Self-Made Aristocrats

Adam Phillips

  • The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War by Alexander Waugh
    Bloomsbury, 366 pp, £20.00, September 2008, ISBN 978 0 7475 9185 6

‘Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent’: it’s a notion children pick up quite quickly. It is also, of course, a remark about the limits of what we can use language to do, but Wittgenstein is unusual as a philosopher because he so often writes about the difficulties a child has growing up in a family. His wish to clarify the world as he finds it, his stress on ‘perspicuous representations’ and ‘just that understanding which consists in “seeing connections”’, turns the figure of the philosopher into the kind of child who wants to understand what is going on in his family, as opposed to the child who takes refuge from his family in a fantasy life. For Wittgenstein, this is the difference between working out what people are using words to do in a more or less shared family life and being a metaphysician living in a world (or a system) of your own making.

After the lapidary assertions of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein’s philosophy is more domestic, more interested in this bemused child whom we must keep in mind when we are doing what he thinks of as philosophy, taking care to clarify what we use our words to do. Philosophers must resist the temptation to become mandarin philosopher-kings, and stick instead to the ruthless, undeflectable curiosity of childhood, the ordinary and the everyday of a child’s life. ‘A mathematician,’ Wittgenstein writes in Philosophical Grammar,

is bound to be horrified by my mathematical comments, since he has always been trained to avoid indulging in thoughts and doubts of the kind I develop. He has learned to regard them as something contemptible . . . he has acquired a revulsion from them as infantile. That is to say, I trot out all the problems that a child learning arithmetic etc finds difficult, the problems that education represses without solving. I say to these repressed doubts: you are quite correct, go on asking, demand clarification!

This is arch only because the adults here – called ‘mathematicians’, as good a word as any – can’t avoid coming off rather badly; but the idea that they repress what they can’t master, and that the aim might be to elucidate problems rather than to solve them, and that elucidation might take time because it is the very thing that is resisted, is the kind prompted by a genuine grievance. We can’t help but wonder what the preconditions might be – in the family, say – for such concerns. Even though Alexander Waugh takes sides against Wittgenstein in this extraordinary family saga, and has remarkably little to say about Wittgenstein’s writing, he makes abundantly clear what the nine Wittgenstein children – three of whom committed suicide – were up against.

Language-games; family resemblances; the difference between showing and telling; the way we learn how language and numbers work; the wish for, the fear of and indeed the impossibility of private languages (or ‘private experience’); the bizarre and uncanny persistence of misunderstanding: Wittgenstein never lets us forget that our lives begin as family lives, and never stop being family lives wherever we end up. For the child, the limits of his family’s language are the limits of his world; growing up involves struggling with these limits in the language that is itself the limit, and trying to see how this works. It’s interesting in this context that Wittgenstein made such an effort to get away and stay away from his family, never had a family of his own, and rejected as soon as he could the huge amount of money which he, like all his siblings, inherited from his father.

One of the reasons a book like Waugh’s should be useful is that Wittgenstein’s philosophy is so much about trying to understand what he has inherited: the languages, the conventions he was born into, and what he could and could not use them to do. When he asks in the Philosophical Investigations why it is that when someone points we don’t look along their arm, or when he remarks (in the collection Culture and Value) that ‘It’s as though there were a custom among certain people for one person to throw another a ball which he is supposed to catch and throw back; but some people, instead of throwing it back, put it in their pocket,’ he is talking about family life and how spellbound we are by it. Clearly no one’s family causes them to do anything, but the family is a precondition: the place, as Wittgenstein kept suggesting, in which we learn assumptions as though they were rules. By refusing to make such connections, and by being so disdainful of Wittgenstein’s reputation as a philosopher, Waugh leaves us always wondering what the point of his story is, unless it is the fact that the Wittgensteins were rich, famous and eccentric and sometimes badly behaved both to each other and to other people, and that the family’s rise and fall coincided with the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and two world wars.

Waugh never suggests that the story he has to tell has any more significance than he ascribes to it; and by the same token the ambitions and achievements of the Wittgenstein brothers are treated with a certain amount of mockery. The Tractatus is described as giving ‘the philosophical world a great deal of gristle to chew upon’; but we are also told that ‘there were of course at that time (and still are, now) many doubters – those who roll their eyes and mutter about “the Emperor’s new clothes!”’ The extended family is then called on – though not by name – to back this up: ‘Many of them were simply embarrassed by what they perceived to be his eccentric behaviour and thought it perverse that he, the dope of the family – an elementary school teacher – should be honoured as a great philosopher abroad.’ And this is followed by a quotation, acknowledged only in the notes, from Thomas Bernhard’s fiction Wittgenstein’s Nephew: ‘Shaking their heads, they found it amusing that the world was taken in by the clown of their family, that that useless person had suddenly become famous and an intellectual giant in England.’ The philosophers Frank Ramsey, Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore are described by Waugh as having ‘fallen under the spell of Ludwig’s striking looks, manner and extraordinarily persuasive personality’.

Waugh certainly hasn’t fallen under Ludwig’s spell: he is with the relatives on this. Unsurprisingly perhaps, given that he has been an opera critic – ‘chief opera critic at both the Mail on Sunday and the Evening Standard’ – Waugh is more engaged and engaging about Paul the musician, the history of the times and the family dramas. Though Paul, it should also be said, is someone Waugh thinks we need to be suspicious of: after the war, ‘even in Poland’ – it is not quite clear what the ‘even’ is doing here – ‘his concerts were cheered to the rafters as his hypnotic stage-presence continued to exert its effect over listeners, in spite of playing that was rough, nervy and inaccurate.’ In order to have any credibility, celebrity biographies have to be at least occasionally ‘ironic’ about celebrity, but Waugh is a little too insistent that Paul and Ludwig were ridiculously over-impressed with themselves, and that we shouldn’t be.

He has a more compelling story to tell about Karl Wittgenstein, their father, and about Gretl and Hermine, the more ‘interesting’ of their older sisters. It is, at least in Waugh’s version, a story of the astounding success of a self-made industrialist in Austria in the second half of the 19th century whose family fortune came to grief when the Nazis discovered that the Wittgensteins had Jewish ancestors and so, by the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, were suddenly liable to have their considerable wealth confiscated. How this self-invented dynasty dealt with and survived the loss of what Ludwig would call, in his philosophical writings, their ‘form of life’, and what this return of a virtually repressed past confronted them with, is the real drama of the book. And even though Waugh wants the book to be sensational – the four sections are entitled ‘A Dirty Thing to Do’, ‘Nasty Mess’, ‘The New Disorder’ and ‘Connection and Meltdown’ – he can’t distract us from the fact that the Wittgenstein family was unlike most others in Central Europe, and not only because of its famous son. Indeed, if anything, because of its once famous – and famously rich – father. The mothers in the book are the other people that Waugh is determined we shouldn’t be impressed by.

According to Waugh, Karl Wittgenstein was the least favoured of three sons – ‘the most feckless’ – who ran away from his affluent Austrian family to seek his fortune in America but returned home to make it in the Austrian steel industry. He married Leopoldine Kalmus, the daughter of a wine merchant, but his father disapproved of the choice: ‘By blood she was half-Jewish and by faith a Roman Catholic, offending at a stroke his Protestant ethic and his anti-semitic sensibility.’ The plot, though, is thicker because Leopoldine was a distant relative of Karl’s mother, and both women ‘could claim descent from a Rabbi Isaac Brillin in the 17th century’. Hermann, Karl’s father, had made it clear to his 11 children that he didn’t want them to marry Jews, and Karl was the only one to defy him. Karl – in Waugh’s words, ‘a chancer whose great fortune was accumulated as much by the successful outcomes to the risks he took as by his hard work and lively intuition’ – was a man who could resist his ‘inherited background’; and who retired in 1898 at the age of 51 ‘stupendously rich’. (‘It would be idle to speculate on how much money he was worth.’) This, as Wittgenstein described it in On Certainty, was ‘the inherited background against which I distinguish between true and false’.

Karl Wittgenstein, as is often the way, was himself a rather coercive father with his own five sons: ‘a frightening man, even in a cheery mood’, though this in itself doesn’t exactly account for what happened to them. The oldest, Hans, is assumed to have killed himself in America (his body was never discovered) in 1902, at the age of 24; Kurt, the next brother, shot himself on the Italian front in 1918; and Rudi, the third son, poisoned himself in Berlin on what may have been the second anniversary of Hans’s death. ‘Karl was blamed for loading his sons with excessive career pressure,’ Waugh writes, ‘for insisting that none of them should pursue any profession that didn’t involve the two disciplines that had made him his fortune – engineering and business.’ His wife ‘was also accused by her children of failing to stand up to the autocratic husband, of being mouse-like, indecisive and insecure’. If this were not a book in which people were so often dispraised, that would perhaps seem marginally more plausible.

Like Ludwig, Waugh prefers description to explanation, especially descriptions of opulence. After all these suicides he turns with understandable relief to a section he calls ‘At Home with the Wittgensteins’, in which we are given elaborate accounts of the Wittgenstein Winter Palais on the Alleegasse in Vienna – ‘an elaborate mosaic floor, carved panelling, frescos depicting scenes from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and an imposing piece by Auguste Rodin’ – and their famous ‘musical soirées’: ‘The quality of music-making was top class as the musicians who played there ranked among the most distinguished of their day.’ Waugh signals his sense of the audience he is writing for by telling us whose Midsummer Night’s Dream it was, and that the music-making was ‘top class’. He would far rather talk about the palaces than the problems. All he says about the effect of their brothers’ suicides on Paul and Ludwig is that it ‘cannot be gauged’. A drawback in a story in which the main protagonists are such tormented people, living in tormenting times. The House of Wittgenstein gives a crass picture of a terrible family tragedy.

Waugh does far better with the money side of things, because he is freer to be jokey, and because money is the thing that binds the narratives together. It is the fate of the fortune inherited from the father that prevents The House of Wittgenstein being no more than a set of mini-biographies. Hermine, Karl’s firstborn and favourite, remained unmarried through all the trials and tribulations, the guardian of the family and doer of good works; Helena married a government official and had children and grandchildren in the normal bourgeois way; Gretl married a deranged American opportunist with whom she had children and a peripatetic, unhappy marriage; Paul lost an arm in the First World War, became a famous pianist and lived in America; and Ludwig, the youngest, became a ‘famous’ philosopher. All the children are very musical, like their mother, and all of them are, as John Cage said of Schoenberg, self-made aristocrats.

Waugh sometimes gives the impression that had it not been for all the suicides, the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the two world wars and the rise of Fascism in Germany, the Wittgensteins would have been living the life of Riley. Since he is not willing to speculate, or ‘gauge’, what might actually have been going on in the family – and has no time for the writings of the family’s only writer – he is left with a relatively straightforward and quite exciting documentary history of how the Wittgensteins managed to save what they could of their ‘stupendous fortune’ from the Nazis. And of how Paul made his way, against considerable odds and with a lot of money, as a concert pianist and music teacher.

When Karl Wittgenstein died in 1913, at the age of 66, he left a wife and six children, and his huge estate was divided equally between them. This was when the problems started, or at least the problems that interest Waugh. ‘Each of the siblings was made exceedingly rich by their father’s demise,’ he writes, ‘but the money, to a family obsessed with social morality, brought with it many problems. Each was generous, donating large sums, often secretly, to the arts, to medicine, to friends and to other worthy causes.’ (Ludwig gave 100,000 kronen to various Austrian artists, including Trakl, Kokoschka and Adolf Loos.) It is Waugh’s way to qualify this generosity as an ‘obsession’ with social morality. Gretl ‘opted for a huge cash settlement and promptly bought herself a villa and a castle and some land’; Hermine went on living with her mother; Helene is left out of the story at this stage and through much of the book because she is, in Waugh’s account, so uneccentric; and Paul ‘believed that strong government was more important than any amount of personal wealth and gave large sums to anti-Communist and anti-anarchist political organisations’. Ludwig was the only one who gave away virtually his entire fortune; the others continued to live with the sense of privilege that generosity can give, and in the style to which they were by now accustomed.

All three surviving brothers fought in the First World War, and though the family was radically changed by it they still had the kind of money that the Nazis were determined to confiscate, and the kind of family history that made them suspect. They were Jewish enough to be investigated and Waugh gives a fluent and detailed account of their heroic attempt to hold onto their money: among other things, Gretl and Hermine were prosecuted for passport fraud in 1939 and Paul was forced to emigrate to Switzerland (Ludwig had lived, interruptedly, in Britain since 1908). During this time, ‘Paul’s, Hermine’s and Helene’s properties were searched and everything of worth that was found in them scrutinised by the art historian, Gestapo agent and valuer Dr Otto Reich.’ They had to declare their incomes, and Paul’s form ‘makes interesting reading’, Waugh writes, ‘as it offers a glimpse into his private financial affairs’. He owned, among other things, a 16th-century Gobelin tapestry, a Stradivari violin of 1716, a Monet, a Segantini and a viola by Antonius and Hieronymous Amati, valued, Waugh is keen to tell us, ‘by Machold Rare Violins on 15 April 2002 at $1.8 million’. The advantage of being so rich was that however much money the Wittgensteins lost they could always find plenty more. When Paul died in America in 1961, at the age of 73, he was living in ‘a comfortable mock-tudor residence with land and views across Long Island Sound at Great Neck’. The House of Wittgenstein is more about property than about people, more about the very rich than the very real.