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Wittgenstein's Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary

Wittgenstein's Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary

by Marjorie Perloff

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Marjorie Perloff, among our foremost critics of twentieth-century poetry, argues that Ludwig Wittgenstein provided writers with a radical new aesthetic, a key to recognizing the inescapable strangeness of ordinary language. Taking seriously Wittgenstein's remark that "philosophy ought really to be written only as a form of poetry," Perloff begins by discussing


Marjorie Perloff, among our foremost critics of twentieth-century poetry, argues that Ludwig Wittgenstein provided writers with a radical new aesthetic, a key to recognizing the inescapable strangeness of ordinary language. Taking seriously Wittgenstein's remark that "philosophy ought really to be written only as a form of poetry," Perloff begins by discussing Wittgenstein the "poet." What we learn is that the poetics of everyday life is anything but banal.

"This book has the lucidity and the intelligence we have come to expect from Marjorie Perloff.--Linda Munk, American Literature

"[Perloff] has brilliantly adapted Wittgenstein's conception of meaning and use to an analysis of contemporary language poetry."--Linda Voris, Boston Review

"Wittgenstein's Ladder offers significant insights into the current state of poetry, literature, and literary study. Perloff emphasizes the vitality of reading and thinking about poetry, and the absolute necessity of pushing against the boundaries that define and limit our worlds."--David Clippinger, Chicago Review

"Majorie Perloff has done more to illuminate our understanding of twentieth century poetic language than perhaps any other critic. . . . Entertaining, witty, and above all highly original."--Willard Bohn, SubStance

Editorial Reviews

Linda Voris
Such a discussion of Wittgenstein and avant-garde poetry is long overdue; and, as ever, Perloff's questions will provoke exciting new connections. -- Boston Review

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University of Chicago Press
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Wittgenstein's Ladder

Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary

By Marjorie Perloff

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1996 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-92486-1


The Making of the Tractatus: Russell, Wittgenstein and the "Logic" of War

The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is not usually read as a war book. Unlike the countless novels, poems, plays, and memoirs that constitute what is known as the "literature of World War I," Wittgenstein's treatise on logic, begun in the prewar years, would seem to lead a life quite independent of the specific political events of its day. Yet, as I hope to show here, it was primarily Wittgenstein's war experience that transformed the Tractatus from logical, scientific treatise to something quite different—a book closer to the avant-garde poetic fictions of the teens and twenties than to the philosophical work that first brought Wittgenstein to the Cambridge of Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore, the monumental Principia Mathematica, produced by Russell, together with Alfred North Whitehead, between 1903 and 1910.

In Portraits from Memory (1956), Russell recalls his decision in August 1914 to protest, in any and all forms possible, the participation of England in the First World War:

Love of England is very nearly the strongest emotion I possess, and in appearing to set it aside at such a moment, I was making a very difficult renunciation. Nevertheless, I never had a moment's hesitation as to what I must do. I have been cynical, at times indifferent, but when war came I felt as if I heard the voice of God. I knew it was my business to protest, however futile protest might be. My whole nature was involved.

And in a letter to the Nation on 15 August, he declared: "All this madness, all this rage, all this flaming death of our civilization and our hopes, has been brought about because a set of official gentlemen, living luxurious lives, mostly stupid, and all without imagination or heart, have chosen that it should occur rather than that any one of them should suffer some infinitesimal rebuff to his country's pride." Within less than a year Russell was writing to Lady Ottoline Morrell: "My real ambition has quite deserted philosophy and gone into writing about war and peace" (CPBR xxxii).

Or was it the other way around? Did Russell turn to "writing about war and peace" perhaps because philosophy, in its more demanding forms, had deserted him? On 4 March 1916, he writes to Lady Ottoline:

... what wanted doing in logic was too difficult for me. So there was no real vital satisfaction of my philosophical impulse in that work, and philosophy lost its hold on me. That was due to Wittgenstein more than to the War. What the war has done is to give me a new and less difficult ambition, which seems to me quite as good as the old one.

Ironically, the very month that Russell confessed that Wittgenstein and the war were drawing him away from philosophy, Wittgenstein himself was serving as an engineer on a workshop train near Lwów on the eastern front. Having enlisted as a volunteer in the Austrian army as soon as war broke out, Wittgenstein never had the slightest doubt that it was his duty to fight. Not that he had any rational argument for war or for German "rights": on the contrary, just a few months into the war, he wrote in his diary: "I feel ... more than ever the tragedy of our—the German race's—situation! For that we cannot defeat England seems to me as good as certain. The English—the best race in the world—cannot lose! We, however, can lose and will lose, if not this year then the next! The thought that our race will be defeated depresses me terribly because I am German through and through!"

This racial self-identification may seem ironic, the then twenty-five-year-old-Wittgenstein having spent the previous five years avoiding his native Vienna as much as possible, and having formed what was his most serious personal relationship to date with his young Cambridge colleague David Pinsent. Feeling "German through and through," moreover, had nothing to do, in Wittgenstein's case, with any kind of fellow-feeling for his countrymen: repeatedly he complained, both in letters and in his diary, about the "bunch of delinquents" (Gaunerpack ) with whom he had to serve, the all-but-subhuman crew mates on the Goplana, whose "stupidity, rudeness, and malice ... know no bounds."

Wittgenstein's identification with what he calls "the tragedy of our—the German race's—situation" was, as I shall suggest later, less a question of politics than of a particular view of culture. He had faith neither in the official British position that the war was being fought to "save" civilization, nor in the antithetical conviction, animating Russell's wartime writings, that the war would spell the "flaming death of our civilization"—a conviction that was a central article of faith of British intellectual thought throughout the war and its aftermath. The saving of civilization, the conservation of values, the nobility of tradition —these were concepts alien to Wittgenstein's thinking. Even as Russell was producing pamphlet after pamphlet analyzing the causes of war, the likely results of this particular war, and the steps that might have been taken to prevent it, on the assumption that an enlightened Europe should and would eventually rise above individual and national self-interest, Wittgenstein longed, not for national or cultural "improvement"—an improvement he regarded cynically as, in any case, absurd and impossible—but for his own improvement, both mental and spiritual. His hope was that war might, as he put it, "turn [him] into a different person." The war, he told a nephew many years later, "saved my life; I don't know what I'd have done without it" (BMG 204).

The paradox is that, whereas Russell felt a need to renounce philosophy because of the war, a war he studied from the sidelines, Wittgenstein's actual war experience became one of the mainsprings of his philosophy. In March 1916 he realized his long-expressed wish to be posted to the front as an ordinary soldier and was assigned to an artillery regiment stationed in Galicia near the Romanian border. It was here, in the midst of heavy fighting, that, unbeknownst to Russell, the Tractatus was transformed from a treatise on the logic of propositions into something quite different. As Ray Monk puts it:

If Wittgenstein had spent the entire war behind the lines, the Tractatus would have remained what it almost certainly was from its first inception of 1915: a treatise on the nature of logic. The remarks in it about ethics, aesthetics, the soul and the meaning of life have their origin in ... an impulse that has as its stimulus a knowledge of death, suffering and misery. (RM 137)

It may be useful to review the steps in this evolution. The first step—and here Wittgenstein is still, so to speak, on Russell's wavelength—was the discovery, made in September 1914, at a time when the Austrian army was in retreat on the eastern front, of what came to be known as the picture theory of language. On 22 October, Wittgenstein wrote to Russell that he was completing a book (the hypothetical proto-Tractatus) but that he did not want to publish it until Russell had seen it. Since this obviously couldn't happen until after the war, Wittgenstein added:

But who knows whether I shall survive until then? If I don't survive, get my people to send you all my manuscripts: among them you'll find the final summary written in pencil on loose sheets of paper. It will perhaps cost you some trouble to understand it all, but don't let yourself be put off by that.

Russell responded on 25 November—"I am enormously pleased that you are writing a treatise which you want to publish"—and said he was impatient to see it. He urged Wittgenstein to send it to a mutual friend in the still neutral United States, who would then forward it to Russell in England. "Had Wittgenstein followed Russell's suggestion," Monk observes, "the work would have been published in 1916," and "it would have contained the Picture Theory of meaning, the metaphysics of 'logical atomism,' the analysis of logic in terms of the twin notions of tautology and contradiction, the distinction between saying and showing ... and the method of Truth-Tables.... In other words, it would have contained almost everything the Tractatus now contains—except the remarks at the end of the book on ethics, aesthetics, the soul, and the meaning of life" (RM 134).

But Wittgenstein didn't send the manuscript to the U.S.; indeed, he had no further contact with Russell until February 1919, after he had been taken prisoner of war on the Italian front. In this three-year interim, Wittgenstein had his initiation into battle. On 4 June 1916, during the heavy fighting of the Brusilov offensive, he won his first decoration for bravery. A week later he wrote in his Notebook,

What do I know about God and the purpose of life?
I know that this world exists.
That I am placed in it like my eye in its visual field.
That something about it is problematic, which we call its meaning.
That this meaning does not lie in it but outside it.
That my life is the world.
That my will penetrates the world.
That my will is good or evil.
Therefore that good and evil are somehow connected with the meaning of the world....
The meaning of life, i.e. the meaning of the world, we can call God....
To pray is to think about the meaning of life.
I cannot bend the happenings of the world to my will:
I am completely powerless.

Or, as he rephrases this last sentence in a proposition that was to be included in the Tractatus: "The world is independent of my will" (NBK 73).

Thus, in contrast to Russell's apocalyptic conviction that "When war came I felt as if I heard the voice of God," Wittgenstein, who was in the war, was coming to the conclusion that, as he put it in a notebook entry for 8 July, "To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning" (NBK 74). And again: "To believe in a God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter" (NBK 74). But meaning (God) could only be defined negatively. "Meaning does not lie in [the world] but outside it" (73). This proposition is repeated almost verbatim in the Tractatus, followed by the sentences "In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value—and if there were, it would be of no value" (T #6.41). The corollary, which was to become one of the most famous propositions of theTractatus, is that "there can be no ethical propositions" (T #6.42):

The first thought in setting up an ethical law of the form "thou shalt ..." is: And what if I do not do it? But it is clear that ethics has nothing to do with punishment and reward in the ordinary sense. This question as to the consequences of an action must therefore be irrelevant.... There must be some sort of ethical reward and ethical punishment, but this must lie in the action itself. (T #6.422)

Here was a side of the Tractatus wholly unanticipated by Russell, G. E. Moore, and the Cambridge Apostles. After the war, when Russell and Wittgenstein had their long-planned reunion in The Hague (December 1919), communication between the two had become somewhat strained. Writing to Lady Ottoline on 20 December, Russell called Wittgenstein's book "wonderful," although he had doubts that what it said was "right." He also reports a certain dismay at the "mystic" strain in his friend:

I was amazed to learn that he has become a complete mystic. He reads people like Kierkegaard and Angelus Silesius and is thinking seriously of becoming a monk. This all began with William James's Varieties of Religious Experience.... he has penetrated deep into mystical modes of thought and feeling, but I think (although he would not agree), that what he likes best in mysticism is its power to stop him from thinking.

Despite his mistrust of Wittgenstein's "religious" turn, however, Russell offered to write an introduction to the Tractatus and to arrange for its publication in 1921. By this time, though, the rift between Russell and Wittgenstein had become serious, Russell declaring in his introduction (which Wittgenstein evidently hated) that, despite the author's claim to the contrary, "he manages to say a good deal about what cannot be said," a situation that, Russell admits, "leaves me with a certain sense of intellectual discomfort" (T 22).

Wittgenstein was never, of course, a "complete mystic," but it is true that his wartime experience (five full years from enlistment to release from prison camp) had made an irrevocable difference in his thinking on ethical and religious matters. In the notebook entries for 1916 we read, "A man who is happy must have no fear. Not even in face of death" (NBK 74), and again, "Fear in face of death is the best sign of a false, i.e., a bad, life" (NBK 75). "Happiness," then, depends upon the willingness toaccept one's situation. Such acceptance is not a matter of Christian resignation ("To love one's neighbor," Wittgenstein remarks in his notebook, "would mean to will!") but, more accurately, a form of discipline that trains one to extract value from whatever situation one happens to be in. "Only a man who lives not in time but in the present is happy" (NBK 74). And some thirty years later, when his young American friend Norman Malcolm expressed the view that serving in the wartime (World War II) navy was "a boredom," Wittgenstein reproached him with the words "I can't help believing that an enormous lot can be learnt about human beings in this war—if you can keep your eyes open. And the better you are at thinking the more you'll get out of what you see."

It is, in any case, the will to change that lies behind the well-known letter (January 1918) Wittgenstein wrote to his close friend Paul Engelmann, who had been awarded the Silver Medal for Valor:

It is true there is a difference between myself as I am now and as I was when we met in Olmütz [winter 1916]. And, as far as I know, the difference is that I am now slightly more decent. By this I only mean that I am slightly clearer in my own mind about my lack of decency. If you tell me now that I have no faith, you are perfectly right, only I did not have it before either.... I am clear about one thing: I am far too bad to be able to theorize about myself; in fact I shall either remain a swine or else I shall improve, and that's that! Only let's cut out the transcendental twaddle.... (PE 10–11)

Nur kein transzendentales Geschwätz: Wittgenstein had always had a distaste for pretentious chit-chat on philosophical subjects, for pontificating generalizations on questions of metaphysics and ethics, but the war years, during which he read Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard, intensified this particular aversion to what we would call, in current parlance, bullshit. In a letter of autumn 1919 to Ludwig von Ficker, written after the editor of Der Brenner had expressed interest in publishing the Tractatus, Wittgenstein explained:

... the point of the book is ethical. I once wanted to give a few words in the foreword which now actually are not in it, which however, I will write to you now because they might be a key for you: I wanted to write that my work consists of two parts: of the one which is here, and of everything which I have not written. And precisely this second part is the important one. For the Ethical is delimited from within, as it were, by my book; and I'm convinced that strictly speaking it can ONLY be delimited in this way. In brief, I think: All of what many are babbling today [was Viele heute schwäfeln], I have defined in my book by remaining silent about it.

This letter has often been cited as testimony of Wittgenstein's overriding preoccupation with ethics. But for our purposes here, what is particularly interesting is the reference to the "many others [who] are just babbling [schwäfeln]." For wasn't a penchant for transzendentales Geschwätz finally the quality in Russell that Wittgenstein found hard to stomach, the former turning out books, pamphlets, essays, and lectures with whirlwind rapidity and sounding off (schwäfeln) as to what England should or shouldn't do (or might have done), what philosophy consists of, and so on, even as the latter published almost nothing during his lifetime and was never satisfied that he had formulated a given question quite correctly?

The difference is not just between two individuals with such-and-such psychological profiles but also between two cultures. I don't want to suggest that Russell and Wittgenstein were representative of their respective nations; far from it. But it is precisely because both were extremely privileged, by family background as well as by wealth, and because both began as students of logic and mathematics, that the opposition of their responses both to war and to work becomes so telling.


Excerpted from Wittgenstein's Ladder by Marjorie Perloff. Copyright © 1996 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Marjorie Perloff is professor of English emerita at Stanford University and the Florence R. Scott Professor of English Emerita at the University of Southern California. She is the author of many books, including, most recently, Poetics in a New Key and Unoriginal Genius, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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