The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War
By Alexander Waugh
Doubleday, 366 pages, $27.50
With apologies to his cult, here’s a sound bite version of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s later philosophy: A concept is good when it’s exactly as rigorous as it needs to be. If your concept is too vague, it will lead you off a cliff, saving everyone the trouble of having to argue with you about it; but if it’s too rigid—and this is what Wittgenstein was really worried about—you risk a far worse fate: You’ll end up a philosopher. Better, he argued, to replace the false rigor of philosophical discourse with the imponderables of everyday reasoning. Things in the world line up not according to the hard categories of Platonic essence, but according to the soft approximations of family resemblance.
One wonders, on reading Alexander Waugh’s excellent and astonishing The House of Wittgenstein, whether that metaphor was inspired by Ludwig’s own family history. Philosopher or musician, industrialist or diplomat, no Wittgenstein stepped free of the sad family type: always ardent, musical, obsessive; often sick-souled, suicidal, dazzlingly brilliant. It was Karl, the patriarch whose steel fortune made the Wittgensteins among the richest families in the world, who set the pattern. He began adulthood as a muddled, artistic waif serving drinks in the black section of a New York City riverboat in the 1860s, a violin his only possession, on the run from his stern father’s expectation that he enter the family business back home in Austria. But in the manner of all family sagas, Karl was fated to become the image of his own domineering father, Hermann, looking disdainfully upon the decidedly waifish paths chosen by his children—musicians all, and all, it would seem, haunted by a crippling passion for purity and transcendence.
Ludwig, following Augustine and Pascal, pursued the line of skepticism down the well of faith. By midlife he had retreated into a gnomic, hyper-sublimated form of Christianity, adopting as his personal scripture Leo Tolstoy’s The Gospel in Brief—the Russian novelist’s redaction of the Gospels intended as a distillation of true Christian teaching expunged of its pandering narrative. This is Mr. Waugh’s only foray into Ludwig’s philosophical teachings, but it’s an intriguing one: The author points out parallels between the structure of Tolstoy’s Gospel and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (the only one of Ludwig’s books published during his lifetime, but sufficient to establish his reputation as one of the leading thinkers of the 20th century). Both texts proceed as a set of numbered assertions and corollaries, both possess a tone of spellbinding authority and both claim to resolve the deepest problems of human life and thought in a book sized to carry in your pocket.
Ray Monk has already given us the definitive account of Ludwig’s life in Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (1990), an impressive balancing act of biography and philosophical exposition. Mr. Waugh, grandson of Evelyn and former Evening Standard opera critic, aims with his book to mine a new vein of the Wittgenstein legend by focusing on Ludwig’s older brother Paul, famous throughout mid-century Europe (more famous than Ludwig, in fact) as a one-armed concert pianist whose virtuosity was almost—almost—impressive enough to vault him beyond the status of novelty act.
BEGINNING AT THE turn of the 20th century and lasting until Hitler’s upending of European culture in the 1930s, the Wittgensteins’ palace in Vienna served Europe’s great composers as a salon and testing ground for new works. Add to this the fact that the Wittgenstein fortune was one of the great sources of arts patronage in Europe, and the result is one of the last great centers of European art and culture—a musical Athens where Strauss and Mahler stalked the grounds while upstairs the family sat judging how best to distribute its vast endowment among applicants named Rilke, Trakl and Loos.
In its breadth, Mr. Waugh’s book fits squarely among the long line of nonfiction masterpieces driven by the intoxicating richness of early century Vienna, a list that includes Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday and Carl Schorske’s Fin-de-Siècle Vienna. Mr. Waugh’s unique angle derives from his intimacy with the details of classical music performance, helped along by his work as a critic and record producer. He stakes his riveting account of Paul’s inner life on readings of newspaper reviews of Paul’s performances, and doesn’t shy away from novelistic speculation when it suits him. Here, for example, is Mr. Waugh’s reconstruction of Paul’s nervousness before his 1913 Vienna concert premiere:
“Clammy fingers and cold hands figure in every pianist’s worst dream—the slightest sheen from the glands of the pads can cause the fingers to slip or ‘glitch,’ accidentally hitting two adjacent keys at once. The sweaty-fingered pianist is slave to his caution. If his hands are too cold, the finger muscles will stiffen. Coldness in the bones does not drive sweat from the skin and in the worst instances the fingers may be immobilized by cold while remaining slippery with sweat. Many concert artists spend a nervous hour or two before a winter recital with their hands plunged into a basin of hot water.”
That Vienna concert was to be one of Paul’s last as a two-handed pianist: He lost his right arm in battle against Russia during World War I. Not to be outdone by Ludwig, who consistently volunteered for the most dangerous deployments, Paul then successfully lobbied to return to the front and soldier on as an amputee.
Paul and Ludwig were fighting on behalf of their beloved Austria, and the courtly and enlightened civilization of the Habsburg Empire. Neither could foresee the disaster ahead, and Mr. Waugh’s book is at its best when exploring the Wittgenstein variation on the motif of denial that shows up in the lives of so many German-speaking artists and intellectuals during the 1930s.
Like Sigmund Freud, Paul Wittgenstein thought it preposterous to imagine that Vienna, so refined and cosmopolitan, would succumb to Hitler’s barbarism. Though descended from Jews, the Wittgensteins had converted to Catholicism two generations back—but that Jewish ancestry, together with the Nazis’ lust for their fortune, was enough for them to be declared enemies of the Reich. Paul and his sister Gretl, who lived in Washington with her American husband, mobilized their diplomatic connections in an effort to smuggle their money and their priceless collection of musical instruments and manuscripts out of Austria, but to little avail. Paul eventually escaped to New York with a small part of his fortune; he settled in Long Island and raised a family with one of his former students.
A FINAL TALLY: Three of the eight Wittgenstein siblings are thought to have committed suicide—and though he never followed through, Ludwig’s journals are fixated on the possibility. Yet the story of the Wittgensteins is not, for the most part, one of despair. Of the three who took their own lives, only Rudolph Wittgenstein (who walked into a cafe and had the pianist play a song called “Forsaken, Forsaken, Forsaken Am I!” while he emptied a packet of potassium cyanide into his glass of milk) killed himself in the Viennese-gothic manner. If there’s a key to the Wittgenstein character, it’s in the uncertainty surrounding the death of Kurt Wittgenstein in the last days of World War I at the Italian front. According to Paul, Kurt was faced with the choice between the dishonor of being taken prisoner by the Italians; the certainty of death for him and his men if he fought on; or shooting himself.
In life and in death, as Alexander Waugh’s rich account attests, the Wittgensteins were umbilically attached to Europe.
Damian Da Costa is on the staff of The Observer. He can be reached at email@example.com.