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At the family estate, summer 1917. Paul Wittgenstein is second from left; Ludwig Wittgenstein is at right. Photo: Michael Nedo

This photo of the Wittgenstein family (as in Ludwig) captures a certain something about Fin-de-Siècle Vienna, a period of time that perpetually fascinates and compels many of us all these years later. And then there is the ubiquitous shadow cast by Ludwig himself, the 20th century’s most celebrated philosopher.

But until I read the Jim Holt review in the New York Times of a new biography of the Wittgenstein clan, The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War by Alexander Waugh (Evelyn’s grandson), I did not realize just how complex and tragic the Wittgenstein family circumstances actually were. The mystique deepens as a very dark and painful history is revealed. Aptly titled “Suicide Squad,” Holt’s review paints the bleak unraveling of a family strangely destined for suffering and self destruction.

A few excerpts from the review:

“A tense and peculiar family, the Oedipuses,” a wag once observed. Well, when it comes to dysfunction, the Wittgensteins of Vienna could give the Oedipuses a run for their money. The tyrannical family patriarch was Karl Wittgenstein (1847-1913), a steel, banking and arms magnate. He and his timorous wife, Leopoldine, brought nine children into the world. Of the five boys, three certainly or probably committed suicide and two were plagued by suicidal impulses throughout their lives. Of the three daughters who survived into adulthood, two got married; both husbands ended up insane and one died by his own hand. Even by the morbid standards of late Hapsburg Vienna these are impressive numbers. But tense and peculiar as the Wittgensteins were, the family also had a strain of genius. Of the two sons who didn’t kill themselves, one, Paul (1887-1961), managed to become an internationally celebrated concert pianist despite the loss of his right arm in World War I. The other, Ludwig (1889-1951), was the greatest philosopher of the 20th century…

The Wittgensteins were the musical family par excellence. Their palatial residence in Vienna contained seven grand pianos, including two Bösendorfer Imperials. Among the guests at their home concerts, which took place in a special Musiksaal adorned with a marble statue of the nude Beethoven squatting and glowering atop a high plinth, were Brahms, Richard Strauss, Schoenberg and Mahler. All the Wittgensteins, parents and children alike, were prodigiously talented musicians. They “pursued music with an enthusiasm that, at times, bordered on the pathological,” Waugh writes. Concertizing together seems to have been for them a wordless medium of communication, affording a respite from the usual family tension and bickering…

As for Ludwig, the baby of the family, he seems to have had a sense of his genius from an early age. After finishing high school (where one of his classmates was Adolf Hitler), he decided to find a fellow genius who might serve as his mentor. His first choice was the great physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, but Boltzmann hanged himself before Wittgenstein could meet him. In 1911, Wittgenstein sought out Bertrand Russell in Cambridge. Russell was initially wary of the strange (and startlingly handsome) young Viennese, who would show up in his rooms late at night to stutter out philosophical monologues, pacing “like a caged tiger” and threatening to kill himself if Russell turned him out. Before long, though, the older philosopher succumbed, writing to his mistress, Lady Ottoline Morrell, that Wittgenstein “has pure intellectual passion in the highest degree; it makes me love him.” Returning to Vienna, Wittgenstein volunteered for the Austrian Army in World War I, insisting, out of spiritual motives, that he be assigned to the most dangerous missions. It was during the war that he produced his first philosophical work (the only one to be published in his lifetime), the “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,” which opens with the arresting proposition, “The world is all that is the case.”

Ludwig’s subsequent career, familiar from numerous biographies and memoirs, is briskly told here. Renouncing his share of the family fortune (among the largest of war-ruined Europe, thanks to the Wittgensteins’ shrewd American investments), he pursued self-mortification as a schoolteacher in an impoverished Alpine village. But his pedagogical methods included slapping the children rather violently, and he got run out of town. Turning to architecture, he designed an austere cubical house, now regarded as a modernist masterpiece, for one of his sisters in Vienna. Most of the rest of his life was spent in Cambridge, where he developed a radically new vision of philosophy, one that marked a decisive break with his early work. As for his sex life, Waugh notes that at least one of the several relationships Ludwig had with adoring young men was frankly physical, but he is agnostic about whether the philosopher pursued rough trade in public parks. (When that claim was made in a scandalous 1973 biography, Wittgenstein’s outraged nephew announced his readiness to vomit on the hat of the publisher — surely one of the most inspired threats of all time…)

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