Thereof one must not be silent

Derek Jarman's "Wittgenstein" is a poignant call to arms.

Last Friday, Tate Modern hosted a screening of Derek Jarman's 1993 film Wittgenstein. The screening was a collaboration between the New Statesman and Verso Books, which is celebrating its 40th birthday. It was part of a series entitled "In Defense of Philosophy".

Jarman's film is a humorous, often touching and visually brilliant portrait of the Austrian-born philosopher. The film came to be made after Tariq Ali was approached by Channel 4 to produce a series called "The Philosophers". Ali proposed four programmes. Of these, three were eventually made: on Spinoza (with a script written by Ali himself), Locke and Wittgenstein. For the Wittgenstein film, Ali commissioned Terry Eagleton to write the script that would eventually be filmed by Jarman.

During a question-and-answer session with the NS culture editor Jonathan Derbyshire after the screening, Ali suggested that the overarching vision for the series had been "to stimulate people and get them thinking about philosophy" -- an admirable ambition, given recent debates surrounding the future of higher education funding. Ali also wanted viewers to understand the milieux in which these philosophers lived and how they were shaped by them. For Jarman's Wittgenstein, this was Vienna and then Cambridge, where Wittgenstein moved in 1911 to study with Bertrand Russell. The filming took place over a period of two weeks with an initial budget of just £200,000.

The film brings the different strands of Wittgenstein's personality to life very successfully -- no easy task when you remember that Wittgenstein was an aeronautical engineer, gardener, ascetic, provincial teacher, social hermit, westerns aficianado, soldier, architect and hospital porter, as well as the philosophical genius history has remembered him as. Jarman elegantly charts the evolution of Wittgenstein's philosophy from his earlier attempts to create a picture theory of language -- in which words are pictures of a possible reality -- through to his latter concern with how language is actually used and how it works. Here, as Wittgenstein was keen to stress, he was not advancing "any kind of theory" (Philosophical Investigations). Rather, his writing serves more as a call to wean oneself off the problems of philosophy (what is the nature of time? Does God exist? What is knowledge? etc) and to appreciate that "everything lies open to view [and that] there is nothing to be explained".

This has led many to characterise Wittgenstein's views, incorrectly, as those of an anti-philosopher, a point the film makes very well. In fact, they were anything but. As Wittgenstein wrote in the Philosophical Investigations, the point is to realise that philosophical problems are solved

. . . by looking into the workings of our language and that in such a way as to make us recognise those workings: in spite of an urge to misunderstand them.

It was said that Wittgenstein was so persuasive and iconoclastic that impressionable Cambridge students would mimic his mannerisms: hitting his forehead when battling with an intractable grammatical problem or shouting at others when they expressed an inability to understand his latest gnomic utterance. Indeed, the style of his writing -- sparse, to the point and layered with aphorisms -- becomes incredibly infectious. It's hard to read Wittgenstein and move on.

One of the major challenges of bringing philosophy from the page to the big screen is the perennial temptation of the inconsequential anecdote. It is perfectly legitimate, for instance, to wonder whether it really matters if a philosopher struggled with homosexual urges or that three of his siblings committed suicide. Why would knowing either of these things aid our understanding of his work?

I can't settle that question here but one of the great strengths of Jarman's Wittgenstein is its ability to capture the uncompromising fervour with which he approached his work and indeed many other aspects of his life. Wittgenstein once wrote: "Wisdom is cold and to that extent stupid. (Faith on the other hand is a passion)." Norman Malcolm, who attended some of his lectures, once wrote of Wittgenstein:

He told me once that he had tried to lecture from notes but was disgusted with the result; the thoughts that came out were "stale" or, as he put it to another friend, the words looked like "corpses" when he began to read them.

The aesthetic brilliance of the film -- with its striking use of primary colours and inventive visual metaphor -- is great testament to Jarman's energy. Ali recalled that the director would arrive on set without fail at 7am everyday, despite serious illness and encroaching blindness, and stay until 9pm.

With a little artistic licence, the film condenses some of the more well-known stories about Wittgenstein: Keynes meeting "God" on the 5.15 train; his conversations with Elizabeth Anscombe, later his literary executor, about what the earth would look like if it moved round the sun; his intention to commit suicide when a passer-by gave him the "V" sign; and the hilarious sight of Russell arguing with Wittgenstein when he refuses to admit there is not a rhinoceros under the table (a hippopotamus in the actual account). And the character "Johnny" (played by Kevin Collins) serves as a conflation of Wittgenstein's love for David Pinsent and Francis Skinner, who died tragically early in life -- an event that deeply affected the philosopher.

Notwithstanding all that, Terry Eagleton was critical of the film and what was done to his script. He has written, for instance, that:

I shall omit the usual self-regarding narrative of how my screenplay was ripped to shreds by the director. Suffice it to say that at one point my agent instructed me to remove my name from the credits, whereupon the British Film Institute took fright and persuaded me to keep it on.

To be sure: Wittgenstein was never going to please everyone. As Ali himself suggested, the green, Martian interlocutor will be an insuperable obstacle for some viewers. The film also overlooks Wittgenstein's time in Galway and his years as an aeronautical engineer in Manchester -- perhaps not as glamourous as the time spent in Cambridge or Vienna but formative nonetheless. Still, the film is both warm and witty. The dying Wittgenstein tells John Maynard Keynes (played by John Quentin): "I'd quite like to have composed a philosophical work that consisted only of jokes." "Why didn't you do it?" Keynes asks. Wittgenstein replies: "Sadly, I had no sense of humour."

Lord Browne's recent proposal to cut the teaching grant distributed to English universities by £3.2bn, with a 100 per cent reduction for the arts, humanities and social sciences, represents a serious assault on philosophy in Britain. As Peter Wilby has suggested, Browne's review expresses the "grimly utilitarian attitude" that only medicine, science, technology and some foreign languages are worthy of subsidy. One thinks about the future of philosophy with trepidation. Wittgenstein's fervour and intensity, so wonderfully captured by Karl Johnson in Jarman's film, is a reminder to us all that philosophy matters.

 

You can follow Rob Higson on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear