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      home : book reviews : The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus

The Jew of Linz
Kimberley Cornish

The Jew of Linz
Kimberley Cornish

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How’s this for the worst school story ever? In 1904-5 Hitler and Wittgenstein, both 14 years old, attended the same school, the Realschule at Linz. Most biographers are inclined to suppose that these two schoolboys had little to do with one another. Kimberly Cornish however begins his book by presenting quite tempting circumstantial evidence that they made close contact. The dust jacket of the book illustrates a school photograph which shows (if accurate) a sad little 14 year old Hitler just behind what seems to be the schoolboy version of the sensitive and unhappy face of Ludwig Wittgenstein. On Cornish’s account these sad little boys had (apparently) much in common: a passion for the writings of Schopenhauer and for the music of Wagner – and for whistling. They also had quite enough for a terrible antagonism: Wittgenstein, from a wealthy, over-cultivated family of Jewish (and anti-Semitic) Catholics, frail, stammering, hyper-sensitive, emotionally indiscreet, perhaps even then with homosexual feelings, would have been the perfect object for a little bully’s hatred of an outsider and victim. Cornish supposes that their antagonism must have revolved around a rivalry concerning their shared schoolboy obsessions.

Schools can indeed be awful places. But if Cornish is right, that childhood horror was to grow thereafter to monstrous proportions. ‘Hitler, I suggest,’ he says ‘…was repelled by Wittgenstein and came to attribute what he saw as Wittgenstein’s particular personality defects to Jews in general… Something happened between Wittgenstein and Hitler at the Realschule. We face, I think, the astounding possibility that the course of the twentieth century was radically influenced by a quarrel between two schoolboys.’

Could it really be that six million Jewish victims and all those others were systematically murdered by the mass production methods of a significant part of a civilised society just because of an antagonism between two bewildered small boys? The horrifying thought belongs not to ‘the detective work of history’ (Cornish’s description of his project) but to speculative drama. There is a powerful play to be written that presents it, but this book is not its vehicle.

The scene now shifts to Cambridge, the home of those well-known Communist Apostles and homosexual intellectuals, and dominated by the thought and personality of the famous philosopher Wittgenstein. The claim is that it was Wittgenstein who all along was the elusive recruiter of all those spies and fellow travellers. Cornish’s evidence is thin and spread over many pages. There is a familiar smell of homophobic spycatching. Wittgenstein knew all the right people – but then so did everybody: it was a small, intense place. Wittgenstein had goo motives for disliking Nazis – so did most of the best people (without having to recall schooldays in Linz). Cornish’s clincher is that the Russians offered Wittgenstein a chair at Kasan University (Lenin’s university!) – perhaps as a reward. What reward, for whom?

From then on it’s down hill all the way to the Big Philosophical Idea. Cornish’s thesis is that behind Wittgenstein’s philosophical attack on the idea of the mind as a privileged private arena of experience from which we cannot escape into a public and communicable world lies a positive mystical belief in a Universal Mind in which the individual has no real place. As an account of Wittgenstein this is unconvincing, sometimes even unintelligible. It never occurs to Cornish that such ideas are the objects of reductio ad absurdam arguments of a deep and, for Wittgenstein, all-pervading sense of intellectual irony. Kimberly Cornish senses no irony, deep or otherwise. But then… Hitler (like Wittgenstein, haunted by a schoolboy fascination with wilder elements of Schopenhauer) also had his Universal Mind Theory – the great Aryan dream of Nazi insanity. So the subsequent horrors had their origins in a tug of war over the ownership of a schoolboy’s intellectual fantasy developed, just possibly, in the oppressive schoolrooms of Linz. There is evidence that Cornish really does believe something like this.

Despite a closing discussion of the so-called ‘no-ownership theory of mind’ where ‘the young Peter Strawson’ (sic) is discussed in the light of Aquinas, and which establishes Cornish’s philosophical location, this book is not ad majorum dei gloriam: it remains a not un-entertaining, if tasteless, form of learned sensationalism.

Reviewed by Andrew Harrison


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