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Friday, August 26, 2005

The Attraction of Imperfection

Posted by John Holbo on 08/26/05 at 01:35 AM

This post goes together with the post below, containing excerpts from Timothy Gould’s essay. (I don’t really explain how it goes together, but it does.) It relates to some other posts, and my NDPR review. (It also stitches together bits from my dissertation I never much liked, but would like to like; but that’s ancient history ...)

Gould’s title - "Restlessness and the Achievement of Peace" - is taken from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, §133: "The real discovery is the one that makes me capable of stopping doing philosophy when I want to. - The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself in question. - Instead we now demonstrate a method, by examples; and the series of examples can be broken off. - Problems are solved (difficulties eliminated), not a single problem."

What method ?

In my review I quote Joseph Margolis, from The Literary Wittgenstein: "We do certainly see how brilliantly he worked; but, for all that, I confess I have never seen a convincing statement of Wittgenstein’s general ‘method’" (p. 328). This is, to put it mildly, a big problem. It is - per my favorite Barthelme passage - why the Genius’ disciples tremble when he promises to make them foolproof. A recollection of Wittgenstein by Bouwsma: "He also said that all the years of his teaching had done more bad than good. And he compared it to Freud’s teachings. The teachings, like wine, had made people drunk. They did not know how to use the teachings soberly. Did I understand? Oh, yes, they had found a formula. Exactly." (Well, if you don’t want people to think they’ve found a formula, don’t tell them that you have a method you can impart to them. Certainly don’t start your lectures by announcing, "The nimbus of philosophy has been lost. For we now have a method of doing philosophy, and can speak of skilful philosophers. Compare the difference between alchemy and chemistry: chemistry has a method and we can speak of skilful chemists.")

[I’ve got this in my notes as coming from Drury, but now I can’t find the page reference, so maybe my notes are mixed up and it’s Malcolm or someone else: "Yes, I have reached a real resting place. I know that my method is right. My father was a business man, and I am a business man. I want my philosophy to be businesslike, to get something done, to get something settled." Then, in the footnote, "Years later Wittgenstein said to me: ‘You know I said I can stop doing philosophy when I like. That is a lie! I can’t."]

As I say in my previous post, one possible view is that, in fact, Wittgenstein offers rather conventional arguments, merely distinctively stylized; an opposing view is that somehow he doesn’t argue - he offers ... well, brilliance. Gem-like aphorisms, insight; ingenious marionette-work of little tableaux and so forth. I have said I think neither view is satisfactory, but it isn’t easy to find a satisfactory middle ground. It is noteworthy that such Rashoman-grade disagreement about how to read a thinker could even be possible. What sorts of texts are they which sustain such sharply disjunctive receptions? It obviously has something to do with the tension, in Wittgenstein’s personality, between a sense of obligation to produce some sort of art, and a sense of obligation NOT to try - a sense that philosophy can never be that. As a result, everyone seems to be getting only half, but to be pleased enough with it.

M. O’C. Drury relates a story Wittgenstein told about the logician W.E. Johnson:

After tea Johnson played some of Bach’s Forty-eight Preludes and Fugues. Wittgenstein told me he admired Johnson’s playing. On the way back to Trinity he told me that at one of these afternoons Johnson had played badly, and he knew it himself, but the audience had applauded loudly. This annoyed Johnson, so by way of revenge he gave as an encore the accomplaniment only of a Beeethoven violin sonata, which of course was meaningless without the violin part. This gesture seemed to please and amuse Wittgenstein. (Drury, p. 103)

Consider the first paragraph of David Pear’s two-volume study of Wittgenstein’s philosophy, The False Prison:

Open any of Wittgenstein’s books and you will realize immediately that you are entering a new world. The impression that you get will be quite different from the impression usually given by the writings of philosophers. You will not feel that, though the presentation may be new, the ideas merely repeat one of the familiar patterns of western thought. This landscape is quite different not only in general composition but also in the things that it contains. If the book belongs to the second period of his philosophy, which began in 1929, the biggest surprise will be the absence of theories. There will, of course, be arguments, but not the kind that we have learned to expect. They will be arguments with strange shapes, not designed to connect explicit premises with judicious conclusions, like those of other philosophers. It will not even be easy to separate them from one another and say where one ends and another begins. The usual marks will not be there to guide us and it is going to be difficult to find our way around in this unfamiliar world and even to construe what we see in it. (p. 3)

This is a case study in ambiguity. Is Pears claiming Wittgenstein’s books merely seem fundamentally new and alien, or that they are? Are the impressions we get from Wittgenstein’s books accurate? Are the strange shapes of Wittgenstein’s arguments their true shapes? Do these shapes in fact not connect premises and conclusions? Will the conclusions of these arguments be injudicious (since they are apparently not ‘judicious’?) Will the ‘usual marks’ be absent because Wittgenstein neglects to place them - just to keep the reader on her toes - or because they find no place in an ‘unfamiliar world’?

Is Wittgenstein’s philosophy really unconventional?

From the tone of the passage we infer that Pears does not think the answer is going be: secretly, Wittgenstein’s philosophy is quite conventional; he just made it look more fancy.Yet immediately following: "The simplest general characterization of [Wittgenstein’s] philosophy is that it is critical in the Kantian sense of that word."  Meaning no disrespect to Kant: in the twentieth century, a philosophy can either be a new world or it can be critical, in Kant’s sense. It can hardly be both.

This issue has come up in recent posts: how to take all the odd little scenes. Should we align them with Kafka, Beckett? Respond to them as parables? As thought-experiments? Dramatically? Conceptually? Both? If so, how so? A quote from Harry Staten, Wittgenstein and Derrida:

First, there is Wittgenstein’s satirical turn: he will repeatedly present the philosopher as acting out an absurd or comical scene in his most intense moments of philosophical travail. Elesewhere we will see him looking out the corner of his eye at the mental object, or assuming a solemn facial expression in order to give his words a properly philosophical meaning, and so on.  This is part of the generally ‘scenic’ character of Wittgenstein’s presentation: since he wants to investigate meaning as signification, as spatio-temporal and not as mental-instantaneous, he will continually evoke the scene of language as the locus of meaning. It is also part of the persuasion that Wittgenstein is working as teacher of a method: the tone of satire does combat with the language of philosophy in a different way from the arguments and examples. Wittgenstein presents a philosophical scene not only as misguided but as foolish or even ridiculous. This, one might say, is not the force of truth, but of ‘style’ - and one might certainly be annoyed by it if one is not amused or convinced. Let us keep in mind, however, that Wittgenstein’s prime exemlar of the philosophic urge for presence is himself. To a certain extent his satire is self-satire. (p. 67)

Richard Rorty takes a similar line in "Keeping Philosophy Pure": he talks about Wittgenstein’s ‘mockery’ and ‘rhetorical questions’; "... cheerfully tosses out half-a-dozen incompatible metaphilosophical views in the course of the Investigations;" ... is somehow playing on our mixed feelings about the philosophical tradition (now in the manner of a satirist, now in that of a parlor psychoanalyst)"; "When Wittgenstein is at his best, he resolutely avoids ... constructive criticism and sticks to pure satire."

Self-mocking satire? Contrast some characterizations of Wittgenstein by those who knew him personally. Fania Pascal (his Russian teacher): "If by a sense of humour we mean the capacity to see ourselves in the very act of dealing with others, then Wittgenstein lacked it entirely." For Wittgenstein: "only those thoughts and opinions should be entertained to which you are entirely pledged. It was this that made all Wittgenstein’s views and even occasional remarks memorable." Norman Malcolm writes about how, in class, Wittgenstein is amused by his own odd examples but sternly refuses to let the discussion take on a facetious tone. Rush Rhees recollecting a conversation with Wittgenstein: "Kierkegaard told a bitter parable about the effects of his writings. He said he felt like the theatre manager who runs on the stage to warn the audience of a fire. But they take his appearance as all part of the farce they are enjoying, and the louder he shouts the more they applaud."

Perhaps the dramatic purpose of Wittgenstein’s strange little scenes is not to make us laugh but to be ... Unheimlich. Some sort of dramatic counterpoint between the strange and the ordinary. In this post I quote I.A. Richards’ poem, "The Strayed Poet". Richards portrays Wittgenstein as a poetic captive of his own thoughts, other philosophers as captivated by him. But there is a tendency among many writers and artists to see the imprisonment relation in a different light. (False prisons in false prisons.) Let me quote a Herman Rapaport blurb from Marjorie Perloff’s book, Wittgenstein’s Ladder, Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary:

In liberating Wittgenstein from the confines of sterile analytic debates among ‘language philosophers’ Perloff has managed a kind of ‘debut’ in which Wittgenstein, for the first time, can be seen and appreciated as a creative thinker whose writings straddle the divide of literary and philosophical composition.       

The opposition of ‘creative thought’ and ‘analytic philosophy’ is rather high-handed (but John Emerson is smiling aren’t you, John?)

Turn on iTunes. Play The New Pornographers, “Chump Change”. “Now wipe that look from your face/ the world is that which is the case." There certainly is a lot of loosely Wittgenstein-inspired art in the world. I blegged up some here and here. My old advisor told me that in the Austrian village where Wittgenstein taught school for a time you can go on a walk through the woods and pass seven stages, each marked by one of the seven major propositions of the Tractatus on little wooden plaques. (Or something like that. "From any piece of wood, a god can be carved.")

Some examples.

John Cage’s 1989 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures are composed as "mesostics”: topically arranged quotations culled from works of various writers. The most generous involuntary contributor is Wittgenstein, who scores 93 out of 487, beating Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McCluhan, Thoreau, Beckett (not the playwright, another Beckett), and Emerson. Cage writes: "I have long been attracted to [Wittgenstein’s] work, reading it with enjoyment but rarely with understanding … I decided to subject the Wittgenstein corpus to chance operations. Which book? which page? were my questions. Given the page I made a choice." Cage encapsulates (without caps) the point: "i take out the words i don’t want. . . i’m hunting for ideas and in order to find them i have to take out the ones that don’t allow them to exist."   

Another example: Wittgenstein, The Terry Eagleton Script, the Derek Jarman Film. A teleplay script that underwent substantial revision before reaching the screen. Colin McGinn’s indignant judgment upon it in a "New Republic" review:

It gives the impression that philosophical discussion is just a clash of portentous profundities, a duel of gnomic pronouncements; and the mordant tone of the film encourages this impression. But philosophical discourse is nothing like that: it consists of argument, counter-argument, clarification, detail, restatement, recantation. Philosophy is not intrinsically incomprehensible or faintly silly. I note that no philosopher appears to have been consulted in the making of the film, which is really quite amazing. Did anybody involved in making the film actually study Wittgenstein’s works, or the commentaries on them?  I fear that they took the view that Wittgenstein is what you make of him. ("Soul on Fire", June 20, 1994)

In Jarman’s defense, he makes no effort to conceal his lack of philosophical understanding. The title of his commentary on his own film is "This is Not a Film of Ludwig Wittgenstein". He composes a florid pastiche of fact and fantasy - arresting images, glaring anachronisms.

Furthermore, one should not conflate a lack of understanding with a failure to read. Jarman and Cage are clearly steeped in vast quantities of Wittgenstein’s words. A very substantial portion of the dialogue in Jarman’s screenplay is culled from Wittgenstein’s writings (or from recollections of conversations with him.) But the original material is, as McGinn suggests, composed in such a way as to deprive it of any vestige of its original sense. The result is highly aestheticized pseudo-philosophical wallpaper – take it or leave it.

A fairly representative sample of dialogue:

RUSSELL: Why won’t you admit there’s no rhinoceros in this room?
WITTGENSTEIN: Because, Professor Russell, the world is made up of facts not things.
RUSSELL: Look for yourself … I tell you for a fact - There is no rhinoceros in this room.
WITTGENSTEIN: The issue is metaphysical not empirical.
RUSSELL: I thought the next big step in philosophy would be yours - now I am not so sure.   

Let me tell you how this got put together. In 1911, Russell’s newly arrived student, Wittgenstein, refused to admit that there was no rhinoceros in Russell’s room. (Apparently Russell made a show of looking under tables and such.) But Wittgenstein did not cite proposition 1.1 of the Tractatus - "The world is made up of facts, not things" - in his own defense. He did not, not only because it wouldn’t be written until 1918 but because at the time he thought the issue was neither metaphysical nor empirical but epistemological. (The existence of a rhinoceros would be a fact, not a thing, in any case.)  Russell related in a letter how ‘his German’ - i.e. Wittgenstein - argued that nothing can be known about the world except that it contains asserted propositions.

Jarman concludes his fictional version of the classroom exchange with a clipping from a later conversation between Russell and Wittgenstein’s sister, Hermine, recollected by her in a memoir: "Suddenly, Russell said to me, ‘We expect the next big step in philosophy to be taken by your brother’." By contrast, at the time of the rhinoceros episode, Russell was underwhelmed by the aptitude of his new pupil. In letters, Russell characterized Wittgenstein, variously, as "obstinate & perverse," "argumentative and tiresome," and "armor-plated against all assaults of reasoning."

It is pointless to criticize Jarman just for taking liberties. He is obviously aware of his own technique. But it is striking - the fastidiousness of the infidelity to the original, achieved by means of bits of the original.

Let me list three other authors who proceed in similar (though less extreme) fashion. First, Bruce Duffy explains in the preface to his novel, The World As I Found It, that "the book follows the basic outlines of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s life and character;" but "it makes no attempt at a faithful or congruent portrayal." There are significant characters - the Australian ‘bounder’, if memory serves - who Duffy simply invents. Second, a short story by Guy Davenport, "The Aeroplanes at Brescia," envisions an almost-encounter between Kafka and Wittgenstein at an air show attended, for good measure, by the Italian futurist Marinetti. Finally, Terry Eagleton’s novel, Saints and Scholars, envisions a disorderly convocation in a cottage on the Irish coast: Wittgenstein, Nikolai Bahktin (brother of the famous linguistic, Mikhail; Wittgenstein really did know Nikolai, though they were never at his Irish cottage together); Irish patriot James Connolly; and Leopold Bloom (yes, that Bloom, on the lam from Ulysses.)

Harry Staten again:

Wittgenstein’s language invites being chopped up and carried away in pieces even more than most writers’ language, because of the extent to which he has opened up its articulatory spaces. His investigations are broken into discrete "remarks" which, although they are woven into a sequence with the greatest care, retain an integrity or autonomy that allow them easily to be detached from this sequence. (p. 65)   

Something of the sort seems to apply to the man himself; he invites getting chopped up and carried into all sorts of fictional environments. But sticking with Staten: he nods to careful sequences, then fails to give any hint as to why it would be appropriate to tear them apart to suit private taste in furnishings for articulatory spaces. (Lots of fur and leather, in Jarman’s case.) How can something built to be part of a larger sequence maintain its ‘integrity’ - i.e. intellectual functionality - in isolation? Staten continues: "What such a procedure [chopping up and carrying away in pieces] cannot account for is the style of the language, its coherence as a zigzag movement, its dependence on metaphor, its use of irony, and so on." First of all, it seems dubious to suggest that cannabilizing a thing for spare parts amounts to offering an ‘account’ at all. Beyond that, any account that focuses on the elements that endure through the process is likely to focus on just what Staten says will be lost. The philosophy will end up seeming aphoristic - ironic, metaphoric, stylish. What will be lost will be the arguments, if any.

For all their disavowals of specific knowledge concerning their subject, Cage and Jarman appear to presuppose some such view as Staten’s - that is, that by being untrue to Wittgenstein, they are somehow being true to him. They emulate Wittgenstein’s well-known compositional techniques - clipping, rearranging and paring his remarks - perhaps on the assumption that any resultant collage is likely to constitute a suitable tribute to the original, somehow akin in spirit. "The film was pared away. I was always removing things. It is the same with the soundtrack. A process of elimination." For good measure, one gets a strong sense that Jarman and many others feel that since there is no such thing as getting Wittgenstein right - i.e. there is no philosophical theory to misconstrue - there can be no such thing as getting Wittgenstein wrong: "Ludwig lives in a post-Copernican world. Where he and you are the centre of your respective languages. Language has become a bouquet. There is no true path."   

In 1948 Wittgenstein drafted a preface for Philosophical Investigations: "May [the book] soon - this is what I wish for it - be completely forgotten by the philosophical journalists and so be preserved perhaps for a better sort of reader" (CV, p. 66). It is understandable for artists and poets, who find the aesthetic surfaces of Wittgnestein’s texts beguiling, to hope they are these better readers. “Ludwig was no schoolman," Jarman remarks. In fact, as Wittgenstein writes in his Notebooks, "It has been what I should like to call my strong scholastic feeling that has occasioned my best discoveries" (NB, p.11.14). This is not to say that Wittgenstein is always scholastic; but he is always highly scholastic in at least one sense: his distrust of professional philosophy is exceeded only by his disdain for dilettantes.

A letter from Wittgenstein to G.H. von Wright, written in 1939, speaks to philosophical side of this point:   

I shall try to explain why the presence of two new people in my class, the other day, greatly disturbed me. - I am, in my classes, doing my utmost to explain a very difficult matter to the students, who have been attending my classes this term. I know that it is quite impossible for any one coming in the middle, or at the end, of the term to get any idea of what we really are driving at. In fact he must necessarily get wrong ideas. I hope you will understand this, and if you do you will also understand why being aware of this fact disturbs me a lot when I should be concentrating entirely on my subject. (PO, p. 459)      

It’s easy to focus on how Wittgenstein was always leaving Cambridge to go to a Norwegian hut, the Irish coast to talk to birds, the Russian front in W.W I. But he wouldn’t have been able to leave so many times if he didn’t keep coming back.

Wittgenstein would have been exceedingly disturbed by the prospect of a great many people dabbling in his philosophy ad nauseum without exhibiting the least ‘scholastic feeling’. Thus, when Jarman writes that, "my film does not portray or betray Ludwig," he is, in a certain sense, simply mistaken. Wittgenstein would have felt utterly betrayed by the failure to portray accurately. Either one stays away, or one takes it seriously; there is no middle way. Wittgenstein would surely react to Jarman’s film much as he reacts to books of popular science:   

These books which attempt to popularize science are an abomination. They pander to people’s curiosity to be titillated by the wonders of science without having to do any of the really hard work involved in understanding what science is about.    

To be titillated by the wonders of Wittgenstein’s philosophy - say, the spectacle of Wittgenstein talking to some green, Alf-like Martian in Jarman’s film - is not at all the same thing as understanding Wittgenstein, let alone somehow getting in touch with the spirit of Wittgenstein’s philosophy.

I return to the indignant Colin McGinn review of Jarman’s film. "[Wittgenstein’s] philosophy does not consist of a series of ‘inspired suggestions,’ from which the reader is invited to derive his own lessons, or to indulge his own fancy. It is a tightly constructed body of doctrine."   

McGinn is right that the ‘articulatory spaces’ are not supposed to be so many spaces to hear your own private associations and feelings echoing and re-echoing. All the same, it is simply not obvious that Wittgenstein’s philosophy is a body of doctrine at all, let alone ‘tightly-constructed’. One simply cannot leave out of consideration persistant denials by Wittgenstein himself that he is formulating doctrines. As early as the Tractatus: "Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity" (TLP, 4.112). Later: "If one tried to advance theses in philosophy, it would never be possible to debate them, because everyone would agree with them" (PI, §128). McGinn concludes his review as follows:

Wittgenstein never abandoned the traditional problems: knowledge, meaning, mind, mathematics, logic, explanation, analysis. He was not a literary or political theorist. He was a pure philosopher.

Understanding Wittgenstein on his own terms. . . is often the last thing that the fascinated want. They have their own needs, their own uses, for him. They seek confirmation of their own views and values by an acknowledged genius. But what really makes Wittgenstein so interesting, as a thinker and a man, is the distance that separates him from familiar ways of thinking and being. To get the most out of him, you have to see that he is nothing like yourself.

The second paragraph comes back the haunt the first. McGinn, the analytic philosopher, seems reluctant to consider evidence to the effect that Wittgenstein might be unlike himself. Early in the review, McGinn makes claims about the form of Wittgenstein’s philosophical writings that one senses he supposes must be right - not because he has any evidence, per se, but because he is antecedently convinced of Wittgenstein’s pedigree as a ‘pure’: "Jarman renders the austere philosopher of language from a painterly standpoint. It is not a prism of Wittgenstein’s own devising; he was interested in color for its logical grammar, not its aesthetic or expressive possibilities." This is ironic in light of Wittgenstein’s very famous characterization of Philosophical Investigations as an ‘album of sketches,’ rendered from a painterly standpoint (PI, p. v). And it is difficult to read from Remarks on Colour, for example, and to maintain that Wittgenstein has no interest in the aesthetic and expressive character of colors. Above all, McGinn exhibits no awareness of numerous remarks by Wittgenstein that strongly suggest he conceives of his philosophy poetically, even musically.

I think I summed up my attitude to philosophy when I said:  philosophy ought really to be written only as a poetic composition ... For I was thereby revealing myself as someone who cannot quite do what he would like to be able to do" (CV, 24).


Broad was quite right when he said of the Tractatus that it was highly syncopated. Every sentence in the Tractatus should be seen as the heading of a chapter, needing further exposition. My present style is quite different; I am trying to avoid that error. I thought when I gave up my professorship that I had at last got rid of my vanity. Now I find I am vain about the style in which I am able to write my present book. It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood? (Drury, p. 159-60)


Just as I cannot write verse, so too my ability to write prose extends only so far, and no farther. There is a quite definite limit to the prose I can write and I can no more overstep that than I can write a poem. This is the nature of my equipment; and it is the only equipment I have. It’s as though someone were to say:  in this game I can only attain such and such a degree of perfection, I can’t go beyond it. (CV, 59)

Remarks like these make it clear one cannot simply say Wittgenstein was a ‘pure’ philosopher and leave it at that - not if one wants to understand him. On the other hand, the fact that Wittgenstein obviously regards his works as poetic - but as failed, out of vanity, "like bad musical composition" (CV, p. 39) - problematizes ‘the literary Wittgenstein’ as theme of praise, let alone a royal road to understanding his philosophy.

I just took some apples out of a paper bag where they had been lying for a long time.  I had to cut half off many of them and throw it away. Afterwards when I was copying out a sentence I had written, the second half of which was bad, I at once saw it as a half-rotten apple. And that’s how it always is with me.  (CV, 31)

And, and even more critically: 

Raisins may be the best part of a cake; but a bag of raisins is not better than a cake; and someone who is in a position to give us a bag full of raisins still can’t bake a cake with them, let alone do something better. I am thinking of Kraus and his aphorisms, but of myself too and my philosophical remarks. A cake - that isn’t as it were: thinned-out raisins. (CV, p. 66)

What Wittgenstein seems to be saying here is that his penchant for aphoristic writing is an aesthetic vice. He has a talent for reducing - for cutting away bad things - but not for developing small good things into something bigger. His regards all conventional argumentative methods as suspect, but has not really found anything satisfactory to put in their place. He is also torn between a desire for extreme unity - a sense that philosophy should properly just be One Thought - and a sense that, in fact, it cannot be anything but an analytic breaking-down, an ever-diffusing multiplicity. This is true both early and late. The Tractatus is, allegedly, all ‘elucidation’ of one thought, "The world is all that is the case." Philosophical Investigations is criss-crossing paths, but over "the same or almost the same points". "There is no one central problem in philosophy, but countless different problems. Each has to be dealt with on its own. Philosophy is like trying to open a safe with a combination lock: each little adjustment of the dials seems to achieve nothing; only when everything is in place does the door open" (Drury, p. 111). But that is just to say that there is One Big Click you are hoping for at the end.

Nietzsche on "the attraction of imperfection":

Here I see a poet who, like many a human being, is more attractive by virtue of his imperfections than he is by all the things that grow to completion and perfection under his hands. Indeed, he owes his advantages and fame much more to his ultimate incapacity than to his ample strength. His works never wholly express what he would like to express and what he would like to have seen: It seems as if he had had the foretaste of a vision and never the vision itself; but a tremendous lust for this vision remains in his soul, and it is from this that he derives his equally tremendous eloquence of desire and craving. By virtue of this lust he lifts his listeners above his word and all mere "works" and lends them wings to soar as high as listeners had never soared. Then, having themselves been transformed into poets and seers, they lavish admiration upon the creator of their happiness, as if he had led them immediately to the vision of what was for him the holiest and ultimate – as if he had attained his goal and had really seen and communicated his vision. His fame benefits from the fact that he never reached his goal. (GS, §79)


I see someone’s already mentioned the V. reference, but if you’re interested, here’s some more on it (from one of the aborted drafts of my yet-to-make-sense contribution on Lit. Witt.):

Kurt Mondaugen locked himself in a turret of a besieged fortress deep in the former Deutsch-Sudwestafrika so that he might continue his study of atmospheric radio disturbances.  He hid from both the perpetual Fasching below and the Bondelschwartz rebellion that threatened to end it.  (You could say he preferred oscillographs to orgies.) Soon

he detected a regularity or patterning which might almost have been a kind of code. But it took him weeks even to decide that the only way to see if it were a code was to try to break it. His room became littered with tables, equations, graphs; he appeared to labor to the accompaniment of twitterings, hisses, clicks and carolings but in reality he dawdled.

Weeks passed.  Then one night

he was awakened by a disheveled Weismann, who could scarcely stand still for excitement. “Look, look,” he cried, waving a sheet of paper under Mondaugen’s s slowly blinking eyes. Mondaugen read:


“So,” he yawned.

“It’s your code. I’ve broken it. See: I remove every third letter and obtain: GODMEANTNUURK. This rearranged spells Kurt Mondaugen.”

“Well, then,” Mondaugen snarled. “And who the hell told you you could read my mail.”

“The remainder of the message,” Weissmann continued, “now reads: DIEWELTISTALLESWASDERFALLIST.”

“The world is all that the case is,” Mondaugen said. “I’ve heard that somewhere before.” A smile began to spread. “Weissmann, for shame. Resign your commission, you’re in the wrong line of work. You’d make a fine engineer: you’ve been finagling.”

“I swear,” Weissmann protested, hurt.

For those of you unfamiliar with Pynchon’s <a href="http://www.powow.com/neilyoung/thomas pynchon-v.htm">V.</a>, the above represents a sketch of the ninth chapter, “Mondaugen’s Story.” If Weissmann can be trusted--and as readers of Gravity’s Rainbow know, there’s reason enough to believe he can’t be--the World has taken upon Itself the task of reminding Mondaugen of Wittgenstein’s gnomic opening to the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.  If Weissmann can’t be trusted, then he has taken upon himself the task of reminding Mondaugen of TLP 1.  I think this passage in V. glosses the conflict between early and late Wittgensteinian thought: Weissmann finagles the oscilloscope to produce Wittgenstein’s opening salvo in the same way the older Wittgenstein believed his younger self wangled Die Welt to produce the TLP.  I could be mistaken on a number of fronts: the origin of the message, its intended meaning, Wittgenstein’s intended meaning, &c.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 08/26/05 at 03:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m often toying with the idea of a scale along which one can place intepretations of wittgenstein by philosophers, from the most strictly analytic the the most openly humanistic. I think some of it might go something like:

Ryle -> Dennett -> Kripke -> Hacker ->Mcdowell -> Diamond -> Rorty

By on 08/27/05 at 02:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

one possible view is that, in fact, Wittgenstein offers rather conventional arguments

This I would agree with, at least in regards to Witt. I (and you may recall that Russell referred to Witt. I and Witt II).  The TLP takes the classical forms of logic more or less for granted, and the Fregean/Russellean use of quantifiers as well, with some modifications (homework: does Witt. really resolve Russell’s paradox in a few sentences as he claims too?). The insistence on deductive forms as abave induction and probability is also fairly traditional as well (though his ideas on probability were not made very clear in the TLP).  Though some claim to see support for platonic or idealist themes, I think Witt. is nominalist usually--the meaning of the name is the bearer of the name, the object, not some essence or universal-- with perhaps some mystical suggestions. But he does take the facts of natural science to be true. In fact, experiments with primates have confirmed in part a picture theory of consciousness, that the primate cortex captures or mirrors images processed by the visual apparatus. Though there are some difficult sections with the summation signs and the discussion of number theory, it’s fairly straightforward positivism in the Fregean/early Russellian mode, and I do not think it offers much in the way of support for any literary aeasthetics, except perhaps if one were to view a reductio ad absurdum proof as poetic.

The PI is a different matter.  Many various themes can be extracted from the PI, though Ryle and Kripke are, I believe, the most plausible approaches: the PI is still nominalism mostly, though of a more unique and cryptic sort than that of the TLP. And however much lit. types and idealists may overlook them, there are behaviorist/inductive elements which are not to be just brushed away by those in search of some exquisite koan.

I managed to complete Pynchon’s V years ago: isn’t it mostly yuks and satire (though with some melancholy). There is a song I believe (from Benny Profane to Mafia?) satirizing the TLP and logic really (p’s & q’s and so forth) and on the whole I felt that Capn’ Tom--a genius of sorts too, tho a far more zany one than Witt.-- was sort of lampooning Witt., especially in regards to the quantum physics/information theory stuff he also alludes to.

By snake on 08/27/05 at 12:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Surely someone has mentioned to you David Wojahn’s fine villanelle “After Wittgenstein” (from his book THE FALLING HOUR).

By Steven on 08/27/05 at 02:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

snake, I am tired of deleting the inappropriate comments left by your alter egos. The oscillation between appropriate and inappropriate is novel, I admit, but I don’t regard it as acceptable to participate in discussion half the time, and scuttle it the other half. Kindly stop leaving inappropriate comments. Thank you.

By John Holbo on 08/28/05 at 12:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Tim Gould sent me this note and asked me to post it on his behalf - so here it is. (I’m not sure whether he wanted it to be a post, so maybe I’ll elevate it, or some future version, later.)

“This is my first real experience of this sort of semi-colloquial colloquium.  I have been working on a short response to Martin Stone’s paper--which I have read and heard in “colloquial” circumstances--and something about Richard Eldridge linking of Romanticism and Wittgenstein and Cavell.  And I read with gratitude John Holbo’s review of The Literary Wittgenstein. singling out my essay and Eldridge’s among others.

Before I manage to post something more substantial, I wanted to register my sense of the experience.  I have worked closely with a couple of friends by email, and seen the resulting words in books, here and there. But seeing this much of one’s own work in a website. followed by comments at once some casual and yet rigorously thoughtful is very singular experience. Partly it captures the sense of the kind of conversation that might occur just after you have given a paper, in the hallway of a conference perhaps, or over a beer. And, as with movies, there is that since of the evanescence of life and thought, somehow captured, at least for the moment.

Reading John Holbo’s essay there is also a sense that thinking, like time, may be slightly out of synch, or out of joint, As if what really counts is pent up, waiting for its chance to emerge into something like the public eye. This too can be useful. But it does not give me the sense of the casual accuracy of some very productive conversations. It is some deeper sense of response, a kind of dam breaking open. And of course one response to that is to protect oneself from drowning.

More exactly, my sense if of streams of thought rushing by, perhaps a branch on one stream that you might like to pick out, turn it over contemplatively in your hand, and through it back, perhaps at a different angle or a different velocity.

All this is just a way of saying, perhaps, that I am new to this format, and that, being by nature distractible by the thoughts of others, I want to follow out to many branches, or (changing the metaphor) too many threads of thought.  But, as I said, I am grateful for the chance to try and perhaps I will find a useful angle after all.  Indeed, the kind of continuity and discontinuity which a website allows for may not grant the sort of peace that I claim may result from a succession of Wittgensteinian examples.  But grant a kind of space for the sort of restlessness and oscillation that lies behind some of Wittgenstein’s best work.  As if in technology we find something which, finally, need not exacerbate our short attentions spans, and our inability to sit still.  And it might even provide a moment or two in which productivity exists, apart from the aptness of conversation or the self-containment of one’s best writing. It might provide a use for these moments “in between”, where something gets said, however, provisionally. And that something might makes room for something else.That seems hopeful.”

By John Holbo on 08/28/05 at 10:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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