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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