Ludwig Wittgenstein

«It was a biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein, a philosopher I had heard of but never read – not an unusual circumstance, since most of my reading was confined to fiction, with nary the smallest dabble in other fields. I found it to be an absorbing, well-written book, but one story stood out from all the others, and it had stayed with me ever since. According to the author, Ray Monk, after Wittgenstein wrote his Tractatus as a soldier during World War I, he felt that he had solved all the problems of philosophy and was finished with the subject for good. He took a job as a schoolmaster in a remote Austrian mountain village, but he proved unfit for the work. Severe, ill-tempered, even brutal, he scolded the children constantly and beat them when they failed to learn their lessons. Not just ritual spankings, but blows to the head and face, angry pummelings that wound up causing serious injuries to a number of children. Word got out about his outrageous conduct, and Wittgenstein was forced to resign his post. Years went by, at least twenty years, if I’m not mistaken, and by then Wittgenstein was living in Cambridge, once again pursuing philosophy, by then a famous and respected man. For reasons I forget now, he went through a spiritual crisis and suffered a nervous breakdown. As he began to recover, he decided that the only way to restore his health was to march back into his past and humbly apologize to each person he had ever wronged or offended. He wanted to purge himself of the guilt that was festering inside him, to clear his conscience and make a fresh start. The road naturally led him back to the small mountain village in Austria. All his former pupils were adults now, men and women in their mid- and late twenties, and yet the memory of their violent schoolmaster had not dimmed with the years. One by one, Wittgenstein knocked on their doors and asked them to forgive him for his intolerable cruelty two decades earlier. With some of them, he literally fell to his knees and begged, imploring them to absolve him of the sins he had committed. One would think that a person confronted with such a sincere display of contrition would feel pity for the suffering pilgrim and relent, but of all of Wittgenstein’s former pupils, not a single man or woman was willing to pardon him. The pain he had caused had gone too deep, and their hatred for him transcended all possibility of mercy.»

(in Paul Aster: The Brooklyn Follies, New York, Picador, 2006, 54-55)

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