Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The World As I Found It

Another book review for Gay Community News, published in the January 15-21, 1989 issue.

No one seems to dispute it now, but as far as I recall, there was controversy over the fact of Wittgenstein's homosexuality into the 1980s -- maybe even as late as the publication of Duffy's novel. And it was philosophers who were throwing hissyfits over it; but I've read enough philosophy that I should know better than to assume that philosophers are rational. Generally philosophers like Bertrand Russell, while hostile to religious anti-sex teachings, thought that homosexuality was the result of religious repression, and that buggery would wither away along with the church as the Enlightenment advanced. I must try to find again a book I once stumbled on, published by Pelican Books in the 1960s, which claimed to develop an atheistic philosophical view of sex. It was antigay, though of course in a compassionate way: no jail for us, maybe even no electroshock or chemical castration, just an enlightened form of pitying contempt.

The World as I Found It
by Bruce Duffy
Ticknor & Fields, New York, 1987
$19.95 cloth, 546pp.

Well, I'm afraid that The World as I Found It is a bit of a disappointment. Till recently there was no full biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), the most influential philosopher of this century, so the prospect of even a novel about him excited me a little. Aside from his professional importance, Wittgenstein was one of the more interesting eccentrics of our time. Born to a wealthy Catholic (converted from Judaism) family in Vienna, haunted by the suicide of an older gay brother, Wittgenstein was a wanderer all his life. He won the interest of the great mathematician Frege, studied with Bertrand Russell at Cambridge, then dropped philosophy to join the Austrian army in World War I. During the war he wrote his brilliant and mystifying Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, then abandoned philosophy as soon as it was published to teach schoolchildren in an Austrian village. But friction with the villagers forced him to abandon that project, so he returned home long enough to design and build a house for his sister, then went back to Cambridge to teach philosophy for the rest of his life. The only other work he intended for publication, the Philosophical Investigations, appeared posthumously, but recent years have seen a flood of publications culled from his notebooks and from his students’ lecture notes.

It's certain that he was gay, though his love life was intensely problematical; so far I gather that he had heavy Platonic crushes on his students, but whether any of them ever reciprocated I don't know. He also had many endearing quirks, such as a fondness for Mickey Mouse cartoons and detective stories; and his former student Norman Malcolm recalls how Wittgenstein insisted while visiting on helping Malcolm's wife with the dishes. So Wittgenstein certainly seems a suitable subject for a novel, and everything from its cover blurb to the Library of Congress Cataloguing Data announces that The World as I Found It is about Wittgenstein.

And quite a bit of it is, but there is a frustrating amount of space -- seemingly about half the book -- devoted to Wittgenstein's Cambridge colleagues Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore. Even worse, while The World as I Found It sheds little light on Wittgenstein's sexuality, it tells far more than I wanted to know about Russell's, including many tediously lengthy accounts of heterosexual copulation. Don't get me wrong; some of my best friends are heterosexual, but in a novel about Wittgenstein these interludes seem rather pointless digressions. Duffy writes well, a neat journeyman's prose, and The World as I Found It is very much worth reading, but I'd be happier if the author had dared to go deeper into the mind and heart of his alleged star, and spent less time on the supporting cast.