Report of the event on 12 March 12 hosted by the Austrian Cultural Forum >bringing together Wittgenstein’s great-niece Margaret Stonborough and the philosopher and playwright William Lyons to launch the text of his play Wittgenstein: the Crooked Roads (Bloomsbury Methuen-Drama 2015).
On Thursday March 12th the Austrian Cultural Forum hosted ‘An Evening with Wittgenstein’ bringing together Wittgenstein’s great-niece Margaret Stonborough and the philosopher and playwright William Lyons to launch the text of his play Wittgenstein: the Crooked Roads (Bloomsbury Methuen-Drama 2015). When the play had premiered at the Riverside Studios in the spring of 2011, directed by Nick Blackburn, several members of the British Wittgenstein Society were there to enjoy the vibrant performance by the cast of recently graduated students, now part of the Blackburn Company. So it was good to see members of that original cast together with us again at this meeting.
The evening began with a welcome from the Director of ACF, Elizabeth Kogler. She first introduced us to Wittgenstein’s great-niece, Margaret Stonborough who had brought several photographs from the Wittgenstein-Stonborough family archives to tell us about family memories of her ‘great-uncle Ludwig’. She began with a portrait photograph of Wittgenstein in which he stared away from the camera aloof and detached, saying how there was no emotion, no contact, no smiling. “But this is all rubbish”, she immediately said. “He had a family.” Yet although Wittgenstein within the context of his extended family was the focus of her talk, neither any of her anecdotes about him - “He always spoke demandingly, in the imperative, but was devastatingly honest” - nor any of the subsequent photographs in which he was present with his family, relieved the image of someone eccentrically withdrawn and absorbed in his own thoughts. But we were told how all his elder sisters cherished him, as was evident in the photograph in which his elder sister Hermine gently held the small boy’s shoulder. This reminded me of Hermine Wittgenstein’s brief notes about Wittgenstein in Rush Rhees’ book Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections (Blackwell 1981). She says that her brother Ludwig had from childhood found it especially difficult to fit in with any surrounding which were uncongenial to him, yet, “In addition to his great philosophical understanding which fathoms the depth of things in such a way that he can alike comprehend the essence of a musical composition, a book, a human being……Ludwig has a big heart.” So from the accounts of both Hermine Wittgenstein, who knew him closely and personally, and his great-niece Margaret Stonborough, we get a picture of someone socially detached who combined obsessively intellectual attention, precision and strength with a high moral integrity which recognised the complex vulnerabilities of humanity.
Why should these biographical details matter to our interest in his philosophical work? Because although philosophy aims at an independent an objective understanding of all that informs our human lives, the ways in which different individuals pursue the journey of understanding depends ineliminably on aspects of their own character. Thus William Lyon’s dramatization of Wittgenstein’s life is one way in which we may engage with this particular aspect of philosophy.
William Lyons began by explaining how the title of the play, Wittgenstein: The Crooked Roads is taken from William Blake. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Blake wrote “Improvement makes straight roads, but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of genius.” Thus the conflicts and changes within Wittgenstein’s work indicate his complete unwillingness to comply with any mere ambition to produce prestigious work aiming at academic or public reception. The extract chosen to present on film at this meeting was a scene in which we are to imagine Wittgenstein undergoing his Phd viva at Trinity College Cambridge in 1929. This was of course an odd event. Wittgenstein had had submitted the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the work already published, to fulfil the requirements for a grant supporting his research position at Cambridge, and with which both his examiners, Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore were already very familiar. As the filmed extract began, someone in the audience nearby duly warned his companion that, “This is serious stuff for grown-ups.” Well, yes it is, but in dramatizing this event, the audience was not necessarily expected to understand anything from the Tractatus, but rather to acknowledge the tension caused by Wittgenstein’s own authority over this substantive work and Russell and Moore’s sensitivity to the limits of their own understanding.
As Wittgenstein enters the examination room both Russell and Moore express their apprehension at what they are about to be confronted with. But there is also another person present; the meeting is chaired by a woman, the Dean of the Moral Sciences Faculty. The character shows little sense of the uniqueness of the occasion and with shrill authority just repeatedly attempts to return attention to ‘correct procedures’. The inclusion of this character does provide some levity, but on afterwards being asked why he had chosen to present this character as a woman, William Lyons related it with the fact that Wittgenstein was known to have had difficulties in relating to woman. Yet although this did accentuate a general theme of this episode – of not being understood – the haughty defensiveness of this female character only shows how anyone can be difficult to relate to. But the substance of the scene is more important than this.
The Dean directs Moore to ask the first question. Moore says, hesitatingly, “Mr Wittgenstein.. At section 6.124 you say that the propositions of logic ‘have no subject matter’ but, in the same section you go on to say ‘it is clear that something about the world’ must be indicated by…the tautologies of logic. On the surface it seems…well…It might be construed that this is a…a contradiction.”
Wittgenstein replies testily “No. No. You haven’t understood anything! Haven’t even understood the most basic things.” He then gives a brief exposition of what underlies the claims of 6.124.
And towards the end of the scene, when Wittgenstein agrees impatiently to answer one last question, Russell refers to the end of the Tractatus about the sense of the world being outside the world. “This seems to imply that there are no propositions ethics. Isn’t that a dangerous thing to say?” Wittgenstein yet again responds with exasperation exclaiming, “You’ve understood nothing.” He attempts briefly to explain, but then pauses, obviously struggling with his thoughts. But then he begins again in a completely different mode. Williams introduces a passage as though from Wittgenstein’s memory of his time in the winter of 1916 in the Great War. He speaks of seeing a soldier mounted on horseback passing a column of Russian prisoners. The soldier dismounts and gives his own boots to a barefoot prisoner. “There is no rule for that either.” Then Wittgenstein once more lapses into silence.
Thus although the scene gives focus to Wittgenstein’s impatience and frustration with the lack of understanding of his work the speedy movement from the main substance of the Tractatus to the brief final sections concerning ethics shows a deeper concern with the seriousness of Wittgenstein’s philosophical journey. Introducing a memory from his wartime experience is a dramatic way of placing his concerns with logic and language in continuity with his commitment to recognising that ethical values cannot be reduced to any philosophical generalisations. The scene ends with Wittgenstein telling his examiners that much of what he wrote in the Tractatus may be wrong. That his thoughts since then have moved on. But this acknowledgment about the place of ethics in our understanding of ourselves, which here he can only show through an example which calls upon our recognition, shows what remains throughout the journey of his life. In his introduction to the text of the play Williams says that what has always interested him in the Wittgenstein’s work is not merely the depth of his thinking but in great measure the unusual intensity and integrity of this life of thought. The brief scene we were shown at this meeting itself shows something of this.