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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Monday, August 15, 2005

The Strayed Poet

Posted by John Holbo on 08/15/05 at 10:10 AM

In the early 30’s, I.A. Richards briefly attended Wittgenstein’s seminars and wrote “The Strayed Poet”:

Poke the fire again!  Open the window!
Shut it! - patient pacing unavailing.
Barren the revelations on the ceiling -
Dash back again to agitate a cinder.

‘Oh it’s so clear!  It’s absolutely clear!’
Your voice and his I heard in those Non-lectures
- Hammock chairs sprawled skew-wise all about;
Moore in the armchair bent on writing it all out -
Each soul agog for any word of yours.

Few could long withstand your haggard beauty,
Disdainful lips, wide eyes bright-lit with scorn,
Furrowed brow, square smile, sorrow-born
World-abandoning devotion to your duty. 

Such the torment felt, the spell-bound listeners,
Watched and waited for the words to come,
Held and bit their breath while you were dumb,
Anguished, helpless, for the hidden prisoners.

Tense nerves crisp tenser then throughout the school;
Pencils are poised: ‘Oh, I’m a bloody fool!’
A damn’d fool!’ - So: however it appear.

Not that the master isn’t pedagogic:
Thought-free brows grow pearly as they gaze.
Hearts bleed with him. But - should you want a blaze,
Try prompting! Who is next will drop a brick?

Window re-opened, fire attack’d again,
(Leave, but leave what’s out, long since, alone!)
Great calm; A sentence started; then the groan
Arrests the pencil leads. Round back to the refrain.

I’ve suggested before Barthelme may be closer to the mark with “The Genius”:

His assistants cluster about him. He is severe with them, demanding, punctilious, but this is for their own ultimate benefit. He devises hideously difficult problems, or complicates their work with sudden oblique comments that open whole new areas of investigation - yawning chasms under their feet. It is as if he wishes to place them in situations where only failure is possible. But failure, too, is a part of mental life. “I will make you failure-proof,” he says jokingly. His assistants pale.

Is it true, as Valery said, that every man of genius contains within himself a false man of genius?

Enough for tonight. I’ll pick up here tomorrow - or Wednesday.

Consider this a Wittgenstein open thread. If you missed my review of The Literary Wittgenstein in NDPR, well go ahead and read it. Please feel free to ask questions.


You have not yet indicated whether you are guided by the Tractatus or, instead, by the Philosophical Investigations in your attempts to read Lit. avec Witt. Do you see those two texts as featuring mutually exclusive epistemologies or is there perhaps continuity, and what would any continuity entail for any possible lit. interpretation? Do you think there is metaphysics implied in the PI, or is it perhaps pointing more towards psychology, if not behaviorism.

Barthelme’s story seemed more critical (or at least satirical) rather than admiring when I read it years ago.

By ............. on 08/15/05 at 05:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I have a bunch of questions that might fit into a Wittgenstein “open” thread, but let me toss out what might be a penny-ante issue—albeit one that figures into at least two essays: the problem of fictional truth, or the truth of fictional statements.  I’ve read many articles on related topics (especially as the issue relates to naming), and I have to say that I’m still not sure I get the import of the problem.  Here are my reactions to the Wittgenstein essays:

First, is the early Wittgenstein really as stringent about “facts” and “objects” as these essays make him out to be?  That is, would he really have a problem in mapping out relations between statements about a book ("Benjy Compson was castrated") and sentences from that book ("I could hear the Great American Gelding snoring away like a planing mill") and calling certain relations “true” – i.e., accurate pictures of pictures?

Consider the following: “One name stands for one thing, another for another thing, and they are combined with one another. In this way the whole group – like a tableau vivant – presents a state of affairs” (T 4.0311).  Now we may have a translation problem here ("lebendes Bild“), but doesn’t the simile speak well for the status of fictional truth?  After all, what states of affairs does a tableau vivant present?  A historical scene, possibly.  But just as often, it shows scenes from mythology, literature, and of course painting – including history painting.  So if a copy of a picture can be true to the original, can’t a statement of facts about a story be just as accurate or inaccurate?

Second, it always seemed odd to me that this was presented as a “literary topic,” especially when “fiction” is such a small subset of what we might call fictional statements.  I mean, you’ve got song lyrics, counterfactuals, thought experiments, hypothetical cases, and jokes ("a skeleton walks into a bar and asks for a whiskey and a mop").  And of course make-believe stories are at the heart of philosophy itself.  I mean, doesn’t every philosophy paper have to have some scenario about tables or cats (and mats) or mountain-climbers or spies to establish and elucidate its logical points?  Why isn’t the problem of “fictional truth” called the problem of “philosophical argument”? 

Third, is either philosophy or literary studies affected by these problems of “fictional truth”?  If Wittgenstein doesn’t care that the propositions of philosophy are nonsensical (6.54), why should fiction care at all about its out truth claims and “cognitive value”?  What’s sauce for the goose, after all… And if we decide that the truths of literature aren’t really true, then so much the worse for truth.

Fourth, to what extent (if at all) should literary critics care about this philosophical question?  I can imagine, for instance, that theologians do (and should) care about philosophers’ arguments about the existence or non-existence of God.  But does the question of fictional truth and the cognitive value of literature have any bearing, however tangentially, on the practice of literary studies?

Lastly, does any problem from analytic philosophy have such a bearing?  I mean this quite seriously.  I started off my academic life determined to find that connection.  I’ve long since given up – and now love my two intellectual parents equally, but in different ways.

Or writ large, How is philosophy important to literature?

By on 08/15/05 at 09:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

“Huemer quotes Russell on Hamlet: “the propositions in the play are false because there was no such man.”

Bravo! Here Lord Russell not only rejects the idylls of the bourgeoisie, but provides a brief primer on definite descriptions. Study this, gals & goys, and you may come to realize that English PhD holders are a bit lower in the food chain than the average RN.

By Ayatollah of Pensacola on 08/15/05 at 09:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Elided one,

I very much mean the Barthelme comparison to be critical. I think Wittgenstein’s personality was not healthy to those around him, interesting as it is to study from a greater distance. The literary Wittgenstein is potentially a couple different topics. I personally am less interested in trying to come up with a Wittgensteinian theory of literature. I don’t find that terribly hopeful (although I don’t forbid others the attempt.) I am interested in trying to solve the riddle of Wittgenstein’s peculiar philosophic personality, which is bound up with his peculiar literary style. I don’t think of this as being a purely biographical puzzle. I think it is a topic that usefully opens up interesting historical questions, about the migrations of German idealism and Romanticism, for example. But I’m not going to try to explain that in a comment. (There’s also more to it than history: how do you write philosophy? That’s a good question.)

Peter, I’m planning a specific go-round with John Gibson about his paper in a couple weeks. It may be that his is the one you are thinking of. (He’s on vacation at the moment but is eager to chat about these things upon his return.) As to the rest of your points: good points. More than a comment’s worth of response can address. I’m about to post a PDF of Martin Stone’s paper, and I think he addresses very well the ‘do literary critics really have to worry about this stuff?’ question. That is, just because they are concerned with ‘meaning’ do they need to be interested in philosophical theories of meaning & etc. (That’s too simple, but that’s in the ballpark. And a very good question to ask.)


Let me quote you a bit from Russell’s “Autobiography” - the bit about his forays into fiction writing. He wrote a book called “Nightmares of Eminent Persons”. “They were intended to illustrate the secret fears that beset the great while they sleep.” This bit seems appropriate to your judgment upon Shakespeare:

“Another Nightmare was inspired by a psycho-analytic doctor in America who was somewhat dissatisfied by the use commonly made of psycho-analysis. He felt that everyone might be brought to humdrum normality, so I tried portraying Shakespeare’s more interesting heroes after they had undergone a course of psycho-analysis. In the dream, a head of Shakespeare speaks, ending with the words, “Lord, what fools these mortals be.’ I had an approving letter from the American doctor.

I found a reluctance on the part of both editors and readers to accept me in the role of a writer of fiction. They seemed, just on the face of it, to resent the fact that I was trying my hand at something they had not grown used to my doing.”

In fact, Russell just isn’t a good fiction writer. Oh well. Nevertheless, the point would be: if you think that ‘the propositions in the play are false because there was no such man’ is the pinnacle of literary judgment, you most certainly have Russell himself to contend with before you get to us, the poor writers for the Valve. Russell never would have settled for anything so humdrum as simply declaring the sentences to be false - although, of course, his theory says they are.

By John Holbo on 08/16/05 at 12:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think some later Wittgenstein might be significant as an antidote for those seeing poetry, for example, as an expression of thoughts the normal language cannot express (Paul Celan, maybe?)

I also think some of the Language Poets, fond as they are of Wittgensteinian aphorisms, are making an attempt at achieving none-paraphraseable propositional content through breaking and reshaping the language. I think a lot of them interpret the “one can only mean in language” line of aphorisms in a way that has more to do with Derrida than Witt, seeing propositional content as kind of substance that can be bent and twisted.

I think in these cases the most anal, traditionalist, Oxford-Circle-ish kind of readings of the later Wittgenstein can hit the foundation of the vision pretty hard.

So personally I feel analytic philosophy is important to literature in order for literature to discover that it isn’t philosophical in a special, magical literary way. I don’t think that’s an urgent project though, as such ambitions, false though they may be, produce much of the best poetry.

By on 08/16/05 at 12:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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