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Letters

Vol. 42 No. 1 · 2 January 2020

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Wittgenstein Flees

Rory Allen appears to connect Wittgenstein’s physical chastisement of the hapless Josef Haidbauer with the child’s subsequent death (Letters, 5 December 2019). Ray Monk, in his biography of Wittgenstein, writes that Haidbauer died of leukaemia at the age of 14, three years after the incident in question.

The biographer who has looked most closely at this episode is William Warren Bartley III, whose short account of Wittgenstein’s life appeared in 1973. In the summer of 1969, Bartley spent a number of weeks in the three villages where Wittgenstein worked as an elementary school teacher. He interviewed several of Wittgenstein’s former pupils. To Bartley’s surprise, Wittgenstein was very much alive in the memories of the villagers he met:

The central part of Otterthal consists of little more than a crossroads lined by small farmhouses. It was extraordinary to walk down the main road, calling out to peasants working in their gardens or sitting on their porches, and to be given details in the most matter of fact way about a man whose name I had hitherto encountered only in books or in the conversation of philosophers and intellectuals.

Two things come out of these conversations that seem relevant to the Haidbauer case. First, Wittgenstein’s use of corporal punishment was not unusual. The former pupils told Bartley that ‘Wittgenstein certainly did cane his boys when they were very naughty’ and ‘slapped their cheeks for minor offences’, but also that he ‘used his rod not one whit more than did the other teachers and differed from them only in that he used it fairly, consistently and predictably’. Second, pupils were known to fake injury when Wittgenstein punished them in class. As Bartley writes, ‘for example, when told to stand in the corner as punishment, a pupil would stand for five minutes or so and then pretend to swoon and fall to the floor. So it came to be said in Trattenbach and Otterthal that Wittgenstein’s rough discipline caused children to bleed and faint.’ Referring to the day when Wittgenstein struck Haidbauer, Bartley relates that the boy ‘is supposed to have been carried swooning into the school office. Those of Wittgenstein’s old students who had faked fainting themselves believe today that this boy too was faking. But there is no way to know.’

The episode undoubtedly caused Wittgenstein great distress. Ten years later, he made the journey back to Otterthal to apologise face to face to the individuals he had physically chastised when they were his pupils. Monk says that Wittgenstein visited at least four of them. Arguably, we can see Wittgenstein’s return to Otterthal as part of what Rée refers to as his ‘project of becoming ein anständiger Mensch, or ‘a decent human being’.

Rorie Fulton
Gwernogle, Carmarthenshire

Climate Crisis

Meehan Crist rightly mentions housebuilding as one of the ‘forces’ leading to more devastating wildfires in California, but her suspicion that a failure to discuss climate change when reporting on catastrophic fires is ‘getting the story wrong’ seems to me a way of keeping our heads in the smoke (LRB, 21 November 2019). My wife and I and our two daughters have fled Santa Rosa three times in the last three autumns, partly to get to cleaner air but largely to escape the feeling of anxiety one has living on the edge of catastrophe. The gusts of dry wind from the north and east feel more sinister than anything I experienced as a boy.

But looking further back, we find records of fires raging in the same areas in the 1960s and 1920s, and we know from the tree rings inside local oaks that fires burned through these hills every five or ten years before white-skinned people arrived and began suppressing them. California summers have always been long, hot and dry, but the forests have not always had decades to grow dense stands of fir trees among the more spaced out and fire-resistant oaks, nor to produce the vast networks of dead branches and dried-out underbrush that now span thousands of acres like so much kindling waiting for ignition at the end of every summer. Not even the dead certainty, let alone the suspicion, that a changing climate is making things worse will help us here. More frequent fires will.

Local fire ecologists, firefighters and foresters know this. Yes, we have to protect people and structures as much as possible, but one way to do this in the long term is to allow tamer fires to burn more often. Another way is to mimic the effect of such fires by clearing brush and conifers from the oak woodlands; it could be turned into mulch for local gardens and the forest itself, or even into wood pellets for heating homes. Some Californians have become so averse to the smoke produced by burning wood in stoves that they let it build up in the wild and wait for it to burn uncontrollably, thereby generating even more air pollution. One way or another, fire must come into play, either burning inside the engines of chainsaws and wood-chippers, inside homes for fossil-fuel-free heat, or through the woods naturally.

Andrew Merriss
Santa Rosa, California

A Hard Sell

Christopher Tayler writes about John Williams (LRB, 19 December 2019). I worked at Viking Penguin in the 1980s, and one of my good friends and mentors was Cork Smith, the perceptive editor who in 1963 took a flyer on Williams’s eventually acknowledged but back then widely rejected masterpiece, Stoner. Cork was a wry, dry and witty man who trafficked in understatement; when he said that a manuscript was ‘pretty good’, the opinion had the same force as another editor calling it ‘an awesome masterpiece’. Cork’s low-key style made him a master at sales conference presentations – a very particular skill, as an editor tries to lodge a positive impression of a book in the minds of grizzled, heard-it-all-before sales reps. But Stoner defeated even Cork. He told me once that it was the single hardest book he ever had to present: a novel in a distinctly minor key about an anonymous academic in a Midwestern state college, trapped in a loveless marriage and obscure scholarly pursuits. Try as he might, Cork failed to raise the tiniest swelling of interest in the book. Philistinism and commercialism had nothing to do with the indifference. Some books just defeat one’s ability to make a case for them.

Tayler mentions that Cork was on leave from Viking when Williams’s next novel, Augustus, came in to Viking, and indeed on a couple of occasions he had to enter rehab for what he called ‘a dry cleaning’ for acute alcoholism. So it is worth noting that in the last decades of his life, before he succumbed to emphysema in 2004 (he smoked unfiltered Camels), Cork was completely sober.

Gerald Howard
New York

The Future of Work

Katrina Forrester says that my book Will the Gig Economy Prevail? is ‘a love letter to the postwar welfare state’ (LRB, 5 December 2019). Not really. I argue that we need to move away from social insurance payments based solely on number of employees; argue for the social investment welfare state, with its emphasis on education, training and childcare; and endorse the idea that ways must be found to provide income for carers operating outside the labour market. All of this moves us on a considerable way from the postwar model.

What I think Forrester means is that I envisage – and ardently want – a world in which as many adults as possible are able to find good work, either in the labour market or as properly recognised carers. She, like several other current observers, sees a future in which that will be either impossible or undesirable, thereby supporting the idea of a citizen’s income paid to all whether they work or not.

This concept worries me, for two reasons. First, given how easy it is to stir up political opposition to any social benefit that can be presented as ‘undeserved’, I cannot see how a consensus around the idea could be strong enough to make it proof against political attack. The experiments so far attempted in advanced economies, such as Finland or Italy, bear this out. The sums involved in the incomes have been very low, and in the Italian case the scheme has been reduced to a particularly mean kind of workfare. There is a real danger that people dependent on a citizen’s income would become the victims of savage cuts in its level and conditions.

Second, it would be a disaster if we abandoned the effort to find work for as many adults as possible. A population that became ‘surplus to requirements’, as some students of artificial intelligence warn us could happen, would find it politically difficult to sustain any claim to rights, including the right to a citizen’s income.

Colin Crouch
Oxford

Post Mortem

Ben Walker’s diary brought back memories of many weeks campaigning for the Derby North Labour Party in elections in the 1970s, when our candidate was my Thames TV colleague Phillip Whitehead (LRB, 5 December 2019). Contests were invariably tight, so Phillip’s ‘personal vote’ (which we estimated at between two and three thousand) was often crucial.

In the recent election, Chris Williamson, who had been the Labour MP for Derby North until he was suspended from the party earlier in 2019, ran as an independent. He attracted just 635 of the 47,002 cast, which suggests that the ‘infighting and uncertainty’ in the constituency to which Walker refers made little difference to the result. Indeed, the swing from Labour to Conservative in Derby North (4.77 per cent) was very similar to that in nearby Broxtowe (4.58 per cent), where Walker saw a campaign ‘in full flow, harnessing the power of its support base and honing the campaign tools that brought success in 2017’. The candidate, Greg Marshall, had not ‘stopped campaigning for two years’.

As it turned out, Marshall mislaid nearly four thousand votes between 2017 and 2019, and the swing from Labour to Conservative might have been even larger if the former MP, Anna Soubry, a rebel Tory who was representing the Independent Group for Change, had not effectively doubled the 2017 Liberal Democrat vote (that party having withdrawn in her favour) by siphoning off some sympathetic Tories. As for turnout, Derby South perhaps fulfilled Margaret Beckett’s fears about the weather – just 58.1 per cent of the electorate voted there – but Derby North managed 64.2 per cent and Broxtowe a very large 74.8 per cent (not that Marshall seemed to benefit much from it).

Walker also mentions the late replacement of candidates by their relatives. Perhaps the best story (which, of course, may be apocryphal) was one that Phillip Whitehead enjoyed recounting. Leicester North West Labour Party was told by its long- standing MP Barnett Janner, just before the 1970 election, that he would not be their candidate this time. ‘But Barnett, we’ve already printed the “Vote Janner” posters.’ ‘Not to worry,’ the departing MP said: ‘Allow me to introduce my son, Greville.’

David Elstein
London SW15

Intentional Failure

Thomas Powers quotes Sarah Morrill’s assessment of J.D. Salinger’s ‘Hapworth 16, 1924’, his novella of 1965, as an ‘intentional failure’ (LRB, 24 October 2019). We know from Roger Lathbury of Orchises Press, who almost reprinted ‘Hapworth’ as Salinger’s fifth book in 1997, that the author considered it ‘a high point of his writing’. In a letter of 30 January 1997, Salinger said: ‘I loathe and despise and mind it all, as always, but am much more aware with age that a good or nice book weathers things very differently and far better than a writer does.’ Three weeks later, Michiko Kakutani gave the story (as originally published in the New Yorker) a scathing review. It seems that Salinger had failed to comprehend the critical reception of the novella. He then prevented Lathbury from going ahead with publication.

Bruce Mueller
San Francisco

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