Thursday, April 12, 2012

Wittgenstein Forever

Wittgenstein is an extremely camp film. It may even be the most flamboyant film Michael Gough starred in, which says a lot for a man who featured in Joel Schumacher's Batman & Robin. The sets on Wittgenstein are awash with colour and frill, John Maynard Keynes walks around dressed like the Joker, with Bertrand Russell donning a dickie-bow and what basically amounts to a red cape.

But then there's Ludwig Wittgenstein himself, wearing the same bland clothes the entire film and the same frustrated expression on his face, be he teaching philosophy to a child  in a rural school, giving a lecture in Cambridge, or applying for manual labour in the Soviet Union. It is the frustration of a man who does not fit in with the world that he wants to fit in with. He is too complex for the philosophy circles of his time, too skilled to be a manual labourer, and too homosexual to be truthful about his private life. In all these things he lives a life what goes against the grain of what seems natural to him, namely that manual labour is the kind of thing that people ought to do, that philosophy is a simple task without any inherent problems to solve, and that there is nothing hidden - everything is public.

I had no idea what to expect from the film, which is really more a play shot with a camera. The original screenplay was written by Terry Eagleton, which is what made me watch the film in the first place. And you know what - I'm glad I did. It's far from perfect, but like that far-from-perfect Bonhoeffer movie I watched last summer, the central character is interesting enough to keep you engaged. Wittgenstein was a genius who aimed to change the nature of philosophy, uprooting it from its origins in the lonely self with his private sensations and moving it to the public sphere of culture and our "shared practical life together". He may well have succeeded, and this a man who never even read Aristotle.

Finally, the film contains some classic Wittgensteinian moments, one of which is the following dialogue with a student:

Wittgenstein: Tell me, why does it seem more natural for people to believe that the sun goes around the earth, rather than the other way 'round? 
Student: Well obviously because it looks that way. 
Wittgenstein: And how would it look if the earth went around the sun?

In the same way, it may be more natural to see in this picture a duck, but what would the picture have to look like for us to see a rabbit?

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