This year I’ve read two biographies of two personal heroes. The first was Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius by Ray Monk: a biography of the greatest philosopher and, in my opinion, the greatest mind of the 20th Century. The second was Borges: A Life by Edwin Williamson: a biography of the Argentinean short story writer and librarian Jorge Luis Borges, one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century and personal stylistic inspiration for every piece I’ve had published this year.
These men led roughly parallel lives thousands of miles apart. Both were born into families of great history into the turbulent early 20th Century, both lived through the world-changing events of the Second World War, both were tormented by the desire to live up to the destinies they felt themselves to have, both produced great works despite their personal suffering, and both died of cancer. Despite this apparent similarity, what emerges from their biographies is the spirit of contradiction: internal contradictions of their characters and external contradictions against each other.
Ludwig Wittgenstein was plagued by internal contradictions his whole life. So much so that he produced two works that are widely regarded as contradicting one another: the cold, logical, and organised Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and the almost postmodern and labyrinthine Philosophical Investigations. The Tractatus and the Investigations are united in arguing against philosophy as a discipline: both claim that certain questions – the ones asked by ethical philosophers and metaphysicians – are meaningless and therefore cannot be answered. Despite this, Wittgenstein never successfully freed himself of the questions which plagued him. Another contradiction in his character is his failure to reconcile his passionate belief in God with his actions. He constantly felt guilty about his homosexuality, the destructive influence he had on his disciples, and the fact that he was engaged in the life of the mind rather than good honest practical work. Though a master of rational argument and thought, he was a slave to his passions constantly indulging in meaningless acts like flitting away to fight in the First World War, to self-imposed exile in Norway, and finally to his lonely death in Storey's End, Cambridge.
Jorge Luis Borges also struggled against the contradictions inherent in his character. He saw his life as a parallel to Dante’s Divine Comedy and searched in vain for the love of a Beatrice who would inspire him to great writing. He believed that his writing would be his salvation: that his life would have meaning only if he created “[t]he one page that justified me, that summarizes my destiny, the one that perhaps only the attending angels will hear when Judgement Day arrives.” Despite this desperate yearning, he could never escape the yoke of his mother’s ancestral desires or his father’s cold indifference. Borges was a man who wanted desperately to believe in something. Much of his work deals with themes of enlightenment, divine salvation, the Aleph, and pantheism. He sought oneness with the universe as an antidote to the solipsism of his mind – his ‘father’s library’. Unlike Wittgenstein, Borges performed actions imbued with meaning in the hopes that faith would follow. As a storyteller, he vaguely believed the coincidences of his life meant something and took actions that put his life into the shape of a narrative: returning to a house on Calle Tronador where he felt loved, linking his writings with obscure personal references, and finally ending his life by choosing to die in Geneva rather than Buenos Aires: a final act that parallels the protagonist in his story The Garden of Forking Paths and expresses his political inclinations more powerfully than his writing could at the time.
Wittgenstein and Borges struggled to resolve their personal conflicts through writing: one happened to write in philosophy and logic, the other in poetry and metaphor. They both wanted to unite the contradictory aspects at the heart of themselves: the need for reason and the desire for faith. During their solipsistic journeys, the two men inadvertently achieved immortality and possible salvation through their work, producing some of the greatest writings of the 20th Century.
The lives of these two men teach us that life is contradiction. Both set out to discover the essence of the universe in different ways. Both set out to resolve the contradictions in the heart of themselves and every human. And, despite their contradictory positions on life and philosophical outlook, both were, in their way, right.