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Wittgenstein’s Dream

Letters to Russell, Keynes and Moore by Ludwig Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein never did much to encourage the fossicking of amateurs, and in particular loathed phrase-making dilettantes. Yet people of a literary turn with no training in or indeed capacity for rigorous philosophy (let me hasten to include myself among them) will probably go on finding him of high interest. He said that we shouldn’t be seduced by language—an admonition which will continue being useful to those whose business it is to be seduced by language every day of the week. Wittgenstein is The Cure. He is a rhetorician’s way of going on the wagon.

This new volume of letters to Russell, Keynes and Moore is a companion piece for the slim collection of letters to Ogden and Ramsay. Those, being mainly technical, were stiff going for the non-professional. These—especially the substantial sheaf of letters to Russell—are of much more various interest. The reader will find himself drawn to speculate about all aspects of Wittgenstein’s strange life. The problem of his personality is, I am sure, eventually insoluble, but that doesn’t mean people are going to stop trying.

Most of the letters to Russell stem from the years 1912-21—i.e., from the first Cambridge period up until the publication of the Tractatus. In 1922 came a break in their relationship, of the same kind that severed Wittgenstein from G. B. Moore in Norway in 1914. (Apparently he also quarrelled with Russell in 1914, but Russell’s part of that exchange is not available.) All the intensity of Wittgenstein’s focussed intellect is there from the first moment: ‘There is nothing more wonderful in the world than the true problems of Philosophy.’ Engelmann was quite right in saying that thinking was Wittgenstein’s poetry. ‘I feel like mad.’ He accuses himself of having ‘half a talent’ for thought.

Fearing that he will die before being able to publish his ideas, he begs Russell to meet him so that he can explain. But explanation is difficult (it is always encouraging for those of us puzzled by the Tractatus to find that Russell found it hard reading as well) and he has the poet’s reluctance to explicate: ‘It bores me BEYOND WORDS to explain... it is INTOLERABLE for me to repeat a written explanation which even the first time I gave only with the utmost repugnance.’

A letter from Norway evokes the identikit Wittgenstein whose components everybody knows from Norman Malcolm’s excellent memoir. ‘My day passes between logic, whistling, going for walks, and being depressed.’ Angst is a continuing theme, screwed to fever pitch by the suspicion that his fellow thinkers don’t find him clear: ‘Dass Moore meine Ideen Dir nicht hat erklären können, ist mir unbegreiflich’—‘I find it inconceivable that Moore wasn’t able to explain my ideas to you.’ (Letters written in German are given in the original as well as in translation, and like all Wittgenstein’s German writings are so transparent they flatter the reader into believing he knows that language quite well.) In December 1919 Russell met Wittgenstein in The Hague and discussed the Tractatus with him for a week. There is a useful quotation from a hitherto unedited letter to Ottoline Morrell: ‘I told him I could not refute it, and that I was sure it was either all right or all wrong.’ It was difficult to get the book published—a frustration treated more fully in the letters to Engelmann than here. An introduction by Russell was meant to smooth the book’s path to publication, but Wittgenstein did not like what Russell wrote and characteristically did not forbear to say so. He said that once the elegance of Russell’s style had been lost in translation, only ‘superficiality and misunderstanding’ were left.

Wittgenstein was incapable of diplomatic flattery, as of any form of give and take: he was, to that extent, anti-social. It is useful, on this point, to look up the letters to Ogden and see how Wittgenstein found himself unable to say the merest of kind words about The Meaning of Meaning, even after Ogden had knocked himself out translating the Tractatus. Friendship with Wittgenstein was almost impossibly difficult, the demands were so heavy. (‘What a maniac you are!’ wrote Keynes) But he could be generous with his mental treasure, as long as you submitted. He was one of those mentors a pupil has to knuckle under to and eventually break free from. But even the proudest could temporarily forgo their liberty if it meant gaining access to a mind like his.

There are many reminders here of a great truth about Wittgenstein which has taken a long time to emerge. His spiritual life was extraordinarily rich. When he said you had to be silent about what you couldn’t speak of he didn’t mean that it wasn’t important—only that it wasn’t philosophical. He himself made the point very clearly in one of his Briefe an Ludwig von Ficker (Salzburg, 1969), when he said that his work (i.e., the book that was later to be the Tractatus) fell into two parts, what was there and what was not—and that the second part was the important one. In English, Wittgenstein devoured pulp fiction and worshipped Carmen Miranda and Betty Hutton, two of the most off-putting stars ever to burden Hollywood. This kind of slumming—which is anyway quite common among people who do intellectual work at high intensity—tends to obscure the profundity of his culture. But we need only to hear him conducting Russell through the major German poets (‘if you’ve really enjoyed Mörike, you should see the light about GOETHE’) to see how poetry—and he meant the poetry where the words used did not exceed the thing said—bulked large in his mind and formed the touchstone for his thought.

Poetry, and of course music. Moore was a musician as Russell was not, so the most enchanting moment in this volume occurs in a letter to Moore, when he is instructed to purchase an arrangement of the Brahms Schicksalslied for four hands and bring it to Norway. The picture of the two philosophers tickling the ivories side by side is one to be filed with the image of Chopin and Delacroix discussing counterpoint or Dr. Johnson and Baretti running their footrace in Paris. To Russell in 1912 Wittgenstein said Mozart and Beethoven were ‘the actual sons of God’ and to Moore in 1945 he said that the Schubert C Major Quintet had ‘a fantastic kind of greatness’. In so far as he could find solace, he seems to have found it in music, but it would probably be a mistake to cut him down to size—to make him ‘human’—by pointing to a source of consolation. For the unsentimental reader, it is the inhuman element in Wittgenstein which is likely to remain the most striking. He had, for example, the depressive’s knack of doing a quick fade. The Trattenbach episode, which William Warren Bartley found the key to his sexuality, seems to me more interesting when linked to his other disappearing tricks, such as his late-flowering career as a hospital orderly in World War II. The Aircraftman Shaw aspect of Wittgenstein is a clear indication, I think, that he suffered from a periodic inability to detect his own personality. If he was homosexual (and there are plenty of hints to support this) then he was Michelangelesque rather than Leonardian—guilty rather than serene. But I don’t see how guilt covers the case. I think protean depressives should recognize one of their kind.

Wittgenstein is turning into a myth. People now bandy his name about who once would have been tinkering with Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. For what grappling with Wittgenstein on a professional level actually involves, it is informative to look into Understanding Wittgenstein, Volume 7 of the Royal Institute of Philosophy Lectures, where the professionals are to be seen worrying at the problems: a cold douche for dabblers. Obviously it is a vocation to read work like Wittgenstein’s at the level of its writing. But for those of us whose propensities lie in other directions, or who are just not quite clever enough, it is still legitimate to find his career instructive. We need to be careful, though, not to turn his incidental remarks into slogans. In a recent television play about a producer making a film on Wittgenstein, the bemused hero was to be heard muttering ‘Death is not an event in life’ as if it were an edifying insight. Wittgenstein himself would have been quick enough to point out that St. Augustine goes into the subject more deeply in The City of God, or to recommend the texts of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky which helped sustain him during the First World War. Wittgenstein is not a substitute for the culture from which he grew, and a poet would do well to regard him as an enemy, not a friend. But he is the necessary enemy. There is something about his mental landscape, its tungsten outcrops and cryogenic lakes, which quenches one’s thirst for austerity. Seven Types of Ambiguity and The Structure of Complex Words will do more for a poet’s understanding of how language works than anything written by Wittgenstein: we read those books and feel that anything is possible. We read Wittgenstein and feel that nothing is—so little can be said. A salutary disenchantment, out of which his finely honed lyricism rings with uncanny beauty. ‘We are asleep. Our life is like a dream,’ he wrote to Engelmann, ‘But in our better hours we wake up just enough to realise that we are dreaming.’

(New Statesman, 18 October 1974)