We all are or have been “…tortured souls…

We all are or have been “…tortured souls… trying until the very end to express the inexpressible.” Each of us ought to practice complete respect for each human being’s existential dilemma.

I was deeply touched by this anecdote Freeman Dyson tells about Ludwig Wittgenstein from Dyson’s days as an undergraduate at Cambridge University in the UK for two reasons: 1. It brought to mind Norman Fischer’s talk on Tara and women’s place in Zen practice at the recent Everyday Zen sesshin http://www.everydayzen.org/index.php?Itemid=26&task=viewTeaching&sort=title&option=com_teaching&id=1279.) 2. I think most remarkable is Mr. Dyson’s change of view and understanding of Mr. Wittgenstein plight as years passed and even death, the seeming ultimate signpost of the transitory and ephemeral nature of this life, appears to help transform Dyson’s understanding of Wittgenstein’s situation .

“When I arrived at Cambridge University in 1946, Wittgenstein had just returned from his six years of duty (as an orderly) at the hospital. I held him in the highest respect and was delighted to find him in a room above mine on the same staircase. I frequently met him walking up or down the stairs, but I was too shy to start a conversation. Several times I heard him muttering to himself: ‘I get stupider and stupider every day.’

Finally, toward the end of my time at Cambridge, I ventured to speak to him. I told him I had enjoyed reading the Tractatus, and I asked him whether he still held the same views that he had expressed twenty-eight years earlier. He remained silent for a long time and then said, ‘Which newspaper do you represent?’ I told him I was student and not a journalist, but he never answered my question.

Wittgenstein’s response to me was humiliating, and his response to female students who tried to attend his lectures was even worse. If a woman appeared in the audience, he would remain standing silent until she left the room. I decided he was a charlatan using outrageous behavior to attract attention. I hated him for his rudeness. Fifty years later, walking through a churchyard on the outskirts of Cambridge on a sunny morning in winter, I came by chance on his tombstone, a massive block of stone lightly covered with fresh snow. On the stone was written the single word, ‘Wittgenstein.’ To my surprise, I found that the old hatred was gone, replaced by a deeper understanding. He was at peace, and I was at peace too, in white silence. He was no longer a charlatan. He was a tortured soul, the last survivor of a family with a tragic history, living a lonely life among strangers, trying until the end to express the inexpressible.”[1] Freeman Dyson, What Can You really Know? NYRB, 11.08.2012.
[1] Freeman Dyson, ‘What Can You Really Know?’, NYRB, 11.08.2012.

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