Spring 2019–Winter 2020

Wittgenstein’s Dream, 13 January 1922

Fear and trembling

Matthew Spellberg

A postcard of the Austrian village of Otterthal (formerly spelled Ottertal) sent by Ludwig Wittgenstein to William Eccles on 12 September 1925. Wittgenstein taught at the school that he identifies on the postcard from September 1924 until April 1926, when knocking a boy unconscious brought his schoolteaching career to an end.

Last night I had a curious experience. It began like so: I dreamt that on some occasion (which one I’ve forgotten) my sister Mining made a flattering observation about my intellectuality. (She said, in a sense favorable to me, something like: “So you see right here the difference between minds.”) I denied my special status by defending the others whom Mining had placed on a lower rung, but deep down I was pleased by her flattery and by the recognition of my elevated mind. Right then I awoke and was ashamed of my vanity and meanness, and as a kind of penance—my exact thoughts I no longer recall—I made the sign of the cross. I felt that at the very least I should bring myself to stand up or kneel down, but I was too lazy, and so I crossed myself sitting halfway up and then laid back down again. But then I felt that I must get up now, that God commanded it of me. It happened like this: I felt at once my utter nothingness, and I saw that God could command of me whatever he wanted with the understanding that my life would immediately become meaningless if I was disobedient. I thought immediately whether I could explain away the whole thing as an illusion and not at all God’s command; but it became clear to me that if I did that, then I would have to explain away all the religion in me as an illusion. That I would have to renounce the meaning of life. After some resistance I followed the command, turned on the light and got up. I stood in the room and had a terrible feeling. I went to the mirror and looked at myself, and my reflection looked so dreadful that I hid my face in my hands. I felt utterly defeated and in the hand of God, who could do with me as he pleased at any moment. I felt that God could force me to confess my meanness instantly, at any time. That he could at any moment force me to accept the worst for myself, and that I was not ready to accept the worst for myself. That I was not yet ready to renounce friendship and all earthly happiness. But would I ever be ready?! I had not yet been given permission to go back to bed but I was afraid of more commands and, like a bad soldier, like a deserter, I disobeyed orders and went in terrible fear back to bed. Turning off the light I had an accident. The fitting of the electric bulb had come unscrewed; I touched the electrical wire and was shocked. I pulled violently back and hit my elbow extremely painfully on the headboard. But the severe pain came as a deep relief. It distracted me somewhat from my inner feelings. Thus [I] lay there for some time with a horrible feeling and was afraid to fall asleep, so that in a dream my situation wouldn’t come back in all its clarity to my consciousness and I wouldn’t have to accept the worst for myself or lose my wits. I then fell asleep and dreamt no more, or rather not of this. Early in the morning I felt quite normal. Now I am downright feeble and washed out.

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