Ray Monk: Biographer For a New Age of Anxiety

In the lives of Wittgenstein, Russell and Oppenheimer, the British author sees a different way of looking for the truth

Opinion | Dardis McNamee | June 2013

"The one I feel closest to intellectually and emotionally is Wittgenstein" (Photo: Matthias Wurz)

"He was difficult," philosopher Ray Monk told me, as we sat over coffee at Café Landtmann talking about Ludwig Wittgenstein. "He knew how to please people – he grew up with impeccable manners – but he felt it was incompatible with the kind of person he wanted to be.  So later in life, he was often obnoxiously rude!"

It was Monk’s first time back in Vienna since the 1990 publication of his acclaimed biography, Ludwig Wittgenstein: the Duty of Genius.  Completed when he was only 33, the book had changed Monk’s life, launching a successful career as an academic and biographer of intellectuals.

Although you have to be careful with the dreaded word "academic" around Monk, who considers it close to an insult. "If you’re an academic philosopher, you’re expected to make it look like science," he told me in frustration, "to show what new ‘outcomes’ – we use that phrase in British academic life all the time – what ‘outcomes’ your work can be expected to produce. But if you’re a Wittgensteinian philosopher, then it’s all pretence."

So Monk has focussed his career on teaching – "I love being with the students" – and writing biographies – "the meeting places between an individual’s personality and their ideas" in the context of culture and history, a different way of going about looking for the truth. He has produced two others since, one on Wittgenstein’s mentor Bertrand Russell, and the newly released Inside the Centre, the Life of J. Robert Oppenheimer [see Book Review Inside the Centre]. The Oppenheimer book took the longest – 11 years and 264 boxes in the Library of Congress. But it’s done, and Monk was clearly relieved. Now he can get back to Wittgenstein, and will be contributing a volume for the Writers on Writers series at Princeton University Press.


Closest to Wittgenstein

"Of the three, the one I feel closest to intellectually and emotionally is Wittgenstein," he told a rapt audience at the Loos Haus May 22, where he was giving a talk on "Wittgenstein in Cambridge", along with a generous dose of what came before and after. It was the highpoint of an unusual and fascinating series of lectures with music entitled "Craft and Culture", on modernism in early 20th century Vienna, focusing on the architect Alfred Loos, the philosopher Wittgenstein, and the composer Arnold Schoenberg, with related selections performed by musicians from the Vienna Philharmonic.

Monk’s lecture was a tour de force and the crowd loved it.

"That was the most sustained applause I’ve ever had, actually," Monk said, which I didn’t really believe. He is a disarmingly modest man.

Monk had narrated Wittgenstein’s saga from the Red Salon of the family Palais– the world of Ludwig’s childhood when Brahms played chamber music and Klimt painted his sister’s portrait – to his parting words on his death bed: "Tell them I had a wonderful life." And along the way we were shown his struggles to become himself.  After his training as an engineer in Manchester, he arrived at Cambridge where, "not applying, like you or me, he just shows up", and presented himself to a perplexed Bertrand Russell.

Monk’s eyes lit up as he launched into the story. "Russell didn’t know what to make of him: ‘My German engineer, I think, is a fool,’ Russell wrote in a letter to Ottoline Morrell. ‘He thinks nothing empirical is knowable – I asked him to admit that there was not a rhinoceros in the room, but he wouldn’t.’ "

And on Monk went, weaving bits of Wittgenstein’s core ideas ("The world is everything that is the case.") in with telling vignettes of his life, signing on with Russell, getting involved with the Bloomsbury crowd, about his defining friendship with classmate David Pinsent, and over all, his growing intensity as a thinker.

By 1912, Russell had told Wittgenstein’s sister Hermine that he expected "the next big steps in philosophy" to come from her brother, while Ludwig himself was worrying that he might die, before he got anything on paper.

It was this intensity that had first appealed to Ray Monk: "I was a 6th former and had an English teacher who was very interested in philosophy; he talked to me about Wittgenstein and I read Norman Malcolm’s memoir and found the character described just bewitching and fascinating."

At which point, the warm Apfelstrudel mit Vanillesause arrived, apparently fresh from the oven. He took a bite.

"Oh!" He laughed. "Oh, that’s yummy!" And we paused to discuss the thinly-sliced braised sour apple and raisin compote, the paper-thin pastry and the heavenly vanilla sauce that you could probably smell halfway to the Rathaus...


A very Viennese voice

"The first thing that strikes you when you read Wittgenstein is that he doesn’t write like the other analytic philosophers," Monk said. "It’s a very different style and tone: as often as you’ll find an argument, you’ll find a witty turn of phrase or an inventive metaphor or a piece of sarcasm…" (‘Logic takes care of itself; all we have to do is to look and see how it does it.’)

"More than any philosopher – the exception is Nietzsche, with Wittgenstein you have to be alert to catching the tone."

Wittgenstein’s writing was a mixture of argument, sarcasm, analogy and wit that was quintessentially Viennese, inspired, as were so many, by the journalist and playwright Karl Kraus, whose elegant and biting social criticism in his journal Der Fackel (The Torch) had an enormous influence on Viennese thought over the two salient decades from 1899 to 1919.

It was something the cosmopolitan Russell, who spoke German, French and Italian, as well as knowing ancient Greek and Latin, could grasp, but which would have been alien to many of his colleagues in the Cambridge University of that time.

"Most analytic philosophy is written in a straightforwardly earnest tone," Monk went on, "You don’t have to worry about someone being sarcastic, or asking a rhetorical question, or making a point with an allusion or a metaphor." (‘A philosopher handles a question as if it were a disease.’) "But Wittgenstein’s writing is dense with literary devices."

Our conversation wandered on through other pressing issues like Monty Python and Princeton campus architecture, which Russell had found "full of new Gothic, and ... as like Oxford as monkeys can make it." And on to the 100th anniversary of 1913.

"In the U.K. people think of the summer of 1913 as a golden summer that we all look back to, as the start of [everything that followed]. But over and above that, I think about Vienna: The things that had their birth in Vienna at the end of the 19th century, at the beginning of the 20th century went on to form ripples throughout the whole of Europe," Monk said. Freud, Schnitzler, Loos, the Secession, Schoenberg’s a-tonal music, and many, many more.

"To understand the history of European culture for the last hundred years is to understand the impact of Vienna."

Public acclaim can be an elusive thing and reputations come and go. Enormously famous in his lifetime as a writer and philosopher, but also as a moral voice in society, Bertrand Russell’s name no longer commands the admiration, or even the recognition, it once did.


Philosopher for an age of Angst

With Wittgenstein, it’s a different story. While the professional interest in his work probably peaked in the 1960s and is now "massively on the wane", in the rest of the world, "outside of philosophy, it’s growing all the time," Monk said, particularly in "adjacent" academic disciplines, like politics, economics or sociology. Among artists, musicians, poets, playwrights and screenwriters – new work is popping up all the time.

But perhaps most telling is the interest among the general public.

"In an age of uncertainty, an age of angst, someone who’s wrestling with his own demons and trying to improve himself somehow chimes more with us," Monk suggested.

The heroes of the previous generation in Britain were people like Russell or H.G. Wells. "These were people who gave them liberating ideas and I think they had a conviction that those ideas were right. But I think now we live in a time where we’re a bit suspicious of anybody who has those kind of convictions.

We just don’t want those kind of intellectual heroes anymore. We are more drawn towards people who find everything puzzling and problematic. And I think that’s true also of the arts, because the arts tend to reflect where we are temperamentally, emotionally, intellectually.

So the kind of angst-driven uncertainty that characterises our ordinary way of life also characterises our art and our music and our literature. And so the same forces are at work in what we are finding in Wittgenstein, a congenial personality, a personality that one can relate to."

Other articles from this issue