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A dramatization, in modern theatrical style, of the life and thought of the Viennese-born, Cambridge-educated philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), whose principal interest was the nature and limits of language. A series of sketches depict the unfolding of his life from boyhood, through the era of the first World War, to his eventual Cambridge professorship and association with Bertrand Russell and John Maynard Keynes. The emphasis in these sketches is on the exposition of the ideas of Wittgenstein, a homosexual, and an intuitive, moody, proud, and perfectionistic thinker generally regarded as a genius. Written by
This is the type of biography where the protagonist (as a child) introduces his family to the camera and they proceed one by one to climb a stage and gather around a piano. It is theatric, sparse, with often a few props arranged on an empty dark stage: Wittgenstein in bed with his lover, arguments around a table, a blackboard with a few chairs around it where he taught.
I came to it after a series of film viewings on celebrated thinkers: Socrates, Augustine, Pascal, Descartes. All done by the same maker, Rossellini, they featured more or less adequate exposition of thought against sober tapestries of history. By contrast here we have bare snippets of the thought, no scenery and only a vague history: the man in soldier's costume alone enacting a WWI trench etc. It's called surreal; more apt to simply call it unusual, eccentric.
What was missing from that series I felt was an inclusion of someone more recent and preferably from our own century. Fittingly the only one I found was on Wittgenstein who would have been my own choice as well. Incidentally Wittgenstein fits better than any other with what was delineated in the other project starting with Socrates: drawing limits to reason as what can be reasonably said, embodying what's on the other side.
His disdain for philosophical noodling (seen in the desire for a concrete logic), refusal to bother with an academic knowledge of Aristotle and view that philosophy only creates muddles of thought, in all these he can be seen to be in line with Socrates, right down to the quest for a rigorous moral life.
His algebraic formulations of logic have disappeared along with that whole school that depended on them for a mechanics of truth, what still seduces is this: the notion that we can strive to speak clearly about the things we can, and more deeply something on the other side of that ('of which we must remain silent') opens itself to us. His project was perhaps obscure in details, a bore; but so amazingly attractive in its large span.
And he does deserve a better film than this; not because this one is eccentric by convention rather because the craft is too simple.
It's not the fact that homosexuality is so central as many users complain either; it is, but the filmmaker resists implying this wholly explains the man; it softens him if anything as someone who seeks his lover's hand in a dark theater, but it's not said to be the real cause of tension, that remains the quest for a life of clarity.
We do get only a rough sketch of the thought; but I urge you to bother with the film on Descartes I mention above, three times the length and full of lengthy dissertation, and you'll see no more than a sketch there either. It's after all the sketch of Wittgenstein's thought that seduces; it's a clear picture. So it's not that either.
No for me the real issue is that the cinematic medium offers a richer language (the richest one we know next to personal experience) to lightly sketch the air of those things of which logic can remain silent; love, doubt, being, all this wonderful ambiguity that opens to us. The man's project is the ideal opportunity for such examination.
(In other words it's not a fault for me that we learn too little about the real Wittgenstein to be able to explain him, or too little of his words to know the thought and only barely enough; Wittgenstein would probably balk at the thought that knowing more would explain a real him. But that we miss the richly layered picture that constitutes any life.)
The film ends with a powerful (deathbed) admission about exactly this; the world that our modern mind, logical, obsessed with knowing, attempts to freeze into sparkling ice, but take a step onto the ice and you land on your back, there's no friction; no the real world where you can go places must be embraced with all its ambiguous friction.
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