Having only so many fingers, we humans like to divide up history by multiples of ten. This year literary types around the world are celebrating the centenaries of The Waste Land and Ulysses; just as enthusiastically, philosophers are marking the 100th anniversary of a work as rebarbatively modernist as anything by Eliot or Joyce — the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
Arranged in numbered propositions and sub-propositions like those of Euclid’s Elements or Spinoza’s Ethics, the Tractatus was the young Wittgenstein’s attempt to work out a comprehensive account of the relationship between language and reality, what has been called his “picture theory”: the structure of our language represents the structure of the world in the same way that a picture represents what it depicts. The Tractatus rules out as unphilosophical, even “senseless,” many of the questions that have traditionally occupied philosophers — ethics, aesthetics, the “meaning of life.”
“§4.003 Most questions and propositions of the philosophers,” Wittgenstein writes, “result from the fact that we do not understand the logic of our language.” “§6.421 It is clear that ethics cannot be expressed. Ethics is transcendental. (Ethics and aesthetics are one),” he asserts. Ultimately, “§6.41 The sense of the world must lie outside the world.”
Wittgenstein was awarded a Cambridge doctorate on the basis of the Tractatus (one of his examiners is reported to have written “The Tractatus is a work of genius, but it otherwise satisfies the requirements for a Ph.D.”). He never completed another book. Instead, he endlessly tinkered with what would be posthumously published as the Philosophical Investigations, in which he largely rejected the Tractatus’s “picture theory” of language in favor of a far more complex notion of “language-games” rooted in various “forms of life.”
If the Tractatus radically redefines (and narrows) the scope of philosophy, its lapidary pronouncements have proved irresistibly suggestive to literary theorists, poets, and artists: “5.6: The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” or “§6.44 Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.” The young Danish poet Signe Gjessing describes her own Tractatus Philosophico-Poeticus as a “rewriting” of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. But while she has adopted the Tractatus’s ostensibly logical numerical arrangement, her poem can only be described as very un-Wittgensteinian, obsessed precisely with the issues of being, beauty, ecstasy, and God that the early Wittgenstein felt were beyond language:
1 The world looks out, then arises, in beauty. 1.01 Here is the the world. 1.011 Reality slips right through here. 1.0111 Possibilities discover reality’s shortcut: The world arises. 1.1 The world is everything that is evident.
(Here Gjessing riffs off of and subverts Wittgenstein’s own opening: “§1 The world is everything that is the case.”)
From beginning to end Tractatus Philosophico-Poeticus flouts Wittgenstein’s scrupulous refusal to speculate: if his Tractatus drew limits to what we can sensibly talk about, Gjessing’s poem serves up joyous, playful bursts of paradox and non-sequitur, celebrating precisely those big, impalpable ideas from which the earlier philosophical work shrinks:
3.7 The beyond follows us and holds up the world like a bridal veil. Avant-garde. 3.71 The world’s lightness is not the same as its ecstasy.
At times, Gjessing sounds almost Hegelian: “§4.2 The world is hypostasised freedom.”
The world in which Gjessing’s poem dwells is far different from the crystalline logical structure of Wittgenstein’s (“§1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things,” he wrote); it is a kind of radiant, blooming totality, shot through with movement and potentiality, expressing itself in “rose” and tensile “silk.” Most notably, Gjessing brings to her discussion of the “world” and the “universe” a kind of fierce emotional commitment — a personal voice largely absent from the 1922 Tractatus. Wittgenstein ends his Tractatus with an admonition against speaking — “§7 Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”; Gjessing ends hers with a personal mash note to universality: “§7.8 The everything is one of the few bright spots in my life.”
Wittgenstein worked out much of the Tractatus while serving in the Austrian army during the First World War; his family was fabulously wealthy, and while he could have easily secured an officer’s commission, with typical monkishness he volunteered as an enlisted man. When he was not on duty, he pursued the philosophical work he had begun at Cambridge, where he had studied with Bertrand Russell.
The wartime writings published in 1961 as Notebooks 1914-1916 present the Tractatus in embryonic form, as it were. But that publication is only half the story: Wittgenstein wrote his philosophical thoughts (in German, of course) on the right-hand page of each notebook opening; on the left he kept a personal journal in code. Marjorie Perloff’s translation of the Private Notebooks 1914-1916 is the first English-language publication of those left-hand pages.
All that Wittgenstein sought to expunge from philosophy in the Tractatus — ethics, aesthetics, the “mystical” — appears in abundance in the agonized pages of the Personal Notebooks. Wittgenstein is dismayed and disgusted with the brutishness of his fellow soldiers (“miserable scoundrels”); he subjects himself to lacerating self-examination, noting how sexually aroused (“Sinnlich”) he has been and recording how often he masturbates; he bemoans how little progress he has made on his philosophical work; time and again, ashamed of his own inadequacies and fearful of the prospect of seeing combat, he prays: “I am sick and lead a bad life. God help me.”
While the Private Notebooks include little outright philosophizing, they do shed invaluable light on Wittgenstein the human being. Perloff’s translation is straightforward and gracefully idiomatic — she is a native speaker of the same Austrian German Wittgenstein used. Particularly welcome is her decision, in the latter stretches of the last notebook, to counterpoint the “private” writings with passages from the philosophical work, so that we can see especially how the Tractatus’s ideas on ethics and the self spring from the personal struggles affecting the philosopher-artilleryman.
Whatever the ultimate impact of his thought — and he himself seemed ultimately to dismiss the Tractatus as a dead end — Wittgenstein was one of the most fascinating personalities of his century. To read his austere philosophy in the light of his inward anguish is a kind of Waste Land experience, an odyssey of sensibility as stirring as anything Joyce or Eliot imagined.
Tractatus Philosophico-Poeticus by Signe Gjessing, translated by Denise Newman (2022), is published by Lolli Editions. Private Notebooks 1914-1916 by Ludwig Wittgenstein, translated by Marjorie Perloff (2022), is published by Liveright Publishing Corporation. Both are available online and in bookstores.
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Mark Scroggins is a poet, biographer, and critic. His recent books include the poetry collection Pressure Dressing, the essay collection The Mathematical Sublime: Writing About Poetry, and a selection of the erotic poetry of... More by Mark Scroggins