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The Wittgenstein Illusion

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Michael Nedo
The Wittgenstein family in Vienna, summer 1917. From left, siblings Kurt, Paul, and Hermine Wittgenstein; their brother-in-law, Max Salzer; their mother, Leopoldine Wittgenstein; Helene Wittgenstein Salzer; and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

We are inclined to think that there must be something in common to all games, say, and that this common property is the justification for applying the general term “game” to the various games; whereas games form a family the members of which have family likenesses. Some of them have the same nose, others the same eyebrows and others again the same way of walking; and these likenesses overlap.

So said Ludwig Wittgenstein in The Blue Book ; but none of the students who pored over that collection of lecture notes, which circulated samizdat -style in the Cambridge of the 1930s, could have guessed at the autobiographical bearing of Wittgenstein’s metaphor. For as Alexander Waugh shows in The House of Wittgenstein, the resemblances that united the philosopher with his own family were more than just physical. It was, above all, the ways they suffered that made the Wittgensteins one.

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s background was something of an enigma to his colleagues. F.R. Leavis, hearing him mention that he had grown up in a house with seven pianos, concluded that he must be related to Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, who was the lifelong mistress of Franz Liszt. It was “widely believed in Cambridge that he was of the princely German family,” writes Ray Monk in his biography Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius.*

In fact, his name did come from that family, but not because he was their descendant. Rather, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s great-grandfather, Moses Meyer, was the land agent for the Sayn-Wittgensteins. In 1808, when Germany was under Napoleonic rule, Jews were compelled by law to adopt a fixed surname, instead of identifying themselves by patronymic, and Moses Meyer took his employers’ name as his own. His son, Hirsch Moses Meyer, six years old at the time, was henceforth known as Hermann Wittgenstein; when he converted to Protestantism, in his thirties, he added the middle name Christian.

It is by the echt -German name Hermann Christian Wittgenstein that the patriarch of the family is introduced by Alexander Waugh in The House of Wittgenstein. There is no hint, in the opening pages where the family’s genealogy is laid out, that Hermann was Jewish; on the contrary, Waugh mentions “his Protestant ethic and his anti-Semitic sensibility,” which tend to give rather the opposite impression. Both ethic and sensibility, Waugh writes, were offended by the decision of Hermann’s son Karl, the philosopher’s father, to marry a half-Jewish woman, Leopoldine Kalmus. “My son Karl,” Hermann wrote gruffly to his future daughter-in-law, “unlike his brothers and sisters, has always, from his earliest youth, chosen to follow his own direction.” He was, in fact, the only one of Hermann’s eleven children to take an even partly Jewish spouse.

Only by reading Waugh carefully can the reader deduce that in fact Hermann’s own wife, Fanny Figdor, was also Jewish: Monk, but not Waugh, makes plain that she converted to Protestantism in order to marry Hermann. In this calculated obscurity, Waugh faithfully follows the example of Hermann, who not only forbade his children to marry Jews but kept them in the dark about their own Jewish background. Family lore had it that his daughter Milly had to ask one of her brothers (a Protestant clergyman) if the rumors about their Jewishness were true. ” Pur sang [pure-blooded]” was the lofty reply.

The witticism captures something important about the Wittgensteins and their milieu. They were, at the same time, sufficiently ashamed of their Jewishness to make it a secret and sufficiently proud to boast of it as though their sang were a kind of noble pedigree. In this contradiction, they were not untypical of the Viennese Jewish bourgeoisie, a class that revealed its Jewishness most conspicuously in its wholehearted embrace of Germanness—above all, German literature, art, and music. What the writer Stefan Zweig says about his own family, in his memoir The World of Yesterday (1943), applies equally well to the Wittgensteins:

Early emancipated from their orthodox religion, they were passionate followers of the religion of the time, “progress.” …They moved from their home to Vienna, they adapted themselves to the higher cultural sphere with phenomenal rapidity.

What made the Wittgensteins untypical was the staggering success with which they realized their class’s common ambitions. For if Hermann was a prosperous businessman, Karl managed to become possibly the richest man in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Waugh sketches his career in just a few paragraphs. Starting out in the early 1870s as a part-time engineer at a steel mill, he had become, by the end of the century, a steel magnate on a colossal scale—the Krupp or Carnegie of Austria-Hungary. “It would be idle to speculate on how much money he was worth,” Waugh writes. “He was stupendously rich.”

Yet in 1898, at the age of fifty-one, Karl Wittgenstein retired from business, to spend the rest of his life as a patron of art and a man of leisure. This decision, which Waugh reports without particular comment, also makes more sense when seen in the context of Vienna’s assimilated Jewry and its cultural ambitions. Again, Zweig is apt:

It is generally accepted [he wrote in 1941] that getting rich is the only and typical goal of the Jew. Nothing could be further from the truth. Riches are to him merely a stepping stone, a means to the true end, and in no sense the real goal. The real determination of the Jew is to rise to a higher cultural plane in the intellectual world.

Thus the Wittgenstein fortune was used to stimulate the now legendary art and culture of turn-of-the-century Vienna. The patronage of wealthy Jewish families was particularly important because, isolated as they were from the royal and aristocratic society that still governed the empire, they could support experimental work that flew in the face of that society’s conventional taste. Karl Wittgenstein paid for the construction of the Secession Building, designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich; when the University of Vienna rejected the mural it had commissioned from Gustav Klimt, Karl paid for that as well. Klimt also painted the portrait of Karl’s daughter Margherita, known as Gretl—though, as Waugh writes, she “loathed the finished picture, blaming Klimt’s ‘inaccurate’ depiction of her mouth, which she later had repainted by a lesser artist.” Gretl would later be analyzed by Sigmund Freud, and helped him get permission to leave Austria after the Anschluss.

But music was the Wittgensteins’ greatest love, and it was as a musician that Paul, Ludwig’s older brother, was to make his own contribution to immortalizing the family name. Musical talent ran in the family: Joseph Joachim, the great violinist, was Fanny Wittgenstein’s cousin, and she helped arrange for him to study with Felix Mendelssohn. Joachim’s friend and collaborator Johannes Brahms became a friend of the family, and the premiere of his Clarinet Quintet took place at the Wittgenstein family’s mansion on the Alleegasse, in the Musiksaal where some of Europe’s leading musicians gave private concerts. Waugh writes that Richard Strauss, Schoenberg, Mahler, and Zemlinsky were also regular guests. It is a nice irony that while Ludwig Wittgenstein was not in fact related to Liszt’s princess, as Leavis thought, his actual family was no less distinguished in musical history.

A guest at the Musiksaal in the year 1900 might well have come away with the impression that the Wittgensteins—Karl and Leopoldine, their five sons and three daughters—were one of the most fortunate families on earth. Yet in the twentieth century, they were to suffer an unbroken series of calamities. It began when the oldest son, Hans, committed suicide while on a trip to America in 1902. The exact circumstances of his death could never be determined, Waugh writes; one report had him last seen in the Florida Everglades, another disappearing from a boat on Chesapeake Bay.

Two years later, the second son, Rudi, killed himself by swallowing cyanide in a Berlin restaurant. Both Hans and Rudi, it seems, were driven to end their lives in part from despair of ever fulfilling their father’s ambitions for them to succeed in the business world, and in part from guilt over their homosexuality. Rudi, in particular, spoke of “my perverted disposition,” and apparently killed himself out of fear that he could be identified as the subject of a study of “an unnamed homosexual student in Berlin,” by the pioneering sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld.

One can scarcely imagine how Leopoldine felt when she learned, in the closing days of World War I, that her third son, Kurt, had also taken his own life. This time the circumstances were much different: Kurt was serving as an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army and shot himself during the collapse of the Italian front.

By the end of 1918, then, the Wittgenstein brothers had been reduced to two, Paul and Ludwig. And while it is Ludwig whom posterity cares about most—there can be little doubt that The House of Wittgenstein would not have been published, or perhaps even written, if not for the fame Ludwig brought to the Wittgenstein name—it is Paul whom Waugh makes the real focus of his book. This may be surprising, but it proves justified, for Paul was a scarcely less enigmatic and gifted man than his younger brother. And because he was a musician, he offers Waugh, a sometime opera critic, the chance to draw on his knowledge of the period’s composers and performers.

The story of Paul Wittgenstein’s war could have come straight from a protest novel, so dramatically does it demonstrate the huge waste and futility of World War I. Like so many young men in all the belligerent countries, Paul became a soldier in 1914 as “a question of personal and national honor”—though, unlike most Austrians, he was doubtful from the beginning about his country’s chances against Russia. As a second lieutenant, he was posted to the Fourth Army on the Galician front, but thanks to the confusion and incompetence plaguing the Austrian forces, he was sent to the wrong place and arrived eight days late. On August 23, his fourth day at the front, he led a scouting mission near Russian lines, where he came under fire and was wounded. His men managed to get him back to a field hospital, but while he was unconscious the hospital was captured by the advancing Russians. He woke up to discover that he was a prisoner of war, and that his right arm had been amputated above the elbow.

What made Paul’s injury all the more devastating is that less than a year before the war began, he had launched a career as a concert pianist. Waugh opens The House of Wittgenstein with a description of his debut, on December 1, 1913, in Vienna’s Grosser Musikvereinsaal. Daringly, he played a piano concerto by the minor Irish composer John Field, along with works by Mendelssohn, Liszt, and the now forgotten Josef Labor, a blind composer whom the Wittgenstein family adored. (A recording of only one of his works, a quintet for clarinet, piano, and strings, is readily available; it is a very Brahmsian piece, which may explain why the Brahms-loving Wittgensteins rated Labor so highly.) The reviews were positive, and Paul was on his way to a major performing career when the loss of his arm seemed to put an end to his lifelong ambition.

  1. *

    Free Press, 1990.

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