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Wittgenstein: On the Fritz

By D. Byron.


“Read the Steins.”

— Bernadette Mayer

Since I was trained as a mathematical logician, nothing could be easier for me than to write an academically correct essay on Wittgenstein, but who would want to do that? Wittgenstein himself didn’t like to talk about philosophy much. You all know how the Tractatus ends. He didn’t like a lot of things—women, his vast inherited wealth, other people. German romanticism he liked, though—at least the attitudes associated with that. Living alone on a barren hill over a fjord. A scion of the richest man in Austria teaching in a village school—sort of like a du Pont teaching at a charter school in Brownsville. I guess a lot of gay people from the past had personalities along those lines—austere, ascetic, extreme passion just below great restraint. I’m thinking of that photo of David Pinset in the boat, looking off dreamily into the ineffable beyond. Wittgenstein and Francis Skinner in Cambridge. Wittgenstein and Ben Richards in London. You get the picture.

Of course when Bernadette Mayer said, “read the Steins,” she didn’t mean “read” like that. But nevertheless, as RuPaul would say, the library is open! Now I’m thinking about all of those photos of Wittgenstein squirming around in the same tweed jacket, looking like he’s been repressing the same orgasm since 1922. Or maybe the same shit. It’s hard to avoid the impression that Wittgenstein was the kind of man who had trouble going to the bathroom. Even his philosophical style is basically a monument to sweaty triumph over constipation—squeezing out one little golden turd after another. Most people don’t number their bowel movements, but doctors sometimes ask you to. So if you were constipated all the time and sought medical attention, you might count them on a regular basis. Not everyone with derivative philosophical styles caught the bathroom problem, though. One of Wittgenstein’s creepiest disciples, G.E.M. Anscombe, absolutely loved to shit—she said so herself in a public lecture. On the other hand, lest we be too quick to blame the philosopher’s lemon face and perennially clenched sphincter on his high Viennese bourgeois upbringing, I should remind readers who haven’t been there about the plumbing situation at the “ancient universities.” Even today, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to think of what else is ancient. Bourgeois propriety and finicky plumbing—it’s enough to make anyone reluctant to go. To say nothing of the food at high table—not that he would have eaten there, probably. I guess you could ask Ray Monk about that. He probably knows. For years I knew a very rich woman in Soho who loved to go ice skating in Central Park and read Ray Monk. She also enjoyed sitting surrounded by Persian rugs and African masks in her multi-million-dollar apartment and speculating about the origins of the cosmos, reading The New York Review of Books, and wondering how to achieve peace in the Middle East. But Ray Monk was a particular favorite. The more white wine from Astor Wines & Spirits she drank, the more she liked his Wittgenstein biography. I myself used it as a doorstop for three weeks in the summer of 2004 at a small cottage on Mount Desert Island, Maine. So you see why I never had occasion to confirm my theories about Wittgenstein and Cambridge plumbing definitively.


I do remember a story about Wittgenstein knocking on the door of A.E. Housman’s rooms in Trinity and asking whether he could use the Kennedy Professor of Latin’s bathroom. Apparently Wittgenstein’s was on the fritz. For all Housman knew, that could have been Wittgenstein’s name. Anyone who’s heard the Viennese dialect—or any dialect of German, for that matter—should know how comical Wittgenstein’s English must have sounded. I wonder what word he would have used. May I use your toilet? W.C.? Ray Monk probably knows that, too. We have no reason to think the great editor of Manilius was an aficionado of modern philosophy. Needless to say, Housman refused. Not that he could have been an easy shitter, either. Busying himself with all that textual criticism and testy polemic. Maybe when he was in France—all those wine-soaked cathedral viewings with Grant Richards. Or in Venice—the gondolier and so forth. The only thing he could manage to squeeze out in Cambridge was some maudlin stuff about Shropshire butt boys and a furtive line on the beauty of a Horatian ode. You can’t help but feel sad about Wittgenstein’s cold reception at the threshold of Housman’s loo. Actually, it could have been one of the great constipated romantic friendships in English homosexual intellectual history. A pity.

In my late teens and early twenties, I had a good friend who liked both Wittgenstein and Housman and would have been equally disappointed by the missed connection. Had he been born ten years later, he might have even posted a Craigslist ad about it. Mostly, though, we just exchanged e-mails about people with names like Scaliger, Winckelmann, and Madvig. Then we spent a few weeks in Vienna together. I had just come from a month in Italy with the Soho millionaire’s big blond son. Even with a quart of Acqua di Santa Maria Novella Profumo and the sips of whisky suggested by our deranged English-expat neighbor—she liked to read Somerset Maugham novels on the toilet, holding forth through the door—Italy was too hot by half and I had started to get that “time to go to Maine” thinking. Austria was much cooler—especially driving under the shady, tree-lined Romantikstraße on the way to Salzburg, or in dark Viennese Antiquariate. Not that we needed any more books. My friend had come armed with all the reading one might need for Vienna—Carl Schorske, Stefan Zweig, Robert Musil, monographs on Klimt, Henry-Louis de la Grange’s massive study of the great Gesamtdirigent Gustav Mahler, and of course Wittgenstein—lots of Wittgenstein—Wittgenstein’s house, Wittgenstein’s notebooks, Wittgenstein in Vienna. What was he listening to in the high-ceilinged, remarkably well-priced flat when I arrived? Schubert, naturally. Wittgenstein loved Schubert (“superhuman,” he called the famous C major String Quintet). Mozart and Beethoven, too (“the actual sons of God,” he wrote to Bertrand Russell, quoting Faust). We were burning incense at the high altar of Viennese Bildung and Wittgenstein was right behind us in a long white surplice. One of Wittgenstein’s ardent young male disciples, Norman Malcolm, got seriously chewed out for invoking the concept of “national character” in a platonic stroll along the Cam in 1939. Wittgenstein was still rebuking him for it in 1944:

I then thought: what is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc. & if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life.

So much for philosophy leaving everything as it is. Maybe the anti-system, embrace-of-the-ordinary strictures on philosophy were supposed to apply only to aesthetics. Certainly it would be hard to distinguish Wittgenstein’s views in that area from any other educated fin-de-siècle Viennese. “You might think Aesthetics is a science telling us what’s beautiful—almost too ridiculous for words. I suppose it ought to include also what sort of coffee tastes good.” Have you seen the new Grillparzer production at the Burgtheater?

Wittgenstein’s more famous admirers are legion, but there are basically three groups, at least on my radar. First, there are the Oxford philosophers. Of this bunch, Anscombe knew Wittgenstein best but Michael Dummett was certainly the best philosopher. I used to see him sitting under the “No Smoking” signs in the Faculty of Philosophy taking drags from a long, thin cigarette holder looking like Burgess Meredith as the Penguin. Wittgenstein is mostly there for the philosophy of language and mathematics—occasionally some obscure project in the so-called philosophy of action, too.

Second are a handful of American philosophy professors half-estranged from the analytic canons of the guild. I’m thinking of people like Richard Rorty, Stanley Cavell. They’re the Soho millionaires of academic philosophy—basically the same as their peers, certainly just as comfortable, but somehow a little more stylish. Sure, they look like everyone else in the faculty club, but they listen to jazz, take vacations in Morocco, buy office accessories at the MoMA Design Store. They might have been trained in Austin and Quine, but they like to read Nietzsche, Foucault, Derrida. They write about literature. Film. Life. Here Wittgenstein is the gateway drug—rigorous and respectable (he collaborated with Russell, wrote about logic), but deeper, more difficult, profound. As Stanley Cavell put it, “the Investigations exhibits, as purely as any work of philosophy I know, philosophizing as a spiritual struggle, specifically a struggle with the contrary depths of oneself.” Wittgenstein, the philosopher for spiritually struggling Harvard professors with contrary depths.


Third are the poets. Bernadette Mayer handed out photocopies of Wittgenstein in her classes at St. Mark’s, and I’m sure she deserves a lot of the credit here, as elsewhere. Not that she gets it. Male Language poets love to rip her off. And it’s not just the men. When it’s time for Marjorie Perloff to write the official history of avant-garde poets and Wittgenstein, it’s Charles Bernstein who gets remembered, of course. Perloff writes: “Bernstein had studied Wittgenstein with Stanley Cavell at Harvard, and his notion that ‘there are no thoughts except through language,’ is a version of Wittgenstein’s ‘The limits of language mean the limits of my world.’” Stanley Cavell! Mayer herself has a slightly different take. “What was Charles Bernstein like as a student?” one interviewer asked. Mayer replied: “Charles! [Laugh] He was funny. He would say these semi-erudite things, and you see, I was only like 26, so I would say to him: ‘Charles, you’re not at Harvard anymore!’” Now he’s at UPenn in an endowed chair instead. So really there is no justice in the world. Mayer already knows that. She has a few interesting things to say about Wittgenstein, mostly not very deferential. “Wittgenstein says there is no such thing as a private language. I think it would be worth trying to make one.” “Something shifts and as Wittgenstein would say, and anybody else not normal, to take some pleasure in being obsessively careful…” She even pokes fun at Saul Kripke.

Given how many people like Wittgenstein now, it’s a little sad how much he disliked himself. In his slight Memoir, Norman Malcolm tells a story about Wittgenstein’s routine of berating himself in lectures—“I’m a fool!” “You have a dreadful teacher!” “I’m just too stupid today”—then eating a cold bun in the front row of the local movie theater, watching a movie up close as a distraction from self-loathing. “This is like a shower bath!” he said. Needless to say, no one else was allowed to share Wittgenstein’s contemptuous attitude toward his own philosophical vocation. There were famously all kinds of rules about who could come. He didn’t want any “tourists.” No woman except Anscombe was allowed—she was pronounced an “honorary man.” Bernadette Mayer definitely would have been barred. Philosophy shouldn’t leave any nationalists, but extreme misogyny was still okay apparently. Alan Turing could come, though—big surprise. He asked whether Russell could prove that 252 = 625 in the language of the Principia Mathematica. You can read all about it in the notes taken from Wittgenstein’s 1939 lectures on the foundations of mathematics, if you want to. Sometimes, Wittgenstein would convene “at-homes” where he would sit silently in a canvas lawn chair and his (all male but one) epigones would gather round. Peter Geach said they resembled Quaker prayer meetings, presumably because hardly anyone ever spoke, reverent attention notwithstanding. The students were too cowed—the teacher, too constipated.


Elsewhere in the same memoir, Malcolm quotes Wittgenstein saying he couldn’t imagine believing all the things some of his Catholic convert friends (Anscombe et al.) believed. I can’t imagine that would have made Elizabeth very happy. But would it have been enough to give her indigestion, thus thwarting her proud pleasure? Not as much as the publication of rumors about Wittgenstein cruising in the Prater must have. “If by pressing a button it could have been secured that people would not concern themselves with his personal life I should have pressed the button,” Anscombe wrote with characteristic facility. “Only a psychiatrist could say what [Wittgenstein co-executor] Rush Rhees and Elizabeth Anscombe were really trying to accomplish,” as the Finnish logician (and husband of John F. Kennedy paramour Merrill Hintikka née Bristow) Jaakko Hintikka told The Atlantic in 1997. Weirdly, there’s a right-wing sexual ethics group named for the secretive, turgid, prophylactic-hating, bowel-movement-relishing lady at a socially if not quite intellectually distinguished American university. To my own surprise, I once found myself having lunch with someone connected to the group in its early days. He told me the story of his own conversion to the mother church: a perfectly ordinary suburban boy, he had developed an unhealthy, undisclosed “addiction.” (He denied that it involved drugs.) After seeing a nun preaching on the television, he prayed to the Virgin Mary and lo! he never did it again. (Whatever it was.) So could Wittgenstein’s legacy live on, sort of? Maybe that’s not quite fair. The philosopher must have known Onan from time to time. After all, Ray Monk even thinks—I almost wrote “admits”—that Wittgenstein really did carry on with Skinner, Pinset, and Richards. At least Monk seems to think that. He’s a little coy. Come on people, it’s not a tell-all—this is serious intellectual biography! Anyway he keeps that stuff way at the back of the book—page 581, to be exact—by which point there’s bound to have been lots of wine, but not too many underage readers.

In Wittgenstein’s case, it perhaps all started with Otto Weininger. Another cooky Austrian with a repressive but nevertheless quite sexed up philosophical enterprise. Weininger was a celebrity suicide case in early twentieth-century Vienna who diagnosed a marked decline in Western culture and attributed it to women, Jews, and homosexuals (the last two groups into which he himself fell). According to Ray Monk, Weininger’s suicide—praised fulsomely by Oswald Spengler—prompted a rash of copycat cases, initiating a nine-year period of guilty feelings on Wittgenstein’s part for lacking the nerve to follow suit.

Once I read aloud (in English) from a (German) copy of Weininger’s Geschlecht und Charakter in a seminar on German intellectual history. “Are you reading in German?” the intellectual historian asked. Now he was quite a specimen—something of a cross between a turtle and a corpulent owl. The circular horn-rimmed glasses didn’t help. I guess he thought they made him look smarter. I think this guy was from a working-class background, but somehow he had evolved an even more pompous and unfriendly manner than the Exeter-Harvard-Oxford variety of academic. I more or less told him that towards the end of the class. “You’re even more uptight than _________ [a noted medievalist],” I said. “He gave a lecture about French kingship rituals on the lawn when spring came.” Needless to say, there had been some drinking going on at lunch—white wine in a tiny basement-level Japanese restaurant in town. I remember another puffed-up professor telling me not to take the intellectual historian’s class because he had only gone to Hofstra. So I enrolled. Not that it was very good, really—but I still liked Hofstra. I had a friend whose parents used to live out there—somewhere on Long Island where the diners were good. Also the Cheesecake Factory. We don’t have those within city limits. The ritual was: drive to the beach, buy books from the permanent Friends of the Merrick Library sale, have grilled cheese at the Cheesecake Factory, and photocopy then-hard-to-find Thomas Bernhard novels—also Poizat’s Model Theory, I think—in the Hofstra library. The nice thing about that library was that if anyone came in while you were having fun in the eighth floor bathroom, all you had to do was flush one of the toilets distractingly—they were loud but worked great. Excellent pressure plumbing. Wittgenstein would have had no trouble there. Not like the apartment in Vienna that my friend and I sublet. When we left, the rental company presented us with a bill for a stopped toilet. It was over a hundred euros.

Byron Author Photo

D. Byron was born in New York and still lives there. He has never even thought about living in Vienna.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, July 8th, 2016.