February 25, 2008

Wittgenstein at War

Filed under: History, Literature, Philosophy — duncan @ 9:19 pm

On the outbreak of the First World War, Wittgenstein was in Vienna. He was studying in England, and living in Norway (where he’d built himself a hut on a fjord – you can’t make this stuff up). But at the start of August 1914 he was back in Austria and, unable to get out, he decided to volunteer. Suicidal Wittgenstein felt that war would be the ultimate test of his character – his chance to prove himself to himself, to overcome his weakness and cowardice, and to live cheerfully in the face of death. He wanted to be sent to the front – which he was; he participated in the disastrous Galician campaign, and was lucky to survive. But because he was a trained engineer (before he became interested in philosophy, he studied aeronautical engineering in Manchester) he was then assigned to an artillery workshop in Krakow. As the Austrian forces chaotically retreated, outnumbered and outmanoeuvred, Wittgenstein read Tolstoy’s ‘Gospel in Brief’. He prayed that God release him from the misery of his surroundings.

“To bear life in the workshop, it seems, required no divine assistance. Apart from the fact that he had very little time to himself to work on philosophy, life was almost pleasant, at least by comparison with the previous four months. In any case, it was preferable to life in Vienna.” (Ray Monk, ‘Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius’, p. 123). Vienna was where Wittgenstein’s family lived – and it was also the home of the fin de siecle culture he both admired and distrusted. Even when living in solitude in Norway, Wittgenstein had received Karl Kraus’s Die Fackel. There he read an article by Kraus about Der Brenner, an avant-garde literary journal, published in Innsbruck. Wittgenstein had returned to Austria in July because he wanted to meet Ludwig von Ficker, Der Brenner’s editor – they met on the very weekend of the ultimatum to Serbia. Wittgenstein had decided to give 100,000 crowns to Austrian artists without means, and he wanted Ficker to distribute it. One beneficiary would be Rilke – and Georg Trakl, a regular contributor to Der Brenner, also received a considerable sum. Wittgenstein’s comment on Trakl’s poems: “I do not understand them, but their tone makes me happy. It is the tone of pure genius.”

By August 1914 Trakl was also on the Eastern front. In September he participated in the battle of Groduk; and after the battle he suffered a complete mental breakdown. As the Austrian army headed back towards Krakow, Trakl was in a Krakow psychiatric hospital. He wrote to Wittgenstein: “I would be greatly obliged if you would do me the honour of paying me a visit… I will possibly be able to leave the hospital in the next few days to return to the field. Before a decision is reached, I would greatly like to speak with you.” Wittgenstein was delighted. He wrote in his diary: “How happy I would be to get to know him!” On the day he arrived in Krakow he wrote that he was “thrilled with the anticipation and hope of meeting Trakl.” “It is already too late to visit Trakl today.” Trakl committed suicide on November 3rd. Wittgenstein arrived at the hospital on the morning of November 6th. Monk: “’Wie traurig, wie traurig!!!’ (‘What unhappiness, what unhappiness!!!’) was all he [Wittgenstein] could find to say on the matter.” (p. 119). It was Wittgenstein who broke the news to Ficker; who in turn informed Trakl’s family.

Curse you, dark poisons,
White sleep!
This weirdest garden
Of trees wrapped in twilight
Filled with snakes, nocturnal moths,
Spiders, bats.
Stranger! Your lost shadow
In the sunset’s red,
A gloomy corsair
On the salt sea of misery.
White birds rise at the hem of night
Over collapsing cities
Of steel.

[The meme, from N. Pepperell:
1. Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages).
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people.
Nominees: Flashboy, Comte, Roger, IT, Robert Vienneau.
(There’s no obligation to play the game…)]

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