Someone – was it Russell? – said, ‘Wittgenstein, put the poker down.’
Wittgenstein was conscious of pain, a constant distress, as if he were listening to a gramophone record playing at just the wrong speed. This mushy thinking! It was bad enough that this ass, this Ringstrasse academic, was expounding a theory, was trying to say things which couldn’t be said, was deluding himself into believing that there were hidden depths into which he could delve – like a man who insisted on digging an underground shaft in an open-cast mine … In itself this was bad enough. But not even attempting to open his mind to clearing out this rubbish, not to listen to what he himself was saying … This had to be stopped, the malignancy cut out.
Somewhere in the back of his mind Popper knew he was going too far. Tomorrow he would feel remorse for failing to control himself, just as after the Gomperz evening in Vienna – though he had never managed to admit that to poor Schlick. This Wittgenstein was real enough. But who would have said ‘mystic’? All the dogmatism of a Jesuit. And the fury of a Nazi. A maniac misleading philosophy – he had to confess he was completely wrong. Just one more push, one more brick knocked out of this tower of chit-chat. And now the madman had picked up the poker and was jabbing away as he tried to interrupt. Jab, jab, jab, in time with his syllables. ‘Popper, you are WRONG.’ Jab, jab … ‘WRONG!’
Unattended, the fire was almost out. It was no matter: being at the meeting was now like being trapped in a hothouse and entangled in jungle creepers. With the clash of angry voices, the running interjections from Wittgenstein’s disciples, the unprecedented crowd – those standing (the ‘wallflowers’) pressing in not to miss a blow being struck – the audience was caught in a blinding confusion. A literary-minded undergraduate took refuge in Matthew Arnold:
… a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
He wondered again if he shouldn’t change to English for Part II.
Hang on! ‘Flight’ was right, for Wittgenstein had thrown down the poker and was now on his feet. So was Russell. In a sudden moment of quiet, Wittgenstein was speaking to him.
‘You always misunderstand me, Russell.’ There was an almost guttural sound to ‘Hrussell’.
Russell’s voice was more high-pitched than usual. ‘No, Wittgenstein, you’re the one mixing things up. You always mix things up.’
The door slammed behind Wittgenstein.
Excerpt from the superb book “Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers” by David Edmonds and John Eidinow. A riveting read.