Sniveling Rivalry

The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War BY Alexander Waugh. Doubleday. Hardcover, 352 pages. $28.

The cover of The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War

On April 27, 1951, a few days before he died of cancer, Ludwig Wittgenstein completed one of his most important books, On Certainty. The previous day had been his sixty-second birthday. As Ray Monk tells it in his definitive biography,

he knew it would be his last. When Mrs. Bevan [the wife of the doctor with whom Wittgenstein was staying] presented him with an electric blanket, saying as she gave it to him: “Many happy returns,” he stared hard at her and replied “There will be no returns.” . . . When told by Dr. Bevan that he would live only a few more days, he exclaimed “Good!” Mrs. Bevan stayed with him the night of the 28th, and told him that his close friends in England would be coming the next day. Before losing consciousness he said to her: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”

I relay this little story because it so tellingly controverts the rather cartoonish image of the “neurotic” Ludwig that emerges from Alexander Waugh’s absorbing, highly readable, but reductive portrait of the Wittgenstein family—A Family at War, as Waugh, himself a member of a famous and controversial literary family, calls it. In his account, each member of the Viennese-Jewish (though converted to Christianity by the mid-nineteenth century) Wittgenstein family was neurotic in his or her own way, beginning with the father, Karl, a seventeen-year-old runaway to the United States, who had become, by the time he was thirty-five, one of Austria’s great tycoons, a steel magnate of seemingly unlimited wealth and the owner of an elegant palais on the Alleegasse, where concerts were attended by Brahms, Mahler, and Richard Strauss.

Karl was a tyrannical and bullying father. His wife, Leopoldine (“Poldy”), a passionate musician like her husband, is described by Waugh as too withdrawn and cold to be a good mother: “She was a small woman of long nose and round face—an intensely introverted and nervous character, detached and dutiful. In adult life she suffered regular attacks of migraine and phlebitis, a complication of the arteries, nerves and veins of her legs.” After nine children (Dora, the second, died in her first month) in fifteen years, Poldy’s condition is quite understandable, but Waugh presents it as somehow a personal failing. The couple’s eldest child, Hermine, who never married, was “a repressed person . . . whose manner . . . appeared to be arrogant or aloof. In fact she suffered from low self-esteem.” The youngest daughter, Margherita (“Gretl”), who married American fortune hunter Jerome Stonborough (born Steinberger), is best known for the portrait Gustav Klimt painted of her. Of this famous artwork, Waugh writes, “She stands self-conscious and discomfited, in a flamboyant, ill-fitting, shoulderless white silk dress . . . her hands clasped in a neurotic twist of fingers at her stomach.” Gretl, Waugh explains later, was frigid and once sought help from Freud. As for Helene, the middle daughter, the most “normal” of the clan, she, too, “suffered from tensions of a pathological and neurotic kind. She was terrified of thunderstorms and was also anemic.”

But the Wittgenstein daughters were models of stability compared with the five sons. The eldest, Hans, a musical and mathematical prodigy but extremely shy and withdrawn, was on a “study trip” to America when he disappeared, ostensibly on a canoe outing, never to return. He may well have been a suicide, as were two of his brothers. Rudolf poisoned himself in a Berlin bar when he was twenty-two, evidently because he could not face the impending revelation of his homosexuality. Waugh sensationalizes this story (“As the music wafted across the room, Rudolf took from his pocket a sachet of clear crystal compound”), as he also does that of Kurt, who was forty when, fearing court-martial or, worse, imprisonment by the Italians, he shot himself in the last days of World War I.

The two remaining brothers, Paul and Ludwig, who did become prisoners of war, were the survivors, saved, perhaps, because each had a real vocation. The Ludwig sections of Waugh’s narrative—his life at the front, the reception of the Tractatus (1921), the teaching experiment, the Cambridge years, the designing of the Kundmanngasse house, the trip to the Soviet Union—are little more than recyclings of familiar lore. Indeed, The House of Wittgenstein intentionally downplays the importance of Ludwig so as to foreground its real subject, Paul. Waugh had the good fortune of gaining access to a cache of unpublished papers from the pianist’s daughter, Joan Ripley. From these letters, journals, and documents, he has stitched together an absorbing narrative, beginning with the loss of Paul’s right arm in the first year of the war and the gulag conditions in the Russian prisons where Paul spent long months in 1914 and 1915. Back home in Vienna, he was, not surprisingly, moody and irascible but also determined, more than ever, to be a great pianist. In the ’20s, he began to commission left-hand concertos from such well-known composers as Paul Hindemith and Franz Schmidt, paying princely sums for their execution. Richard Strauss was paid an advance of twenty-five thousand dollars for Parergon zur Sinfonia Domestica, a piece Paul then insisted on reworking, much to Strauss’s annoyance. Another commission, this time for Sergei Prokofiev, whom Paul had met in Paris in 1930, was never performed, Paul claiming not to “understand a single note.” Distrust was mutual: “I don’t see any special talent in his left hand,” Prokofiev told a friend. “It may be that his misfortune has turned out to be a stroke of good luck, for with only his left hand he is unique but maybe with both hands he would not have stood out from a crowd of mediocre pianists.”

Cruel as this remark is, there seems to be a grain of truth in it. The twenty-six-year-old Paul’s concert debut in prewar Vienna had, in fact, received rather mixed reviews. Then, too, his career suffered repeatedly from personal setbacks. After various sexual misadventures, he formed a liaison with a near-blind piano student named Hilde Schania, a brewer’s daughter less than half his age, whom he impregnated, set up in an apartment, and finally married after his emigration to America but never quite lived with, though she bore him three children. Meanwhile, there were Paul’s incessant quarrels with his sisters over investments and later over their maneuvers to remain in Vienna as Mischlinge (only half rather than three-quarters Jewish, as was actually the case) and make over a sizable amount of the family fortune to the Nazi regime.

After 1938, Paul understood he could not stay in Vienna. A staunch defender of the Hapsburg monarchy, he knew his relationship with the Christian Hilde would open him up to persecution for Rassenschande (racial defilement); he needed, moreover, to protect his foreign investments from Hitler. Paul’s flight, first to Zurich, then to America, leaving his sisters more or less in the lurch, led to a final break with Ludwig, soon to be a British citizen, from whom he had long been estranged. After 1938, the two brothers never spoke or corresponded.

In Waugh’s telling, no one comes off well: The sisters emerge as materialistic, self-centered, and neurotic; Gretl finally divorces Stonborough, whom Waugh labels “psychotic”; and the next generation is as weak and fatuous as Grandfather Karl was strong and oppressive. Why, then, so detailed an account of the family’s endless trials and tribulations? Waugh evidently regards the troubles of “the house of Wittgenstein” as representative of the larger collapse of Hapsburg Vienna, with its ominous blend of imperial splendor and grinding poverty, high culture and provincial politics. The difficulty is that Waugh’s book gives no evidence of any real grounding in the history and culture of fin de siècle, much less postwar, Vienna. The information—facts, dates, the furnishings of the various Wittgenstein properties, specific Nazi edicts—is all there, but the richness and complexity of this culture, the texture so brilliantly chronicled by Karl Kraus or, more recently, by Brigitte Hamann in Hitler’s Vienna, is missing. The Vienna Circle of philosophers, the architectural interventions of Ludwig’s close friend Paul Engelmann, the hopeless economic struggles and class warfare of the now-small republic—all this is absent.

Waugh clearly believes that what justifies The House of Wittgenstein is the artistic importance—and relative neglect— of Paul. “In adult life,” the biographer posits, “Paul Wittgenstein was far more famous than his younger brother,” although he immediately qualifies this assertion, admitting that “nowadays it is the other way around.” Exactly! Would any reader of the twenty-first century care about the house of Wittgenstein were it not that this was the family of one of the great philosophers of our time, a philosopher whose life has been made more than familiar by such excellent biographers as Monk and Brian McGuinness, not to mention the many novelists, poets, dramatists, and even filmmakers like Derek Jarman who have made Ludwig, as Waugh himself notes, an iconic figure?

Indeed, The House of Wittgenstein might have been a much more interesting book had it focused on the differences, rather than the similarities, between Ludwig and the other Wittgensteins. How was it, after all, that out of eight siblings—siblings brought up so similarly in such particular circumstances— a single one emerged as so unlike the rest? Ludwig did share his family’s anti-Semitism—the self-hatred endemic to the bourgeois and upper-class Jews of Vienna, trying to free themselves from their past—but he also recognized himself as irrevocably Jewish and possessed a spiritual dimension lacking in the others: Witness the many searching reflections on God, Christianity, and the human condition collected in Culture and Value and elsewhere. Again, he shared his siblings’ passion for music and their snobbery about the “right” composers, but he understood that musical taste is largely culturally determined. And the materialism of the others is countered by his austerity: He gave all his money away early in the game. Most important, he could take the ordinary statements made by those around him and discover, quite unlike the others, that there are no answers, only questions, and that the meaning of a word is its use in the language. He would have shuddered, for example, at Waugh’s pat characterization of Hermine as “suffer[ing] from low self-esteem.” What Freudian nonsense, Ludwig would have said.

“The world of the happy is a happy world,” Ludwig wrote famously while he was serving on the eastern front in 1916. When the dying man so surprisingly told Mrs. Bevan that he had had a wonderful life, I think he meant it. He was “happy,” not in his personal life, but in that he had thought through some of the great philosophical problems as strenuously as he possibly could and had tried to judge himself as severely as he had judged others. Compare what Monk calls “the duty of genius” of this uniquely complex and conflicted but brilliant figure with his family’s overall failure (Paul is something of an exception) to turn its staggering wealth into any lasting form of accomplishment, and the house of Wittgenstein emerges as little more than a house of cards.

Marjorie Perloff is a scholar-in-residence at the University of Southern California and the author of the memoir The Vienna Paradox (New Directions, 2004).