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Alexander Waugh, author

The Independent, Friday, September 26, 2008

One can understand why Alexander Waugh, himself a scion of a famous family, should have been interested in the Wittgenstein dynasty of Vienna. But the correct analogy for this ill-starred sept is surely the house of Atreus. The multi-millionaire Karl Wittgenstein, an iron and steel magnate, fathered nine children, one of whom died in her first month. The eight survivors were singularly unhappy, prone to cancers and all neurotic at the very least; most of them undoubtedly crossed the border into psychosis. 

Hermine, the eldest child, was a repressed spinster who dabbled amateurishly in painting. Gretl, the youngest daughter, fell prey to an American wastrel who married her for money. She was sexually frigid and consulted psychoanalysts about her problems, which were compounded when her schizoid husband lost all her money in the 1929 Wall Street crash.

Waugh claims that Gretl was the warmest, kindest and most humorous Wittgenstein, but also the bossiest, most ambitious and worldly. The most normal was Helene, who married a civil servant. But it is the brothers who really fascinate Waugh. Three committed suicide, and Waugh is good on the cult of self-slaughter in fin-de-siècle Vienna after the famous suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf and his mistress at Mayerling in 1889.

That leaves the concert pianist Paul and the philosopher Ludwig as the core of Waugh’s excellent book. Paul lost his right arm in the First World War and survived the horrors of Siberia as a prisoner of war until his influential family pulled strings to get him repatriated. He spent the vast fortune inherited from Karl in payment to famous composers (Ravel, Prokofiev, Korngold, Richard Strauss) to persuade them to write concerti for the left hand. Some of these episodes read like black comedy by Flann O’Brien. Paul took the line that because he had bought these works, he had the right to bowdlerise them as he saw fit.

Predictably, his relations with the composers were tense, not aided by his prima donna antics. Because classical music is Waugh’s great love, it is not surprising he finds Paul by far the most interesting of the Wittgensteins. He claims that Paul was a first-rate pianist, though the consensus seems to be that he was guilty of distortions in his playing and did not allow a composer’s music to speak for itself.

Entire review is here.


Kundmanngasse, Vienna

From The New York Times, April 6, 2008

In the late 1920s, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein designed and built a house in Vienna for his sister. Wittgenstein’s family was extremely wealthy (there were gold-plated faucets in the bathrooms at home), and the building proceeded without the usual financial constraint. In one famous instance, to better satisfy his sense of proportion Wittgenstein had the drawing room ceiling torn out and rebuilt three centimeters higher.

As a novice architect, Wittgenstein obviously had large ambitions. “I am not interested in erecting a building,” he once wrote, “but in … presenting to myself the foundations of all possible buildings.” Whether or not his sister’s house approached this high ideal, Wittgenstein himself judged the finished building to be austere and sterile. It has “good manners,” he later wrote, but no “primordial life,” no “health.”

Richard Sennett’s “guiding intuition” in “The Craftsman” is that “making is thinking,” and Wittgenstein’s experience as a builder speaks to the point, even in its combination of obsession and disappointment. As Sennett notes, it “came at the end of a period in Wittgenstein’s life when he had sought the philosophical equivalent of ‘the foundation of all possible buildings.’” There is a strong link, Sennett argues, between what Wittgenstein learned by building a house and the turn that his philosophy subsequently took, away from rigorous logic and toward a playful engagement with common speech, paradox and parable.

Entire article here.

Piero Sraffa, 1929 

Robert Vienneau at Thoughts on Economics mentions the publication of a new edition of Wittgenstein’s letters by Blackwell. Here is an excerpt from one written by Wittgenstein to Sraffa in 1934:

Dear Sraffa,

The following are some remarks I’ve put down on the topic of our last conversation. I hope they won’t be too disconnected and that you’ll read them to the end.

You said, “The Austrians can do most of things the Germans did.” I say, How do you know? What circumstances are you taking into account if you say they can? “This man, Austria, can remove the wedding ring from his finger.” True, it’s not too heavy and doesn’t stick to his finger. But he may be ashamed of doing it, hiw wife may not allow it, etc.

You say, “Learn from what happened in Italy.” But what should I learn? I don’t know exactly how things happened in Italy. So the only lesson I can draw is that things one doesn’t expect sometimes happen.

I ask, How will this whose face I can’t imagine in a rage looks when he gets into a rage? And can he get into a rage? What shall I say when I see him in a rage? Not only, “Ah, so he can get into a rage after all,” but also, “So this is the way he can be in a rage; so this is how it connects up with his former appearance.”

You say to me, “If a man is in a rage, the muscles a, b, c of his face contract. This man has the muscles a, b, c, so why shouldn’t they contract? If you, Wittgenstein, wish to know what he will look like in a rage, just imagine him with those muscles contracted. What will Austria look like when it turns Nazi? There will be no Socialist Part, there won’t be Jewish judges, etc., etc., etc. That’s what it’ll look like.”

I reply, This gives me no picture of a face; apart from the fact that I don’t know enough about the workings of things to know whether all these changes that you point out will happen together. For I understand what it means to say that the muscles a, b, c will contract, but what will become of the many muscles, etc., between them? Can’t the contraction of the one in this particular face prevent the contraction of the others? Do you know how in this particular case things interact?

Entire letter here.

Wittgenstein’s cottage, Wicklow, Ireland, 1948  

From the Independent, February 17, 2008

Sometimes I remember, and not without affection, the two men in a play by Moliere who were delighted to discover that they had been speaking prose all their lives.

I suspect that many people would be surprised to discover that they had been philosophers all their lives. The very word ‘philosophy’ disturbs some minds. They see it as confined to great thoughts.

And they associate it with men with lofty brows, and living far above what Scott Fitzgerald called “the hot struggles of the poor”.

All children are philosophers: they need to be. They are following their instinct for self-preservation. Later, when they need to be less acutely aware, they tend to speculate: philosophy is essentially a questioning, a quest for truth.

I have felt philosophy in all kinds of situations, in the bog and in the meadow and in the pub, before and after hours. Much pub talk is about sport but often it deviates into philosophy. You begin wondering about the value of sport, especially after your team have lost.

When I went to University College Cork, I intended taking up philosophy — but when I read the curriculum I discovered that all the philosophers were Catholic. To me, the idea of Catholic Philosophy was about as sensible as Catholic Mathematics.

And so I studied philosophy in my own amateur way, by reading the great philosophers of the day who were totally ignored in the course in Cork University.

They included Albert Camus and A J Ayre and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein was the most influential of the three, or perhaps only the most popular. He was born in Austria in 1889 of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother. He came to Manchester University to study aeronautics, but after a few years there he discovered a book that changed his whole life. It was a book that contained essays by different philosophers: one of them, Bertrand Russell, had a profound influence on Wittgenstein and for the rest of his life he was devoted passionately to philosophy.

He had one great ambition: he hoped to find a place where he would be utterly free from distraction and give his whole time to study. He was told by a friend that in Connemara he would find peace of mind and freedom from care.

He rented a house in Connemara and settled down there looking forward to producing as pure a work as thought and study could. He looked forward to his solitude. He found a simple life, apart from having to go to the well three miles away and for groceries about five miles away and to get milk and turf from his next-door neighbours. That was the easy part.

The word had got around that he was a very important man and had great influence with the government in Dublin. Almost every day, he had people coming to him about getting money for disability and for various disorders. It dawned on him that he had come to live in a place where most of the people were in very poor health, even though most of them looked extremely healthy. He did what he could. He wrote to various departments, sometimes with success. The people liked him and he liked them, but he wondered why such fine-looking men and women always seemed to be sick.

Then one day a truth dawned on him. Often as he walked by the local lake he used to stop and watch a middle-aged man, and admire his skill in casting flies. That was all right until one day that same man came to him and asked him could he get him the blind pension.

And so next day Wittgenstein settled his affairs and took the bus to Galway and the train to Dublin. It was night when he arrived at Kingsbridge Station; across the river he saw a bright sign that said Aisling. He decided it was a hotel and he crossed the bridge and took up residence there. And in that hotel and in the greenhouse in the Botanic Gardens he did some of his greatest work.

Entire article here.


Wittgenstein continues to exert a powerful influence, and in more ways than one. Richard Dawkins recounts the following anecdote in The Selfish Meme:

Years ago, in an Oxford tutorial, I taught a young woman who affected an unusual habit. When asked a question that required deep thought, she would screw her eyes tight shut, jerk her head down to her chest and then freeze for up to half a minute before looking up, opening her eyes and answering the question with fluency and intelligence. I was amused by this and did an imitation of it to divert my colleagues after dinner. Among them was a distinguished Oxford philosopher. As soon as he saw my imitation, he immediately said, “That’s Wittgenstein! Is her surname _____ by any chance?” Taken aback, I said that it was. “I thought so,” said my colleague. “Both her parents are professional philosophers and devoted followers of Wittgenstein.” The gesture had passed from the great philosopher, via one or both of her parents, to my pupil.


From the New York Times by Perry Meisel

When the wealthy and cultivated young Ludwig Wittgenstein burst upon the hermetic world of Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore at Cambridge in 1912, three lives were changed forever. The Viennese Wittgenstein struck even Russell as perhaps more than his match. The unflappable Moore shared in a fierce but collegial relation that survived two world wars. As a combatant in the Austrian Army late in World War I, Wittgenstein completed the only book he saw fit to publish during his lifetime, ”Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” (1921). Returning to Cambridge in 1929, he began to question his own assumption in the ”Tractatus” that the study of language could yield systematic rules, preferring instead to delight in the indeterminacies of linguistic reference, and composing, among other works, ”Philosophical Investigations,” published in 1953, two years after his death.

So alluring is Wittgenstein’s appeal that it has stirred Bruce Duffy, a writer who lives in suburban Washington, to produce a historical novel centered on Wittgenstein and his English friends. Its sweeping arrangement of fact and fancy is vivid, passionate and funny. Mr. Duffy adheres faithfully enough to the outlines of Wittgenstein’s life as we know them (a full-scale biography has yet to be completed), although his book is really an accomplished orchestration of the spheres of Russell’s urbanity, Moore’s domesticity and Wittgenstein’s wanderlust that is organized around three key points in Wittgenstein’s experience -his first years at Cambridge, his service in World War I and his return to England.

Mr. Duffy intersperses his absorbing narrative with deft flashbacks that fill in the pasts of all three men (the death of Wittgenstein’s father in Vienna is probably the novel’s most extraordinary sequence). He writes with great wisdom about love, work and fame, painting raucously humorous and uncommonly moving portraits of his three principals. Russell stews deliciously in his inwardness; Moore gobbles his meals at high table at Trinity with such methodical relish that his philosophical hedonism is explained more convincingly than it is in most academic accounts.

The rendering of Wittgenstein is more dramatic and less naturally inward, testimony to his daunting intractability as both a man and a thinker. Wittgenstein’s melancholy narcissism was so profound that it frequently turned into its opposite – the feeling that he hardly existed at all. In reply to a friend’s request to take his photograph, Wittgenstein remarks: ”You may develop your film & find no image whatsoever.”

The novel’s title comes from a passage in the ”Tractatus” (”If I wrote a book called The World As I Found It, I should have to include a report on my body”) that concludes with the difficult statement that such a book would be ”a method of isolating the subject, or rather of showing that in an important sense there is no subject.” Mr. Duffy exemplifies Wittgenstein’s point both by apprehending him within a matrix of social contexts, and by dramatizing the elusiveness of subjectivity in the dream of a world he fashions with a prose that aspires to a combination of visionary expansiveness and postmodern terseness.

There are, to be sure, a few hitches. Bertrand Russell did not, pace Mr. Duffy, split infinitives. Nor did Lytton Strachey have a booming voice – it squeaked. There are also some lapses into melodrama – a visit to a Yiddish theater in Vienna, a family friend-turned-Nazi and Wittgenstein’s painful acknowledgment of his Jewish roots at the onset of World War II. Such moments aside, Mr. Duffy’s is an achievement in both fiction and historiography which deepens Wittgenstein’s mythology and should attract a wider audience to it.

New Statesman, 18 October 1974

Wittgenstein never did much to encourage the fossicking of amateurs, and in particular loathed phrase-making dilettantes. Yet people of a literary turn with no training in or indeed capacity for rigorous philosophy (let me hasten to include myself among them) will probably go on finding him of high interest. He said that we shouldn’t be seduced by language-an admonition which will continue being useful to those whose business it is to be seduced by language every day of the week. Wittgenstein is The Cure. He is a rhetorician’s way of going on the wagon.

This new volume of letters to Russell, Keynes and Moore is a companion piece for the slim collection of letters to Ogden and Ramsay. Those, being mainly technical, were stiff going for the non-professional. These-especially the substantial sheaf of letters to Russell-are of much more various interest. The reader will find himself drawn to speculate about all aspects of Wittgenstein’s strange life. The problem of his personality is, I am sure, eventually insoluble, but that doesn’t mean people are going to stop trying.

Most of the letters to Russell stem from the years 1912-21-i.e., from the first Cambridge period up until the publication of the Tractatus. In 1922 came a break in their relationship, of the same kind that severed Wittgenstein from G. B. Moore in Norway in 1914. (Apparently he also quarrelled with Russell in 1914, but Russell’s part of that exchange is not available.) All the intensity of Wittgenstein’s focussed intellect is there from the first moment: ‘There is nothing more wonderful in the world than the true problems of Philosophy’. Engelmann was quite right in saying that thinking was Wittgenstein’s poetry. ‘I feel like mad’. He accuses himself of having ‘half a talent’ for thought.

Entire review here.

New York Times, November 13, 1988


When you finish writing a novel, you may feel brilliant and triumphant, an unsung master of your craft. But when you begin that next book, as I am now, the rock rolls down the hill. Experience fails you. Suddenly you feel inept and confused – often downright stupid.

In the first instance, that of the book successfully written, there is often a tendency in the afterglow to portray yourself as having been wiser and more certain than ever you were during the confusion of composition. This is why it’s best to take an artist’s statements with a grain of salt, much as if Columbus claimed that in sailing to the Orient, he had really been searching for America all along.

In my own case, I certainly didn’t set out with the intention of writing a novel based on the life of the modern philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. At that time, eight years ago, my writing had fallen into a bad slump. I was beyond confused. The truth was, I was stuck.

Ever since college, I had written fiction and poetry, but this bilingual approach was leaving me increasingly tongue-tied. Like a man who speaks in one language and thinks in another, I was forever translating, shunting from poetry to prose, then from prose to poetry, and finding in neither quite the right measure. I wanted to take one deep, abiding breath, as it were, wanted a poetry with the substance and heft of fiction, and a fiction with the effortless clarity – and punch – of poetry. Was that a contradiction? No bookshop or library had what I was after, and if I had no program, none drew me either.

Entire article is here.

Wittgenstein’s obituary courtesy of Nimrod Matan at Osopolarity.


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