Arts: A great mind over matter: Wittgenstein, never far from the thoughts of artists, is getting the Derek Jarman treatment. Paul Taylor reports

Paul Taylor
Wednesday 24 March 1993 01:02

THE great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) published only one book during his lifetime, shunned publicity and would retreat for periods of intense solitude to Norway and Ireland. His posthumous career has been a good deal less secluded - and this is not just thanks to the stream of unpublished writings which began to appear in 1953 with Philosophical Investigations, nor because of the lurid speculation provoked by one scholar's claim that when he returned to his native Vienna in 1919, Wittgenstein was in the habit of cruising the Prater in search of rough trade.

No, what is particularly striking about this philosopher's after-life is the number of works of art he has inspired. He must be one of the very few great, modern thinkers to have resurfaced in fiction as a werewolf (as he does in Amanda Prantera's novel Strange Loop). Or, yet again, as the alter ego of a warped serial-murderer in Philip Kerr's recent highbrow thriller, singularly entitled A Philosophical Investigation. The book is set in 2013, when people can be screened for disposition to criminal violence. The shock of being tested 'VMN-negative' triggers in the protagonist a psychopathic disorder whereby his own ideas and those of Wittgenstein become chillingly garbled.

The thought has cropped up in less sensational circumstances. Parts of the Tractatus have been set to music, while Tom Stoppard in Dogg's Hamlet takes off from a section of the Philosophical Investigations to produce a farce in which familiar words are used in unfamiliar context, thus creating a new vernacular which the audience has to pick up from the language- game on display. A surprising number of poems (such as William Scammell's 'Man in Black'), plays (Thomas Bernhard's Ritter, Dene, Voss) and novels (like Bruce Duffy's The World as I Found It) have been prompted by a preoccupation with this magnetic man and his life story. Now, with the release of Derek Jarman's Wittgenstein, the philosopher finds himself at the centre of a movie.

A cynic might say that one of the reasons Wittgenstein has this appeal is that, though a taxing, rigorous thinker, he writes in a manner oddly hospitable to the dilettante, his thought conveyed not in exhausting discourse but in short, numbered paragraphs full of wonderful metaphors and startling epiphanies. It's therefore as discrete aphorisms, often of a deceptive, endlessly ponderable simplicity that his thought tends to lodge in the lay mind.

'If a lion could speak, we would not be able to understand what he says': you don't need to grasp how that line fits into a complex argument about language to respond to its strange poetry, no more than you need to know the context of 'Death is not an event in life' or 'What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence'. It's true, though, that the pregnant, enigmatic quality of such remarks is also wide open to parody. Michael Frayn ends 'Fog-like sensations', his funny newspaper spoof of Wittgenstein's latter manner with '708. If a lion could speak, it would not understand itself'.

The fact that Wittgenstein thought that philosophy should be written as poetry is therefore a large part of his allure for artists. The shape of his life, moreover, lends itself especially well to the patterns of fiction. To an extent, his is an inverse fairy-tale, a riches-to-rags story in which the son of the wealthiest steel magnate in Austria gives away all his inheritance to his siblings and settles (if that's the word) for a conspicuously austere existence (the deckchairs in the bare room in Trinity; the lone hut by the Norwegian fjord; the grim attempts at village schoolteaching, et cetera) and a quest for moral perfection.

With its dramatic switch of philosophical approach (from a picture theory of language to the idea of language as a tool), his career also offers vivid opportunities for existential allegory, as Terry Eagleton's script for the Jarman film makes plain in the touching fable at the end. Wittgenstein is shown suspended in mid-air, at home neither in the gleaming ice world of pure logic (which he created in the Tractatus as a young man, and for which he feels nostalgic), nor on the rough ground of tarnished, battered, ambiguous words and objects that was his later field of operation.

Saints and Sinners, Eagleton's highly entertaining 1987 novel which brings Wittgenstein into collision with a wounded James Connolly on the run from the defeated Easter Rising, and with Leopold Bloom in flight from Ulysses and a broken marriage, describes the philosopher's effect on his surroundings thus: 'The man seemed inexhaustibly vigilant, insistently present like a high-pitched vibration on the air.' That unflagging intensity (which makes you want to lie down even when reading about it) is a gift to a writer in that it can either provide ideal embellishment for a portrait of mythic, uncompromising genius, close to madness in its perfectionism, or - if seen in conjunction with the extreme contradictions in Wittgenstein's personality - push the story to an interesting point somewhere between tragedy and farce.

The novels of his compatriot Thomas Bernhard (d 1989) take the former option with a vengeance, tending to be monologues of solitary obsessives, unable to finish or compulsively revising their works. In Correction, Roithamer, the Wittgenstein figure, has just committed suicide and the novel shows his literary executor's attempt to enter, through a study of his neurotically amended manuscripts, a powerful, arrogant mind at its highest pitch of concentration. Like Wittgenstein, Roithamer has completed a meticulously conceived house for his sister, but she, realising that this 'Cone' expresses incestuous desire, commits suicide, leaving the brother destroyed by his own mighty 'idea-turned-reality'.

The only casualties of the real life episode on which this is based were, significantly enough, neither Wittgenstein nor his sister but the poor builders and engineers who had to cope with the philosopher's fanatical fussiness over proportions. As Ray Monk's excellent biography points out, even when the house was finished and about to be cleaned, Wittgenstein had the ceiling of one vast room raised by three centimetres. Grown men wept in despair of ever satisfying his relentless requirements. But since these people weren't ever would-be geniuses, their perspective counts for nothing in Bernhard's fictional re-working.

One of the virtues, by contrast, of the Jarman/Eagleton film is the captivating balance it achieves between what is stirringly poetic and what is comically absurd about Wittgenstein's extremist pursuit of moral integrity and intellectual clarity. Its origins can be explored in the BFI text which prints both Eagleton's original realist screenplay and the strikingly different film Jarman and Ken Butler have made from it.

Eagleton's witty script (of which large portions are retained) focuses on Wittgenstein in his mid-forties, presenting him as a European intellectual and keenly alive to his contradictions - the fact, say, that he was a philosophical Titan who thought professional philosophy bad for the soul and barged recklessly into proteges' lives, urging them to take up manual work or doctoring instead. For this shapely screenplay, Jarman substitutes something bolder and riskier, a kind of biographical montage with the characters, in vibrantly coloured costumes, picked out against the constant pitch black background. The film's look gives the weird impression that the events are taking place in a mind rather than in a realistic milieu. This, together with the presence of a knowing Green Martian (Nabil Shaban) who chats up the often perplexed philosopher, creates a sense of the world as puzzlingly, wondrously alien, reminding you of a famous remark in the Tractatus, 'not how the world is, is mystical, but that it is', and his periodic amazement, noted by his friend and fellow philosopher Norman Malcolm 'that anything should exist at all'.

This outsider's perspective was sometimes a help to him in philosophising. In his attempt to understand what we mean by understanding humour, Wittgenstein once tried to imagine how an alien might view people laughing at a joke together on a bus. 'One of them has used certain somewhat unusual words and now they both break out into a sort of bleating. That might appear very extraordinary to a visitor coming from quite a different environment.' You get the impression, though, that the philosopher would have been hard pressed to follow why it is that some earthlings might find the spirit of such a remark irresistibly comic. That's another contradiction the film brings out: towards the end, Wittgenstein, uncannily evoked by Karl Johnson, reveals that he would have liked to compose a philosophical work composed entirely of jokes, but did not have the sense of humour.

Though he was a keen fan of the flicks, it's unlikely that Wittgenstein would have appreciated this film, either for its close attention to his ideas or its broad jokes. Betty Hutton and mindless westerns were more in this intellectual giant's line. Eagleton feels that Jarman has turned Wittgenstein into an English eccentric, but this, arguably, is one of the things he was. On the cleanliness front, for example, he strikes you as an obverse Auden. Vera Stravinsky once found something dubious in the Auden's lavatory and flushed down the loo what turned out to have been the sweet course, cooling. Bathroom and kitchens merge bizarrely in Wittgenstein's case, too, except that with him it was an insistence on doing the dishes in the bathtub.

To end with a suggestion. At Trinity, Cambridge, Wittgenstein had rooms (with no private lavatory) over A E Housman, the great classical scholar and poet - also homosexual, austere, perfectionist and deeply divided. When Wittgenstein had an attack of diarrhoea he tried to save himself the perilous trip across Whewell's Court by asking, through his bed maker, if he might make use of Housman's convenience. But the reply came back that Housman was a philosophical hedonist and therefore refused the request. This incident does not feature in any of the Wittgenstein-inspired art: so, over to you, Alan Bennett.

'Wittgenstein' opens on Friday

(Photograph omitted)

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