recordbodycount: Ludwig Wittgenstein (phil. // hey ludwig)
the great civilising force of the 20th century ([personal profile] recordbodycount) wrote2009-09-07 10:18 pm

Hey Ludwig, you are not leaving so early...

"I do not find this party amusing."
"Bah, but it is just beginning! Come, we will make it amusing, you and I, ja, ja? Hey Ludwig? This is for you..."

- Cabaret

I know I've written on Livejournal before about my fondness for Juvenal, and on GreatestJournal about Martial (lost to the beavers) BUT never really expounded on why I like Wittgenstein. I know Chels hasn't read him but knows I'm insane for him, and whenever that happens I like to write something up about why that is.

I've been put off talking about Wittgenstein here in the past because some people on my flist are actually proper philosophy students and not just dilettante English refugees like myself. I didn't want to embarrass myself, because my love for him is not really very academic. In fact, when I first read him I didn't understand what I was reading at all, and it's only bit by bit over the years that I've started to learn the actual meaning of phrases that I had long since memorised. I'm also cautious because when I first encountered him in adolescence and puzzled over his writing, I projected a lot of my own beliefs onto him and to this day I'm never sure what's true out in the real world and what are just my mistaken impressions (of which I am still quite fond).

This all got very long because I couldn't write about the excitement I felt over Wittgenstein without talking about the whole circumstances of what and how I was learning at the time. I guess this is all more about me than him.

I. A Real Fucking Book.

So I'll start with where I first found him, which was in a book about Freud. In Mr Shane's sociology class in grade 11 we had to read about Freud, right? This book was in our school library.

Nostalgi-Tangent: (skip if you want) I fucking loved our school library at St Joe's. I spent many many lunch hours there reading by myself--Robertson Davies, C.S. Lewis, Victor Hugo, Juvenal and Martial for the first time, Augustine, Thomas à Kempis, and lots of much weirder 19th century Catholic devotional stuff like a biography of St Margaret Mary Alacoque (this one!), Louis de Montfort, and St Alphonsus Liguori's The Glories of Mary (omg my childhood). The library was fairly small and newly built, and by a quirk of architecture it was physically above the rest of the school's first floor by a little bit, but not yet on the second floor: you had to approach it via a few steps or a labyrinthine wheelchair ramp, and then through an upward-scaling hall that was always kept dark, like the tunnel leading to the Sibyl's cave at Cumae. There was a statue inside of St Joseph the Worker, holding a carpenter's square, which I often contemplated in the course of my transition from strict Protestant disapproval of stuff like that to a growing fascination with the Catholic use of art. One of the librarians was my deeply indulgent and kindly drama teacher, and the other one observed once while stamping out my books that my name sounded author-like. To wrap this up, it was a place where I felt safe from socialising, a place filled with books that challenged my worldview as well as having morbid descriptions of saintly austerities, and a place where the teachers showered love and validation on me.

It was also the last place where I did my learning strictly from books. This was 1998. There was information on the internet, but scanty and poorly organised. Google had just barely been founded, Wikipedia didn't exist yet at all. Mailing lists were still a current mode of discussion. If I wanted to know about something, I had to get my hands on a real fucking book. And I lived in the boonies outside an insignificant mid-size town that had only two bookstores worth thinking about: Coles, which also doesn't really exist anymore now that ChaptersIndigo owns everything, and The Sanctuary, an independent Christian bookstore that also sold all that idolatrous Catholic crap that tempted me. Rosaries! Statues of saints! Icons! The Sanctuary was pretty much the only place to find books by actual thinkers rather than the bestsellers in Coles. You were out of luck if you lived in Cornwall and wanted to read atheists or Wiccans or something, but Christian intellectuals existed in this dark little store on Second Street which was (I got the impression) always struggling to keep its head above water.

I mentioned Second Street. That was downtown. By the bridge to the States. My dad refused to drive there most of the time. When he did, time was of the essence and we had to hurry up with purchasing, and usually he wanted to know what I was reading. (I mostly had no reason to be embarrassed, but I was anyway.) So where did I get my real-fucking-books?


Back to the St Joe's library.

The Freud book. I've never been able to pin down which book this was--maybe this one (L.W. does appear in the index), probably not this one, but you get the idea. Wittgenstein appeared in his dishy-young-genius Cambridge guise among the intellectuals disagreeing with Freud, delivered his most famous line, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent", and then offered to dance with the male narrator in a ha-ha-homos joke that I didn't get.

II. "It's just enough cryptic that the morons won't get it."

What I did get from that:
1. Someone apparently important that I had never heard of. If you get translated into cartoon form for the graphic-novel introduction to a thinker, you are important.
2. Dishy young genius! This was not insignificant to me.
3. "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen. The sentence was just awkward enough in the translation that I wasn't quite sure what it meant. I thought I knew, but I wasn't sure. I wanted to know and I wanted it bad--it was about language, it was about what could and couldn't be said, and (unlike the stuff we were covering in school) I couldn't immediately get a handle on it.

The internet told me a little bit. This is pretty much the article I found; I remember word-for-word the line "his sexuality was ambiguous but he was probably gay." I was just barely aware that my own sexuality was not quite standard, and unlike a lot of young queers I didn't have a teenage Wilde fixation: Wittgenstein was the first intellectual heavyweight to stride into my thinking under the "gay" label.

Summaries of his life cover a lot of interesting territory. One of the richest families in Europe; Jewish ancestry covered up and assimilated until WWII put them all in mortal danger; they knew Rodin, Klimt, Rilke, and Brahms; went to elementary school with Adolf Hitler; three of his four brothers committed suicide; a lifelong struggle with depression and anxiety; a personal charisma and magnetism that drew imitators among his students; a supreme arrogance combined with a very exacting and merciless self-criticism; a burning intensity of personality and a violent temper; repeated attempts to flee a career in philosophy that all failed as it dragged him back again and again; valorous fighting in WWI and a desperate and expensive attempt in WWII to save his large family from Hitler; refusal to keep his vast inheritance from his father that led him to disperse the fortune among Austrian artists he admired; turning his whole philosophical viewpoint around in his middle years when he decided he'd been wrong; a religious consciousness that seemed sincere but almost empty and impersonal; on and on.

The main thing, for me, is that he was notoriously hard to figure out, at least at the time. His writing was pared down so far that it was epigrammatic, "gnomic", full of the symbols of philosophical logic which to me might as well have been Theban or Ogham. But I loved the idea! Logic reduced to symbols, like math! When I got to university I was disappointed to learn that I had not the slightest knack for it.

Mathematics, too, was crouching in the shadows of his writing. I had mixed success with math in high school, depending on who was teaching it to me, and I never learned to love it. But it was there in my past: my dad used to call me into his office (kept in semi-darkness while he marked papers, the air almost foggy with smoke and the smells of paper and Three Kings ecclesiastical incense) and hand me a typed-out math puzzle, which I would work out and hand back to him, and he would triumphantly tell his students that his 10-year-old daughter had solved it so certainly they could manage it. My father was always convinced that I could do anything I wanted in math or the sciences if I decided to, and since all the teachers at St Joe's knew my father there was a sort of expanded paternal gaze that came through them all, always disappointed that I was competent but not interested. But I was interested in Wittgenstein, who was hooking up language (yes!) with mathematical functions (no!).

When describing the book options in Cornwall I didn't mention the city's quite respectable library, mainly because I didn't often get to go and thus overdue fines tended to pile up into the hundreds of dollars. But that's where I hit paydirt: I found both Ray Monk's magisterial biography Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius and Bruce Duffy's novelisation of Wittgenstein's life, The World as I Found It. It's a piece of shit! Even at sixteen I could tell it was mawkish and sentimental, and there was a memorably awful scene where he sucks cock in a public park, "delicately spitting out" the semen onto the grass.

But Ray Monk fucking delivered. His biography is my standard for the form: virtually every page has some fact or quote or anecdote that sheds light on the character of the man, and the shifts in ideas are explained in about as much clarity as anyone can achieve while writing about Wittgenstein.

The other reason I didn't mention that library was because it didn't really count. I could take books out and read them, but then I had to give them back. There were overdue fines (none at the St Joe's school library) and I couldn't just wander by any day of the week to look at the shelves and visit with books I'd taken out in the past and loved. This was not enough. I wanted to own these books, read them, read them again, rub them all over my naked body, write in them, highlight things, dogear the pages, eat my lunch over them, and brag to the world that I owned them.

So: Toronto.

III. Toronto's on the train, live at Bloor and Jane

When I was 17 or so, one of my best friends in high school, Rob, was also gay, also bookish, also interested in oddities of religion. Rob got up a plan to go to Toronto by ourselves and stay in a hostel. The idea was first of all to hit the bookstores and second of all to buy vibrators. (Really.) We wanted to buy stuff we couldn't get in Cornwall. We wanted books on paganism and the occult, books that acknowledged the existence of homosexuality, books our parents wouldn't approve of, books they didn't sell in a working-class, industrial and mostly Catholic town.

I don't remember what Rob bought, other than (I think) a book on Enochian magic, something like the Greater Key of Solomon, and a hilarious $5.00 hard plastic vibrator in a tawny-gold colour.

I bought a classier vibrator (a Japanese thingy called the "Lovely Ball" which doesn't seem to be for sale anymore), books by Sappho, Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting, and of course, Wittgenstein. The scene was an academic bookstore that soaked my panties through way faster than the adorable Good For Her women's sex shop on the same street. It was packed, PACKED to the gills with all the authors I knew were important and wanted to read, from the Greeks and the Romans on. For years I even kept the sturdy plastic bag with the logo, because it was so good for holding books. I had to spend carefully so all I bought there was Herr Wittgenstein, but it was his actual writing and actual criticism of it, his ideas instead of his biography.

The books were Sir Anthony Kenny's edition of The Wittgenstein Reader, Judith Genova's Wittgenstein: A Way of Seeing, and another graphic-introduction book, Introducing Wittgenstein. For the rest of the year I read nothing else in the cafeteria. My other friends got so sick of seeing me with the books (mostly the Reader) that when I scribbled in the margins they reached across the table and wrote stuff of their own:

This book is crap! [amended by me with a "not" and negated with a second "not" after]
Suz + Sancho [mockery; a friend of ours was nicknamed Sancho Panza for his roly-poly figure]
Melissa hates this book

I didn't particularly care about them writing on my books because I did it more often than they did, although insults to Wittgenstein's honour offended me.

IV. The rose has teeth in the mouth of a beast

Opening of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:
1. The world is all that is the case.
1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things.
1.11 The world is determined by the facts, and by these being all the facts.

I didn't really understand this; I hadn't yet taken a university-level philosophy class and heard the professors' tic of saying something was "the case" or not. I read the sentences in the Tractatus when they weren't things like "I write therefore not 'f(a,b).a=b' but 'f(a,a) (or 'f(b.b). And not 'f(a,b).~a=b'. but 'f(a,b)." The things I could decipher at all usually had one or two possible meanings or more, and I didn't know which was the right one, nor did I really know how a real philosophy student would determine that.

What I did know was that the writing itself felt authoritative, stripped down, austere, mostly precise but often foreign in a way I've always liked. I love reading authors in translation because you tend to get the feel of a foreign accent, someone picking carefully through the language to choose their words--a little too formal, a little awkward, slang and idioms set off a bit as if in a frame, but powerful anyway. I started on Amos Oz at the same time as this and loved the translated English with its Biblical echoes. Wittgenstein felt German, of course, sharp-edged but controlled, an emphatic goose-stepping rhythm marching across the page.

I understood the end of the Tractatus much more clearly:
6.5 If a question can be put at all, then it can also be answered....
6.52 We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, then problems of life have still not been touched on at all. Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer.
6.521 The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem.
(Is not this the reason why men to whom after long doubting the sense of life became clear, could not then say wherein this sense consisted?)
6.522 There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical.
6.524 My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)

He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.
7 Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

I was just starting to learn how difficult it actually is to communicate in theology or philosophy rather than to just grandstand, which is what I'd been doing in high school up until then. Wittgenstein did not succeed in shutting me up, but he did convince me that ethical, religious and aesthetic judgements can't be expressed with propositions ("The cat sat on the mat"); furthermore, that this isn't because those things are unimportant or totally subjective. What I got from him was a sense of a reality that was so important that language and logic couldn't pin it down and the only proper response from human meaning-makers was to say nothing. Ignatius of Antioch made the Wittgensteinian remark, "He who possesses the word of Jesus is truly able to hear even His very silence."

Beyond the Tractatus, Wittgenstein's lectures and notebooks and the Philosophical Investigations are also interesting in a literary way. Once outside the rigidly numbered aphorisms of the Tractatus, he meandered in and out of ideas and paragraphs, asking questions without resolving them, contradicting himself, and so on. The thing that always struck me was the examples he chose, which often had an undertone that I can't quite describe. Melancholy or wistful, maybe, and sometimes weird.
A touch which was still painful yesterday is no longer so today.

You think that after all you must be weaving a piece of cloth: because you are sitting at a loom--even if it is empty--and going through the motions of weaving.

"A new born child has no teeth." "A goose has no teeth." "A rose has no teeth." This last at any rate--one would like to say--is obviously true. It is even surer that a goose has none. And yet it is not so clear. For where should a rose's teeth have been? The goose has none in its jaw. And neither, of course, has it any in its wings; but no one means that when he says it has no teeth. Why, suppose one were to say: the cow chews its food and then dungs the rose with it, so the rose has teeth in the mouth of a beast. This would not be absurd, because one has no notion in advance where to look for teeth in a rose. (Connexion with "pain in someone else's body".)

Someone who, dreaming, says "I am dreaming", even if he speaks audibly in doing so, is no more right than if he said in his dream "it is raining", while it was in fact raining.
Even if his dream were connected with the noise of the rain.

Because a lot of his writing comes to us in the form of personal notes and lectures (in which he would feel his way through a problem aloud), these would be dropped into the text without much context or explanation, giving the impression of many different snatches of thought flying past. So far as I know, Wittgenstein didn't set out to write in a poetic, literary way--he wasn't trying to be a poet-philosopher like Nietzsche, just trying to get things down accurately and find apt metaphors and similes. And yet it feels more like artwork than arguments, in exactly the way that Nietzsche does.

If A has beautiful eyes someone may ask me: what do you find beautiful about his eyes, and perhaps I shall reply: the almond shape, long eye-lashes, delicate lids. What do these eyes have in common with a gothic church that I find beautiful too? Should I say they make a similar impression on me? What if I were to say that in both cases my hand feels tempted to draw them? That at any rate would be a narrow definition of the beautiful.

V. I Will Not Do the Same

Wittgenstein struggled with thoughts of suicide for much of his life. Influenced by Otto Weininger, his notebooks reveal deep self-hatred for his "Jewishness" and his homosexuality, and spasms of doubt about the value of his own work and the quality of his intellect. I related to this too, and often at my low points I thought of his words on hearing about the suicide of Georg Trakl (wie traurig, wie traurig! "what wretchedness, what wretchedness!") and a line from his own notebooks, "I was thinking about my philosophical work and saying to myself: 'I destroy, I destroy, I destroy--'"

At one point in his youth he believed himself to be weak for not committing suicide himself, saying that the act itself required "a rushing of one's own defences." And yet he kept going, dying in bed of cancer in the fifties, his last words, "Tell them I had a wonderful life."

I've often thought about whether he meant it as a kindness to his friends and family or whether from the vantage point he had at the end of his life he really could call it wonderful as a whole. I like to think the latter.

Joey killed himself in an artsy theater.
He just got too involved,
Just a little too involved,
So he blew it all to hell.

Joey vowed--guess he felt deeply polluted--
That he'd never have sex again,
'Cause it's convoluted.
Never have sex again.

Can you believe it, in it?

Joey believed that he had to be everything
To everyone to be.
I mean everything,
So he blew it all to hell.

But I, I will not do the same.
I will not do the same.
I will remain.
I will remain.

- Martin Tielli