It is a rare event that a philosopher who is not also a polymath becomes the focus of cultural celebration. Wittgenstein is, perhaps, unique insofar as he has garnered a degree of public attention and, on occasion, discipleship that is not always answerable to an awareness of the nature of his thought (or, indeed, any of his other achievements). His Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, for example, is appreciated as much by logicians and philosophers as it is by mystics, and is further viewed by some as a work of literary merit independent of its philosophical significance.
Ron Elisha’s Play The Soul of Wittgenstein – on at the Clapham Omnibus Theatre until the 25th February – can be seen as paying homage to both the man, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and his work in many of the ways in which they have found appreciation.
Although the action is set in Guy’s Hospital during the Second World War with Wittgenstein working as a hospital porter (he did indeed work in such a capacity during this time), the plot is largely apocryphal and the character of Wittgenstein subject to a degree of artistic license (although not to the point of being unrecognizable). There is however, an integrity to the script which allows one to suspend concerns about biographical accuracy; indeed, The Soul of Wittgenstein is a rather beautiful play – moving without being sentimental – and is brought to life by what is obviously inspired direction and acting.
Terminally ill, bed-ridden and illiterate cockney, John Smith, meets Ludwig Wittgenstein (who has given himself a pseudonym to protect his anonymity) in his capacity as a hospital porter; Wittgenstein is initially puzzled by Smith’s illiteracy and further frustrated by his apparent lack of curiosity. Over the following days and (I assume) weeks, a relationship blossoms between them that is largely centred on Wittgenstein teaching Smith to read, and Smith’s ever increasing degree of curiosity. There are echoes of Wittgenstein’s relationship with David Pinsent alongside invitations to see the development of his thought as nurtured through his teaching of Smith.
Eventually it becomes apparent that the relationship between Wittgenstein and Smith has developed into one of love, although it remains an open question as to whether it is (or could have been) overtly sexual. Wittgenstein comes to understand that to talk of, and teach the meaning of the word love, is to take part in a form of life that determines the nature of the relevant features we accord to it, as opposed to being a word that requires a strict definition (an idea that it is made plain he believes at the start). It is this that he learns from Smith and one of many aspects of the play than can be seen as truthful to the spirit of Wittgenstein as a human being, in spite of not being biographically accurate.
Provided one does not approach the production from a perspective in which biographical accuracy is all that matters, one will find in it a moving and, ultimately, very sensitive depiction and expression of humanity.