In September 1924, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s brief career as a country schoolteacher in Lower Austria entered its final, most dramatic phase when he moved to Otterthal. Among his pupils was a sickly boy of eleven, Josef Haidbauer, whose widowed mother worked for a local farmer named Piribauer, whose daughter Hermine happened to be in the same class. Here Wittgenstein continued his strenuous mixture of curricular and extra-curricular instruction, liberally sprinkled with Ohrfeigen and Haareziehen i.e. the boxing of ears and the pulling of hair. The English literary quack Colin Wilson later wrote that Wittgenstein was “virtually driven out… by resentful peasants” but, instead of attempting any such crude spin or justification of his brutality, the excuse most often given for him in print – that corporal punishment was all the rage at the time – has neglected to admit that by no means every teacher used it, even then.

In April 1926, there occurred der Vorfall Haidbauer, the so-called Haidbauer incident, when Wittgenstein knocked the weak Josef unconscious with three blows to the head. Having sent the other children home, he carried the boy to the headmaster’s room. Before he subsequently fled the scene, though, he was met by an incensed Herr Piribauer, whose own daughter had already suffered bleeding ears and torn hair at Wittgenstein’s hands. Piribauer called him an animal trainer and told him he was going to get the police. The subsequent court case nevertheless proved literally inconclusive, disappearing in a fog of perjury, psychiatric assessment, Wittgenstein family money and the culprit’s speedy resignation.

Corporal punishment was never restricted to Austria, of course. Nor was the fact that not every teacher indulged in it. The Augustinians were not a brutal religious order, at least by my time, but they still had their moments. In September 1978, aged fourteen, I sat in the first science class of a new school year. A vaguely hysterical priest – Father McCarthy – was leaning against the back wall at the end of an aisle between rows of desks. He was new to us. The class was settling down and another boy was sent up to wipe the blackboard. It was then that I, in a back desk on that aisle, unwisely made a routine slurping sound.

A glass lens bounced off the top of the wooden desk and broke on the tiled floor. There was a stinging cut just under my right eye. Head ringing, I looked up and back in amazement. Through the empty frame on the right, I saw the cleric swaying, with his fists clenched. His mouth was hanging open. Anybody else want some, huh? Instruction began in a pin-drop silence after that. Shocked to the core after the blindside punch, I couldn’t suppress an occasional sob.

Stop your pussing,” he soon said, writing furiously on the blackboard.
I’m not pussing!” came the reply, loudly and bitterly.

As I cycled home after school, the cleric passed in a hurry in a purple car. He was in the kitchen, all apologies to the mother when the wounded party got in. He was offering to pay for the damage to the glasses. It later transpired, of course, that he’d already told her there had been provocation, without specifying what it had been.

The blind-side fist wasn’t the limit of his arsenal by any means. Some of his science classes were held in the Physics Lab, a large classroom with long benches and some dusty bottles, tubes and burners. I was away in another world there one morning – perhaps still thinking of the cowardly, if maniacal, punch in the eye but more likely not – when called up to the front. The priest was winding a gadget with a metal spike rising out of it. The spike had a little ball on top. He told his pupil to touch the ball. My arm felt almost blown off at the shoulder. The class exploded with laughter but then the chuckling padre turned to the others and said they were all going to get the shock treatment. He made them all troop up to the dynamo, one by one, and put their hands on the ball. Some hesitated but all endured this insane ritual. Back in his seat, as the pain lessened, the first victim watched the stream of grimacing boys returning to the benches, holding their sore shoulders with their good arms.

On another occasion Father Frankenstein manufactured some chlorine gas and passed around a canister so everyone could have a sniff. That day I was watching warily and took care not to inhale anything but the barest trace when the canister was handed along the back bench. Farther along that bench, though, it was a comrade’s turn to be oblivious. When it reached him, he mindlessly inhaled a gulp and put the canister away from him with a jolt. He started coughing and spluttering. His eyes were streaming. Jesus, what the fuck is that? Welcome to the trenches.

Another sporadically violent one also hailed from West Cork. The school had a games rule that one team per match, in whichever sport, had to wear red, to help the referees. Having to play hurling one icy day in January, I came out of the changing rooms wearing a red windcheater over a jersey. Then it transpired we were not red so the windcheater had to be taken off and left behind a goal. On a day like that, no one normal could even contemplate the thought of getting a lash of a hurley stick across the legs so I stood around, prodding the frozen ground with it. Eventually I went behind the goal to retrieve the windcheater but as I wandered back out the field the treacherous ball came my way. It didn’t matter which way I hit it, I was found out. Father Whelton stopped the game with a blast of his whistle and charged over like a bull, inflicting a heavy slap or two across my face for his trouble.

That was mild compared with an earlier experience with him. When I was thirteen, the avuncular pipe-smoker ran amok in Latin class but this episode was wholly premeditated. The excuse was the chalk mark of a duster that he’d found on the back of his black habit. It was obvious he meant business at the start of the next class because he produced “Excalibur”, a terrible instrument consisting of several long strips of unbending thick leather, roughly sewn together. He said everyone was going to get two on each hand unless the person responsible for the stigma owned up. The culprit was too scared so it began with the boys in the front desks. It was clear this was going to be a mass execution. It took two or three innocents to get it before shame produced the suicidal courage to own up and spare the rest. Then I got two on each hand and several on the legs and arse. Something more than sobbing resulted from that hiding. I think he doled out ten lashes in total, practically everywhere except the head.

Corporal punishment was outlawed shortly after I left school in 1982 but, even before that, there had been a prudent though unofficial school policy not to attempt to hit anyone aged sixteen or more. Otherwise the brutality of the time meant the smaller lads remained ‘natural’ punchbags and whipping boys to those members of staff who were into that sort of thing for trivial offences, whether out of sudden inspiration or cold calculation.

In 1936, Wittgenstein returned to Lower Austria to the places he had taught. For whatever reason, he finally wanted to say sorry to the children he had beaten. This was too late for poor Josef Haidbauer, who was by then long dead, but it seems he was warmly received at some houses. Nevertheless the most philosophical response came from a terse Hermine Piribauer. “Ja, ja,” she replied and said no more.

Even that much should have alerted the philosopher to revise his notions of the limits of language. She had rendered even more succinctly the verdict of the father of a gifted boy named Karl Gruber that Wittgenstein had tried to adopt in another village, Trattenbach. The man refused to hand his son over to “ein verrückter Kerl” – a crazy guy – no matter how expensive an education would have been paid for in return. Academic institutions and asylums are similar insofar as the normal and abnormal switch places.


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