Whereof one cannot speak

George Steiner

  • Wittgenstein. A Life: Young Ludwig 1889-1921 by Brian McGuinness
    Duckworth, 322 pp, £15.95, May 1988, ISBN 0 7156 0959 9

Why should there be biographies of philosophers? Nietzsche held every philosophical-metaphysical doctrine to be the confession of its begetter. Husserl, on the contrary, believed that a philosophical argument was worth considering only if it aspired to the universality, to the truth-conditions of the anonymous. On neither count is there any need for biographical treatment. In the nature of the case, ‘lives’ of philosophers will either consist of more or less systematic accounts of their teachings, or of gossip. The originator of the genre, Diogenes Laertius, plainly exemplifies the dilemmas and superfluities of the enterprise.

In respect of Wittgenstein – and the primary sense of ‘in respect’ seems to me of the essence – the case is particularly awkward. There were three possibilities. The first is that of simple abstention from biography for, say, a century or so. We do not have a proper edition of Wittgenstein’s writings (the in-fighting now going on between rival claimants to the Nachlass and to authorised versions of the published texts would have filled Wittgenstein with bitter loathing). Until the work is accessible in a thorough and responsible form, central problems of intentionality and of meaning remain insoluble. But even when Wittgenstein’s notebooks, dictations, teaching-texts and (very few) finished statements are available for complete study, extreme difficulties will persist. Wittgenstein’s philosophy – and he would never have accepted the connotations of rounded assurance and finish in that designation – is resistant to understanding and explication. Much in its development, self-rebuke, heuristic methodology and findings may never be altogether cleared up. And in so far as it is a critique of all metaphysical pretentions, and a series of exercises which the reader is meant to reject after having striven with the utmost honesty to repeat them, it is by no means evident that such terminal, historical clarification is pertinent.

In short, what is badly needed are scrupulous commentaries on the Tractatus, on the Investigations, on the writings about the foundations of mathematics and the late, often profoundly enigmatic ‘journals of thought’ which bear on the problem of the perception of colours or on the concept of certitude. The number, if not the quality, of such commentaries is now increasing steadily. Jacques Bouveresse’s minutely analytic examinations of Wittgenstein on mathematics and on formal logic are an encouraging instance.

The second possibility was that of an entirely frank biography, of a ‘life of Ludwig von Wittgenstein’ which would deal with the privacies, with the pain, with the cruelties which he himself sought, so fiercely, to guard. Elements of such a treatment, though strident and (inevitably, perhaps) rhetorical and journalistic in their presentation, can be found in a study by W.W. Bartley which caused much resentment some years back. Wittgenstein’s sexuality would appear to have been homoerotic. It is just possible that this direction led to certain sombre areas of more or less clandestine behaviour. There are attested episodes in Wittgenstein’s life – the breakdown of his relations with the rural community in which he taught young children, his wildly self-chastising but riddling confession to Pia Pascal – which suggest needs and losses of control of a peculiarly ambiguous, hurtful kind. Three of Wittgenstein’s brothers committed suicide and he himself very nearly did on repeated occasions. The coalescence, in Wittgenstein’s sensibility, of Jewish self-hatred and of remorse in the face of his outward divorcement from his Jewish descent was, at times, explosive. The politics of the man, be it in regard to Hitler (about whom he recorded a number of most curious, myopic propositions) or in regard to Soviet society (which he very actively, at one point, sought to join), suggest radical instabilities of insight.

A candid biography would have to inquire into all these vexed tangles. If it was undertaken with truly serious intent, it would have to relate such inquiry to Wittgenstein’s work. For example, it would have to show how homoeroticism may or may not generate the concept of language as a game, as a consensual code. This is, precisely, Proust’s analysis, and intuitively, it carries a certain plausibility. But the demonstration is an altogether different matter, and it would, I believe, require something like genius, both intuitive and analytic, to show the interrelations. An unblinking biography would have to argue the affinities between Wittgenstein’s feelings of moral abjection, and the extreme asceticism of style, both personal and methodological, which these feelings seem to have dictated, on the one hand, and Wittgenstein’s teachings as to the nature and limitations of thought, of logic, on the other. Again, such a demonstration of correspondence would demand formidable authority.

But the fact is that no such biography can be attempted at present. The trustees of Wittgenstein’s estate, the custodians of the crucial papers, letters, diaries, allow only the most constricted reference or citation. The doors to crucial areas remain closed – and why not?

There is a third option. It is that of a more or less official biography written within the constraints imposed by Wittgenstein’s executors. Such a biography will, where it can, touch decorously on what remains taboo. It will be both a life of the man and an introduction to cardinal aspects of his philosophical work. Family and social background can be amply provided. The witness of Wittgenstein’s humble and illustrious contemporaries can be richly adduced. Such high, dark matters as the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian world and the traumatic devastations of private and public existence in the First World War will be considered attentively. The narrative mode will be dispassionate, almost Victorian, so as to establish both authority and reticence. It is not, a priori, evident that such a biography, almost necessarily in several volumes (as are its 19th-century models), will serve any urgent purpose. And that question remains after one has read, with frequent admiration and thanks, Volume One of Brian McGuinness’s Wittgenstein: A Life.

McGuinness brings more detail and documentation to his portrayal of ‘Young Ludwig (1889-1921)’ than any previous memoir or account. But those who have wanted to acquaint themselves with the story will not find much that is essentially novel or revelatory. The family background is set out with truly Victorian amplitude. ‘Luki’, as the youngest son was known, grew up amid the opulence, neuroses, generosities and ambitions of the very high bourgeoisie in imperial Vienna. The tale is truly one of the Vienna woods, of the great town-houses and summer estates, of the tutors and carriages which marked the ascent to worldly success of assimilationist and baptised Jews in industry, banking and the liberal professions during the twilight of the old order.

In the Wittgenstein establishment, music played a capital role. Brahms was an honoured guest. Chamber concerts were frequent. Brother Paul became a virtuoso pianist. The matter of music does seem absolutely crucial to one’s understanding of Wittgenstein’s life and work. He was to confess to one of his few intimates that it was the slow movement in Brahms’s Third Quartet which had pulled him back from the brink of self-destruction. Citing Mozart and Beethoven, Wittgenstein said to Russell: ‘These are the true sons of God.’ Music, I believe, is implied in the too often mouthed, but fundamentally misinterpreted, coda to the Tractatus. The limits of language in regard to ethics, to beauty, to the inward and transcendent pulse of being, are intensely constrictive. It is in music that human consciousness experiences immediately the realities of meaning, of intellectual and emotional fulfilment, that are perfectly concrete but resist all paraphrase. Wittgenstein was to make the distinction pellucid when he later declared that for all that he had written, he had left half his life, ‘the music in it’, unexpressed.

What young Ludwig absorbed, certain books, certain methods and concepts in applied mathematics, he absorbed deeply. But his schooling was oddly fitful and almost marginal to the exalted humanism current in his circles. To the end of his life, there were to be wide gaps in his interests and cultural awareness. But it is precisely the mundanity, the packaged facilities, of urbane general literacy which he despised. McGuinness’s passing allusion to Wittgenstein’s views on Shakespeare will, one expects, be fleshed out in the later parts of the biography. It was the universal adulation of Shakespeare, a determinant feature in the Vienna and Vienna-Jewish worlds of his adolescence, that exasperated Wittgenstein into his radical dissent. Like Freud, he came (perhaps under the influence of F.R. Leavis’s choice of Milton over Shakespeare during 1914-18) to prefer the ‘truth’ of Milton to the manifold, slippery prodigalities of Shakespearean eloquence. Preferable also was Molière in whose manifest morality and satire on cultural exhibitionism Wittgenstein delighted. What mattered supremely were certain works of Goethe, the soberly-crafted fictions of Gottfried Keller and, first and foremost, the works of Tolstoy and of Dostoevsky. It was these two titans, instinct with the question of God and of human ethical imperatives in the face of God’s presence or absence, who led to St Augustine and to Wittgenstein’s fiercely confessional self-examinations. But in essence, the young patrician ripened very slowly. Sexual ambiguities – Wittgenstein called them ‘sensualities’ – may have been inhibiting. The extreme wealth at Ludwig’s disposal made any number of choices or detours available. Even the engineering studies in Berlin, in 1906-7, seemed to be marking time. It was the move to Manchester which proved seminal.

Wittgenstein saw himself as either an aeronaut or an aviator. He tested kites at the Research Station at Glossop. He strove to solve the mathematics and manufacturing problems of making an engine light but powerful enough to allow sustained flight. He made contributions to the theory and design of propellers (a challenge of peculiar elegance and formal fascination). Above all, he found, in the English ambience, the possibilities of privacy and of friendship, of most carefully considered, tested elective affinities, of the kind which neither Vienna nor Berlin had allowed. It was that dialectic of amity and of solitude which was to give Wittgenstein’s life in Cambridge, as it began in 1911, its fruitful, but often almost unendurable tensions.

It was via a characteristic dissatisfaction with his own grasp of the foundations of mathematics that the young Wittgenstein came to philosophy, which is to say to Frege and to Russell. McGuinness draws so richly and with such insight on the Bertrand Russell archive that this extensive portion of the book is, at points, more a study of Russell, of Russell and of G.E. Moore, than it is of their bizarre student and student-master. The relationships, the triangulations of reciprocity and of misprision, the moments of loving intimacy and of rage, would challenge the arts of the novelist. It was Russell’s true greatness to recognise, very quickly, much of the scope and potential of Wittgenstein’s thought. It was not very long after their first meeting, and at a time when Wittgenstein had produced almost no formal work, that Russell saw in him not only his natural successor, but the mind which would make the next major steps in modern philosophy. The demands, at once intellectual and formal, which Wittgenstein made on Russell verged on the pathological. Whatever the hour or venue, he claimed total attention, be it to his technical considerations of logical propositions, of universals, of constants, or, even more stridently, to his bouts of penitential self-rebuke. Any deviation by Russell (happily involved, at the time, with Ottoline Morrell) from the loftiest norms either of analytical rigour or of personal conduct provoked Wittgenstein’s outrage. Russell’s wonderful ease in the world, his ability to communicate something of his ideas to the general public, filled Witttgenstein with black distaste. ‘Ethics must be a condition of the world, like logic.’ By that harsh light, Russell, and even the blessed Moore, were found wanting. Elected an Apostle, Wittgenstein promptly relinquished what he took to be a coven of gossip and mutual flattery. Told, by Moore, of the regulations for a Cambridge doctorate, the incensed candidate charged Moore with being the agent of an absurd system and demanded that it be changed on his behalf. Both Russell and Moore showed wondrous patience and understanding but, inevitably, the break came. Outwardly, relations were to be resumed after the crisis of 1913. But the old trust and companionship of spirit was gone. And the last word was to be Russell’s: he left Wittgenstein out of his vulgar, vulgarising but immensely influential History of Western Philosophy.

The Cambridge years generated a symptomatic pattern in Wittgenstein’s external existence. It was from the very stimulus and exasperations of the academic milieu that Wittgenstein retreated to near-total solitude in a remote Norwegian cottage. All but the rarest of human presences (that of Frege, later, perhaps, that of Malcolm) seemed to crowd upon Wittgenstein’s vibrant need for reserve, for withdrawal. Both the priesthood and the image of monasticism drew him deeply. Yet, at times, his profound natural cortesia, his tact of heart, could flower. The spell, the muted but insistent radiance which many felt in his singular presence, are made palpable in Brian McGuinness’s record. The touch of legend was there from the start (as in the case of Pythagoras, it continues to provide the actual philosophic work with an aura of the mythical). Even Keynes, at times, succumbed. He was to remain a loyal counsellor and éminence grise throughout Ludwig’s troubled course.

The years of active military service were a turning-point. Wittgenstein proved to be a formidable, often-decorated soldier. His self-sacrificing bravery under fire, particularly on the mountain front against Italy, his technical gunner’s and observer’s eye, attracted general admiration. Wittgenstein sensed, from the very outset, that the Central Powers were doomed, that no Continental alliance would prevail against the natural supremacy of the ‘English race’ and empire. Nevertheless, he fought with absolute commitment and to the last day. Like so many other men in the trenches, he turned to prayer:

My soul shrivels up. God give me light! God give
me light! God give light to my soul!

A fundamental religious crisis seems to have occurred in the summer of 1916. In a style which closely reflects both Kierkegaard and Tolstoy, Wittgenstein asked of himself: ‘What do I know of God and the purpose of life? ... The sense of life, i.e. the sense of the world, can be called God. And connected with the image of God as a father.’ There was apt irony to the fact that the captured Austrian officer was to spend his incarceration at a place called Cassino.

This first volume closes with Wittgenstein’s return to Vienna in late August 1919 and with the publication of the Tractatus. Wittgenstein, who had already given away much of his fortune prior to 1914, struck those who now met him, including Russell, as strangely altered, as ‘mystical’ in his attitudes. The tensions between logical formality and what McGuinness acutely calls ‘a creation myth’, between meta mathematical and analytic technicality, on the one hand, and a hidden invocation of mystery, of transcendent categories, on the other, makes of the Tractatus the perplexing, endlessly intriguing construct which it is. Brian McGuinness’s chapter of explication is, unavoidably, one suspects, hard going. To this day, the Tractatus seems to keep many of its secrets.

So, throughout this first volume, does young Ludwig’s life. McGuinness has had to walk a tightrope of licensed discretion, and the results are not always attractive. Far too often we find reflections of a kind which tell us that even if it was possible to reconstruct the motives for Wittgenstein’s despair in the first half of 1920, ‘it would be intrusive’ to do so. Time and again, such pivotal questions as the homosexual nature of Wittgenstein’s relations or abstentions from relations, such matters as the hysterical outbursts of confessional guilt, are pointed to with a knowingness that refuses knowledge.

This may not be the biographer’s fault. We know of the constraints upon him. Should he have undertaken the lamed venture? And how will this strategy of hint and elision operate when McGuinness comes to narrate the dark years immediately ahead in Wittgenstein’s life? The leaden prose, the triste typography and design of the book, are emblematic of an imposed constriction.

At one or two points, moreover, even the thoroughness and control over detail in Young Ludwig falter. One looks in vain for any mention of Fritz Mauthner. Yet it was Mauthner’s Contributions to a Critique of Language which, even more than the language polemic of Hofmannsthal or of Kraus, underlay the scrutiny of ‘the word’ in the Tractatus (Beckett read extracts from Mauthner’s opus to Joyce in 1930). Wittgenstein’s brutally dismissive reference to Mauthner should, in fact, alert us. The author of the Tractatus did not care to admit of predecessors.

None the less, there is in McGuinness’s research God’s plenty to learn from and think about. It looks as if Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger will come to dominate our sense of 20th-century philosophical thought. Indeed, the whole question of the paradoxical affinities between their respective obsessions with language now pervades philosophical and philosophical-historical discussion on the Continent. In both these solitary, enigmatic, at times histrionic teachers of genius, an unresolved sense of the theological is vividly instrumental. Both were drawn to despotism, in their personal methods and their politics (Wittgenstein’s flirtations with Stalinist Russia, fortunately, proved abortive). In both Heidegger and Wittgenstein, although existentially of the university and professorial sphere, burns the same loathing for academic philosophy, the same doubt as to whether philosophy of any seriousness can be ‘taught’ at all or committed to publishable writings. Where presences and provocations of this reach are in question, the care, the technical authority which McGuinness brings to bear are qualities to be grateful for.

Destined, by his prepotent father, for practical knowledge, ‘Luki’ was sent to the Real-schule in Linz (a junior polytechnic). He was in the Fifth Class. Overlapping with him, but in the Third Class, was a student only a few days older than Ludwig. The two boys must have crossed paths, may very well have conversed in the schoolyard, in the corridors. What, exactly, did Herr Wittgenstein say to Herr Adolf Hitler, and what did young Adolf say to young Ludwig?