A Soap Opera of Money, Power and Intrigue, All Centered Around One of the Greatest Philosophers

[6 May 2010]

By Aaron Wee

In his magnum opus, Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein famously highlighted the curious case of the “duckrabbit” – an image that could either be seen as a duck or as a rabbit. The duckrabbit was not transforming itself as one observes it differently – there were just different ways of understanding the same thing. One might suspect that for all the internal chaos of the eminent Wittgenstein family, we can look and understand them in many different ways.

The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War by Alexander Waugh (author of Fathers and Sons) is a meticulously researched investigation into the lives of the Wittgensteins. Given the contributions Ludwig has made to furthering our understanding of philosophy, it is often easy to overlook his soap-operatic family life. Coming to prominence at the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Wittgensteins lived the eccentric high life presided over by domineering patriarch and industrial magnate Karl (1847 – 1913). Married to the deferring Leopoldine (1850 – 1926), and conveniently forgetting that it was her money that enabled his fortune, the Wittgensteins formed a would-be dynastic clan which included nine children.

Alas, it was not to be. A contemporary impression of fin de siècle Vienna conjures up what we can assume to be palpable angst and anxiety, mixed with casual doses of frivolity. In such a city, at such a time, Klimt lavished his greatest works, Gustav Mahler pioneered the modern composition, and Freud invented the field of psychoanalysis. The capital of an impossible empire, the city heaved with a certain sigh that evoked both genius and the morbid. The enduring influences of late-Hapsburg Vienna mean that we still hear, feel, and see its strains on contemporary society. On such standards, the Wittgensteins availed themselves to Viennese life.

Of the five sons Karl and Leopoldine had, three almost certainly committed suicide. Their various circumstances provided Viennese society with the macabre gossip of their day. The couple also had four daughters; one died at birth. Hermine (1874 – 1950) would die unwed. Helene (1879 – 1956) and Gretl (1882 – 1958) married men who would later go insane. However, it was through the two sons that did not commit suicide (though such impulses would plague them for nearly the entirety of their adult lives) that the name Wittgenstein remains prominent: older Paul (1887 – 1961), suffering the loss of an arm during The Great War, would overcome adversity to become, curiously, a celebrated one-armed concert pianist; youngest child Ludwig (1889 – 1951) revolutionized the academic study of philosophy and would become heralded as one of the greatest minds of his century.

Waugh’s Wittgenstein biography makes for a compelling read, indeed. He has a knack for telling a complicated family history, he’s not as shy as some of his colleagues to sprinkle some easy-reading slang (“busted” for “arrested” – oh, Alex, it’s the little touches that count so much to me), and he’s always at the ready to alight some near-trivial anecdote. It nearly feels convivial – as a late-Hapsburg conversation in a kaffeehaus might. Waugh’s arresting writing, combined with his commitment to assiduous research and accuracy, provide a vibrancy and poignancy to the Wittgensteins’ lives.

It is, though, the stories of Paul and Ludwig (nicknamed, funnily enough, “Lucki”) that come to dominate Waugh’s book. While their later lives would prove wildly divergent, their erstwhile physical courage in war – both as frontline soldiers and prisoners of war – mark out what would prove to be abiding strength of personality and character. Paul would later commit himself to a near-fanatical pursuit of a musical career, that for all his hardships, would finally bloom; Ludwig, having donated his share of a vast inheritance, would live the hermetic life of an ivory tower intellectual, earning the half-joking nickname “God” from his awed students.

Reading Waugh’s book, one gets the sense that the Wittgensteins might have been so much more suffixed with an endless stream of “what-ifs” and “if-onlys”. Sequestered in their opulent marble palace, they were the quintessential Viennese power-family. Privileged and powerful, the Wittgensteins could never quite settle – contemporary observers and at least one book reviewer brings up an Oedipus (curiously, the supposed first word uttered by young, autistic Hans) comparison. The inner drama of their lives behind the walls drives this book – like a particularly sordid soap opera, we can’t help but want to find out more. That Waugh has a curiously luminous writing-style doesn’t hurt.

Paul was one of the lucky rare Wittgensteins to live long enough to read brother Ludwig’s Philosophical Investigations. Later generations of scholars would, together with the earlier and slightly more lucid Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, come to define Ludwig by it. Paul dismissed Lucki’s cryptic sentences and, well, slightly baffling linguistic philosophies as “nonsense”. It is a common claim but not worthy. Beneath Ludwig’s brooding, under layers of dense rumination, lies a stringent and coherent philosophy, answering all the hard (and clichéd) questions philosophy is supposed to ask. For many readers, the challenge is insurmountable and abandoned. For Waugh (and he only briefly touches on this), it is a bridge too far, and he admits nearly as much. Perhaps Waugh, like Paul, were merely seeing a duck or a rabbit. It was Lucki’s insightful mind that saw the duckrabbit.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/124604-the-house-of-wittgenstein-by-alexander-waugh/