Tuesday, November 9, 2010

NYRB Challenge # 46: Three Philosophers Walk Into a Room. . .

This is the longest it's taken me to finish an NYRB Classic for this challenge.  The World As I Found It by Bruce Duffy is a big book with small type. It also deals with complex philosophical ideas, much of which I had to read slowly and mull over.  In short it's a book partly about how people think  - about the world and their place in it - a complicated challenge to convey in prose. Still, I'm glad I persevered right to the end because the novel was also a poignant and fascinating look at three powerful and influential personalities living through turbulent times.

Firstly there's G.E. Moore, a philosopher whose ideas influenced many of the Bloomsbury set including Lytton Strachey, and who is touchingly portrayed as a rather sweet, confirmed old bachelor who unexpectedly finds happiness in a late marriage and fatherhood. Then there's the imposing, self-conscious and egotistic Bertrand Russell, forever obsessing about his love life and constantly insecure about his work which nevertheless brought him fame, if not fortune.  At the start of the novel he's involved in an uncomfortable affair with Ottoline Morrell, the society woman whose house at Garsington served as a salon for many famous writers and artists. Towards the end, he's running his own experimental school and watching his wife about to give birth to another man's child. There are many romantic entanglements inbetween. Into their academic - and personal lives - comes the brilliant yet troubled Ludwig Wittgenstein, who alternatively drives the other two crazy with his curt dismissals of their ideas, and fascinates them with the intensity and genius of his own.  His life story is the most strange and tragic.  He was the son of a rich but tyrannical father, and later on denounced all claims to his family's substantial fortune. His two elder brothers committed suicide, acts that continued to torment him throughout his life as does the guilt he felt over his sexuality. And then there's his obsession with discovering and perfecting the logic behind the language of philosophy and developing a philosophy of language.

It all sounds quite cerebral and deep, and parts of it certainly are.  But Duffy's writing about ideas is balanced by an energetic and detailed narrative prose that is quite engaging. He is equally good at describing with mischievous relish the eating habits of Cambridge dons, and then vividly portraying the horrors of the Eastern Front during the First World War several chapters later. Still, this won't be a book for everyone, although if you do like novels that fictionalize the lives of writers and historical figures, or enjoy reading about Bloomsbury and the cultural mood of these years, do give this a try. I'll admit a lot of the philosophy went over my head though, and I found myself nodding in agreement when I got to this passage:
Ethics was such a misery, thought Wittgenstein. Words were so slippery, and metaphors were all the more so, being instructive in almost equal measure to their power to distort. And in the end, words only evaded: our words could not justify, and further words and actions only muddied our questionable original intentions like a picture that has been too often erased and revised.  No, thought Wittgenstein, good or evil (if those were quite the words) were not to be broken down like salt in a crucible to get at the truth - it was a hollow nugget that clinked into the alchemist's dish. Somewhere, in the process, the spirit escaped.
Duffy's next novel, set for 2011 will be a fictionalized account of the life of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. For a shorter (though still head-shaking account) of some of Bertrand Russell's ideas, try the graphic novel Logicomix by Apostolos Doxiadis et al.

No comments: