Stomach Tracts

By Wilson, Ben | New Statesman (1996), January 8, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Stomach Tracts


Wilson, Ben, New Statesman (1996)


Wittgenstein didn't mind what he ate so long as it was the same every day. And he adopted much the same approach with his jokes.

When staying with friends in America in 1949, the philosopher demanded bread and cheese at all meals. Every time the dull repast was laid before him, he would exclaim, as if for the first time, "Hot diggetty!", a phrase he had picked up from the movies. It never failed to amuse or please him. But you get the feeling that if they had replaced his bread and cheese with a boeufen croute, he would have been less enthusiastic. He was pickier about food than he pretended. Wittgenstein didn't mind what he ate so long as he ate what he liked - and what he liked was the opposite of what he had been brought up on.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) was born the eighth and youngest child of Karl Wittgenstein, a wealthy Austrian industrialist. Karl's table was always crammed with fin de siecle Viennese goodies, laid on by servants in course after gleaming course. There were rich veloute soups and crusty, fatty roast goose. Souffles and boiled tongues and Sachertorte each demanded ritual veneration. For a sensitive boy like Ludwig, the ceremony was overwhelming. Sometimes he must have felt as trapped as the smothered carp on the platter before him.

Cutting himself off from the wealth and ways of his family meant putting aside the excess of Viennese cuisine. This wasn't hard. Neither Ludwig's palate nor his stomach desired fancy foods. One of his preferred lunches was a plain omelette and a cup of coffee. On holiday in Iceland before the Great War, there were picnics of tinned corned beef and cocoa, as Ludwig's beloved friend David Pinset recorded in his diary, with all the boyish enthusiasm of the Hugh Laurie character in Blackadder. But Ludwig himself hardly noticed what he ate, engrossed as he was in problems of logical symbolism.

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