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.

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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism