"Ludwig the last crumpet was mine!"
May 14, 2008 9:38 AM   Subscribe

StoryresearchFilter: Information needed on relations between superstar Cambridge dons of the 1930s-1950s. i.e. Russell, Wittgenstein, Turing, Keynes.

I'm trying to write a short story that involves these four men. To this end I'm looking for information on the relationships between them, and any other genuine superstars that I might have missed that were hanging around Cambridge between these years .

I love this quote from Wikipedia:

"Bertrand Russell named Keynes the most intelligent person he had ever known, commenting, "Every time I argued with Keynes, I felt that I took my life in my hands, and I seldom emerged without feeling something of a fool." Keynes also famously commented to his wife that he had "met God on the 5:15 train" when he received Russell's protégé Ludwig Wittgenstein on behalf of Cambridge." I'd love to capture something of this spirit.

Obviously what I need to do is get the relative biographies out of the library and turn to the index, which I will do as soon as I get to a library, but in the meantime I have a bit of time on my hands and would like to do some online research.

Therefore I'm looking for anecdotes, paths to follow, recommended books or documentaries that might shed a little light on the lives of these tweedsuited Gods. Or if any of them has previosuy been depicted in fiction, that'd be good to know.

P.S. I'd also be interested to know if there has ever been a similar accumulation of talent in one place at one time, it seems extraordinary to me that not only were all these great men in the same university at the same time but that they were personal friends.
P.P.S. I've already read "Wittgenstein's Poker", that's partly what gave me the idea. Oh and Cryptonomicon, which depicts Turing in fiction.
posted by greytape to Grab Bag (9 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Read "The Invention of Love" by Tom Stoppard ASAP.
LOTS of delightful tidbits about the boys of Balliol College.
It is a wonderful play that reads like a novel.
posted by Dizzy at 9:52 AM on May 14, 2008

Another example of accumulation in talent was the Oxford (then London) circle in 17th century.

Read Carl Zimmer's Soul Made Flesh and Neil Stephenson's Baroque Cycle for some non-fiction and fiction about this group.
posted by Pants! at 10:10 AM on May 14, 2008

I highly recommend Ray Monk's biography of Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius.

Also, The World as I Found It by Bruce Duffy is an interesting & engaging novel about Wittgenstein, Russell, & G.E. Moore (another superstar don).
posted by jammy at 12:25 PM on May 14, 2008

You may want to read a ferocious alternative history story by Greg Egan called "Oracle." It involves debates between a figure standing in for Turing and a figure standing in for C. S. Lewis, and it's very, very good. Terry Eagleton wrote a weird screenplay about Wittgenstein, which Derek Jarman adapted into a movie.
posted by cgc373 at 12:36 PM on May 14, 2008

here's some Russell on Wittgenstein, from his Autobiography:

He used to come see me every evening at midnight, and pace up and down my room like a wild beast for three hours in agitated silence. Once I said to him 'Are you thinking about logic or about your sins?' 'Both', he replied, and continued his pacing.

posted by jammy at 12:47 PM on May 14, 2008

almost forgot, re: previously depicted in fiction...

I've always wanted to read the hard-to-find novel The Case of the Philosopher's Ring by Randall Collins. Check out the description - craziness!

"It is the summer before the outbreak of World War I. Holmes, at his Baker Street flat, receives a telegram from the brilliant young philosopher, Bertrand Russell, begging him to come to Cambridge to investigate the theft of a uniquely precious treasure - the mind of Ludwig Wittgenstein. ... Holmes and Watson set out to investigate some of the West's greatest minds. But the trail plunges suddenly out of the abstract and into the blood and guts of occult murder, when Aleister Crowley, the high priest of post-Edwardian mysticism, enters the picture."
posted by jammy at 1:11 PM on May 14, 2008

This site has a lot of Russell materials. Their search is useful: for example, searching for Russell and Wittgenstein I found some "unpublished correspondence."
posted by trig at 1:38 PM on May 14, 2008

seconding Ray Monk's The Duty of Genius for good biographical details. i also recommend wittgenstein's poker for some good social-scene probing.
posted by garfy3 at 2:10 PM on May 14, 2008

Best answer: There are excellent biographies of all four men. You can't go far wrong with Andrew Hodges on Turing, Ray Monk on Wittgenstein and Russell, and Robert Skidelsky on Keynes. Andrew Hodges also has a website on Turing, with a lot of biographical information. I'd also recommend some of the more personal accounts of Wittgenstein, such as Rush Rhees (ed.), Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections (1981) and Theodore Redpath, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Student's Memoir (1990), which give a very vivid impression of what it was like to study with Wittgenstein in Cambridge.

However, if you are planning to write a (historically plausible) story involving all four men, you'll have to be careful in choosing your dates. The close collaboration between Russell and Wittgenstein took place in 1911-1913. Russell gave up his Cambridge fellowship in 1920 and didn't return until 1944. Wittgenstein was teaching in Cambridge from 1929 to 1941; Turing came up to Cambridge as an undergraduate in 1931 but didn't start attending Wittgenstein's classes until (I think) 1938. Keynes spent more time in London than Cambridge during the 1930s, and was seriously ill from 1936 onwards. I am not absolutely sure that there was ever an occasion when Russell, Wittgenstein, Turing and Keynes were all in the same room together.

(Personal note. When I was a postgraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge, I lived for a year in Wittgenstein's old rooms in Whewell's Court. By that time, of course, they were just furnished as ordinary student rooms, and there was nothing left from Wittgenstein's time, not even the strips of black paper which he is said to have stuck over the windows to 'correct the proportions'. However, I was regularly interrupted by visitors knocking on the door and asking if they could come in for a moment and see the room where the great man held his legendary 5 o'clock seminars. One of these visits found its way into Philip Kerr's novel A Philosophical Investigation, where the narrator visits Wittgenstein's old rooms and remarks on the untidy habits of the student living there. Yes, reader .. I was that student.)
posted by verstegan at 11:52 PM on May 14, 2008 [4 favorites]

« Older My landlord is a slime bucket and I need to break...   |   I've got a recurring mystery illness. Any help? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.