Seething

Colin McGinn

Wittgenstein to John Maynard Keynes:

When I saw you last I was confirmed in a view which had arisen in me last term already: you then made it very clear to me that you were tired of my conversation etc. Now please don’t think that I mind that! Why shouldn’t you be tired of me, I don’t believe for a moment that I can be entertaining or interesting to you. What I did mind was to hear through your words an undertone of grudge or annoyance. Perhaps these are not exactly the right words but it was that sort of thing. I couldn’t make out for some time what could be the cause of it all, until a thought came into my head which was by an accident proved to be correct. It was this: I thought probably you think that I cultivate your friendship amongst other reasons to be able to get some financial assistance from you if I should be in need (as you imagined I might be some day). This thought was very disagreeable to me.

Wittgenstein to Frank Ramsey:

A thing which is of much greater importance to me & was so on Saturday evening, is, that I still can’t understand how, being my supervisor & even – as I thought – to some extent my friend, having been very good to me you couldn’t care two pins whether I got my degree or not. So much so, that you didn’t even think of telling Braithwaite that you had told me my book would count as a dissertation. (I afterwards remembered one day talking to you about it in hall & and you saying ‘it would be absurd to write another thesis now straightaway.’) – Now you’ll want to know why I write you all this. It is not to reproach you nor to make fuss about nothing but to explain why I was upset on Saturday & couldn’t have supper with you. It is always very hard for a fellow in my situation to see that he can’t rely on the people he would like to rely on.

Wittgenstein to G.E. Moore:

Your letter annoyed me. When I wrote Logik I didn’t consult the regulations, and therefore I think it would only be fair if you gave me my degree without consulting them so much either! As to a Preface and Notes; I think my examiners will easily see how much I have cribbed from Bosanquet. – If I’m not worth your making an exception for me even in some STUPID details then I may as well go to Hell directly, and if I am worth it and you don’t do it then – you might go there.

  The whole business is too stupid and too beastly to go on writing about it so – L.W.

Wittgenstein to Bertrand Russell:

During the last week I have thought a lot about our relationship and I have come to the conclusion that we really don’t suit one another. THIS IS NOT MEANT AS A REPROACH! either for you or for me. But it is a fact. We’ve often had uncomfortable conversations with one another when certain subjects came up. And the uncomfortableness was not a consequence of ill humour on one side or the other but of enormous differences in our natures. I beg you most earnestly not to think I want to reproach you in any way or to preach you a sermon. I only want to put our relationship in clear terms in order to draw a conclusion ... Now, as I’m writing this in complete calm, I can see perfectly well that your value-judgments are just as good and just as deep-seated in you as mine in me, and that I have no right to catechise you. But I see equally clearly, now, that for that very reason there cannot be any real relation of friendship between us. I shall be grateful to you and devoted to you WITH ALL MY HEART for the whole of my life, but I shall not write to you again and you will not see me again either. Now that I am once again reconciled with you I want to part from you in peace so that we shan’t sometimes get annoyed with one another again and then perhaps part as enemies.

And these were his best friends.

In none of these cases did a permanent rift open up between Wittgenstein and his correspondent. He relented in the case of Russell, suggesting that they limit their relationship to areas in which their constitutional differences would not show up; and the other three cases were based on misapprehensions that were cleared up by the object of Wittgenstein’s wrath. What is remarkable, indeed, is the great fondness that Wittgenstein elsewhere shows for these men; a fondness clearly accompanied by a dread of betrayal and emotional compromise. It must have been at least as painful for him to write these letters as it was for their recipients to read them. They are love letters of a sort – tormented, distrustful, angry, pleading, prideful. And they obviously represent a standard of purity in personal relations that few people would be willing to live by.

The love between Wittgenstein and Russell is the most evident, and touching, especially in the earlier days of their friendship, when Wittgenstein was engaged on the logical work to which Russell had devoted so much of his early life. Their postwar meeting at The Hague, in order to discuss logic, set up after much effort and anguish, and following many years of separation, is like nothing so much as a romantic tryst. Russell breathlessly writes: ‘I have got here without misadventure and I hope you will. Come on here straight the moment you arrive. It will be a joy to see you again.’ After the week-long meeting Wittgenstein writes: ‘I enjoyed our time together very much and I have the feeling (haven’t you, too?) that we did a great deal of real work together during that week.’

I don’t mean to suggest that this was a homosexual relationship in any straightforward sense, but it was certainly romantically tinged (if not drenched). Their shared infatuation with logic, so evident in these letters, is refracted through the medium of fraternal collaboration and mutual dependence. There is a strong sense that they found in each other just what they needed: Russell certified Wittgenstein’s passionate genius and tolerated his eccentricities, while Wittgenstein echoed and amplified Russell’s own yearning for perfect rigour and mental intensity. With so much riding on each other it is not surprising that their relationship was so charged. It is sad that in later years their friendship soured, with Wittgenstein writing to Moore: ‘Russell was there’ – at the Moral Sciences Club – ‘and most disagreeable. Glib and superficial, though, as always, astonishingly quick.’ Russell, for his part, took the view that Wittgenstein had given up serious thinking. Their mutual disillusionment has all the flavour of sundered lovers.

Aside from these interpersonal frictions and fruitions, the letters provide evidence of Wittgenstein’s sense of his own mental instability. ‘Sometimes things inside me are in such a ferment that I think I’m going mad: then the next day I am totally apathetic again. But deep inside me there’s a perpetual seething, like the bottom of a geyser, and I keep on hoping that things will come to an eruption once and for all, so that I can turn into a different person.’ And again:

Every day I was tormented by a frightful Angst and by depression in turns and even in the intervals I was so exhausted that I wasn’t able to think of doing a bit of work. It’s terrifying beyond all description the kinds of mental torment that there can be! It wasn’t until two days ago that I could hear the voice of reason over the howls of the damned and I began to work again. And perhaps I’ll get better now and be able to produce something decent. But I never knew what it meant to feel only one step away from madness.

He does not appear to have ever sought psychiatric help, and was sceptical of Freudian theory, but these words clearly signify mental suffering of an extreme degree. Nor is it clear quite what it was that caused him such agony of mind. He seems to have found refuge in his work, if it was going well, and in certain intense friendships; and if these failed him, there was always solitude and isolation, which he sought at different periods of his life.

We also learn something of Wittgenstein’s conception of genius, in two stray remarks. Of one of Schubert’s works he says that it has ‘a fantastic kind of greatness’; and speaking of the bizarre Otto Weininger he says: ‘It is true that he is fantastic but he is great and fantastic.’ I take Wittgenstein to mean that true genius – or at least one species of it – consists in wrenches of the imagination, journeys into the phantasmagoric. There must be something shocking in the work, something that bursts the bounds of the orderly and controlled and familiar. And his own work displays this: the Tractatus rigorously declares its own meaninglessness in granite-like sentences, while the Investigations profoundly rejects philosophical profundity as just ‘a house of cards’. Both books take fantastic journeys in their own way: they conjure alien worlds that lurk within the obvious and mundane; they stir the imagination as much as the intellect. Even while celebrating the ordinary, they strike a fantastic note. Indeed, Wittgenstein himself has a kind of fantastic greatness: he is hard to believe in, and would be impossible to invent.

It is clear from these letters how close the Tractatus came to not being published. Without Russell’s generous backing it would not have been. At one point Wittgenstein feels compelled to write, after having the book rejected:

I’ve already comforted myself on that score, by means of the following argument, which seems to me unanswerable. Either my piece is a work of the highest rank, or it is not a work of the highest rank. In the latter (and more probable) case I myself am in favour of its not being printed. And in the former case it’s a matter of indifference whether it’s printed twenty or a hundred years sooner or later. After all, who asks whether the Critique of Pure Reason, for example, was written in 17x or y. So really in the former case too my treatise wouldn’t need to be printed.

When it was eventually published it became a classic, its more fantastic aspects studiously ignored by its positivistic devotees. It is interesting to speculate what he would have felt about its publication in view of his later repudiation of the entire approach of the book. Perhaps he would have favoured his recommendation about reading Weininger: put a negation sign in front of the whole thing and read it anyway.

His need for isolation could reach peaks of austerity not usually countenanced by those ‘who want to be alone’. In remote Norway he would live for many months in a tiny hut of his own construction, cut off even from the nearest village by a lake he had to row across for provisions. We can be sure that his accommodations were sparsely furnished and poorly heated. His eating habits were notably spartan. This stripped-down environment seems to have served some deep need for spiritual purification, as well as permitting the concentration he needed to push his thinking to its furthest reaches. Since he had a strong need for people, one can only assume that the loneliness he must have endured was intentionally inflicted. Perhaps he disdained his dependence on other people, feeling it to be a weakness that had to be purged by cold, deprivation and isolation. Or perhaps they were a too tempting distraction from dealing with his own spiritual difficulties.

As I was reading these letters I also happened to be reading a fine new study by Robert Norton, The Beautiful Soul: Aesthetic Morality in the 18th Century.[*] The book traces the history of the concept of moral beauty from Plato and Plotinus, through Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, and into Kant, Schiller and Goethe. Norton explores the way this concept merged with Pietist religious traditions in German-speaking countries and suffused their moral culture. Simply put, the idea was that each person should be engaged on the task of radical self-transformation in the direction of a ‘beautiful soul’, this being thought tantamount to moral perfection. Given Wittgenstein’s own heritage, it is very tempting to place him in this tradition. Certainly he often speaks as if his soul exists in some state of ugliness – ‘my life is FULL of the ugliest and pettiest thoughts and actions imaginable (this is not an exaggeration).’ he writes to Russell – and was clearly engaged on a lifelong project of spiritual reconstruction. When in the Tractatus he writes that ‘ethics and aesthetics are one and the same’ it is possible to hear him expressing the identity of inner beauty and moral goodness that was such a dominant part of the ethical tradition in which he grew up. This makes sense of what must seem to many British observers to be an eccentricity of Wittgenstein alone: he is here simply being true to his cultural origins. Morally speaking, he is a mixture of Pietist German moral aestheticism and Cambridge-style male Hellenism (if I may be excused these weighty-isms). His aesthetic tastes tended towards the austere and unadorned, as with the house he designed for his sister and his own spare prose style; and that seems to have been the kind of aesthetic object he wanted his soul to be, too. The danger of this approach to virtue is, of course, the temptation towards spiritual narcissism and moral inaction – and these, too, seem to be traits of which he was not wholly innocent.

Wittgenstein was famous for his abrasive honesty, his reckless truthfulness. In a striking early letter to Russell he states his opinion of a work highly esteemed by the Cambridge community:

I have just been reading a part of Moore’s principia Ethica: (now please don’t be shocked) I do not like it at all. (Mind you, quite apart from disagreeing with most of it.) I don’t believe – or rather I am sure – that it cannot dream of comparing with Frege’s or your own works (except perhaps with some of the Philosophical Essays). Moore repeats himself dozens of times, what he says in 3 pages could – I believe – easily be expressed in half a page. Unclear statements don’t get a bit clearer by being repeated!!

It is not that what he says here isn’t true, but I doubt that many other people at the time would have had the courage to say so – still less a new postgraduate student, as Wittgenstein then was. What is also notable, though less salient, is the oblique negative evaluation of some of Russell’s own work, which Wittgenstein plainly implies is of the same low quality as Moore’s book.

Why this compulsion to express opinions he knew would wound their object and might lead to his own rejection? Intellectual honesty is one answer, but it seems a more pointed thing than that. In Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius Ray Monk reports that as a child Wittgenstein was unusually compliant and solicitous of other people’s affection, even at the expense of the truth. Perhaps he was aware of this tendency in himself and felt compelled to resist it on every possible occasion. It was an act of purification – a deliberate mortification of his desire to be liked. Unwelcome truthfulness was a means of beautifying his own soul. The damage done to others was presumably their own affair.

These letters provide a fascinating glimpse of Wittgenstein and his friends at an intimate and revealing level. I am sure their publication would have horrified him.

[*] Cornell, 336 pp., £27.50, 25 May 1995, 0 8014 3050 X.