Monday, June 15, 2009

Bleak House

If you're interested in a different kind of beach reading, consider Alexander Waugh's The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War (as thematic appetizer try Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice"). The book pithily traces the rise, ingenious apogee, and brilliant flameout of a clan that was simply different from you and me, and not just because they were rich beyond the dreams of avarice.

Offspring of the fabulously successful industrialist Karl Wittgenstein (1847-1913) and his clever, musical, but deeply neurotic wife Leopoldine (1850-1926), the eight Wittgenstein siblings who survived infancy included five boys and three girls. The book's subtitle might refer to war on three fronts: a general psychological war against the conditions of life (in which the Wittgensteins had a high casualty rate), longstanding strife among one another, and the chaos sown in the family by both World Wars, and particularly the efforts of the Nazi to appropriate the Wittgensteins' wealth. The latter machinations almost make one feel sorry for the exceedingly rich: there is so very much to lose, and so much toil needed to avoid doing so!

Of the five Wittgenstein sons, three apparently committed suicide (one by ingesting potassium cyanide in a restaurant, one by shooting himself in the course of military service in the last year of World War I, and the third by unknown means after his suspicious disappearance). Of the two remaining, Paul, the elder, became a successful left-handed concert pianist after his right arm was amputated in World War I, while Ludwig became the pre-eminent philosopher of the 20th century.

Carlin Romano in The Chronicle Review faults Waugh for slighting Ludwig's prominence in favor of attention to Paul's long and complicated career and personal life, but it seemed to me that Waugh, well aware that countless thousands of words have already been written on Ludwig, was determined to give a general account of the family that may also, secondarily, offer a different perspective on its most illustrious member. As the older brother and the one who attempted to manage the Wittgenstein millions amid the pandemonium engulfing central Europe, Paul was the family's more public representative.

Without indulging in any diagnostic speculation, I would just say that the Wittgensteins in general seem to have featured varying degrees of brilliance, extraordinary persistence, a sometimes astonishing lack of agreeability, and high neuroticism. They were both charismatic and objectionable to a prodigious degree. Waugh has this to say of Paul:

Paul was aware of his inability to get on easily with other people and it forced him, despite his charm, erudition and energy for life, to seek a solitary existence. He would never stay in other people's houses but insisted on booking himself and his valet, Franz Kalchschmidt, into a nearby hotel, having a piano brought in, and seeing his friends only when it suited him. When traveling by train, even with his family, he would insist on booking a private carriage for himself. One of his pupils, conductor Steve Portman, remembers Paul having "a shell around him, like a suit of armour that did not permit him to interact with other people--nobody would challenge him for he had an authority that very few people possess." Portman came from a poor and troubled New York background. His lessons with Paul were free. One Christmas he was given an expensive tie. "Oh I've never had anything like this!" Portman exclaimed. "I don't give rubbish!" Paul replied. "My memories of Paul Wittgenstein are absolutely positive," Portman recalls. "He could not have been more forthcoming or helpful."

Of Ludwig, who battled anguished self-doubt and depression for much of his life, and famously gave away his family fortune in favor of voluntary poverty, Waugh writes:

These were bad years for Ludwig. More than ever he was plagued by demons, unsettled by violent memories of war and grieving over the death of his closest friend. "Every day I think of Pinsent. He took half my life with him. The devil will take the other half." This bleak mental state can be observed through a series of confiding letters that he sent to an intellectual army friend, Paul Engelmann. "I have continually thought of taking my own life, and the idea still haunts me sometimes. I have sunk to the lowest point" and "I am in a state of mind that is terrible to me." He hoped and believed that teaching might save him from all of this, for he needed to be working every day "or else all the devils in hell will break loose inside me." As usual, he was consumed with self-loathing and described himself to Engelmann as "morally dead," "base," "stupied and rotten," and despite Tolstoy's injunction, he could not prevent himself from detesting most of the people around him. The Trattenbachers were "obnoxious, good-for-nothing and irresponsible," the Otterthalers "inhuman beings" and the people of Hassbach "repulsive grubs."

Yet this was the same man whose magnetic personality and massive intellect fascinated countless colleagues and students and whose last coherent words were "Tell them I've had a wonderful life!" Waugh's family chronicle is a fascinating collective psychological study, and a testament to paradoxical, inconsistent human nature.


Anonymous said...

Sounds wonderfully bleak. Large families always have interesting dynamics, and are rarely dull. Take 'the Brady Bunch' for instance - now there's a family worth a chronicle and a half.

philebritite said...

Anonymous, coward that he is, is sarcastically dismissive in the true Carlin Romano fashion--without considering the truth behind the thesis of the book, which is interesting because of the specific details it brings to light about the large Wittgenstein family, and how understanding this particular family's dynamics will change our view (and understanding) of Ludwig. His reductive comment is pure Romano dismissiveness, without substance and pseudo-hip (as if the Bradys didn't badly date him).

Retriever said...

Look forward to reading it, N. Anon, I agree with you about large families. My grandmother was one of seven, and I watched fascinated at their endless alliances and feuds (even in old age), the intellectual sparks struck off each other, the private languages. It might be interesting to compare Henry Adams and his siblings to this clan? Or the Bronte brood (tho four kids isn't really that large a family). Also, in families where there is significant angst, it's intriguing how the role of identified patient passes from one to another. And how often the one thought early on to be screwed up or a mediocrity comes thru, whereas the golden one crashes and burns.

Anonymous said...

aennie, actually I wasn't being 'sarcastically dismissive' of the book or the Wittgensteins, as you so confidently presumed. And I don't even know who Carlin Romano is, so his fashion sense is lost on me, unfortuantely...

Sorry if I offended any of the Bradys. They're a familial force to be reckoned with, and woe unto those who would be 'dismissively sarcastic' of their cultural relevance even in 2009...

And as for everything else you presumed/misinterpreted, I'll cowardly 'pass over in silence'.

Anonymous said...

Labels. Large families always have inescapable labels, so there's no confusion about each member's role/place in the family, and then in the larger context of society.