Indeed I hadn’t even read much about Wittgenstein (I’d reviewed the eponymous 1993 Derek Jarman film for Toronto’s Eye Weekly) until two weeks ago when, spotting my pristine (i.e. hitherto unread) copy of Bruce Duffy’s magisterial “novel” about Wittgenstein, The World as a Found It from 1987 (the title is in fact from the Tractatus), I decided enough was enough. It’s absurd to own a book for twenty years and still not have read it. And so I began.
Predictably, it is a thrilling, intoxicating read, not just because of the life it enshrines and illuminates, but because of Duffy’s exquisite writing—a pleasant shock for which I was unprepared (“…It was a fine June afternoon, not long after a shower, and the willows, pale and flossy with rainlight, were stretched down, dripping faint circle into the tea-dark water.” (p.103). “Flossy”? “Rainlight”? “Tea-dark water”? I’m only halfway through the book, but it’s clearly going to be hard to move on, shortly, to Ray Monk’s doggedly responsible biography, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (1990)—also resting unread on a shelf. What has been kind of fun, by the way, was my breaking up my reading of The World as I Found It with Wittgenstein’s Poker (2002), by David Edmonds and John Eidinow, subtitled “The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers” (Wittgenstein and Karl Popper, author of The Open Society and its Enemies).
All this Wittgenstein-gazing led me back, during a sort of intermission, to a book I had first read thirty years ago, Norman Malcolm’s Ludwig Wittgenstein, A Memoir.
This brief memoir, by one-time student and ultimately life-long friend of Wittgenstein’s at Cambridge and thereafter, remains the closest, most intimate, most refreshing portrait there is likely to be of this troubled, mercurially brilliant, gnomic, outrageously temperamental philosopher—the son of a fabulously wealthy Jewish family from Vienna who renounced his inheritance and his family’s expectations for him (he was studying engineering) to journey to Cambridge in 1911 to study and then teach philosophy.
Anybody who knows anything at all about Wittgenstein also knows that to refer to Wittgenstein’s teaching is to refer to the agon of this brilliant, perplexing man who did not teach philosophy as much as he do philosophy.
Norman Malcolm remembers, as one of Wittgenstein’s students, how he would “sit on a plain wooden chair in the centre of the room. Here he carried on a visible struggle with his thoughts. He often felt that he was confused and said so. Frequently he said things like ‘I’m a fool!’, ‘You have a dreadful teacher!’, ‘I’m just too stupid today.’ Sometimes he expressed a doubt that he would be able to continue the lecture….”
“It is hardly correct to speak of these meetings as ‘lectures’,” Malcolm writes, “although that is what Wittgenstein called them. For one thing, he was carrying on original research in these meetings. He was thinking about certain problems in a way that he would have done had he been alone….”
Being a member of this intellectually strenuous enclave must have bee heady stuff. And it wasn’t all sturm und drang. When Wittgenstein wasn’t being terrifying or extra-terrestrial, he could be charming and even funny. “It is worth noting,” Malcolm writes, “that Wittgenstein once said that a serious and good philosophical work could be written that would consist entirely of jokes (without being facetious). Another time he said that a philosophical treatise might contain nothing but questions (without answers). In his own writing he made use of both. To give an example: ‘Why can’t a dog simulate pain? Is he too honest?’ [Philosophical Investigations, section 250].
The Wittgenstein Malcolm got to know outside of the lecture hall could be just as challenging as the Wittgenstein inside the hall. He could also be delightful.
Wittgenstein loved detective magazines and Malcolm regularly provided them—a service that continued even when Malcolm was away teaching in the United States. Wittgenstein considered pulp-fiction detective stories “rich in mental vitamins and calories.” “I often wonder,” he once wrote to Malcolm, “how anyone can read ‘Mind’ [a scholarly philosophical review] when they could read Street & Smyth [detective] mags. Well, everyone to his taste.”
I always wished I could have gone with Wittgenstein to the movies—as Norman Malcolm frequently did. Often “disgusted” by what he had said—or tried to say or failed to say—in a lecture, he would rush off to a cinema immediately after the end of class. Malcolm describes how W. would “look imploringly at a friend and say in a low tone, ‘Could you go to a flick?’ They’d buy a bun or a cold pork pie on the way and munch them during the film.
Malcolm recalls how Wittgenstein insisted on sitting in the very first row of seats, “so that the screen would occupy his entire field of vision, and his mind would be turned away from thoughts of the lecture and his feelings of revulsion. Once he whispered to me, ‘This is like a shower bath!’ He especially liked American films (not English ones)—westerns in particular—although he was also greatly fond of Betty Hutton and Carmen Miranda.