Corpus Sample: the poetic Wittgenstein

A friend recently got a hold of the first and only book published during philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s lifetime, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. I don’t know what prompted my friend to order in a copy, but he was understandably perplexed; even Bertrand Russell famously failed to understand his student’s work. Philosophically, despite its immediate fame among the Logical Positivists, the Tractatus is, today, a “dead dog”, repudiated most famously by the author’s own reflections, published posthumously as the Philosophical Investigations. Nevertheless, a friend of my friend sought to console him, assuring him “the Tractatus is pure poetry.” Creative writers have tended to agree:  Jerome Rothenberg and John Bloomberg-Rissman included sections from Philosophical Investigations in their assemblage of outsider poetry, Barbaric Vast & Wild, dramatist and novelist Thomas Bernhard published Wittgenstein’s Nephew in 1982, and Canadian poet-philosopher Jan Zwicky’s first book Wittgenstein Elegies appeared in 1986.

I don’t remember when I first encountered Wittgenstein, but it was surely before beginning my undergraduate studies. Those (eventually) were devoted to philosophy, and I wrote my honours paper on the private language argument in the Philosophical Investigations. To pass the time (four days) driving from Regina to Montreal, where we were going to study, a friend and I read through the Tractatus, doing our damnedest to make what sense of it we could. And my graduate studies resulted in a number of poetic texts, all engaging in various ways with the early and late Wittgenstein. Even more recently, a compositional method shared here takes an ironic inspiration from his remark that “meaning is use”.

I post below, then, two poems now included in my first trade edition Grand Gnostic Central. The first is a prose poem, borrowing liberally from Norman Malcolm’s memoir; the second is a poem that tries to come to terms with the Tractatus.




[from “Grand Gnostic Central”]


The walls are bare and the floor scrupulously clean.  In the living-room, two canvas chairs and a plain wooden one around an iron heating-stove.  In the other room, a cot and card-table, books, papers and pen.  A man sits at the card table.  His face is lean and tanned.  He wears a flannel shirt and light grey flannel trousers.  His shoes are highly polished.  He looks concentrated and severe, striking out as if arguing.  He stops, sits still.  He remembers swimming—a small boy, the ease of floating, the sun and water in his eyes, closing them tight.  He remembers how hard it was forcing himself down, down deep to the mud at the bottom, the water always pushing him back to the surface, his needing air pushing him back to the surface.  He has written a treatise on logic.  He knows those who do not know him think him an old man, irritable and obscure.  He remembers writing his thoughts for the book in small notebooks he carried around.  He remembers writing “If `the watch is shiny’ has sense…”  He remembers the flash on the watch-face that gave him the example.  It had rained and only now the sun cut through red clouds.  The field’s mud is soupy and slick.  He crouches down in the water at trench-bottom, once almost standing to keep his balance in the muck.  He hears the sharp tiny ticking at his wrist.  He dates the entry 16.6.15.


Holy Crow Channels LW


We know no sensations

give these propositions sense.  Questions

that exact innocence free from naivete

demand a rigorous ignorance of the evident

apparent given as the one condition

for their initial

stuttered utterance.

The long tautology that bends say

the blade of a jet engine

to just the angle of most force

turns on this

when the need for further thrust

draws inertia from the potential

for doubt, unbinding concepts and arguments

and baffling mathematicians

just this side of mathematics.

We need our end to be

the final determination

of the rule that keeps stasis

appearing repeatedly, that blesses with some semblance

of regularity frequently enough

to let us see this

and hear that

completely unsurprised.  These things we know

are hardly thought, for the common

is the category entered most

easily.  We can count, yet,

to ask what numbers are

reveals the path that eases

the passage everywhere but where

the answer you expect to desire lies

and leads you to question

again the writings that made you

conclude the first proposition

that defined one doubtfully.  For them

a mere analysis, for you

something more that flails you

to what is truly necessary.  The clear thought

expressed as clearly as the fabric of language

will strain it

fascinates you with its immaculate muteness

that finally becomes a song so mythic

you are bound from it, fast,

and your hearing is filled

with what is spoken

in innocence, naively.



9 comments so far

  1. V. on

    I wonder if you ever had the chance to come across a little book called Persuasion and Rhetoric by an obscure turn-of-the-century Italian named Carlo Michelstaedter. Its “words against words” type of philosophy of language (to simplify brutally) always struck me as a poignant presaging of Wittgenstein’s arguments (especially “meaning is use” and “language is a game”) and one that is full of a Mediterranean pathos and rage that did not characterize Wittgenstein’s works, so it’s worth checking out just for that. Interestingly, both Michelstaedter and Wittgenstein were born in the late 1880s, and both were “Austro-Hungarians” from an upper-middle-class “parvenu” background (1910: The Emancipation of Dissonance by Thomas Harrison makes some very interesting arguments about that whole generation of “nihilistic” middle-Europeans). Sadly M. committed suicide at the age of only 23, immediately after completing his one and only work (Persuasion and Rhetoric) and, if his biographers are to be believed, largely as a consequence of the conclusions he had reached therein. Witt. on the other hand went on to have a long and illustrious career.

    „Per sé stesso un uomo sa o non sa; ma egli dice di sapere per gli altri. Il suo sapere è nella vita, è per la vita, ma quando egli dice «io so», «dice agli altri che egli è vivo» per aver dagli altri alcunché che per la sua affermazione vitale non gli è dato. Egli si vuol «costituire una persona» con l’affermazione della persona assoluta che egli non ha: è l’inadeguata affermazione d’individualità: la rettorica.“

    Carlo Michelstaedter

    • Bryan Sentes on

      Michaelstaedter I hadn’t heard of. Curiously, the Tractatus commits philosophical suicide; Wittgenstein’s whole thought can be thought of as therapeutic, to rid thought of the philosophical itch (or “shew the fly the way out of the fly bottle”).

      • V on

        not to belabour the parallel, but one of the very last aphorisms in Wittgenstein’s posthumously published On Certainty, #612 reads “I said I would ‘combat’ the other man – but wouldn’t I give him reasons? Certainly; but how far do they go? At the end of reasons comes persuasion.” Ironically, this dichotomy of “reasons” (or rhetoric) and persuasion is what the very young Michelstaedter had struggled with 60 years before.
        The difference is, perhaps, that for late Witt the “language game” is a purposeful social activity in which communication may be uncertain as far as it relies on a tenuous and constantly renegotiated context, but it still remains actual communication, not a demonic house of mirrors where all you can see is yourself ad nauseam even as you frantically search for that moment of oceanic/transcendent persuasion.
        For M. the socially negotiated “language game” is not so much a benign, impersonal reality, it is a fearful, frenzied search for being made whole (using words as bait, essentially) even as it is also a misguided affirmation of ersatz individuality, one fashioned out of scraps of profound-sounding, but ultimately quite banal, socially-inculcated “rhetoric”.

      • Bryan Sentes on

        W’s philosophy of language generally works through what had been worked through in the late 18th century in the critique of Enlightenment representationalism toward a hermeneutic/pragmatic philosophy of language. What underwrites the Tractatus had already been mocked by Hamann (though its rearticulating its picture theory of language in terms of the most up-to-date logic of the day was new).

        With that task–therapeutically curing his thinking of the bewitchments of language–I don’t know how much timenergy W had for reflections on the rhetorical / persuasive dimension of language, but I have hardly read all his work, not at all. And, as I’ve admitted, I’m less acquainted with M. From what I’ve been able to glean, rhetoric and persuasion were more metaphors that linguistic categories for the latter…

      • V on

        To put it somewhat more clearly, according to M. someone affirms (and perhaps childishly flaunts) his knowledge of philosophical arcana on a blog’s comments section in order to say “I am, and not only that, but I am in communion with the absolute, ineffable reality”, to which his interlocutor will perhaps more clearly, perhaps more obliquely (via some other carefully selected bit of rhetoric) reply “I too am, and we are because we know, because we can say the words that are knowledge, the knowledge of the free and the absolute”. For M, this sort of danse macabre (which obviously is not just the domain of frustrated “nerds”) is not actual communication, it is an analgesic for existential pain coupled with the naive hope “authencity” (cobbled up together from various received “wisdoms”).
        For W. on the other hand, an exchange of this sort would be part of a game in the truly ludic sense, a sort of dense and verbose perhaps, but still essentially jocular frolicking where words and phrases that have zero (or near zero) relevance in a different (more transactional) context, become the means for expressing a social impulse (to bond, to butt heads, both…).
        I don’t know who was “less wrong”, but the pessimist in me tends to side with M.

      • Bryan Sentes on

        The way you present M, he goes too far: surely, there is a “phatic” dimension (like the chickadees who sing “I’m-heeere!”), but I fail to see why there needs be a claim to the Absolute! (Hegel might have more to say on that matter, mind you…). But, speaking of philosophy, it has from the beginning been as much an investigation as a claim (e.g., Plato’s dialogues). As for W., he would see such as more mutually-reinforcing linguistic confusion.–As to the philosophy-as-therapy routine, I don’t buy it: I posit there is a very real critical function to reason, however much our grasp of the Absolute is only ever relative (determined). That critical function, mind you, is no simple matter.–N.b. how the letters M and W mirror each other!

  2. V on

    “therapeutically curing his thinking of the bewitchments of language–”

    This I think goes to the heart of the matter; is this actually possible or not? is language about language (or language against language) anything more than a self-defeating pantomime? I genuinely don’t know (but would like to get a little bit closer to finding out).

  3. Alphabet Ravine on

    My husband is a philosopher and I am a poet, and we LOVE the Tractatus! LOL
    I would make everybody read that book!

    • Bryan Sentes on

      Of course, even trained philosophers have a hard time understanding it! Maybe that’s why poets have been more (or at least as much) inspired by Wittgenstein. I hope you got some pleasure out of these two poetic engagements. Thanks for commenting.

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