Tuesday, September 2, 2014

From a file folder

A Meeting with Ludwig Wittgenstein

E. George Wilson

I recall was great fondness and a measure of sadness my meeting with Herr Wittgenstein. One spring afternoon I was in my rooms reading for my exams when I heard a noise in a nearby tree. Curious, I rose from my chair, looked out the window, and beheld a preternaturally young-looking man descending from the boughs in a brisk no-nonsense fashion. I hurried outside to inquire of him as to the meaning of his action and was in turn asked, ‘What do you mean by “meaning”?’ I found myself unable to answer and straightaway admitted the foolishness of my question. Wittgenstein laughed (I had the curious feeling that he was laughing both with me and at me), presented me with a dish mop, and asked in a low tone if I would care to take in a ‘flick’ with him that evening. I realized at once that I was in the presence of the finest philosophical mind of the twentieth century.

The years dim my memory, and with the passing of time I find I have only faint recall of the film itself (I remember only a darkish woman with citrus fruits arranged on her head), but I can still vividly picture Wittgenstein as I called for him in his rooms. Upon my knock, he removed the door from its hinges and set it against the wall. ‘This,’ he smiled, ‘illustrates the method of philosophy.’ His rooms bespoke a spartan nature, utterly devoid of a desire for useless ornament. A paint-by-the-numbers set, later to prove of inestimable value in his work on color, rested on the one table; a toy duck and rabbit and several dish mops sat in an open safe. I noticed that his rooms contained not one of what I, in my greenness, thought of as philosophical works; the one bookcase held three or four comic books, a monograph on toothache, and the piece of string that served as the model for several of the amusing diagrams contained in his works. The only other objects visible were a small bottle and the number of dead flies.

I was by this point frankly in awe, and Wittgenstein’s conversation during our walk to the cinema served only to confirm me in my feeling. ‘We say that penguins have no conception of time,’ he observed, ‘but then why do we say of a particular penguin that he’s always late for his dental appointments?’ I confessed that I could not explain the contradiction. The talk continued in this matter, with Wittgenstein posing questions that left me unable to respond. There was a brief interlude during which he busied himself looking for a particular grouping of trees that formed, he said, the ‘big W.’ I jested that, my name being Wilson, I should like to contest his claim to such a group of trees. Wittgenstein smiled and asked me another question.

After the flick we were both feeling famished, and Wittgenstein suggested that we visit a small restaurant noted for its cold pork pies. I almost wish I had not agreed to this plan, for it was to give me a glimpse of the dark forces the tormented this brilliant soul. After we had consumed our pies, Wittgenstein called for the waiter and calmly announced that he had no money to pay the bill. ‘But Herr Wittgenstein,’ I exclaimed, ‘I would be only too glad to pay for our pies!’ ‘I would not hear of it,’ he said seriously, and proposed to the waiter that he might wash dishes as a means of paying for our meal. The manager was consulted and the proposal accepted. Wittgenstein rose from his chair, extracted a dish mop from his coat pocket, and walked off in the direction of the kitchen.

Thus ended my meeting with Ludwig Wittgenstein. Holding my gift mop in my hands, I have wrestled with my conscience for many an hour, debating whether I should disclose my knowledge of his dishwashing mania. Since no member of the Wittgenstein circle has come forward, I find it my duty to make my experience public. I can only hope that my honesty will prompt others to follow my example. At this point we need not fear for Wittgenstein’s reputation: his place in the realm of philosophy is secure; his light shines with ever increasing brightness in these dark times.

[Found recently in a file folder. I wrote this piece as a graduate student in 1983. Norman Malcolm’s Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir (1958) was my inspiration. Yes, I was deeply under Wittgenstein’s spell. The imaginary “E. George Wilson” was of course British, as his diction and punctuation should suggest.]

Related reading
Other OCA Wittgenstein posts (Pinboard)

comments: 4

Rachel said...

This is awesome. And Happy Birthday!

Michael Leddy said...

Thank you, Rachel!

Seth Raab said...

This is great! And happy birthday from me, too!

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks, Seth!