The Acid Tongue
Selected By Cyril Wong
I picked Andrew Harrison's review for this issue of QLRS more for the interesting premise that he highlights in Kimberly Cornish's The Jew of Linz, and less for its "acidic" qualities. This is not to say that they are absent. But the central idea of Cornish's book, which Harrison probably thinks is its only selling point, is nonetheless an interesting one about how Hitler's anti-Semitic agenda was a consequence of who he met as a kid in school. Harrison sums up the point in an engaging way:
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... (Cornish presents) quite tempting circumstantial evidence that they made close contact... 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...would have been the perfect object for a little bully's hatred of an outsider and victim... 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...
Harrison quickly points out that Cornish's leap from childhood hostilities to the Holocaust is an unconvincing one:
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... 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 motives for disliking Nazis - so did most of the best people... 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?
The reviewer continues his bashing with his fist in a loose-fitting glove:
QLRS Vol. 10 No. 3 Jul 2011
From then on it's down hill all the way to the Big Philosophical Idea... 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 absurdum arguments of a deep and, for Wittgenstein, all-pervading sense of intellectual irony. Kimberly Cornish senses no irony, deep or otherwise... 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...this book is not ad majorum dei gloriam: it remains a not un-entertaining, if tasteless, form of learned sensationalism.