On Monday i’ll post Bruce Duffy’s The World As I Found It off to my Finnish friend Minna, a few days too late for her birthday. i was flicking through it just now and came across this excellent description of Karl Wittgenstein with the fictional Rolf, fictional husband to Gretl Wittgenstein (in real life she married a lunatic called Jerome). The scene is Christmas with the Wittgensteins, i guess it would be about 1910ish:
Charming, self-contained Rolf, a man immune to Karl Wittgenstein in ways that seemed miraculous to his mum son [Ludwig]. Many times Wittgenstein had thought that Rolf was exactly the sort of son his father would have wanted. Yet even so, the old bull could not easily cede his territory to this affable intruder. And so there was always the prodding and probing, the old man implying that while what Rolf said was perfectly true and even rather shrewd – at least so far as it went – it was still a little, well…off the mark. Not through any intrinsic fault of his, Karl Wittgenstein would affably suggest. After all, Rolf could hardly be held accountable for the fact that he still lacked seasoning and some requisite – but, for him, probably unobtainable – information. Still less could Rolf compensate for lacking that comprehensive and indeed synoptic view that came with more years than he, unfortunately, would ever have, because of course Karl Wittgenstein would always have more years and, moreover, would carry to his grave the wisdom that worked in the days when the world truly worked as it should – that is, before irresponsible bunglers like Rolf got their hooks into things.
Karl Wittgenstein’s sons might brook this treatment, but Rolf would not. For all his good-natured forbearance, he would press back when Karl Wittgenstein pressed too hard, questioning Rolf’s business judgment or suggesting that he might exert more control over his excitable wife and their equally excitable son. Oh, Rolf would groan fatuously, if only I had consulted you! Again and again, I ask myself – I ask my staff – now what, what would Karl Wittgenstein do?
This is chillingly good. It immediately reminded me of Malty’s come-the-old-soldier comment on my Dabbler piece here – he told me my understanding of hatred “despite the theoretical stuff” was totally wrong; i said it was true in my experience, and he sneered back:
Depends on what you call experience.
Classic Karl Wittgenstein, if i may say so. It is a mark of a good novel that the characters illuminate one’s own life, so the successful Austrian businessman, the great music-lover and patron of the arts, who regarded himself as the ultimate authority on everything, chimes with Malty, naturally.
Duffy’s is a curious book, in that he makes a great deal up, and writing before Ray Monk’s huge biography he must have had less information to hand; and yet it is full of such moments. Duffy’s Karl Wittgenstein is especially good. i believe KW had what i would call a Laius Complex, that is, he wanted to kill or at least totally suppress and dominate his children, especially his sons. He didn’t feel threatened by his daughters; however, his sons were a direct challenge by their very existence, and if he could, we would have gobbled them up like Cronus. It is appropriate that, at least according to family legend, the first word of Karl Wittgenstein’s eldest son was “Oedipus”.
i think this helps explain something of his sons’ volatility, lunacy, and need to dominate. KW’s intense, Cronus-like distrust must have acted like a deforming atmospheric pressure, from which one could not emerge whole; those who did emerge were unable to go casually about in the ordinary world. Accustomed to the gravity of Krypton, on Earth Superman is able to bend steel and fly; the Wittgensteins came out of childhood with an uncontrollable, savage energy, an intense need to dominate, to be free of domination.