|Who’s afraid of Mr Wittgenstein? |
ānis Taurens, Philosopher
|My last encounter with Vasīlijs Voronovs took place late in the af- ternoon last April. Although the snow on the streets of Riga still hadn’t completely melted, we discussed our plans for the sum- mer. Vasīlijs asked me why I wasn’t going to the Venice Biennale in June. I jokingly replied that I could, for example, design Estonia’s national pavilion exposition in my head, without leaving my of- fice. The next day, on recalling the discussion, I concluded that it could really serve as a version of the Estonian exposition. Why not replace magazine critique review and art description clichés – all those “in general the exhibition” and similar – with our dia- logue? I sat down at my writing desk and, see – here’s the result. Along with Wittgenstein’s ideas and the texts devoted to him, some of which are mentioned at the end of the article, an interview which flickered up for a moment in the hubbub of the electronic media (with curator Adam Budak, who together with artist Dénes Farkas is representing Estonia this year at the Venice Biennale) served as the impulse for our discussion.|
– Could you design it in your head? – Vasīlijs asked me again.
– Yes, because the starting point for Budak is the concept of lan- guage in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus.
– But Wittgenstein himself, in his Investigations, later described it ironically as a certain Bild of the nature of human language, rein- forcing this irony with a reference to Augustine’s autobiographical confession about the connection between the word and the object, which had been driven into him already in early childhood. – Vasīlijs had borrowed my habit of using the German Bild in our conversa- tions, with Bild (not picture) denoting the more or less convincing impression that philosophical concepts leave on people. (The famous Wittgenstein quotation from Investigations would then sound like: “Ein Bild held us captive. And we couldn’t get outside it...”)
– “Ironically” would be the right term, – I nodded my head in confirmation, – as it would apply both to those who contrast the Tractatus concept of the connection between the world and lan- guage (if you wish – realism) and the emphasis on various aspects of the use of language (let’s say – antirealism) of the Investigations period, as well as to those relatively “new” followers of Wittgenstein, who view all of his thinking as an uninterrupted attempt to show the therapeutic function of philosophy.
– To show the fly the way out of the fly bottle? – Vasīlijs pointed to a glass bulblike object, which was sitting on my writing desk. (My first unexpected introduction to Wittgenstein’s philosophy had taken place in my childhood, when I found it by chance in a farm- house attic.)
– I’ll tell you about an incident from the recent history of cul tural life in Latvia, where, among other things, something like a closed “bulb” syndrome can still be felt. – I succumbed to a sudden urge to focus on history, though not on something as old as that as- sociated with the fly bottle. Extending my hand to reach a book (the discussion was taking place at my home), I looked at the inscription written on the front page, and continued. – It took place on 20 De- cember, 2006, at Andrejsala, if I remember correctly, at the Orbīta group venue, when a short play was performed in honour of the pub- lication of the translation of Tractatus. I’d like to remind you of these events once again.
(I’ll mention some facts known to Vasīlijs and myself which will help in understanding the ensuing discussion. The text for the the- atrical performance was made up of some completely academic, but also very critical and witty article by Laurence Goldstein in which he attempted to reconstruct Wittgenstein’s exam for his doctorate which took place on 18 June, 1929. A translation suitable for the re- quirements of the production had been done by Pauls Bankovskis, I believe. Wittgenstein had submitted Tractatus LogicoPhilosophicus as his doctoral work, and in addition to Wittgenstein, only Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore took part in the examination. Their discus- sion has not been documented, only the final conclusion written by Moore: “It is my personal opinion that Mr Wittgenstein’s thesis is a work of genius; but, be that as it may, it is certainly well up to the standard required for the Cambridge degree of Doctor of Philosophy.” Goldstein, recognizing the greatness of Philosophical Investigations, judged Tractatus very critically, and therefore in his article changed Moore’s opinion to: “Some people think that Mr Wittgenstein’s thesis is a work of genius: but, be that as it may, it is certainly not up to the standard required for the Cambridge degree of Doctor of Philoso- phy.”)
– I only know this, – Vasīlijs interjected, – that Russell was played by Jānis Vējš, who – as I’ve heard – was well suited to the image of the Cambridge philosophy don with his grey hair and expressive facial profile.
– Yes, with the publishers (Liepnieks & Rītups) and the director (the improvised performance even had a director – Džilindžers) we agreed that the three thinkers would be played not by professional actors, but people who were capable of articulating complex logical philosophical texts with meaningful intonation. Everyone agreed unanimously on Wittgenstein’s character
– Roberts Ķīlis splendidly fitted the role and just like Jānis Vējš had once studied at Cambridge. We had the least idea for Moore, his personality and his looks, and after a little uncertainty, Ansis Zunde was selected for the role.
– Thus Latvian philosophy finally reached world level, – Vasīlijs smiled.
– The viewers, of course, appreciated the performance follow- ing a maxim by Nietzsche, namely, seeing music and passion behind the words, and personality behind them. I also don’t remember, – I continued, – what sort of ending (the historical one or the one of- fered by Goldstein) was selected by Pauls Bankovskis, and it really isn’t important...
– Not important? Obviously, Tractatus in Latvian was needed more by the language itself than the concept expounded in it, inde- pendently of how it was evaluated, – Vasīlijs completed my thought. A comment is needed here, because in these responses by Vasīlijs someone could find justification for feeling that large nations, and along with them Vasīlijs, who was born in St. Petersburg, behave with a certain arrogance towards smaller ones. But in reality, Vasī lijs views himself as belonging to the culture (in both cases multina- tional and multilingual) of both Russia as well as Latvia. You simply have to bear in mind that he usually uses irony instead of the romantic pathos habitually used by Latvians.
Wittgenstein House. View from the south. 1928
|– Anyway, – after a brief pause in the conversation, Vasīlijs continued, – I am convinced that the so-called Wittgenstein House in Vienna was neither mentioned in the dissertation defence which historically took place, nor in its theatricalized version at Andrejsala. But surely it is important enough if we’re talking about the Estonian exposition.|
– Obviously it wasn’t mentioned, – I agree. – It should be men- tioned though, that the house which Wittgenstein began planning in 1926 together with architect Paul Engelmann for his sister Margaret, is interesting in itself only as an example of the modernism introduced by Adolf Loos. It can be considered to be a “beautiful” object confirming the autonomy of art and serve as a good example of the formalist aesthetic. In reality it has gained notice largely through the personality of Wittgenstein.
– The striving for the perfection of form even in the smallest details (I have heard that Wittgenstein even designed the heating grates placed in the floor, the radiators and the door knobs) can probably be compared with the attempts in Tractatus to arrive at the general form of a proposition? – Vasīlijs looked at me questioningly.
– Such a comparison is possible and has also been made. But... – I drew a breath, to remember what I wanted to say, – the question is about importance. In philosophy it seems silly to question the importance of Plato or Wittgenstein just because they are not our contem- poraries, whereas the importance of art from the past is ensured by its place in art history’s hierarchical system, on which there’s broad agreement for each individual era...
– It does have an unjustifiably powerful inertia. In addition, some Hegelian thinker could also combine both of these “importances", as you call them.
– Contemporary art adds another understanding of impor tance, – I wouldn’t let myself be diverted from my idea, – it could be called the importance of Bactrian Princesses.
– Do you mean the approximately 4,000-year-old stone figurines which were included in the last documenta exhibition?
– Yes, the date of origin of a particular object or idea isn’t important. The important thing is the conceptual context into which they’re incorporated. – Then I added in a more relaxed tone that Wittgenstein’s importance is expressed at a sort of anecdotal level.
– Many different tales, including anecdotal ones, have remained about him. Which do you mean? – asked Vasīlijs.
– To me, “anecdote” in this case is more equivalent in meaning to the word “quintessence”, but generally I mean two incidents which were reported by his contemporaries that describe the origins of the importance of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus picture theory and the later changes in views about language which led to a radical turn in the philosophy of language, linking the meaning of a word to its use. – Vasīlijs listened with interest, although of course he knew what I was about to say, and I continued. – The first incident dates from autumn 1914, when Wittgenstein, finding himself on the Eastern front (he’d joined the Austrian army as a volunteer), read in a magazine or newspaper about a lawsuit in Paris, in which a small model of a road accident had been used. This worked due to the correspondence of the elements of the model (the miniature houses, cars and people) to houses, cars and people in reality. The idea then occurred to Witt- genstein that a proposition, too, is a model or image of reality due to its linguistic part and its mutual correspondence with a specific part of the world.
– However, a road accident and court proceedings were required to establish that we’re interested in houses and cars, not bricks, windows and the wheels or seats of cars, – Vasīlijs added.
– God or logic will be the judge that determines the last ele- ments of reality, – I growled and continued. – The second incident is connected with Piero Straffa, an influential Italian economist with whom Wittgenstein, while travelling on a train, had discussed the logical form of the proposition and the fact that the form and reality which it describes has to have the same logical multiplicity. In an- other version (Wittgenstein has related both incidents to a number of people and their memories of them differ a little) the discussion was not about the logical form, but about grammar. It doesn’t matter, – I added, – Wittgenstein also discusses the logical multiplicity of grammar in his notes and lectures. Then Straffa made a gesture at him, which was popular with the residents of Naples (it seems ... brushing the underneath of his chin with an outward sweep of the fingertips of one hand), meaning something like disgust or contempt, and asked: “What is the logical form of that?”
– And that, as Norman Malcolm writes, – Vasīlijs completed my story, – had destroyed the bewitchment of the earlier picture theory of meaning or, using Wittgenstein’s later form of expression, one could say that a fixed language Bild held him captive, and he had now been freed. But what do you want to say by that, – he continued, – is it that these two mythical incidents, which aren’t doubted due to the authority of those who have repeated them (for example, Norman Malcolm and Georg Henrik von Wright), are the level at which Wittgenstein can be used and is also being used in contemporary art, more precisely – Estonia’s exposition?
– Not quite like that. Visual art as an illustration, – but that’s ex- actly where it leads you, because, it’s visual of course, I thought to myself –, regardless, an illustration of philosophical concepts or of a musical work is shallow, uninteresting, stated briefly – bad art.
– But the metaphysical charm that’s hidden in the assertion that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”, and the mysterious phrase that “the world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man”? Couldn’t this operate as a stimu- lus for artistic reflection? Likewise, the separation of “to show” and “to say” – couldn’t this become significant in aesthetics as well, as Wittgenstein’s correspondence with Engelmann, possibly, leads us to understand? You know, that bit where they discuss Uhland’s poem...
(I’ll reiterate briefly, to clarify what Vasīlijs said. At the begin- ning of April 1917, Wittgenstein, referring to Paul Engelmann’s en- thusiasm for Uhland’s poem ‘Count Eberhard’s Hawthorn’, which his friend had sent him, wrote in a letter of reply that Uhland’s poem was really magnificent. “If only you do not try to utter what is unutterable then nothing gets lost. But the unutterable will be – unutterably – contained in what has been uttered!” As I’ve already shown else- where, at this time Wittgenstein was on the Eastern front, working on Tractatus, and the idea mentioned in the correspondence can be understood as an example of the familiar Tractatus thesis: “What can be shown, cannot be said.”)
– No, – I shook my head in denial, – what I wanted to say is con- nected with a continuation of some thought, idea or concept – call it what you will – yes, even a simple repetition. But such a repetition that also changes the previously expressed aphorism. You shouldn’t surrender to the charm of the aphoristic and mysterious phrases in Tractatus, which really gain meaning only in the context of a definite world concept, but you also shouldn’t be afraid of Mr Wittgenstein. Rejecting the conversation with Sraffa as never having taken place, that is, not taking into account his later philosophy after his return to Cambridge in 1929, we can see Wittgenstein sitting in the trench- es and holding a magazine or a newspaper in his hands (according to which particular story is being told). It’s possible that the spatial model isn’t even mentioned in the newspaper, but that a number of diagrams were sketched in it which described the road accident. This isn’t important. The spatial model, as a stimulus, creates a more graphic image and even Wittgenstein himself in Tractatus recommends a propositional sign as being put together from spatial items (tables, chairs and books). That’s the starting point, a convincing Bild of the picture theory of meaning.
– But what is being depicted?
– Facts, and not objects. Facts are possibilities in logical space, the structure ("places" in this space) of which are determinated by the logical form of objects, whatever may be meant by this in Tractatus.
– Consequently, it also isn’t clear what the word “form” means here, – added Vasīlijs. – Here it would be appropriate to use the verdict on a redheaded man expressed in one of Kharms’ Occasions: “So it is hard to understand whom we are really talking about. So it is probably best not to talk about him any more.”
– We can’t imagine, neither Kharms’ character without eyes, ears, internal organs et cetera, nor the Tractatus objects, but nega- tively describing the first and as a logical conclusion to deduce the necessity of the latter – that we can do, – I added. – It’s clear that both our language, as well as any other system of signs that wants to base itself on such a world (“the world is the totality of facts”) is forced to introduce conventional restrictions on the form of its elements or signs and their mutual compatibility. There can be countless numbers of such methods of restriction, but it’s important that they are based on the factual structure of the world.
– And here the only “correct method in philosophy” comes into operation, – Vasīlijs intercepted my thought and got into the game, interrupting me. – “Whenever someone wished to say something metaphysical” to repeat “nothing except what can be said, i.e. propositions of natural science”, which do – you’d agree with me – not as- sert anything other than facts. Though Wittgenstein, it seems, doesn’t say that you have to repeat one and the same, but it’s clear that it is something like that “which has nothing to do with philosophy”. In a similar way, using this method in art, the result could be completely “inartistic”.
– No repetition is or can ever be an identical repetition. Expressing it in the words of another philosopher: “Everything is identical to itself; nothing is ever identical to anything else except itself ”.
– Then how can we ever call something a repetition? – asked Vasīlijs. – Further, in the background of this discussion, we, of course, retain the idea about art as a visual repetition of some philosophical reflection. This does make both repetition as well as continuation concepts even more problematic. Or have I not understood you correctly?
– You think: what else could be done that wouldn’t be a chase after empty originality, as some lover of conservative art and old val- ues would describe it, who, in the style of Adorno could be called a type who enjoys resentment art, who tries to restore aging forms of the past, where people have reacted to art? – The construction of Vasīlijs’ question was complex enough, and I remained quiet for a while, to return to my, as it seemed to me, simple idea.
– Art’s justification (in some sense “unoriginal originality”) in this case would be: to change the meaning of an idea by repeating it. In literature as well (for Walter Benjamin), translations are the continuation of the life of the original work and therefore a com- ponent of its meaning. In a similar way, Kafka’s novels change the meaning of works from another time – that, in which we can today see similarities with the world created by him (Borges, as you know, has even described Zeno’s paradoxes as Kafka’s predecessors). Why then couldn’t this be applied to art?
– But there are also senseless continuations and repetitions, for example, the continually growing pile of academic texts, espe- cially in the English language, where we can encounter all possible opinions on a question. If someone says that something corresponds to the requirements of Cambridge, then there’ll always be someone else who’ll say that it doesn’t, and both will have arguments, I’d like to say: a heap of academically precise, but unreadable and unpalatable references to texts, facts and similar rubbish.
– I agree, – I calmly replied. – Here the changes and additions cause boredom and oblivion. A score of untalented works about Hom- er remove – in some sort of psychological sense – the need to read the epics themselves. But art does lay claim to talent (as opposed to the texts of the academic bureaucracy, for whom this kind of designation would only point to a nonessential quality of questionable origin). – I was silent for a moment, then, trying to gather my thoughts so that I could return to the theme of our discussion, I continued.
– And still...
– I’d like to say that the visual repetition of the Tractatus’ con- ception of language (and the world) has already been done. We even mentioned it at the beginning of our discussion. – I got up and pulled from the bookshelf a catalogue with photographs of the interior of the Wittgenstein House which Helēna Demakova had once given me, knowing of my interest in the philosopher. – Any other spatial or ar- tistic variations on this theme are just... – I couldn’t find a word apt enough, and Vasīlijs made use of my pause.
– An interesting description of architecture can be found in Wittgenstein’s notebooks: “Remember the impression made by good architecture, that it expresses a thought. One would like to respond to it too with a gesture.”
– I know it, – I said, – it was written between 1932 and 1934.
– Therefore after the discussion with Piero Sraffa, because Witt- genstein had already begun to use the languagegame concept in his lectures in 1932, which according to the legend should have arisen from that gesture.
– Yes, and now, isn’t it just the right moment for this contemptu- ous gesture?
Translation into English: Uldis Brūns
Note. The list of publications of Wittgenstein’s texts (there are a number of them in Latvian translation as well) and their interpretations have long ago gone beyond the boundaries that a reader could conceive. Therefore, I’ll only indicate the minimum, and won’t mention any “specifically philosophical” (in either the bad or the good sense of the word) work.
Goldstein, Laurence. Wittgenstein’s Ph. D Viva – A Re-Creation // Philosophy, Vol. 74, 1999, pp. 499–513.
Malcolm, Norman. Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir. With a Biographical Sketch by G. H. von Wright. Second ed. with Wittgenstein’s letters to Malcolm. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001.
Monk, Ray. Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. Penguin Books, 1991 .