Monk, Mystic, Mechanic

Ludwig Wittgenstein's complicated ties with his Viennese family, the suicides of three of his siblings, his ambivalent attitude toward his Jewish origins and his homosexuality - all are examined in a new exhibition in Berlin in honor of the great 20th century philosopher, who died 60 years ago.

Avner Shapira
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Avner Shapira

BERLIN - "I do philosophy now like an old woman who is always misplacing something and having to look for it again, now her spectacles, now her keys."

- Ludwig Wittgenstein, "On Certainty"

Ludwig WittgensteinCredit: The Schwartz Museum. Berlin / Wittgenstein Archive, Cambridge

Ludwig Wittgenstein may have declared at the beginning of his book "Philosophical Investigations" that "explanations come to an end somewhere," but as far as his philosophy is concerned, the finish line is still nowhere in sight. Since his death 60 years ago, on April 29, 1951, numerous explanations and interpretations of his philosophy, or to be more precise, his philosophies, have been proposed. His influence has seeped into other spheres of knowledge and his unique personality has also been the subject of many analyses and portrayals.

The exhibition "Ludwig Wittgenstein: Contextualizations of a Genius," at the Schwules Museum in Berlin offers new keys to understanding one of the 20th century's greatest intellects, who helped lay the foundations for the linguistic revolution that occurred in the world of philosophy. It underscores the connections between his philosophy and his life and sheds light on two key yet murky aspects of his biography: his ambivalent attitude toward his family's Jewish origins and his sexual identity.

At the entrance to the exhibition, a series of self-portraits of Wittgenstein, taken in 1922, are screened in a continuous loop. His changing expressions allude to the exhibition's aim - exposing the many facets of his personality. "On the 60th anniversary of his death, we wished to sketch character by means of observation not only of his pioneering theories, but also of his family, the culture from whence he came, the historical and intellectual sources that influenced him, his social connections and the many places that he lived," says Kristina Jaspers, the exhibition's co-curator and the co-editor of the book of the same title (with Jan Drehmel ).

Jaspers says that making a connection between the philosophy and the biography of the philosopher is apt in Wittgenstein's case because he himself discerned such an affiliation. "He believed that in order to do philosophy properly, you had to live properly - in other words, that life and philosophy go hand in hand. The changes that occurred in his philosophical views could become clear in light of his biography: On the one hand, there is the indecision, the doubts and fear of mistakes that constantly haunted him, in life as well as in his theoretical pursuits; and on the other hand, whenever he felt that he needed to change his life or when he became convinced that he had erred in his philosophical conclusions, he made firm decisions and resolutely stuck to them."

The changes Jaspers is referring to are almost certainly familiar to anyone who has heard anything about the philosopher, for any discussion of his work is invariably prefaced with a specification as to whether this is "early Wittgenstein," the philosophy he developed early in his career, or "late Wittgenstein," which comprised an entirely different theory. There appears to be no parallel in the history of philosophy, in which one man came up with two different and contrasting philosophies, each of which had a profound impact on an entire generation of intellectuals.

But let us not get ahead of ourselves: Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein was born on April 26, 1889 in Vienna, youngest of the eight children of Karl and Leopoldine Wittgenstein. Karl was an iron and steel magnate, one of the wealthiest and most influential people in the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time. As a child, Ludwig was tutored privately at home, and his studies included philosophy. His father was an important patron of the Viennese art scene and all the children were educated in aesthetics and music. Some of the most eminent composers of fin-de-siecle Vienna, including Clara Schumann, Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler and Johannes Brahms, played at the opulent Wittgenstein home. The family's summer home outside Vienna was furnished by artists from the Wiener Werkstaette (Viennese Workshop ), a production company of artists and designers.

When he was a teenager, two of Ludwig's brothers, both of whom were homosexual, committed suicide: Johannes, who since childhood had been captivated by the idea of translating the world into mathematical formulas (an ambition later realized in Ludwig's early philosophy ), and Rudolf, who was a student in Berlin and killed himself when he feared that his sexual orientation would become public knowledge.

The exhibition includes an edition of a journal published by the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee (the first gay rights organization in history, founded in 1897 in Berlin by the German-Jewish sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld ) featuring a report on Rudolf's suicide. Alexander Waugh says in his book "The House of Wittgenstein," published in 2008, that the father, Karl, forbade the family from ever mentioning the names of the two brothers who had killed themselves. According to Waugh, the strict ban imposed by the father gave rise to "an intolerably tense atmosphere" between the parents and their children and "a rift that never healed."

When he was 15, Wittgenstein began attending the Realschule in the city of Linz. That same year a boy by the name of Adolf Hitler was enrolled at the same school. He was six days older than Wittgenstein, but it is not clear whether the two were acquainted at all. They were not in the same class, because Hitler had to repeat a year while Wittgenstein had been promoted a grade because of his rapid progress.

In 1906 Wittgenstein began studying mechanical engineering in Manchester. He was especially interested in mathematics and mathematical logic and transferred to Trinity College at Cambridge University to study with philosopher Bertrand Russell. When the First World War broke out, Wittgenstein was drafted into the Austrian army.

In the trenches during the war, he worked on the manuscript of his independent research study in logic, and in 1918, when he was a POW in the hands of the Italian army, he was permitted to send the work to Russell; it was published three years later as Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. The composition, which was the only book of philosophy by Wittgenstein published in his lifetime, paints an unyielding and supremely rational picture of the relationship between the world, logic and language. It sketches the limits of thought and, at least upon a superficial reading, rejects preoccupation with metaphysical, ethical and aesthetic questions, such as those with which philosophers throughout history have sought to grapple.

Instead, the philosophy of language is presented as the key to seeing the world, or as Wittgenstein put it in one of the most famous lines in the book: "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world." Still, a careful reading of the book also requires that one take note of what is not written in it: In a letter Wittgenstein sent to the book's publisher, Ludwig von Picker, he explained that in essence, the work presents an ethical outlook, even if this is not made explicit in the text.

World War I had other effects on the Wittgenstein family besides leading to the writing of a philosophical masterpiece. Another brother, Kurt, who also served as a soldier, shot himself to death close to the war's end, for no discernible reason. Before that, at the start of the war, Ludwig's brother Paul, two years his senior, lost his right arm when wounded in battle. Paul, who had been training since childhood as a classical pianist, fell prisoner to the Russians, and when released, decided to go back to playing, with just one hand. He commissioned works for the left hand from the greatest composers of the time, including Ravel, who wrote the "Piano Concerto for Left Hand" for him, the piece that earned Paul his greatest fame.

Via photographs, letters, diary excerpts and other documents, the exhibition also gives extensive coverage to Ludwig's complicated relationship with Paul. The latter was concerned about his brother's homosexuality and often confronted him over it, from childhood through adulthood. As someone who was drawn to Arthur Schoepenhaur's non-rational philosophy, Paul rejected Ludwig's analytical-linguistic philosophy and declared it nonsense. For his part, Ludwig was not a great admirer of Paul's piano playing, despite his brother's international success.

Ludwig's relationships with his three sisters were closer and more pleasant in both the intellectual and physical spheres: He would debate philosophical and ethical questions with Hermine and Margaret, while he and Helene used to spar together.

God arrived by train

"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

- From "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus"

In the preface to Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein wrote, "The truth of the thoughts communicated here seems to me unassailable and definitive. I am, therefore, of the opinion that the problems have in essentials been finally solved." Faithful to this idea, that his theory essentially brought an end to philosophy, he retired from the world of philosophizing and turned to more material pursuits: He worked as an elementary school teacher and as a gardener in a monastery.

Wittgenstein may have gained a reputation as a solitary, tormented and alienated philosopher, but the exhibition seeks to show the many social ties he had in England and Austria, which continued after he was no longer active in academia. Among others, he formed connections with prominent figures such as the philosophers of the "Vienna Circle" (whose school of logical positivism was deeply influenced by his thinking ) - architect Adolf Loos, writer and satirist Karl Kraus and economists Piero Sraffa and John Maynard Keynes. When Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge University in 1929, Keynes wrote to one of their friends: "Well, God has arrived. I met him on the 05:15 train."

As the saying goes, God is in the details, and this is what makes up the main part of the exhibition in Berlin. For example, there are the plans for the villa that Wittgenstein built in Vienna in 1928 for his sister Margaret, which was meant to give architectural illustration to the ideas presented in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. The villa's interlocking cube structure, with a facade free of ornamentation, was designed by Wittgenstein with the assistance of his close friend, the Jewish architect Paul Engelmann, who was a student of Loos, and aroused great interest in the architectural circles of the era. In the interior design, influences that Wittgenstein picked up from the design of the family mansion are noticeable. Today, the villa houses the Bulgarian Embassy in Vienna.

The connection with Engelmann also helps illuminate "the Jewish question" regarding Wittgenstein, whose father was the son of Jewish converts to Christianity and whose maternal grandfather was also a Jewish convert to Christianity. His Jewish background was a source of ambivalence and torment for Wittgenstein, as Henry Abramowitz, Chair of the Israel Institute of Jungian Psychology, describes in the essay he wrote for the exhibition catalog, concerning the philosopher's Jewish identity.

He says that while from the point of view of Jewish law, Wittgenstein was not a Jew, because his maternal grandmother was a Catholic, and although he did not live as a Jew or openly identify with Jewish culture, the philosopher did read extensively about Jewish history, and in his writings he related to Judaism as a social category or spiritual state, as opposed to a racial characteristic.

"The saint is the only Jewish genius. Even the greatest Jewish thinker is no more than talented. (Myself for instance )," he wrote.

Further fascinating evidence of Judaism's place in Wittgenstein's self-image can be found in a 1925 letter he sent to Engelmann, when he heard that the latter was about to immigrate to Palestine and join the Jewish-Zionist project there. "That you want to go to Palestine is the one piece of good news that makes your letter cheering and hopeful for me," he told him. "This may be the right thing to do and may have a spiritual effect. I might want to join you. Would you take me with you?"

On the basis of this letter, Abramowitz stresses that Wittgenstein felt Jewish enough to consider, if only fleetingly, the idea of immigrating to Eretz Israel. However, at the same time, a dream he recorded in 1929 illustrates the difficulty he had in coming to terms with his Jewish roots. The Jew is portrayed in the dream as coldhearted and as a source of injustice in the world, a comment that, in Abramowitz's view, reflects an internalization of anti-Semitic stereotypes.

In the mid-1930s, Wittgenstein sent letters to several friends in which he confessed that he had misled them in regard to the degree of his Jewishness: He asked their forgiveness for having told them that only one of his grandparents, and not three, was Jewish.

In those years, this was no trivial matter: When Wittgenstein's former schoolmate from the gymnasia, Adolf Hilter, annexed Austria to the Third Reich in 1938, the family was considered Jewish according to the racial laws. Most of the family members no longer lived in Austria by then (Ludwig received British citizenship that year ), but the Nazis sought to nationalize the vast wealth the family had left in the country. Ludwig's sister Margaret had trouble believing that the Nazis would harm such a distinguished family and tried to negotiate to obtain the preferred status of a mischling (person of mixed race ). Meanwhile, Paul waged a tenacious battle in which he eventually managed to fool the Nazis and only transfer a small part of the family's assets to them.

In a certain sense, Wittgenstein's struggle with his family's Jewish identity is similar to another matter about which he preferred to keep quiet: his sexual orientation. "He never commented directly on his homosexuality, and his relationships with men were not brought up for public discussion during his lifetime, a time in which homosexuality was a criminal offense," says Jaspers, the curator. "Wittgenstein felt uncomfortable with his sexual tendencies and kept up a lot of secrecy surrounding them."

William W. Bartley addressed this issue in his 1973 biography of Wittgenstein, in which he maintained that the philosopher used to engage in casual sexual encounters with young men he met in Prater Park in Vienna and in parks in England. The exhibition in Berlin does not address this claim, which has no firm corroboration, but spotlights Wittgenstein's relationships with four men, all much younger than he, who are known to have been his consorts: the philosopher and mathematician Frank Ramsey (who translated Tractacus Logico-Philosophicus from German to English and pressed Wittgenstein to return to Cambridge ); Francis Skinner (with whom Wittgenstein studied Russian and planned to move to the Soviet Union, ultimately changing his mind after visiting there ); David Pinsent and Ben Richards, his final companion. The exhibition also presents a portrait of Marguerite Respinger, a young Swiss woman with whom Wittgenstein had a relationship, though his plan to marry her did not come to fruition.

In Jaspers' view, "one can draw a parallel between the secrecy that Wittgenstein adopted in regard to his Jewish roots and his attitude toward his sexual identity. When he spoke in his confessional letters to his friends about his lies regarding his Jewish background, the word 'Jew' could be replaced by the word 'gay' and one could read between the lines and appreciate his troubles. He also talked there about his need to be direct and honest about his identity."

She adds that despite the limited information about Wittgenstein's homosexuality, "this is an important aspect because it shows that despite his wealthy and distinguished background, he was situated on the margins, outside the mainstream. His agonies and fears about his sexual orientation, which made him keep his distance from men whom he found attractive, are also related to the isolation and asceticism that characterized substantial parts of his life. In other words, it's possible that his problem was not with homosexuality per se, but with sexuality in general."

Family resemblance

"I must be nothing more than the mirror in which my reader sees his own thinking with all its deformities and with this assistance can set it in order."

- From "Philosophical Investigations"

Giving concrete form to abstract philosophical ideas is no easy task, and the curators of the exhibition dealt with this in several ways. Rather than promote some new interpretation of Wittgenstein's philosophy, they aim to illuminate the circumstances of the life out of which it was created. So, for instance, the rough gray jacket that the philosopher wore for many years was included in the exhibition, as were personal items from the Wittgenstein Archive in Cambridge and from other archives - items such as diaries, calendars, photographs and letters, some of which are being displayed in public for the first time. The exhibition also tries to illustrate some of the ideas that Wittgenstein developed in his later period, after he returned to Cambridge, where he taught until his retirement in 1947. The theory he developed in those years, which completely refutes the ideas expressed in Tractacus Logico-Philosophicus, was presented in his book "Philosophical Investigations," which was completed in 1945 but only published in 1953, two years after his death.

While his early thinking dealt with language as the tool that serves the individual in self-description and self-reporting, but not as a tool of social communication, his later writing points to a range of functions that language fills in human life, first and foremost as a social practice. As the British philosopher Anthony Quinton noted, this transition also reflects Wittgenstein's transformation from an isolated person, withdrawn in his thoughts, to a charismatic person who was active in wide social circles and received much recognition.

In "Philosophical Investigations," Wittgenstein demonstrated the range of practical uses that language serves, by means of the similarities and differences that can be found between different games, such as card games, board games, ball games, war games and more. Although there is no one thing that these games have in common, an affinity does exist among them, something he referred to as "family resemblance," just as such resemblances may be found among relatives in one family. This idea is illustrated in the exhibition by an installation that includes various games as well as by a photograph created according to Wittgenstein's request, in which his portrait is blended with that of his three sisters to make a single portrait.

In the same book, Wittgenstein argues against the concept of a private language, insisting on the inherently public nature of language, which can function only when certain rules are accepted by more than one person. Somewhat ironically, this argument is illustrated in the exhibition by means of excerpts from private diary entries that Wittgenstein wrote in his own private code, but which was deciphered when his encrypting method was discovered. Jaspers adds that Wittgenstein's later interest in language as a social phenomenon is also reflected in the fact that he did not lay out an orderly and complete theory, but rather sought to crystallize his theories out of a continuous dialogue with students and friends.

The exhibition, which closes on June 13, enables people who are not yet familiar with Wittgenstein's philosophies to become acquainted with them through some of his most famous quotes, which "have an uncanny ability to become etched in the memory" (as British author Bryan Magee noted ). Jaspers emphasizes that the asceticism that was often associated with the philosopher was a result of his ongoing struggle to live his life simply and honestly, and one aspect of his disassociation from the family fortune. Accordingly, he donated to charity most of the inheritance he received after his father's death.

"At heart I am a communist," Wittgenstein once declared. Though his political views were on the left end of the spectrum and he was sympathetic to the working class, his philosophical approach was very far from Marxist thinking. This is evident from one disconcerting claim included in "Philosophical Investigations," to wit, that philosophy "leaves everything as it is."

This is just one of the many contradictions in Wittgenstein's thinking that remained unresolved, like the contradictions in his life. The British literary scholar Terry Eagleton wrote in a 2008 piece in The Guardian that "Wittgenstein was an arresting combination of monk, mystic and mechanic. He was a high European intellectual who yearned for a Tolstoyan holiness and simplicity of life, a philosophical giant with scant respect for philosophy."

Eagleton, who was one of the screenwriters for Derek Jarman's 1993 film "Wittgenstein," which is being screened at the exhibition, added that one could interpret the different aspects of the philosopher's personality as an ambivalent reaction to his family background. As he puts it: "On the one hand, he tried to divest himself of all that pomp and excess. If he was sometimes plunged into spiritual despair, it was because he was unable to strip himself of himself. Wittgenstein struggled to live on what he called the rough ground of everyday life ... But he was also haunted by a lofty, lethal vision of purity (what he called the pure ice ), which was a product of his background and a form of rebellion against it. And the fact that he was torn between the rough ground and the pure ice was the source of much of his sorrow."

As I left the exhibition, raindrops were falling on the cobblestones of the Kreuzberg district where the museum is located, calling to mind the words that Wittgenstein wrote on April 27, 1951, two days before his death from prostate cancer, from which he suffered in the final two years of his life. These words not only conclude his book "On Certainty," they encapsulate all of his philosophical work: "I canno t seriously suppose that I am at this moment dreaming. Someone who, dreaming, says 'I am dreaming', even if he speaks audibly in doing so, is no more right than if he said in his dream 'it is raining', while it was in fact raining. Even if his dream were actually connected with the noise of the rain."W

Shining a light on gay history

The Ludwig Wittgenstein exhibition is the latest in a series of monographic exhibitions mounted by the Schwules Museum (Gay Museum ) in Berlin in tribute to prominent artists and intellectuals who were a part of the LGBT community or contributed to the solidification of its identity. Such exhibitions have been dedicated to Michel Foucault, Thomas Mann, Greta Garbo and Jean Genet, among others, alongside numerous thematic exhibitions.

The museum, the first of its kind in the world, was founded in 1985 in West Berlin, with the aim of documenting and researching gay history, in all its colors and dimensions. The first exhibition was presented in 1987 and a year later the museum moved to its current modest home at 61 Mehringdamm in the Kreuzberg section of the city. In addition to the exhibitions, the museum is involved in other projects related to preserving the history of the LGBT community, including the monument to homosexual victims of the Nazis, which was dedicated in 2008 in Tiergarten Park in Berlin.

In 2004, the museum opened a permanent exhibition entitled "Self-Awareness and Endurance: 200 Years of Gay History." It focuses on the history of the gay community, particularly in Germany, from 1800-1970, and examines how gay identity has been shaped by the oppression, persecution and punishment that were the lot of homosexuals throughout most of this period. The museum also houses an archive, a library and an art collection. After looking into the past, visitors can make a quick transition to the present: Right by the museum are a cafe and nightclub that cater to the gay and lesbian public.



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