Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Writer's choice 9

Norman Geras publishes a weekly Normblog Writer's choice which features well-known writers, journalists, poets and other such practitioners of the compositional arts, writing about books.

Today's piece by Anthony Julius is on "Human Society in Ethics and Politics" by Bertrand Russell which was a favourite book from his youth. His perspective today is very different.

Re-reading the book now, more than 30 years later, I have a different view. I was expecting to enjoy it again. I was surprised at how much I disliked it, and why.

So far from appreciating it as a book about the war, I now recoil from the loftiness of Russell's perspective on the Nazis' crimes. He treats the Holocaust as no more than a readily available instance of a familiar moral problem - 'when Nazis say that it is good to torture Jews, and we say that it is bad, we do not feel as if we were merely expressing a difference of taste...' Russell's war-time examples are continuous with his other ones - contrasts he draws between (say) the Quaker and the head-hunter as ideal types, and so on. They don't stand out in the way they did when I first read the book. What appealed to me then now seems to me to be typical of a failure of a specifically English imagination to grasp the terrible singularity of the Holocaust. It is as if it had not taken place.

This "recoil from the loftiness of Russell's perspective" is exactly what overcame me last week. What was initially intended as a light hearted nomination of Russell as a Welsh Born Icon gradually ran out of steam as I realised quite how disgusting some of his opinions were.

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