Tag Archives: bruce duffy

Interlude 1: The World As I Found It.

3 Apr

I’ve neglected this little blog.

I’ve been writing, two manuscripts really, as I’ve had a little enthusiastic nibble from an agent and now must try to reel in the big fish. I feel heartened and emboldened. More on this later.

I’ve also been beguiled, bewitched, hypnotized, horrified, aroused and ultimately enlightened by one of the most profound reading experiences of my life, Bruce Duffy’s The World As I Found It.

The novel follows dozens of real people through fifty or so years, focusing mainly on the philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, and G.E. Moore. Each man emerges as a complex, enigmatic person—to others and to themselves—with contradictions, shortcomings, mean-spiritedness, generosity, and immense intellectual power. Russell is a libertine gripped by sexual passions, hypocrisies, self-sabotage. He yearns to turn philosophy into a science. Moore is a practical man living in an impractical profession, unsure of how to get around his British proclivity towards civility and quiet. And Wittgenstein emerges as a type of psychic vampire, besieging the people in his life with his pessimism, his uncompromising nature, his vicious blankness. Wittgenstein wants to bore down into the fundamental tenets of logic and language, removing all the sediment and laziness that prevents true understanding. His quest is quixotic, punishing.

The novel follows each character through the arc of their life, beginning with Wittgenstein’s infamous confrontation with Karl Popper (captured in David Edmond’s biography, Wittgenstein’s Poker) and ending with all three heading towards the grave. The characters include D.H. Lawrence, Otto Weiniger (who lays the philosophical groundword for Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, a huge influence on True Detective), fathers, sons, wives and daughters. The canvas is pre- and post-war Europe, England and America. Wittgenstein and Russell and Moore cycle through friendships, lovers, epiphanies, failures and successes. They are alternately pals, rivals, enemies. They struggle with the formation, application and conviction of each man’s ideals and ideas.

A fabulous novel about ambition and ideas.

A fabulous novel about ambition and ideas.

World is at turns erotic, thrilling, dramatic, horrifying, big-hearted and wicked. It is an acerbic academic novel, a sexy romp, a historical incision into the world before and after the two world wars. It is first and foremost a novel of ideas. Duffy explores the limits of logic, the shortcomings of science, the utopian ideals of the late Victorians, the pessimistic philosophers between the world wars, the dueling combative intellectuals that straddled psychology, economics, religion. He dips into hedonism, melodrama, history, poetics. Duffy utilizes the language and dramatic skill of Bergman, Ibsen, Chekov, yet the linguistic agility of DeLillo or Pynchon or Foster Wallace. The closest book I could think of was Julian Barnes’s excellent non-fiction novel, Arthur and George.

I read The World As I Found It with a sense of bewilderment at Duffy’s writerly skill. The writing is rigorous, direct, lucid and yet also descriptive, beautiful. He manages to convey melancholy, nostalgia, bitterness, I kept asking: How did he do that?

Here’s a taste of Bertrand Russell, meditating on the coming war, on a trans-Atlantic cruise ship:


Often in those days just before the war, Russell felt like a fraud. Because for all his expressions of principle and humanity, he saw there was also a nihilistic side of him that was as eager for war as anybody, eager that, for better or worse, life might change. The news, meanwhile, grew worse. Returning to his cabin after breakfast one morning, Russell saw his first iceberg, a glowing, white-hot hull whose heights it seemed he could never scale as he watched it slip by, smoking white against the fog and alive with the cries of birds he could not see.

And here we have D.H. Lawrence taunting Russell at the zoo, by hitting a caged monkey with his umbrella:


A screech and a shower of dust and pizzled straw as Lawrence lunged with his umbrella. Whirling around, Lawrence flicked the umbrella up like a pointer, the better to show his fellow Utopian the coiling beast, the venomous red eyes.

Look at him, Bertie. So much like you, that hideous aggressor, that savage Kaiser lurking beneath. Hah! Lawrence ran his umbrella along the bars, then thrust it at the fanged jaws. This also is you, Bertie, lusting to jab and strike like a man with a bayonet, saying, This is for the ultimate peace. Why don’t you own to your nature? What is the use of you, haranguing the populace with vain talk of nations kissing one another? Give me no more of your lies, moaning about goodness and humanity. You are the enemy of mankind—spiteful and murderous, filled with bestial, repressed desires. Hah, monkey! Wouldn’t you love to sink your teeth into my pretty neck? Hah! Hah!

But then the blood flooded Lawrence’s face, and he began to hack and wheeze.

The novel has so much life in it, so much of the nuance and compromise and terror and heft, so much of the challenge and beauty, I couldn’t put it down. I’m not one to have a favorite novel, but this might be it.

Here’s a passage right near the end, as Wittgenstein is near death, wandering around wildflowers on a mountain:


He had forgotten how small and concentrated in their essences the hardy mountain flowers are at that altitude—how they gouge the eye with their spectral brightness. In the distance, hot coils of golden red light slowly effused in the darkness over the glowing snow tips of the mountains, the bending sky pressing down over the earth like a wide bowl. Wittgenstein had the old sensation of having his hair slowly being pulled by the roots. Under the hot magneto of that sky, it seemed the light did not refract or reflect, but rather extracted a color clear from the molten depths of the earth, drawing it up through the flossy tips of the grass heaped in the rocky meadows like a manna snow.

You could study that passage for years and not quite get to the end of its excruciating beauty.

Like any great work of art, World left me feeling cleansed and purged and new when I finished it.

Please, friends and strangers, do yourself a favor and read this magnificent book.