Authors: Bruce Duffy
Tags: #Historical, #Philosophy
BRUCE DUFFY is the author of the autobiographical novel
Last Comes the Egg
(1997), andâto appear June 2011â
Disaster Was My God
, a novel based on the life and work of the poet Arthur Rimbaud. An only child raised in a Catholic middle-class family in suburban Maryland, Duffy sees the 1962 death of his motherâessentially by medical malpracticeâas what pushed him to be a writer. Duffy graduated from the University of Maryland in 1973, and has hitchhiked twice across the United States, worked construction, washed dishes, hopped freight trains with hoboes, and reported stories that have taken him to Haiti, Bosnia, and Taliban Afghanistan. Today he lives just outside Washington, D.C., works as a speechwriter, is married to a psychotherapist, and has two grown daughters and a stepson. Writing in
, Joyce Carol Oates named
The World As I Found It
as one of “five great nonfiction novels,” calling it “one of the most ambitious first novels ever published.” A former Guggenheim fellow, Duffy has won the Whiting Writers' Award and a Lila WallaceâReader's Digest Award.
DAVID LEAVITT's books include
The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer
and the novel
The Indian Clerk
, a finalist for both the PEN/Faulkner Prize and the IMPAC/Dublin Literary Award. He co-directs the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Florida.
THE WORLD AS I FOUND IT
NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS
's magisterial 1987 novel,
The World As I Found It
, belongs to a genre that might best be describedâprecisely if not elegantlyâas “fiction about real people”: in this case, the philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, and G. E. Moore. At the time of its publication some readers considered the book scandalously presumptuous, an instance of the novelist arrogating to himself rights that ought to be reserved for the historian: in Duffy's own words, “fiction as some literary substitute for the old Classic Comics.” If it affronted purists, however,
The World As I Found It
, in its very recklessness and invention and brio, enthralled readers of literature, most of whom knew little and cared less about its protagonists. Not only that, it was one of those novels that, to paraphrase Amy Hempel, “made other novels possible,” among them Joanna Scott's
(1990, about the Viennese secessionist painter Egon Schiele), Pat Barker's
(1991, about the poet Siegfried Sassoon), and Penelope Fitzgerald's
The Blue Flower
(1995, about the German romantic poet Novalis), all of which came out over the course of the next ten years. In these novels, real characters mingle with imagined ones. Letters that were never written are cited, as are diaries that were never kept. Most boldly, history is reshaped to suit the novel's exigencies, whereas usually the opposite is true. “In Shakespeare's time,” Duffy observed in a lecture given at the John Adams Institute in Amsterdam in 1991, “to write plays about Julius Caesar or Prince Hamlet was not a bothersome thing, but today it is, I'm afraid. In an era of experts and unprecedented specializationâin a time when I should say we cripple ourselves by ceding far too much to the wisdom of expertsâa book like mine is bothersome, for some to the point of being disorienting.” Disorienting perhaps, but also exhilarating, like flying a loop-the-loop.
The World As I Found It
opens in the late forties, in a Cambridge movie theater to which Wittgenstein has gone with a young friend to a screening of
. A conversation about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers leads, as such conversations will, to the redoubtable Mickey Mouse, whom Wittgenstein thinks “entirely creditable and charming.”
Also the duck. I very much like the duck. A
, as the Americans say.
Donald Duck, you say?
No, noâa quick up-down look, amazed that a young man could be so removed as not to know this. Not Donaldâ
But then the philosopher wondered if the young man was instead making a veiled philosophical point about the indeed curious fact that these two excitable ducks spoke with sputtering lisps.
To Wittgenstein, the coincidence is so unaccountable as to merit interrogation:
But don't you think it curious, he probed, pressing the obscure young man to make his point. I mean that neither of these ducks can speak
. Assuming we could even
a duck who could speak. But
The scene is a testament to Duffy's seductive talents: easing us into Wittgenstein's nautilus-shaped mind by way of cartoons, he presents his storytelling credentials (this really
be a novel) even as he illustrates the extent to which Wittgensteinâa philosopher whose name is now synonymous with difficultyâwas in fact
down to earth
. Most important, he provides an early clue to Wittgenstein's nature: like “the duck,” this is a man whose every utterance is marked, even marred, by the sheer effort that utterance requires. The desire to say things exactly warps the act of saying. Nor is it a coincidence that the lisp is a trademark of the mincing homosexual, a type from which Wittgenstein, though homosexual himself (remember the “young friend”), diverges at least outwardly.
In his writings, Wittgenstein labored over the relationship between language and the things that language representsâoften quite ordinary things. (“Don't treat your common sense like an umbrella,” he is reputed to have told the students, among them Alan Turing, who participated in his 1939 Cambridge seminar on the Foundations of Mathematics. “When you come into a room to philosophize, don't leave it outside but bring it in with you.”) Wallpaper hangers, soldiers, white lions, and collapsing bridges made regular appearances in this seminar, as did Mary and her Little Lamb and the famous Cretan's paradox, by means of which Wittgenstein's mentor, Bertrand Russell, had in 1903 undone the efforts of the German mathematician Gottlob Frege to establish a secure foundation for mathematical inquiry. Here as elsewhere in the novel, Duffy eschews exegesis in favor of a
: now we are sitting on a beach and Russell is trying to explain the letter by which he famously devastated Frege to his lover Ottoline Morrell.
Wait, protested Ottoline dizzily. Please, you mustn't run on like this. You must go more slowly.
No, noâAlready he was gesturing. Really, it's not that hard to see. It goes back to our Cretanâthe one who called all Cretans liars. Consider: if what the Cretan says is true, then he's a liar and his statement is false. If what he says is a lie, on the other hand, then he's telling the truth while at the same time lying. The same principle applies to the contradiction in Frege's mathematics.
Ottoline sat there, closing her eyes. I feel so stupid, so miserably stupid.
Don't, he said, smoothing her arm. Consider it another way. You can say a man is part of the class of men. But the
of men is not itself a
She blinked. Rightâ¦
By incorporating Russell's efforts to explain himself into dialogue, Duffy allows the reader to take the part of the bewildered Ottoline, for whom Russell's exposure of the kink in Frege's logic is far less troublesome than his obliviousness to its possible effects on Frege's psyche.
But how vile of you! Ottoline jumped up and stared at him. First you praise the poor man, then you tell him that his work was all wrong?
wrong. But very much eroded by this paradoxâat least with regard to the theory of classes.
Ottoline continued staring at him. But didn't you feel dreadful, ruining his work like that?
Russell was at something of a loss. Well, I wouldn't say
. But, yes, I suppose I felt sorry, somewhat.
“Russell's Contradiction,” as it came to be known, provides Duffy with a chance to examine the contradiction that was Russell: a putative advocate of free love ultimately outmaneuvered by his own possessiveness; an enemy of class ultimately straitjacketed by his aristocratic origins; an idealist ultimately defeated by the refusal of the larger world to conform to his plans for its reconstruction. Russell is at once the novel's most vigorous and most tragic character, doomed early on by what his colleague G.E. Moore recognizes as an excessive hunger for public adulation. For Moore, Russell is “saddled with ambition,” just as for Russell, Moore is hobbled by his “legendary lack of vanity.” Many of their clashes are over Wittgenstein, of whom Moore casually observes: “Wittgenstein is cleverer. More profound as well, I expect. I don't mind about it.” But Russell does mind about it, just as he minds that Moore, in asserting Wittgenstein's superiority to himself, also implies his superiority to Russell.
It is to Wittgenstein's sexual, religious, and philosophical evolution that Duffy devotes the bulk of
The World As I Found It
. We see him as a child coming of age in the Palais Wittgenstein in Vienna, a hugely elegant circus tent of a mansion in which his father, the steel magnate Karl Wittgenstein, orders his children onto the high wire of intellectual rigor for his own amusement. By turns charming, hectoring, and vindictive, Wittgenstein pÃ¨re is among the most compelling and terrifying fathers I have ever encountered in literature. So elemental is his force of will that the reader is not the least surprised to learn that two of his older sons have already committed suicide and that his spirited daughter Gretl is in psychoanalysis with Freud. Then there is Kurt, written off as intellectually deficient simply because he is not quite as brilliant as his siblings, and Mining, assigned the unenviable role of the daughter who stays at home to look after her father (a role she embraces with self-pitying avidity). Rounding off this extraordinary clan is Paul, piano prodigy and cold fish: ironically he will come into his own only after he loses his right arm in the war. (It was as a commission for Paul that Ravel composed his justly famous Concerto for the Left Hand.)
Incidentally, Duffy is
one of those writers who stage cerebral meals at which no notice is taken of what people are eating, and some of his most virtuosic set pieces are about food. Here, for instance, is dinner at the Trinity High Table.
McTaggart â¦ ate like a true dialectician. Taking a portion, he would halve it, then halve it again, eating the quarter of the first part, then a quarter of the second, which he then halved again before moving on to another portion, halving and halving to the point that he never finished anything.
Among other eaters in evidence, there was also the old historian McDougal, a leveling reductionist long due for pasture, who mixed the all with the allâcarrots, meat, and cauliflowerâmaking of it an unholy mush of meaning. Then, far down from him, there was Cecil Goodheart, stoic, classicist, and xenophobe, for whom all had to be separate, like air, earth and fire, with each food group, and even its juices, free of the contagion of the other.
Most dramatic is Moore; watching him eat, Russell reflects that for better or worse he himself will never to be able to muster “that love of quotidian, bland or even marginal food that is the mark of the truly stouthearted eater.”