On the bright side I'm listening to At The Villa of Reduced Circumstances on my commute and love it. I'm jumping in media res (this is book three) to the exploits of Professor Doctor Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld. In this volume, our very German hero becomes a visiting scholar at Cambridge, and doesn't understand the English at all. Completely thrown by their use of metaphor and their habit of making assumptions such as, "Your journey went well, I trust," when in fact your journey has been miserable. I have to share one such exchange with you, which you must read imagining the accents of a cautious and humorless German professor and a wry Cambridge Don. The Cambridge Don has just made a light-hearted remark about having to sit next to people we don't like even in heaven (in response to von I's complaints about his trip).
Von Igelfeld stared at the Master. Was this a serious remark, to which he was expected to respond? The English were very difficult to read. Half the things they said were not meant to be taken seriously, but it was impossible, if you were German, to detect which half this was. It may be that the Master was making a serious observation about the nature of the afterlife, or it may be he thought the idea of heaven was absurd. If it were the former, then von Igelfeld might be expected to respond with some suitable observation of his own. Whereas if it were the latter, he might be expected to smile or even to laugh.He is not, of course, referring to Wittgenstein at all, but they get to chatting about Wittgenstein's influence on the college, and somehow arrive at how little respect the Master gets. At this point the conversation takes a turn for the bathetic and the Master begins to cry a little, for which he's profusely sorry and apologizes. Von Igelfeld puts his arm around him to comfort him.
"The afterlife must surely be as Dante described it," said von Igelfeld after a short silence "and one's position in the circle will determine the company one keeps."
The Master's eyes sparkled. "Or the other way around, surely. The company one keeps will determine where one goes later on. Bad company, bad fate."
"That is if one is easily influenced," said von Igelfeld. "A good man may keep bad company and remain good, I have seen that happen."
"Where?" said the Master.
"At school," said von Igelfeld. "At my gymnasium there was a boy called Mueller who was very kind. He was always giving presents to the younger boys and putting his arm around them. He cared for them deeply. He was in a class where most of the other boys were very low, bad types. Mueller used to put his arm around these boys, too. He never changed his ways. His goodness survived the bad company."
The Master listened to this story with some interest. "Do people read Freud these days in Germany?" he asked.
Von Igelfeld was rather taken aback by this remark. What had Freud to do with Mueller? Again there was this difficult English obliqueness. Perhaps he would become accustomed to it after a few months, but for the moment it was very disconcerting. In Germany, people said what they meant. They had the virtue of being literal and that meant that everything was much clearer. This was evidently not the case in Cambridge.
"I believe that he has his following," said von Igelfeld, "There are always people who are prepared to find the base motive in human action. Professor Freud is a godsend to them."
The Master smiled. "Of course, you are right to censure me," he said, "We live in an age of such corrosive cynicism, do we not?"
Von Igelfeld raised a hand in protest. "But I have not censured you! I would not dream of censuring you, you are my host!" He was appalled at the misunderstanding. What had he said which had caused the Master to conclude that he was censuring him? Was it something to do with Freud? Freudians could be very sensitive, and it was possible that the Master was a Freudian, in which case perhaps his remark had been rather like telling a religious person that his religious views were absurd.
"I meant no offense," said von Igelfeld. "I had no idea that you were so loyal to Vienna."
The Master gave a start. "Vienna? I know nothing about Vienna?
"I was speaking metaphorically," said von Igelfeld hastily. "Vienna, Rome...these are places that stand for something beyond the place itself."
"You are referring to Wittgenstein, I take it" said the Master.
Just like Mueller, he reflected.Hilarious, and not at all acidic.