the redeeming word
by Douglas Messerli
Ludwig Wittgenstein Private Notebooks 1914-1916, Edited and Translated by Marjorie Perloff (New York: Liveright, 2022)
was the important 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein really like as a
human being? Although we have a provocative film by Derek Jarman about him
(1993), a fine fiction concerning the man by Bruce Duffy, The World As I
Found It (1987), and we have numerous observations from the many students,
biographers, admirers, detractors, and acolytes who met him
“If by pressing a button it could have been secured that people would not concern themselves with his personal life, I should have pressed that button.... Further, I must confess that I feel deeply suspicious of anyone’s claim to have understood Wittgenstein. That is perhaps because...I am very sure that I did not understand him.”
Surely there is a certain logic to Anscombe’s thinking. I myself have noted that among my friends a person of special genius produces various contradictory reactions in others, some finding this remarkable writer and raconteur to be off-putting and dismissive, others angry that their brilliant acquaintance doesn’t allow them equal time in conversations to express their own views; some outrightly hate the intelligent friend, demeaning any expressed viewpoints more out of envy it appears than actual logic; and still others sit quietly at the feet of my genius friend in dumb admiration. None of these reactions seem appropriate to the person I know well and love. But that is always the way with individuals of genius or any kind of notable eccentricity.
Does it truly matter that the philosopher was also a living, breathing being who had sometimes very ordinary habits and desires? Other than our fascination in any celebrity’s ordinariness isn’t it the art, writing, dance, music, acting, or thinking that is paramount?
Of course it does very much matter. We want our gods always to be slightly fallen messes of human frailties so that we are not made to feel that their gifts were out of reach for us ordinary human beings. And we like to imagine how someone very much like us might also have been able to accomplish all the other things he or she did. Perhaps if, like Charles Dickens or Leo Tolstoy, the latter a writer who Wittgenstein very much admired, the philosopher had simply had a wife whom he deeply loved, cheated on, or maltreated no one might make an issue of Wittgenstein’s private life once a biographer a biographer had provided us with all the juicy tidbits.
But so much of Wittgenstein’s private life remains unknown and unexplored, and as we have begun to discover in the years since his death, much of this was not his own doing as it was a series purposeful acts by those to whom he entrusted his manuscripts and others who have kept still in their biographical studies, it clearly becomes even more important that we need to know as much about the man as we can, even if that is highly selective and limited information.
This particular genius, moreover, was not only a queer human in the sense of being an odd fellow, something we might well expect of a great intellect, but was queer in the 20th century use of that term, a homosexual, which has been well documented in his commentary and remarks.
And as Marjorie Perloff suggests, without putting it as bluntly as I now do, the Austrian-born philosopher who spent most of his days in England was the subject of homophobia and the resistance to the revelation of his sexuality that always travels along with that state of mind. In 1954 the editors of what came to be called The Nachlass—the collection of Wittgenstein’s unpublished notebooks, ledgers, typescripts, and collection of clippings—decided to publish his notebooks written during his service in World War I from 1914-1916, what was left along with three of four other such notebooks of the same period which were missing, “lost or destroyed.” But as Perloff notes, “they chose only those sections they regarded as philosophically relevant,” excluding the entries of the verso side of the notebooks which were coded, acceding perhaps the master’s suggestion of “Keep Out,” although the code was an easy one that Wittgenstein had used as a child with his sisters in which a is replaced by z, b by y, etc. The 1961 edition, published by Blackwell (later by the University of Chicago Press in 1979) contains only the right-hand pages, without giving any evidence of what is missing.
When later in the 1960s the executors were trying to decide what to do with the coded remarks for a new Cornell microfilm edition of the Nachlass, another of the three executors, Rush Rhees commented:
“I wished (and do) that W. had not written those passages. I do not know why he wanted to; but I think I do understand in a way, and I understand then also why he chose this ambiguous medium. I fear especially that if they are published by themselves—not in the contexts (repeat: contexts) in which they were written; so that what was a minor and occasional undertone to Wittgenstein’s life and thinking, will appear as a dominant obsession.”
The phrase “minor and occasional undertone,” Perloff perceptively argues refers to Wittgenstein’s expression of “sexual (specifically, homosexual) desire.” To solve their dilemma, Perloff tells us, quite shockingly, first a microfilm of the entire manuscript was produced, and then a second was made in which the coded remarks were blacked out. Scholars saw the expurgated copy only.
The third of Wittgenstein’s literary executors, G. H. von Wright, however, took a different tack and published a book of 1,500 remarks from different manuscripts of Wittgenstein to express the philosopher’s views on “culture and value,” published in German as Vermischte Bermerkungen in 1977. The bilingual, German/English edition of this book has gone through several printings, and Perloff finds it inevitable, accordingly, that given this focus on Wittgenstein’s cultural values that his private notebooks might also draw, as it did, the attention of readers. The Private Notebooks were finally published—transcribed from the code cracked by Alois Pilcher and fellow scholars— by Wilhelm Baum under the title Geheime Tagebūcher, published in Vienna in 1991.
Elizabeth Anscombe immediately sued, which basically banned the book until in 2014 Baum changed the title to Wittgenstein im Ersten Welkrieg along with new introductory material explaining the context of his book. But by this time, after major biographies by Brian McGuinness and Ray Monk, the actual edition of the private notebooks was basically ignored. And in his comments about them Monk downplays any essential significance, suggesting that Wittgenstein was not as uneasy about homosexuality as he was about sex itself. “Sexual arousal, both homo- and heterosexual, troubled him enormously. He seemed to regard it as incompatible with the sort of person he wanted to be.”
Yet for the years after Wittgenstein’s death, his most private and personal of works remained unavailable in English until this year’s wonderful translation of Private Notebooks 1914-1916, by Perloff, published in a bi-lingual by Liveright.
That does not mean that we suddenly have a true revelation of the “gay” Wittgenstein, if there was ever such a being. Even uncoded, Wittgenstein’s notebooks are written in a kind of code, a decorum that simply refuses to fully discuss many things, and not just of the sexual kind. But certainly this is not the sort of daily diary that any straight doughboy might have kept—or even a homosexual one such as Wilfred Owen.*
First of all Wittgenstein, who might easily have been given a medical exemption and because of his family wealth and social standing surely could have served as an officer, chose instead to enlist as an ordinary foot soldier in the Austro-Hungarian Empire Army serving as a searchlight orderly on a boat, the Goplana, crawling up and down the Vistula River from Kraków to Gdańsk, almost always under the watch and gunfire of the Russian enemy. Wittgenstein had no political allegiances and at one point in the notebooks even proclaims that the British will surely win being a superior people. And he had previously given away most of his inheritance to poets and writers selected by an agent, having little knowledge of contemporary poetry.
It is clear, given these strange decisions, that the young thinker saw the experience as a kind of crucible in which to examine his own life to see if he might survive the kind of moral intensity he would have to undertake in order to truly examine meaning as he intended to. Accordingly, he wrote a personal record of that experience while simultaneously attempting to get to the heart of issues in which his philosophy would take him: “What cannot be said, cannot be said,” later expressed in Tractatus as “Of what one cannot speak, of that one must be silent.” He hoped that by the end of his service, if he survived, that he might be made over into another man, which he finally comes to realize by the Notebook’s end, which he has indeed become simply as a survivor.
That does not mean that he does not express the pain he suffers. Like any soldier, for much of the time he is simply worn out from the terrible sleeping accommodations and the long nights he is made to stand duty, usually alone without a properly working searchlight. And the vast majority of the entries are devoted to the “pack of rogues,” tough, uneducated thugs from the far reaches of the Austro-Hungarian Empire such as, Perloff suggests, “the provinces of Serbia or eastern Hungary” all too ready to make fun of the somewhat effeminate book-reading effete (his voice was described as a “ringing tenor”) who probably was equally dismissive of and aloof from them. Given the intensity of their torment it is also apparent to any gay individual who has been bullied that they knew he was a homosexual.
Indeed, any gay reader will recognize in passage after passage of these strange notebooks an understated representation of gay bullying and determined denigration. No matter what his opinion is of them, it clearly hurts, and ultimately ends in his deep depression, having perhaps never before encountered so many coarse beings who he describes as seemingly “non-human.”
Just a few random passages from Private Notebooks makes it clear how much this becomes a repeated theme. He begins good naturedly enough, recognizing how ridiculous his position is:
“I’ll need a great deal of good humor and philosophy to feel at home here. When I woke up this morning, I felt as if I were in the middle of one of those dreams in which, for no reason at all, you are suddenly sitting in a schoolroom. Given my position, there is of course much to laugh at & I perform the most menial tasks, smiling ironically.”
But quite soon, the complaints show his inability to keep either humor or philosophize about the situation.
“Day before yesterday at the captain’s. I was quite rattled & didn’t appear appropriately military to him. He was a little sarcastic toward me and I didn’t find him very likeable.”
“Again: the stupidity, insolence and malice of this bunch knows no limits. Every job turns into torture.”
“Yesterday a terrible day. In the evening the searchlight would not function. As I was trying to fix it, I was interrupted by my shipmates with shouts and catcalls etc.”
“Night before last, terrible scenes: practically everyone drunk.”
“Yes. again: it is infinitely hard not to take a stand against the malice of human beings! For the malice of beings inflicts a wound every time.”
A year later things have obviously gotten even worse:
“Am morally blank; but I see the enormous difficulty of my position and so far, it is entirely unclear to me to how to correct it.”
“Talked to Gürth today about my humiliating position. No decision yet.”
“My situation is still not resolved. My mood very variable.—.”
And for days after, he repeats again and again, “Situation unresolved.” Indeed we wonder at moments whether or not some of the problems stem from his own sexual responses to the other crew members; at one point later in the Notebooks Wittgenstein suggests that things have become very tense with a Lieutenant and that it may come to a duel. Interestingly, in the midst of these cries for help, he still expresses his sexual feelings, an odd placement for them.
“Situation unresolved! = . Mood wary but dark.—”
The very next day:
“Strongly sexually aroused. Undecided. Restless in spirit.=.
And the following days he writes still of an unchanged “situation.” That this “situation” and his sexual arousal is somehow connected is made even more clear when a few days later he receives a letter from his beloved friend and student David Pinsent:
“Lovely letter from David yesterday!— ....Replied to David. Feeling very aroused.” (Compare this with the entry from 21.12.14.: “A letter from David!! I kissed it.”)
And his feeling of arousal continues over the next few days.
In short, the pattern is quite clear: like so very many bullied gay school boys, the torture appears to alternate with sexual desire, perhaps even for one of his bullies, a kind of early S & M syndrome, which would explain, if true, what William Warren Bartley’s biography of Wittgenstein claims, to have unearthed evidence of the philosopher’s taste for “rough trade” in a Viennese park.
The tension between these two forces as expressed in these notebooks is not dissimilar from the pulls between his belief in God and a denial of religion that is very much at the heart of Wittgenstein’s philosophical undertakings—characterized in these notebooks as “my work” meaning his writing, not his activities as a soldier—that activity itself being generally expressed in an alternating pattern of progress and a complete breakdown, days of good work followed by an inability to move on. One might be tempted, in fact, to describe Wittgenstein as being somewhat like a manic depressive, with a pattern of remarkable achievement before collapsing into near despair.
If these personal expressions, however, still seem ambivalently expressed even with the code broken we must also ask ourselves how could they not be so at a time when homosexuality was outlawed in both England and Germany (paragraph 175 of German penal code was not abolished until 1994, and despite the later openness of homosexuality in Weimar Germany after the War, British law required imprisonment and other punishments until section 28 was abolished in 2000). One need only to recall the evident suicide of another Cambridge University genius, Alan Turing to realize the consequences of openly expressing one’s homosexuality.**
In fact, Wittgenstein appears to be quite open about his homosexuality with regard to his trip to Vienna with his commander. Returning to his home city, he mentions his mother and family only in passing, but makes an important note to himself: “Let me note here that my moral standing is now much lower than it was at Easter.” (2.1.15), which to me reads as an obvious statement of having had some sexual encounters while in the city. One can only wonder, moreover, if his “moral standing” has anything to do with Gürth, who in describes in the entry from 10.1.15, “Had many very pleasant hours with Gürth. Am very curious about my future life.—.” Or, perhaps, it is more connected with his repeated trips to the baths, which even though were universally used by men and women to get a thorough cleansing of the body in the days before some had indoor plumbing, were even then a place where one could engage in same-sex activities in the gender-separated sweating rooms and pools.
And, finally, any gay male would recognize that it was highly unlikely that a heterosexual doughboy would note again and again throughout the Private Notebooks every time he masturbated. If a straight soldier were even to keep such a diary it might surely be full of the visits he made on return to Krákow to the brothels or a woman’s apartment, but surely would not record for himself his masturbatory habits as does Wittgenstein. I may be mistaken, but appears to me that young heterosexual males don’t like to even talk about masturbation since it presumes that they are unable to find sex with a female, and might hint of sexual abnormality.
Far from Monk’s assertion that sexual arousal “troubled him enormously,” this Wittgenstein seems very much fascinated by it, perhaps by the fact that he even could continue to fantasize a sexual object successfully enough to masturbate; despite the tortures his fellow “rouges” put him through, he still could get aroused, or today as we might describe, he still remained quite sexually horny.
This is clearly not a record of his humiliations or misdemeanors but almost a listing of his abilities to retain his sexual identity despite what he describes in these self-reflective works, which up until the end of these writings haunt him: “Not in the best of health and sick to my soul as a result of the bigotry and meanness of my compatriots” (6.18.16). To the very end Wittgenstein is aware of his being queer, different and hated by those around him for simply who he is. But he has survived and by the end of the Private Notebooks seems to have answered his question of 1.6.15, “Is there a priori an order in the world, and if so, of what does it consist?”
On 12.8.16, answers: “The ‘I’ makes its appearance in philosophy by means of the idea that the world is my world. / This is connected with the fact that none of our experience is a priori. / Everything we see could be otherwise.”
19.8.16: “Surrounded by viciousness. God will help me,” he closes with a sense of hope, even if as he earlier comments: “The redeeming word...has not yet been articulated.” (p. 149), which I can only imagine, if such a word does exist, to be “liebe, love.”
In the end, accordingly, Wittgenstein’s personal life does very much matter, not only because it has helped lead him to his philosophical revelations, but shows us a suffering yet enduring and even resilient individual battling the sexual bigotry around him. It angers me when I am told by others, accordingly, that these issues don’t matter in the life of a thinker I so very much admire. I am not interested in his sexuality for prurient reasons but for the fact that he did think it worth his keeping a record of his personal engagement with a world which he had been ill-raised to confront but with which he obviously deemed it necessary to engage.
The fact that even a “god,” as John Maynard Keynes (himself a gay man) described him, had to endure harassment for being gay in his own life, and suffered yet more homophobia by his beloved followers and admirers, and now even after Perloff’s important contribution, is still being denied the truths he himself recorded*** reveals that homosexuality is still a troubling topic for many in our society. The advances many gays have made in the last several decades is being threatened anew in the US and throughout the world.
*Owens wrote back from the war: “There are two French girls in my billet, daughters of the Mayor, who (I suppose because of my French) single me out for their joyful gratitude for La Déliverance. Naturally I talk to them a good deal; so much so that the jealousy of other officers resulted in a Subalterns’ Court Martial being held on me! The dramatic irony was too killing, considering certain other things, not possible to tell in a letter.”
**Three of Wittgenstein’s brothers committed suicide, which helps to explain some of his final entries about suicide in Private Notebooks. In two instances, the reasons for the brothers’ deaths seem vague, but in his brother Rudi’s case, he was known, before his drinking a glass of milk and potassium cyanide in a Berlin bar, to have what a friend described as a “perverted disposition.” Shortly before, he evidently sought advice from the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, an organization campaigning against Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code, which prohibited homosexual sex.
***An anonymous reader on Amazon wrote almost as much as Perloff has in her short section introductions and final essay to this book in an attempt to browbeat the critic and deter any potential reader for her having even suggested that Wittgenstein was a homosexual. His or her running thesis is “This book is mostly Perloff’s attempt to conjure and reify Wittgenstein as a homosexual. She does this without evidence and by implication, inference, insinuation, leaps in logic, fake causality, association, and by saying “no doubt” and “of course” a lot. What she lacks in evidence, she attempts to make up for by brow-beating the reader into submission and agreement. For some reason she wants Wittgenstein to have been a homosexual. Her narrow personal agenda, in this regard, casts a pall over this book. She abdicates her responsibility. She disrespects the reader and she disrespects Wittgenstein and his legacy.”
I laughed heartily at these comments since most readers have now long know of the philosopher’s sexual preference, the subject even of a movie by note director Derek Jarman. The homophobia of this review is so obvious that it is quite frightening.
Does he or she imagine that the Wittgenstein’s coarse military compatriots are mocking and abusing him for his proper use of German or his ability to speak English, for his refined manners, or something similar? These are generally not the sources of the kind of bullying he implies.
Los Angeles, May 15, 2022
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (May 2022)