In his Nightmares of Eminent Persons, Bertrand Russell gives a novel turn to the old device of placing plausible people in imporbable situations--their nightmares. The philosopher himself, however, would probably deny most emphatically that the nightmare situations he describes are unlikely.
Russell is, for a change, neither proving nor disproving anything, except, perhaps, that the Queen of Sheba had nightmares equal to those of any modern chief of state. In this collection of thirteen essays an fables, Russell merely twists his practised knife in ancient and modern bodies of superstition, myth, and foible.
He describes the nightmares of such varied and notable personalities as the Queen of Sheba, the Shakespearean expurgator Bowdler, Stalin, Dean Acheson, a modern psychoanalyst, a metaphysician, and an existentialist. Bowdler, or example, dreams that his wife reads a copy of the original Shakespeare, goes mad out of remorse for her dread deed, and is carried off to the asylum, shouting Shakespearean obscenities to the neighbors as the departs.
The best tale is the description of a modern psychoanalyst's nightmare, which Russell subtitles "Adjustment--a Fugue." An unhappy analyst dreams--in a night of misgiving--that Shakespeare character, Macbeth, Lear, Hamlet, Othello, and several others, are turned into happy, well adjusted, normal--and frightfully dull-human beings.
All these narratives are, quite obviously, vehicles for Russell's own peculiar philosophical, social, and religious ideas. What they lack in subtlety, however, they more than make up in sharp wit and deep, sometimes searing insight into contemporary foibles. The aged philosopher must be thinking of recent mental panaceas when he mentions in his introduction that the "Nightmares" might better be entitled "Signposts to Sanity." At any rate, his book is unquestionably an effective mental antidote for the neuroses of those who have no wish to be well-adjusted. Russell writes, "Every isolated passion is, in isolation, insane; sanity may be defined as a synthesis of insanities. Ever dominant passion generates a dominant fear, the fear of its non-fulfillment. Every dominant fear generates a nightmare. . . ." Russell's own solution: that every man summon in his mind a parliament of fears, in which each in turn is voted absurd by all the others. What would Norman Vincent Peal say? It hardly matters. The dreamers in Russell's little book did not follow the advice of either philosopher."
There are a few professional philosophers who, remembering with awe the Bertrand Russel of Principia Mathematics and An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth, mourn his recent "decline" into light literature. Father William, they argue, should not be standing on his head. Any reader of the "Nightmares" however, will be inclined to think that more remains to the eighty-three year old Bertrand Russell (and to the somewhat younger Cheshire cat) than his grin. A remarkably acute thinker is merely chuckling in a different medium.