Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Romano, Carlin. "An Author's Favorite Wittgenstein." CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION April 24, 2009.

Waugh, Alexander. The House of Wittgenstein: a Family at War. London: Bloomsbury, 2008. Who cares about Kant's eight siblings, or Kierkegaard's six, even if the early death of five of the latter helped trigger what we now call Kierkegaardian gloom? Doesn't the singular fame and importance of a cultural immortal rightly eclipse our interest in family members, unless they deserve attention on their own merits? Aren't such icons usually rebels anyway, honoring their families mainly by breaching their traditions and beliefs? Think back to the most discouraging experience a serious reader ever faces — starting one of those huge, putatively definitive biographies about a genius in the arts or politics. Publishing folk used to call them "Blotner bios," after a kitchen-sink effort on Faulkner, but the term has faded. You wade at the beginning through generations of Faulknerian mammies and pappies, grandmammies and grandpappies, greatand not-so-great uncles and aunts, on the theory that they significantly influenced the subject of the biography and should affect our understanding of his or her life. By Page 130, you find yourself praying for the birth of the book's subject as a Tibetan might pray for the next Dalai Lama. Happily, we're occasionally spared those doorstops, as with ancient notables. It's tough enough providing decent sketches of Plato's or Aristotle's actual lives, given our fragmentary evidence for much of the classical past. With an ancient luminary, it's simply impossible for an obsessive biographer to ramble on for scores of pages about whether Plato's allegory of the cave involved unrequited feelings for his grandmother. Of course, we can all think of exceptions to antifamily bias in intellectual biography. In the United States, we have the James gang — William, Henry, and Alice — who attract a new biographer about as often as Slavoj Zizek publishes a new book. They, at least, boast consequential, independent careers and a fascination and intimacy with one another that warrants exploration. But aren't most excessive voyages into the undiscovered country of a great figure's family simply a data dump by the author, or a showing off of exclusive material? Alexander Waugh's The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War (Doubleday) stirs such thoughts for multiple reasons. . . . Read the rest here:

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