Wittgenstein on Europe, America and Whistling Dixie

“I will say, posthumously, that Europe is the world’s sore affliction, that you in America who have taken the best that Europe has to offer while hoping to avoid the worst are, in your indigenously American phrase, ‘whistling Dixie.’ All your God-drenched thinking replicates the religious structures built out of the hallucinatory life of the ancient Near East by European clericalists, all your social frictions are the inheritance of colonialist slave-making economies of European businessmen, all your metaphysical conundrums were concocted for you by European intellectuals, and you have now come across the ocean in two world wars conceived by European politicians and so have installed in your republic just the militarist mind-state that has kept our cities burning during since the days of Hadrian.”

Christa Wolf, quoting Wittgenstein, from a preface in Doctorow’s City of God. I’m unable to find the source of this quotation. If you know, please let me know. I shall clearly have to read the Doctorow, which the NYT reviewed concluding, “The ideas are certainly there — the idea of New York, the idea of God, the idea of literature. But where is the novel?” If anything, that only increases its allure.

[Postscript: I’m reasonably sure that this is a fictional Wittgenstein quote.]

10 thoughts on “Wittgenstein on Europe, America and Whistling Dixie

    • Yes, I’ve turned up nothing. I did wonder if it was just a sloppy translation. Christa Wolf accepts it as Wittgenstein. I’ll just have to read the Doctorow book.

  1. Hi, Anthony. Assuming she read Doctorow’s novel, it’s hard to imagine that Christa Wolf could have possibly believed that Wittgenstein himself was being quoted. Nor is it likely a translation issue. It’s very clear that “Wittgenstein” is making a cameo appearance as one of Doctorow’s characters, along with (IIRC) Einstein and…eh, someone else whom I’ve forgotten.

    Anyway, the passage in question is taken from the last third of the book, perhaps 200 pages in, not anywhere near the preface. Plus it sounds so American (well, the America of De Lillo’s time and sensibility), as if it were an SNL parody of a European’s wish-fulfilling fantasy speech. So it’s really funny, too.

    I dunno. Does Christa drink? 😀

    • Hi. Wolf does like a drink; thought the Margaritas in LA particularly tasty.

      The assumption that it is a preface though is all mine. Wolf introduces the quote thus: “I come across a surprising passage, written not by the author himself but by Wittgenstein and killing off any tendency for European arrogance …”

      • Poor Christa Wolf. Here I am, rudely implying that she was non compos mentis from a drinking habit, when it’s obvious from her writing that she was anything but (the L.A. margaritas notwithstanding). Perhaps she encountered Doctorow’s “Wittgenstein” passage elsewhere and erroneously assumed that Wittgenstein himself had written it. She can’t have read the novel.

        Not that she missed anything. City of God is only average, its devices trite, Doctorow’s ideas well beneath the level of Wolf’s thinking and writing. I’m pretty sure I didn’t read the novel either; just skimmed far enough into the book to confirm that it wouldn’t be useful for what I was writing at the time. I definitely recall his “Wittgenstein” passage, though, because it was (unintentionally, I’m sure) over-the-top parodic, and therefore (also unintentionally) quite funny.

        And now I see that I typed “DeLillo” above, instead of “Doctorow.” As I was writing the comment, I wondered how much Doctorow had been influenced by DeLillo’s Underworld. Clearly, my mental autocorrect failed me, albeit in an interesting way. 😉

        • On the contrary, Wolf read City of God, though I’ve no idea how assiduously, arguing with it at one point in her 2001 entry.

          I’m pleased of your opinion. You’ve saved me the time and expense of confirming my antipathy to Doctorow’s works.

          • Ah, well. I give up then. The circumstances that prompted Ms. Wolf’s statement will remain a mystery for all eternity.

            I hope my remarks about City of God haven’t unfairly turned you away from a book you might’ve enjoyed. I’m a snarly, disagreeable reader, rigidly intolerant of any book I deem ungorgeous, unexhilarating, undestructive, or unnecessary. Perhaps you ought to seek a second opinion. 😉

          • I am pretty sceptical about Doctorow, so I don’t need much encouragement not to read him. Without so much I wish to read, I am looking for reasons not to embark on journey with a new writer.

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