Wittgenstein & corporal punishment


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 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. The priest 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.

Austria, a notebook #4

Austria, a notebook #4



Photo sources (above): montazsmagazin.hu and kino.de

In 2008 an Austrian-German co-production of a TV film version of Dürrenmatt’s Der Besuch der alten Dame shifted the setting from Switzerland to Austria. The filming took place in Styria. Most importantly they picked a very good Claire Zachanassian in Christiane Hörbiger, niece of the porter in The Third Man and aunt of Falco’s manager in Verdammt wir leben noch. At the climax in the original play, though, the richest woman in the world does not waver from her initial goal: to return and exact deadly vengeance on the man and the town that ruined her life. Otherwise, given that Ill is still killed, it’s a good version of the classic play that Hollywood castrated in The Visit (Ingrid Bergman, Anthony Quinn, 1964) and watching it is an excellent way for students to improve their German. I don’t know why the old critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki dismissed the second half (“wird immer schlechter”). The acting is consistently good, as he conceded. The music by Matthias Weber is suitably sinister. It is a horror film after all. Ich liebte dich. Du hast mich verraten (‘I loved you. You betrayed me’).

Shifting from Medea to Oedipus, it was the German sociologist Marianne Krüll who analysed Freud’s handling of the Oedipus story in the light of his own family history. In her view it was a creative compromise of the kind sometimes used by children with parental conflicts. Instead of seeking the real source of hostility toward his father, Freud made the Oedipus myth one of the most pervasive parables of intellectual life. Thus, she claimed, he may have stood Oedipus on his ear and a ‘Laius complex’ would have been more accurate.


In other words, it was Laius, the father, who, because of a prophecy that he would one day be murdered by his son, left the infant Oedipus on a mountaintop. Freud chose to believe that the power of Sophocles’ drama lay in the tragic destiny of the son who, not knowing his real parentage, unwittingly murders his father and marries his mother. Krüll claims it was only Freud’s bias that prevented him from recognizing the guilt of Laius. Nevertheless there remain convincing reasons behind Freud’s interpretation and one of these ironically comes not from The Interpretation of Dreams but from The Psychopathology of Everyday Life.

The strange fact that the [Oedipus] legend finds nothing objectionable in Queen Jocasta’s age seemed to me to fit in well with the conclusion that in being in love with one’s mother one is never concerned with her as she is in the present but with her youthful… image carried over from childhood.”

The Psychopathology of Everyday Life deals mainly with the type of error (parapraxis) which has become the everyday concept of the Freudian slip. Apart from the many vivid examples of slips of the tongue and pen, and of forgetting and bungling, we should be interested too in a comment he makes on the losing of objects of value. He says it may be the offering of a sacrifice to the obscure powers of destiny to which homage is still paid today. This is one explanation of karma: despite logically ridiculing superstitions, often we are unconsciously superstitious and will attract misfortune because we believe deep down we deserve it, for something we have done. Another lies in the fact that bad behaviour that earns an advantage in one situation often rebounds in another.

Later in the book he unsurprisingly states that superstition is in large part the expectation of trouble. In this light, Oedipus is trouble. He too is a sacrifice to the obscure powers of destiny; a lost object of value. A Greek tragedy reflects that life is a tragedy. Is it any surprise then that Freud’s favourite cynical joke concerned a brandy drinker who was ordered by his doctor to give it up on the chance that might save his failing hearing? As soon as he did, his hearing improved, but when his doctor hailed him to no effect on the street, months later, he knew he’d gone back on it. In a loud voice, he asked the man why. Solange ich nicht getrunken hab’, hab’ ich gehört; aber alles, was ich gehört, war nicht so gut wie der Branntwein (‘When I didn’t drink, I heard, but nothing I heard was as good as the brandy’).

The Psychopathology of Everyday Life shows us that many absurdities in human interaction are almost miraculously capable of rational explanation but moreover his work also carries the implication that the surreal aspects of existence evoked by slips and superstitions are part of the eternal order of human affairs and therefore comprehensible, at least to a figure like Freud. Given his field of interest, he doubled up for a twentieth-century casting out of spirits.