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.


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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era