Monday 26 August 2019

Philosophical philanderer

A new biography of Alfred Ayer, who died 10 years ago this week, reveals a man of logic and passion, says Stephen DoddIN 1987, when Alfred Jules Ayer was 77 years old, he squared off to boxer Mike Tyson at a New York party thrown by a prestigious lingerie designer. Told that Tyson was assaulting supermodel Naomi Campbell in an adjacent room, the septuagenarian philosopher decided upon gallantry, barged in and told him to stop.

Tyson was astonished.

``Do you know who the f*** I am?'' he asked Ayer. ``I am the heavyweight champion of the world.''

Ayer, not a man to be outfamed by anyone, stood his ground.

``And I am the Wykeham Professor of Logic,'' he countered. ``We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest we talk about this like rational men.''

While Ayer faced down the most feared man on earth, Naomi Campbell made good her escape.

Those who might be astounded at the philosopher's stand should, perhaps, look carefully to his history. A.J. ``Freddie'' to his glittering circle of friends Ayer, author of the ground-breaking Language, Truth and Logic, student of Wittgenstein and stalwart exponent of logical positivism, had always been a sucker for a pretty face.

``He was like the Don Giovanni of the Champagne Aria,'' declared his philosophical rival Isaiah Berlin. ``He was obsessed with women.''

Both Ayer's work and his determined philanderings, begun in his early 20s and pursued with dogged persistence into his final year of life, serve as an adjunct history of the 20th century. Einstein called him ``that clever young man''; Sartre swore at the mention of his name. When a student asked him about Camus, Ayer explained he knew little of the French writer's work, but ``he and I were friends we were making love to twin sisters in Paris after the war.''

Ayer, too, had an affair with the woman who would later become the mistress of the artist Giacometti.

Freddie Ayer, his friends said, became an amalgam of the rigours of intellectual Oxford and the temptations of London. He emerged from an unhappy childhood, passed in brutal English boarding schools, and established himself as a prodigy. Ayer became a lecturer immediately after graduating, publishing his landmark philosophical treatise at the age of 25.

Philosophy and life, however, were in Ayer's world often separate strands. Logical positivism, his atheistic, scientifically biased contribution to the philosophical canon, was a personal creed matched only by an equally vigorous espousal of hedonistic pleasures.

Ayer's first lover was Renée Lees, a woman 18 months his senior, encountered on a trip to Paris when he was in his late teens. He later claimed to have been a slow developer sexually.

``Due to the dreadful English boarding school system, I hardly spoke to a girl until I was 17,'' he said. ``I was shy and romantic in a Shelleyesque way and surrounded the girls I met with a mystical aura.''

At male-dominated Oxford, Ayer's lover lent him an exotic aura. Sometimes Renée would visit him there, or else he would meet her in London, travelling back to college on the last train, nicknamed the ``fornicator.'' In London they slept together in an hotel in Bloomsbury. Ayer recorded Renée's misgivings.

``Renée had not entirely thrown off her Catholic upbringing,'' he wrote, ``and her conscience was a little troubled. Mine was not. I was just 19 and very much in love.''

For three years, their marriage ran a commonplace course, and Ayer seemed both in love and happy with his lot. Their circle of friends expanded to include Guy Burgess, by that time already a clandestine agent for the Russians, and literary figures such as Cyril Connolly and Elizabeth Bowen.

Then the affairs began. The first full-blown liaison was with Inez Pearn, a Communist party member who was also the amorous target of the poet Stephen Spender, who became engaged to her. There were undoubtedly other flirtations, including a sexual tryst with the wife of poet E.E. Cummings. One, possibly apocryphal, story casts Renée as the distraught wife, arriving back from giving birth to their daughter, only to find lipstick on the sheets.

By the time of the inevitable divorce Ayer was in America, in the company of Sheilah Graham, the British-born society journalist who had been Scott Fitzgerald's final lover. Sheilah became pregnant, but married another man so the child would not be born illegitimately.

WHEREVER he went, Ayer's fame as the precocious author of Language, Truth and Logic preceded him. He courted controversy, upsetting the Kennedys in America by arguing against the existence of God, infuriating his peers when he answered a harmless question about what might come next in philosophy.

``There's no next,'' he said. ``Philosophy has come to an end. Finished.''

If Ayer's reasoning had answered life's great mysteries, there was still diversion to be found in earthier concerns. In London he embarked upon a complex sexual intrigue, begun when he dated Celia Paget, one of celebrated twin debutantes from the 1930s.

In the same period he was sleeping with an Oxford student, Penelope. Then he met Countess Patricia de Bendern in Paris, persuading her to elope with her. Coincidence, however, stumped his scheme.

Ayer did not know that Patricia and Penelope were friends. Behind his back, they compared notes. When Patricia discovered that love letters Ayer had sent to both women were virtually indistinguishable, she ended the affair abruptly.

As a lover, Ayer was charm itself, although when he descended to the role of a mere companion, his oblique outlook could be exasperating. He was notorious for his indifference to natural beauty. Once, shown a stunning scene in the countryside, he appeared lost in rapture. When questioned, he explained: ``I was wondering whether sheep think.''

Jocelyn Rickards, a long-term partner, discovered Ayer's sexual philosophies through bitter experience. She was enchanted by him, and thrilled by his social circle, which included Graham Greene, Barbara Skelton and Robert Kee. Jocelyn was less pleased, however, about her allocated slice of Ayer's commitment.

``Progressively I became part of a trio, a quartet, a quintet and sextet,'' she said. The affair fizzled out. Jocelyn explained: ``If he so much wanted his freedom, I thought, it was better that he should have it.''

Dee Wells, an American writer, met Ayer in 1956, and in the four years before she married him had ample opportunity to observe him at play.

``Some men played golf,'' Dee said. ``Freddie played women.''

They bought a house together in London, but the affairs continued from the beginning of the marriage. When he wanted to meet a woman, Ayer simply told Dee that he was off to play chess.

Ayer's final partner was Vanessa Lawson, 26 years his junior, and the wife of the future Conservative minister Nigel Lawson. She was unhappily married, restless in her unwanted role as a politician's wife, and they began to see each other in Oxford in the early 1970s. Dee discovered the affair by reading love notes sent by Vanessa, and the marriage began to crumble.

Then in his later life, tragedy struck as Ayer enjoyed his first faithful liaison since the early days of his first marriage. After many years together, Ayer and Vanessa were married in 1983 but just two years later, Vanessa fell ill and died. Ayer was crushed.

``It was terribly moving to see ... the real man of feeling behind this very dapper, rather vain man,'' said a friend.

FREDDIE Ayer died in June 1989, after final months that had brought renewed fire, and a taste for taking on the world. In a lecture on old age, the man who had outfaced jealous husbands and philosophical rivalry delivered typical thoughts on the ravages of the passing years.

``I think it was Sophocles who is said to have congratulated himself on outgrowing sexual desire,'' he said. ``This is not an attitude I should wish to share.''

A girlfriend once asked Ayer what account he might give of himself to St Peter, and he put aside his atheism for a moment to suggest: ``I have made a mess of my personal life, but I have taught my students to find the truth.''

For a lighter epitaph, though, it is tempting to believe he might have preferred black humour to a mixed mea culpa. Perhaps Dee, who both loved and suffered him more than many, provided the ideal words.

When Ayer's final illness brought a near-death experience, taking him across the brink of the last philosophical mystery, Dee delivered a pithy commentary on his recovery.

``Freddie has got so much nicer,'' she said, ``since he died.''

* A.J. Ayer, a Life, by Ben Rogers, is published by Chatto & Windus, £20.

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