Revisited (Lecture in the spring of 1991)
A revealing question for me now is whether I would have written the novel – if there would have been the same reason to write it - had there been a biography. No, I suspect not. But does this mean, then, that it was my aim to write essentially a fictionalized biography?
Not at all. As I saw it, being “first”, if you will, put me in prime fictional territory. By leaving most of my readers no other single authority to turn to for the truth, the book would raise a lot of difficulty. Difficulty in deciding what it was and difficulty in deciding what was true and what wasn’t.
While taking me to task for the “accountability of my sources,” one critic blunders onto this tension in the book. He writes: “It is difficult not to be distracted by the wealth of historical detail [Duffy] has incorporated to guarantee that his Wittgenstein will be confused with the real Wittgenstein.”
Ah! That liberating word confusion.
To further confuse things, I rejected the advice I was given several times, namely, to observe the wryly tactful tradition of roman a clef. I writer whom I greatly respect found my failure to do this a grievous aesthetic error. So be it. In Shakespeare’s time to write plays about Julius Caesar or Prince Hamlet was not a bothersome thing, but today it is, I’m afraid. In an era of experts and unprecedented specialization – in a time when I should say we cripple ourselves by ceding far too much to the wisdom of experts – a book like mine is bothersome, for some to the point of being disorientating. For all our self-conscious poses, for all or irony and formal sophistication, not to mention our exposure to the strategies of modernism and postmodernism, many of us like our categories straight. We are greatly bothered by confusions f fact and fiction. We are bothered by a novel that, say, in its prologue adopts the seemingly trustworthy voice of biography only to monkey with the facts: This is unsportsmanlike, like impersonating a rightful officer of the law. Be more radical and experimental! Says one camp. Be more conventional! Says the other. When they rap my knuckles, critics seem to hold out these two shining alternatives, often seemingly at the same time. But again, their advice enshrines what too many naively expect nowadays. Straight categories. Fiction as some literary substitute for the old Classic Comics. Above all, the epic, churn-‘em-out complacency of that form I almost uniformly detest – “historical fiction.” These by now are old tactics that do not trouble anyone.
While we’re at it, why didn’t I use footnotes? Believe it or not, in an early crisis with the book, my publisher’s editorial board wanted me to fill the back of the book with them. Footnotes! I hit the roof! Does a general give away his battle plans? Does the heretic recant? To me, footnotes would have been a profound aesthetic error, not to mention an act of cowardice. Happily, though, I convinced my wonderful editor, and as a compromise, I added the preface.
But the came another crisis. Apparently a fact-checking copy editor called my editor almost in tears, exasperated to find pages covered with truths and errors . . . and, yes, even the troublesome king of France. What a mess. Much like life, mais oui?
Look, I hope this doesn’t all sound too pat. For an author to say he always knew exactly what he was doing – now that’s a real fiction.
Of course I got it wrong. Still, some people feel that I got an uncanny amount right, an impression that frankly surprises me when I realize in many cases how little I knew and how much I made up. David Pinsent’s diaries. Wittgenstein’s father’s letters, and most of Wittgenstein’s letters, too. Wittgenstein’s family –his sisters, brothers, his father. Wittgenstein’s friend Max and the entire World War I sequence. All this and more I made up. In fact, writing the book has taught me this: No one knows, not even those who knew Wittgenstein. Maybe especially those who knew Wittgenstein. . .
I don’t scorn the truth- or the biographer’s art. I respect the biographer’s great tact and judgment, probity and intuition. But, you see, my instincts are radically different: They tell me to mix up, forget, bury and burn – to recombine and fuse disparate elements in perhaps was a more confused and deliberately irresponsible attempt to create a kind of universal life. By ‘universal life,” I man a life that finally goes beyond its seeming subjects. For me, you see, this is not finally a book “about” Wittgenstein or philosophers, but rather a creation story examining the very forms of like in this world as I found it. That is, the world that all of us have found – the world we found and doubtless will find again only in more disguised forms, as we end this dark century and begin the next.
. . . . .
Russell found himself beset by all sorts of crazy and not-so-crazy fears. The sensational premise of his article “Are Parents Bad for Children?” seemed almost diabolically prescient now. Late at night like this, especially when he was working, , it was sometimes painfully clear what would happen with Dora and the children. He could see it all very mathematically, as if their predicament were a sprawling and unwieldy theorem based on an immutable logic that only he was cold and abstruse enough to see. Still, the truth came to him slowly now. He was well past the age of being thunderstruck, or even wanting calamitous moments of vision. Rather, Russell now saw the truth by degrees, the light trickling down like dust motes in the general disarray. The dust might be brushed away or tidied, but it was always accumulating. . .”