Sunday, June 24, 2007

A Fact About The Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein # 6

In 1824, Klaus Wittgenstein - Ludwig's great-grandfather - patented a game called Purris, to be played in honor of the mirthful Jewish holiday Purim. In the game two people hit decorative rubber balls meant to represent Haman - the Babylonian bureaucrat traditionally demonized in Purim celebrations - with a pair of broad mallets. The game became quickly popular in fashionable Jewish circles.

A fallen British aristocrat, Archibald Ten, was holidaying in Austria when he met with the young Klaus Wittgenstein. After a couple rousing rounds of Purris, Ten realized that the young Jew had invented a "most smashing pass-time," as he wrote in his biography. The two spent the next weekend secularizing the rules, and when Ten left for England again, he popularized the new sport - redubbed Tennis.

The invention made the Wittgensteins' fortune. Strangely, Ludwig was loathe to admit the very existence of the game. Whenever he was invited to play, he would look dumbly around and say, unconvincingly "Did somebody say something? I couldn't hear them. How odd."

In a rare journal entry, half-obscured by a wine-stain, Wittgenstein explains: "Oh, the wretchedness of having a body. Exploited for profit, no less! If I could just be the tennis ball, a perfect sphere, my meaning postulated by the whack of the racket, rather than this imperfect, lump of flesh. That is the mystery, that is the real genius. And yet who understands!"

In the last weeks of his life, crippled from the pain of his prostrate cancer, Wittgenstein sent a note to Russell, asking him out for a game of tennis. The older philosopher came to Wittgenstein's cottage a week later, but it was too late, Ludwig was too weak to rise from his pallet. He died having never played the game in his life

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