Bertrand Russell’s terror of madness


Despite being a relatively committed agnostic, I’ve recently become obsessed with Bertrand Russell. I’m working my way through several of his books at once, and especially enjoying his autobiography. So far, not quite a fifth of the way through, it’s perceptive, precise, and often funny, but also serious — tormented, even — without being pretentious.

“Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong,” he writes, “have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.”

Before Russell married his first wife, his aristocratic family, having failed in its efforts to prevent the union on grounds of her being a commoner, “found a weapon which very nearly gave them victory”: the idea of madness in the blood.

The old family doctor, a serious Scotsman with mutton-chop whiskers, began to tell me all the things that I had dimly suspected about my family history: how my Uncle William was mad, how my Aunt Agatha’s engagement had to be broken off because of her insane delusions, and how my father had suffered from epilepsy (from what medical authorities have told me since then, I doubt whether this was a correct diagnosis). In those days, people who considered themselves scientific tended to have a somewhat superstitious attitude toward heredity, and of course it was not known how many mental disorders are the result of bad environment and unwise moral instruction. I began to feel as if I was doomed to a dark destiny. I read Ibsen’s Ghosts and Björnson’s Heritage of the Kurts. Alys [Russell’s betrothed] had an uncle who was rather queer. By emphasizing these facts until they rendered me nearly insane, my people persuaded us to take the best medical opinion as to whether, if we were married, our children were likely to be mad. The best medical opinion, primed by the family doctor, who was primed by the family, duly pronounced that from the point of view of heredity we ought not to have children.

Later, after he and Alys decided, to his family’s possibly even greater horror, that they would marry but not have children, Russell had a nightmare in which he “discovered my mother to be mad, not dead, and…, on this ground, I felt it my duty not to marry. “I am haunted,” he wrote:

by the fear of the family ghost, which seems to seize on me with clammy invisible hands to avenge my desertion of its tradition of gloom…

The fears generated at that time have never ceased to trouble me subconsciously. Ever since, but not before, I have been subject to violent nightmares in which I dream that I am being murdered, usually by a lunatic… The same kind of fear caused me, for many years, to avoid all deep emotion and live, as nearly as I could, a life of intellect tempered by flippancy. Happy marriage gradually gave me mental stability, and when, at a later date, I experienced new emotional storms, I found that I was able to remain sane. This banished the conscious fear of insanity, but the unconscious fear has persisted.

Image taken from the BBC, where you can hear Russell’s 1948 talk on “Authority and the Individual.”


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