My Wicked Heart

Colin McGinn

  • Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius by Ray Monk
    Cape, 654 pp, £20.00, October 1990, ISBN 0 224 02712 3
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Student’s Memoir by Theodore Redpath
    Duckworth, 109 pp, £12.95, May 1990, ISBN 0 7156 2329 X

Was Wittgenstein a spiritual as well as a philosophical genius? Ray Monk’s exceptionally fine and fat biography puts us in a better position to answer this question than we have been hitherto.

Perhaps the best place to begin trying to understand Wittgenstein’s character is with the photographs that exist of his face. He himself advised friends to pay more attention to people’s faces and often passed remarks about the faces of others, saying (according to Theodore Redpath) of Locke that he had ‘a nice face’, of Descartes that he had ‘the face of a murderer’, of T. S. Eliot that he had ‘a modern face’ (meant disapprovingly). I recommend, in particular, a striking picture of Wittgenstein, reproduced in Monk’s book, which was taken in Swansea in 1945 by Ben Richards – a young man almost forty years Wittgenstein’s junior with whom he was then despairingly in love.

Even at this distance of time, and in two-dimensional monochrome, it is hard to meet Wittgenstein’s gaze full-on for very long. The eyes engage you immediately: they are imploring eyes yet with an intense rage flaring just behind the iris, sending off an unnerving blend of supplication and admonition – your own eyes reflexively rebound from them. Framing the scalding ice of these eyes are the sharply scored facial lines of the orbits and brow, which have the informal exactitude of the numbered paragraphs that make up his books. The exclamatory shock of hair brings an incongruous boyishness into the face. There is a scornful lift to the finely sculpted nose. The mouth is distancingly tight and yet minutely puckered, as if sensually restrained, bleakly kissless. A slight tilt of the head warns of a denunciatory access in the offing. The look is simultaneously delicate and military, tender and ferocious. If you stare hard at the face, it seems to shift aspect from one of these poles to the other, much as his famous duck-rabbit drawing does: from saintly to demonic and back again. You feel the excitement and peril of an encounter with the man. He seems both harsh and gentle, one of these traits replacing the other with no change of underlying form, as if an ‘ambiguous soul’ informs the face. It is a face that sends a spear of doubt into the core of your own integrity: yet it sternly repels all incursions from outside. You might say that it is the face of an executioner – though an executioner of a very special kind.

The bare facts of Wittgenstein’s life are by now fairly well known; the difficulty has been to discern in them an intelligible human being. Born into a rich and richly cultured Viennese family in 1889, a family of achievers and suicides, he took up the study of engineering, which brought him to Manchester to do research on kites. This led him to more purely mathematical interests, and thence to the foundations of mathematics, when he came across Russell’s Principles of Mathematics. Philosophy surged through him and, at Frege’s suggestion, he went to Cambridge to study with Russell. With phenomenal speed he impressed Russell with his logical talents: indeed, he virtually destroyed Russell’s own philosophical confidence. The spiritual torment that marked his life was already much in evidence at this time, as was his power over others.

Abruptly he decided to go and live alone in Norway for two years so that he could work on logic in complete isolation. This plan was thwarted by World War One, which saw Wittgenstein, first, behind the lines and then, voluntarily, at the front. He was decorated for conspicuous bravery, having chosen the most dangerous position available to him, the observation post; and he also worked fitfully on the Tractatus. He finished that searing book soon after the war ended, but he could not find a publisher; neither was it well understood by Russell and Frege, his two great mentors. Eventually, however, Russell’s influence led to its publication in German and English.

Wittgenstein then became an elementary schoolteacher in rural Austria, living in extreme poverty and declining the help of his aristocratic family. He quit this job when his punitive disciplinary methods got him into trouble with his pupils’ parents, and he eventually found his way back to Cambridge, after spending a year designing a house for his sister. The Tractatus was by now celebrated by the logical positivists, who contrived to ignore its mystical thrust. His own attitude toward the book was one of growing retraction, and he began to work out a new philosophy.

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