"Tell them it’s been a wonderful life". A still from Derek Jarman's 'Wittgenstein' (BFI)

May 16, 2022   6 mins

My Cambridge tutor would refuse to shake hands with colleagues out of term because of some medieval university statute which nobody else had ever heard of. I wrote about it for UnHerd and an outraged reader from South Carolina writes to reprove me for my callousness. Can’t I see that the man was clearly the victim of some kind of trauma?

Well, no. Unless being an arch-traditionalist counts as a mental illness. It’s true that he had been through a gruelling process — prep school, private school — which has permanently broken others, but he was perfectly serene. Who wouldn’t be with a Cambridge fellowship, a private income and a maid and butler waiting for him at home?

I was sitting in his study one day when it started to get cold. “Let’s put the heater on, should we?” he said with an air of suppressed excitement. (He didn’t get out much.) There was a small heater at his feet, but instead of reaching down to flick the switch he rose, crossed the room, lifted a phone and summoned a college servant. A burly man in a neat white jacket entered after a moment or two, and went down on his knees as though in worship in front of the heater. My tutor thanked him courteously. He was not at all arrogant; indeed he was the very model of decency and civility. It’s just that he would no more have thought of switching on his own heater than he would have thought of extracting his own wisdom teeth. All this may look like trauma from the standpoint of South Carolina. I think we call it privilege over here.

This man’s problem was not that something appalling had happened to him, but that nothing had happened to him at all. The same can’t be said about one of his closest friends, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, about whom my tutor wrote a rather stiff little memoir. In the course of the book he dismisses as “lurid” rumours that Wittgenstein was gay, though he was indeed gay and seemed to feel little guilt about it.

A lot more had happened to him than sleeping with other men, however. He was born into a patrician Viennese family in 1889, the son of the wealthiest industrialist in the Habsburg empire. Karl Wittgenstein was a fabulously rich steel magnate and high-class crook who rigged prices, bled his workers dry and did much the same to his timorous wife Leopoldine. The whole family was a seething cauldron of psychosomatic disorders. Three of Ludwig’s brothers committed suicide, including one whose first spoken word was “Oedipus”. (Sigmund Freud lived just round the corner.) Almost all of the children were prodigiously talented. The family home was like a conservatoire, with Brahms, Mahler and Richard Strauss dropping in for tea.

After designing a new kind of aircraft propeller at Manchester university, Ludwig became a student at Cambridge but detested academia and ran away to live by himself in a hut on a Norwegian fjord. Scarpering was one of his most habitual practices. He fought for the Austrian army in the First World War, and puzzled his superiors by asking to be assigned to more and more dangerous postings. In his rucksack he carried the manuscript of the only book he ever published, the snappily titled Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. This work, he thought, solved all problems of philosophy, leaving one free to attend to what really mattered: ethics, music, religion and the like. When the book won him a Cambridge doctorate, one of his examiners drily remarked that it fulfilled the usual conditions of the degree apart from being a work of genius.

After the war, Witter-Gitter (as some called him) inherited a slice of his father’s fortune and promptly gave it away to three of his siblings and various down-at-heel artists. “It’s better to go barefoot,” he remarked. He was austere, intense, imperious, intimidating and impossibly exacting. Though he wasn’t conventionally religious, he was afflicted by that strange mania known as Protestantism, for which one must attend to the slightest detail of one’s existence with unwavering seriousness. His college room contained almost nothing but a card table and a few deck chairs, very different from the Vienna of cream cakes, waltzes and ornate architecture which had produced him. He once said that he didn’t care what he ate as long as it was always the same. He was an accomplished architect and engineer who could design a house down to the last detail. He could also sculpt, play the clarinet superbly, conduct an orchestra and whistle whole symphonies. He is among the classic writers of German prose, and there are probably more works of art about him than about any other philosopher.

Wittgenstein did another runner after a while, this time to work as a village schoolmaster in the Austrian countryside. Driven out by the local people for clouting a child, he served as an assistant gardener in a monastery near Vienna before returning to Cambridge. During the Second World War he served as a porter at Guy’s hospital and worked in a medical laboratory in Newcastle. Then he ran away again, this time to Stalinist Russia, where he demanded to be trained as a physician and was packed off home in short order. He was known in Cambridge as a Communist fellow traveller, but his politics were more Tolstoyan than Marxist.

His final flight from the academic life, a few years before his death in 1951, was to the west of Ireland, where he lived by himself in a cottage, again on a fjord, and was reputed to be able to tame the birds. A young man called Tom Mulkerrins brought him his turf and helped about the house. I met Mulkerrins many years later, when I was writing the screenplay for Derek Jarman’s film Wittgenstein, and listened aghast to his tale of burning piles of (no doubt priceless) manuscripts on his master’s orders. “I’m not the first to ask you about him, am I?” I inquired. “You’re neither the first nor the 41st,” he replied. Mary Robinson, who was President of Ireland at the time, unveiled a plaque to the eccentric foreigner at the cottage, and I gave a brief address to a small audience of Irish philosophers and Irish-speaking fishermen.

Probably the finest English-speaking philosopher of the modern age, Wittgenstein didn’t think much of philosophy. In fact, he advised his disciples to give it up. One of the brightest of them did so and spent some years working in a factory, much to Wittgenstein’s approval. Instead of teaching from notes, he simply sat before his students and thought, writhing at times in what seemed like physical agony until an insight struggled its way out of his body.

He hadn’t read all that much philosophy himself, and seemed to prefer cowboy movies and detective stories. Philosophical problems, he believed, mostly sprang from certain duplicities of language, but these delusions were built so deeply into our grammar that to be free of them, we had to change our form of life. In this sense, his work is a long way from so-called linguistic philosophy, one of whose exponents claimed to have talked a student out of suicide by pointing out to him that the grammar of “nothing matters” differs from that of “nothing chatters”. Wittgenstein had good reason to believe that suicide went rather deeper than this. Indeed, he frequently contemplated it himself.

Despite his personal austerity, Wittgenstein’s later writing is full of jokes, anecdotes, enigmas, wonderings aloud, snatches of dialogue and homespun images. His Philosophical Investigations, put together by his colleagues after his death, compares the idea of a private language to a man passing money from one of his hands to the other and thinking he has made a financial transaction. Or alternatively, to someone who exclaims “But I know how tall I am!” and places his hand on top of his head. Is it true that I know that I’m in pain but can only guess that you are? Nonsense, Wittgenstein retorts. It makes no sense to say “I know I am in pain”, because the words “I know” have force only in a situation where you might not know, and not knowing you’re in pain isn’t possible.

In this and other ways, Wittgenstein’s thought steadily undermines middle-class individualism. We are not isolated beings sealed within our own private, incommunicable experience. On the contrary, the way in which I come to know you is pretty much the way in which I come to know myself. How can I know that what I am feeling is jealousy unless I have been reared within a language which contains the concept? And language is nobody’s private property. Behind this distaste for the cult of the individual one can feel the disdain of aristocratic Vienna for the stout burgher.

Wittgenstein was an intriguing combination of monk, mystic and mechanic. He was a high European intellectual who yearned for a Tolstoyan holiness and simplicity of life, a man who could never decide whether he was a Brahmin or an Untouchable. He turned away from what he called the pure ice of the intellect to the “rough ground” of everyday existence. However abstruse the problems we set ourselves, their roots are to be found in our routine practices. It is what we do, he comments, which lies at the bottom of our language-games. As one who hailed from an empire populated by Germans, Slovaks, Romanians, Serbs, Slovenes and a good many other quarrelsome ethnic groups, he came to see human culture as inherently diverse. The simple English phrase “it takes all kinds to make a world” struck his semi-outsider’s ears as “a very kindly and beautiful saying”.

Yet he was also an irascible autocrat with the haughtiness of his social class, as well as a man who lived for much of the time in spiritual torment. “Tell them it’s been a wonderful life,” he said on his deathbed, though quite in what sense is one of the many enigmas of his life and work. He was, he felt, a sinner in search of redemption, though he believed neither in sin nor redemption. My tutor had a wonderful life too, at least judging from the outside, but in one sense this was exactly his problem. To be a great artist or thinker you have to live, and decent chap though he was, he never quite got round to doing much of that.

Terry Eagleton is a critic, literary theorist, and UnHerd columnist.