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Tolstoy Journal, January 31, 2017

Last night I read no Tolstoy but I did talk with F. A. Flowers III who had left a message on my phone saying he had gotten the letter I had written him about his introduction to The Gospel in Brief. He has a very strong southern accent that reminds me a bit of my grandfather’s and since I am from Texas, it was fun to hear it again. In the message Mr. Flowers called himself Berry and said I should call, that maybe I would be interested in the story of how he came to write the introduction to The Gospel in Brief.

Berry is a retired appellate lawyer who has always been interested in philosophy. He read Wittgenstein, then all the books he could that pertained to Wittgenstein: the only one I remember him mentioning was something by Rush Rhees, an English philosopher who was one of Wittgenstein’s students. He also mentioned Ray Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein.

Then he came across the story I shared in an earlier post about how Wittgenstein came across The Gospel in Brief while he was fighting in World War I. So he started looking around for the book but could not find a copy of any kind, new or used, anywhere. He finally–I think this is how the story went–found a copy that included two other works, published by Scribners in 1922. (This was, as far as I can tell, a reprint of the version I have in my Works.) He sent out some proposals and it fit in with a series University of Nebraska was doing. He said he’s not sure how much longer they will keep it in print.

I told him about this blog, about getting the complete set of Tolstoy and wanting to read the whole thing. But we spent most of the time talking about Wittgenstein because Berry has also co-edited a two-volume work from Bloomsbury called Portraits of Wittgenstein, which sells for around $400. It had a positive front page review in the Times Literary Supplement. I told him I would love to get it but I don’t have that kind of money. He said well I have some good news for you because Bloomsbury is publishing an abridged paperback version of it later this year. I told him that Bloomsbury should send me the galleys and I would review the book on spec. He took down my email address and said he would talk with them today, and I bet he will!

At some point we talked again about Tolstoy, what an amazing writer he is. How he makes you seem to be right there. Berry said he had never finished War and Peace but he loves his polemical work, and we both agreed it’s powerful. I said as I read Tolstoy’s polemics I am utterly convinced while reading but then afterwards I say, wait a minute. Berry said that the only other writer he can think of who writes such powerful polemics–if that’s the right word–like a wave coming up and sweeping you away, is Schopenhauer. I think he might be right about that.

We got back on to Wittgenstein and I told him I could hardly understand much of the Tractatus, and he said, Hey listen, no one understands and if they tell you they do they’re lying! I told him I’d tried to read Anscombe but could not get very far with her–I thought I would like reading her because she’s Catholic and was a student of Wittgenstein’s. He said he agreed, said he had met her but then talked of something else. I wish I had asked him about Anscombe, but we got on to other things. Of course Anscombe was the philosopher who supposedly beat C.S. Lewis in a debate at the Socratic Club in Oxford. I have read some people who say she was a bully who swore a lot and smoked cigars; and others say that she didn’t really beat Lewis, she found a flaw in his argument which he went on to clarify in later editions of Miracles. So maybe next time I will ask him about Anscombe.

Berry told me he had been to a lot of the places  Wittgenstein had been to, one of them being in a house in County Galway in Ireland. He said they’ve made it into a youth hostel but when he stayed there he didn’t know how anybody could have lived there and it was raining the whole time–I thought of how when my wife and I were in Ireland, they called it a “lashing” rain–and he just couldn’t understand how Wittgenstein did it.

I asked him if he had ever been to the house Wittgenstein had designed and he said no, he had never been to Vienna. But he had a book about Wittgenstein the architect and admired it. I mentioned reading about the movie that had been made about Wittgenstein–it was mentioned in the TLS review–and said I had thought a good movie could be made about Wittgenstein’s entire life: you have the wealthy childhood in Vienna, World War I, Cambridge, etc. It would be a moving portrait. I have taken Robert McKee’s Story Seminar and know a bit about screenplays, etc. He said, yeah well you know but who would watch it? They would watch a movie about Tolstoy, but Wittgenstein? At the time I agreed but now as I write this I get it in my head that I could write a screenplay and it would make a great movie.

We also talked a little about the novel, The World As I Found It, and I thought, well you could write a screenplay of that novel too; maybe that would be the way to do it.

I’m approaching my 1000 words and trying to remember anything else we talked of. It was a fun conversation and we decided to keep in touch and I hope he doesn’t mind me writing of it here. I think he would appreciate it because he wants to get the word out about both Tolstoy and Wittgenstein.

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