrative. At pains to slight no area of Russell's interests, he covers Principia Mathematica, the Theories of Description and Types, and logical atomism as diligently as the travels, political causes, and popular journalism. The philosophical explanations are of necessity awfully general, but it is exciting to follow the parallel strands of the man's intellectual, moral, and personal convictions. As for the pathless wilds of Russell's love life, Clark manages to accommodate both thoroughness and tact. His solid, painstaking approach to biographical fact is complemented by his admirably detached, unintimidated judgments. He does Russell the honor to examine him by the highest standards of decency, truth, and consistency. On the personal level, his second marriage seems to have resulted from some unlovely misjudgments in playing off one woman and one set of advantages against another. His intellectual juggling act between rational objectivity and moral imperative exasperated his philosophical colleagues for more than half a century. He loved to deliver middlebrow pieties to popular audiences with an air of fearless iconclasm and Olympian authority. Politically, his dallying with the idea of pre-emptive war against Russia after WW II was compounded by later prevarications about ever having said anything of the kind. At the end of his life his own errors of judgment and tactics led him into the Schoenman imbroglio (Clark refuses to let him off the hook with the condescending excuse of senility). He could be by turns arrogant, hypocritical, inhuman, intolerant, priggish. And when all these qualities are weighed in the scale of his life, one is moved and amazed by him more than ever--a fact which Clark, instead of shouting in pompous tones, coolly allows to emerge of its own accord.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1975
Publisher: Knopf