Well, as the economic situation continues to ratchet up to pants-shitting intensity, as the UC system is completely gutted by corrupt bureaucrats and corporations hell-bent on running our educational system into the ground, as the planet continues to warm and people with automatic weapons continue to insist that they not be allowed health care, as job prospects grow so dim they begin actually sucking light into a terrifying vacuum, as species continue to go extinct at exponentially faster rates, as George Bush rakes in another cool ten mil for walking into a room and waving his hand around, as Sufjan Stevens continues to release album after album after album, we can all content ourselves by reflecting on the simple, beautiful, blessed fact that at least none of us are members of the cursed Wittgenstein family.
Yes, I am finally reading HOUSE OF WITTGENSTEIN: A FAMILY AT WAR (best title ever?) and am struck yet again by a realization most people have fairly often, which is that I sure am glad I didn’t live through World War I. Furthermore, I am even gladder that I didn’t live through BOTH World War I AND World War II, as some unfortunate souls were somehow able to do, in spite of the fact that apparently everyone in Europe was either shot to death or died of dysentery or plague during those two time periods.
House of Wittgenstein is written by Alexander Waugh, himself also a member of a famously strange family of nerds. The book provides a somewhat raucous account of the rise and fall of the family that sometimes feels a bit like riding a toboggan down a very steep hill. Meet Paul, the concert pianist brother who lost his arm in the war and then spent months and months imprisoned in Siberia, rolling around in train cars filled with corpses that would freeze together so when they stopped the Russian guards would chip them out with axes into a big pile on the side of the road. Paul, who finally became a great left-hand-only concert pianist after performing concertos written for the left hand by a blind guy, and after being mentored by another concert pianist who had also lost his right arm, who had also published a book with descriptions and illustrations on how to dress yourself, shave yourself, etc., which was marketed to amputees returning from the war. And there’s of course Rudi, who was scared everyone knew he was gay, so he walked into a restaurant one night and ordered a glass of milk and poured poison into it and requested that the pianist play “Verlassen, Verlassen, Verlassen bin ich” and then drank the milk and died really horribly right there in front of everyone. And then before him of course there was Hans, who “sailed off in a boat” one day and killed himself, only no one ever found his body or knew precisely what had happened, and no one was ever allowed to speak of him again. And of course Kurt, who killed himself during the war rather than surrender to the enemy, which the family felt as a great relief, because finally an honorable suicide! Poor Kurt. He’s mentioned as the most passing of glances even in the actual letters the family wrote informing one another of his death. When the Mom wrote to Ludwig, who was also in a POW camp, to tell him of his brother’s death, she wrote “We are well and all is well with the Salzers. But we have suffered a severe loss. Our dear Kurt fell in the very last days of the war. I embrace you, my dearest beloved son, with the tenderest love and my only wish is that you should remain in good health and that you may return home in the not too distant future. With her every thought, your mother is with you today.” And here’s sister Hermine also writing to inform Ludwig of the death: “I’m indescribably happy to know that you’re alive! Kurt fell on 27th November. Mama very distressed but brave and cheered by your news. All in good health here; also good news from the Stonboroughs, nothing but good news to report…”
The parentheticals and sidenotes in this book are generally also hilarious. Vienna sounds like a death trap!
“The conductor was twelve years older than Paul, an ex-pupil of Dvorak, a composer and a first-class violist who had joined the Tonkünstler Orchestra in 1906 after ten years as conductor of the Czech Philharmonic. On Christmas Eve 1930, he threw himself head first from a fourth-story window of a hotel in Zagreb and was heard of no more.”
“Jerome Steinberger was the son of a bankrupt kid-glove importer from New York. His father, Herman, had committed suicide on Christmas Day 1900. One of his aunts had thrown herself into the Hudson River. It is thought that an uncle, Jacob Steinberger, may also have killed himself in May 1900.”
“…he took a room in a house on the Schwarzspanierstrasse where the Austrian poet Lehnau had for several years repined and where, on March 26, 1827, Beethoven had died. No sooner were the letting terms agreed with his landlady than Weininger asked for two letters to be delivered to his family and, shortly after 10 p.m., retired to his room, locked the door, took out a loaded pistol, pointed the barrel at the left side of his chest and fired.”
“…Ludwig (the young aspiring hero-genius) promptly applied for a place in Boltzmann’s class at the University of Vienna. Had he succeeded, he would have sat on a classroom bench next to Erwin Schrödinger (winner in 1933 of a Nobel Prize for his work on quantum mechanics), but both students’ aspirations were dashed when on October 5, 1906, the great physicist, while holidaying at the seaside resort of Duino near Trieste, hanged himself in his hotel bedroom as his wife and daughter were splashing about in the warm waters of the bay.”
“The public knew that the Emperor disliked his nephew intensely, and since the old man’s life had been full of woe–his brother was put to death by firing squad in Mexico, his sister-in-law lost her marbles, his wife was murdered by a rough brute in Geneva, and his only son was the Prince Rudolf who had apparently shot himself in a suicide pact with his mistress…”
“In March 1916, Paul was finally decorated for his bravery in the opening month of the war with the Military Cross…In October he received a further medal, pinned to his chest by the thirty-five-year-old Grand Duke of Mecklenburg, a lovelorn German aristocrat who, fifteen months after the ceremony, took his dog for a walk in a wood near Neustrelitz and shot himself in the head.”
There are so many suicides in the book that Waugh has to take a moment to explain that he knows what you’re thinking, but no, suicide wasn’t considered “no big deal” in early-20th-century Vienna, in fact everyone talked about it constantly and worried about it and was scared it would happen to them. Basically no, it wasn’t taken lightly, but yes, people did it all the time. He also relates an anecdote about Paul, who, as an old man, was living in New York, and one day he was walking across a bridge and came upon a group of people trying to dissuade a man from jumping, and Paul got furious and was like “LET HIM DO IT IF HE WANTS TO! IT’S HIS RIGHT!” and everyone freaked out at this crazy one-armed German man yelling about how suicide was every man’s right, and in the ensuing fracas the would-be jumper sort of slunk away and was never heard from again.
But like, the World Wars were pretty brutal. I can imagine killing myself just from the despair of, like, “What Hath God Wrought?” I say kudos to these people for having the presence of mind to realize how horrible everything was. How could you see people liberated from Auschwitz and not basically want to drop dead of shame right then and there??? The war to end all wars indeed.
You know stuff is weird when a mother’s first thought upon not hearing from her son, who is fighting in Italy, is that he must have committed suicide…..AND SHE’S RIGHT.
There is also an outbreak of Spanish influenza that kills 20 million people in like two days, and lots of terrible amputations of various limbs and extremities, including a lower jaw.
Amongst all of this mayhem, we also get to see the development of little Ludwig, the totally batshit crazy person who was also kind of awesome, giving away all his money and wearing his soldier uniform until it fell apart in tatters, and teaching like elementary school kids even though he was a billionaire, because he read Tolstoy’s weird interpretation of the Gospels and started following this bizarrely narcissistic personal version of Christianity in which he had to live in discomfort and constantly try to risk his life doing various things in order to become self-actualized, and in the process he wrote a bunch of metaphysical philosophy Waugh claims no one can read, apparently including his old professors at Cambridge who said things in their letters like “My little German is batshit crazy but I kind of like him” or “He’s not exactly stupid….I don’t know how to describe him, he’s perverse and obstinate but not quite stupid maybe” or “Ludwig argued most tediously with me today and said some exceedingly stupid things.”
Before this, Ludwig was classmates with Adolf Hitler, both of whom were considered “dunces” by their teachers, and both of whom were social outcasts due to being wieners and also due to their insistence upon addressing their classmates by the formal “Sie” instead of “du.”
At one point in his life Ludwig Wittgenstein apparently MURDERED one of his students, but ran away and was never prosecuted for it.
And of course, the patriarch of the family was himself quite a specimen, having run away from home as a teenager, sailed across the sea to America, gotten a job bartending in a bar catering to liberated slaves, then Abe Lincoln got shot and the band he was playing in couldn’t make any money because performances were forbidden all over the country, and when he finally came back to Austria to his family he was “skinny, delirious and bedraggled, speaking a garbled mixture of incorrect German and Yankee slang” and his family was ashamed of him. A few years later he had become one of the richest men in the history of the world, of whom Waugh says it would be “senseless” to speculate about how much he was worth, saying only that he was “stupendously rich.”
Then he had a bunch of children who all hated him and killed themselves or became great philosophers. Or one-handed concert pianists. Paul still might kill himself, I guess, I’m only halfway through the book. Also all the children were genius musicians. They all hated each other but they loved playing Schubert quartets for hours and hours together. And their mom had this weird disease where her legs had to be horizontal at all times. And they were friends with Brahms.
So, no matter how bad it is, remember it could always be worse. Or better, depending on how you take this book.
“The higher you soar, the smaller you appear to those who can not fly.”
Or in other words: TGIF