The Philosophical and The Lunatic Wittgenstein


“For a century Wittgensteins had produced armaments and machines until finally they produced Ludwig and Paul, the famous epoch-making philosopher and the no less famous – at least in Vienna, and just there, even more famous – lunatic who, basically, was just as philosophical as his uncle Ludwig just as, the other way about, the philosophical Ludwig was just as crazy as his nephew Paul; the one, Ludwig, had made his philosophy the basis of his fame, the other Paul, his craziness. The one, Ludwig, was possibly more philosophical, while the other, was possibly crazier, but it may also be that we believed the one, the philosophical Wittgenstein, to be a philosopher only because he had put his philosophy down on paper and not his craziness, and the other, Paul, to be a lunatic merely because he had suppressed and not published his philosophy and only displayed his madness. Both were completely and utterly exceptional brains; the one who had published his brain and the other had not. I might even say that the one had published his brain while the other had practised his brain. And where is the difference between a brain published and continually publishing itself and one that is practised and continually being practised? But of course if Paul had published any writings he would have published writings totally different from Ludwig’s, just as Ludwig would of course have practised a totally different madness from Paul’s. In either case the Wittgenstein name is a guarantee of a high, indeed the highest standard. Paul, the lunatic undoubtedly attained the standard of Ludwig the philosopher; the one represents an absolute peak of philosophy and the history of thought, while the other represents a peak in the history of madness if we are to describe philosophy as philosophy, thought as thought and madness as what they are described as: as perverse historical concepts.”

Thomas Bernhard, Wittgenstein’s Nephew (trans. Ewald Osers)

The Impersonal Within Us (Lyric Thought)

Scene from Orson Welles’s “Don Quixote”

There is still much I wish to share of Jan Zwicky’s reflections in Lyric Philosophy. Her highly compacted approach to questions of subjectivity and language are developed  with an acute elegance that owes much to Wittgenstein’s style. Her arguments and thoughts, presented through fragments and crystalline prose have none of the patient, and frankly dull linear narrative of claim and counter-claim that characterises much philosophy.

As Wittgenstein, there is little sense that Zwicky’s reflections add up to a philosophical system but they throw an illuminating light on the “I speak” of Foucault’s simple sentence, “It it therefore true, undeniably true, that I speak when I say that I am speaking. But things may not be so simple.”

In Book 1 of Lyric Philosophy Zwicky argues that emotions are an integral part of human nature and unjustly set in opposition to reason and logical thought. Emotions shape how we see our world, a necessary factor in how we acquire knowledge. Although emotions are profoundly interior they also reach outwards. On that note, let me share two of Zwicky’s propositions:

“It is in this way, then, that philosophy might assume lyric form: when thought whose eros is clarity is driven also by profound intuitions of coherence – when it is also an attempt to arrive at an integrated perception, a picture or understanding of how something might affect us as beings with bodies and emotions as well as the ability to think logically. Or when it is an investigation informed by or moving towards an appreciation of such a picture or understanding.

When philosophy attempts to give voice to an ecology of experience.” – § 68

“This is not lyric in a sense that emphasises the role of the individual ego: the ‘outpouring of subjective emotion’ connected with the rise of Romantic poetry. That sense is corrupt and is based on a subversion of the desire that fundamentally underlies lyric expression – relinquishment of the individual ego rather than celebration of it.

Lyric thought springs from love, love that attends to the most minutes details of difference; and in this attention experiences connection rather than isolation.” § 69

This seems important to the place of subjective emotion in written thought, whether expressed as fiction or non-fiction – to what extent these terms remain useful today – that it is rooted in emotion but directed outward towards things in the world, or as Zwicky writes, “It bespeaks an awareness that is vulnerable to the world.”

An Instrument’s Sound

From Jan Zwicky’s Lyric Philosophy:

“Dealers in fine musical instruments almost never play the instruments they appraise. Their assessments are based on externally measurable proportions, antique value, the visual appearance of the varnish, the reputation of the luthier, and so on. An understanding of the Tractatus’s arguments might be compared to a violin’s market value; an understanding of its thought, to a musician’s appreciation of the instrument’s sound.

Simone Weil [The Notebooks of Simone Weil, trans. Arthur Wills]

Infinite difference between three hours spent at a machine on piece-work, and three hours spent in front of a fresco of Giotto’s. The relationship between time and me is the stuff of which my life is woven, and it is possible to establish an infinite difference therein. A Bach fugue is a model.”

Giotto’s Legend of St Francis – Renunciation of Wordly Goods

Schumann’s glorious sonata played on Isserlis’ Stradivarius, accompanied by pianist Dénes Várjon, for no other reason but that it accompanies the Giotto so exquisitely. This is the stuff of which my life is woven.

A Form of Attunement

Image from the series “The double and the half” – Slow Panic by Hanan Kazma

In Lyrical Philosophy, Jan Zwicky writes:

“Resonance is a function of the integration of various components in a whole. (Integration, not fusion. Resonance occurs in the spaces between.)

In pure, schematic argument, ‘content’ is of no interest. The form does not arise from it. The form itself is unidimensional. Only the most minimal resonance is possible, the most rudimentary of non-algebraic meanings. The spaces in analysis are necessarily discontinuities, not chambers.–Integrity is a form of attunement.”

Echoes and resonances are central to Zwicky’s writing on Wittgenstein, her suggestion that you might take a number of randomly selected propositions, say half a dozen, from the Tractatus and see them not only as self-sufficient utterances, but also appreciate their bell-like resonant interconnectedness.

As Zwicky remarks, “Imagine doing a similar thing with randomly selected sentences from one of the standard treatises of systematic philosophy.” To what extent I understand Zwicky on Wittgenstein I find her account insightful enough to tackle the Tractatus directly, aided from to time by Michael Morris’ elegant Routledge ‘guidebook’.

I am struck by this idea of resonance to the point of waking up at three o’clock in the morning buzzing with associations. Many of the utterances in Tractatus appear bland, even unoriginal, taken as single entities, but the cumulative effect and patterns start to appear, if only flickeringly.

The resonances work a little like memories, which, for me, arrive primarily in image form; the associations between memory images being deeply resonant. Resonance is spatial, occurring as Zwicky writes “in the spaces in-between”, not unidimensional, and these associations do not arrive in linear form.

To drag another analogy into this raggedy post, I could compare it with my library where, for me, it makes sense to shelve my newly acquired Zwicky and Wittgenstein beside Rilke, Walser and Akhmatova, my library organised by resonance and not by alphabetisation. Wittgenstein wrote that philosophy should only be written as poetry, so these shelf companions somehow seem more fitting.

With Wittgenstein, and in the same sense Zwicky, I read slowly, retracing my steps often to push against the resistance to comprehension. I recall Wittgenstein acting as the benefactor to the poet, Georg Trakl. When he first read Trakl’s poems, he confessed, “I don’t understand them. But their tone delights me. It is the tone of … genius.”

Sometimes, one’s reading coalesces into silent flood . . .


‘Whereas Wittgenstein passionately believes that all that really matters in human life is precisely what, in his view, we must be silent about.’ – Paul Engelmann, Letters from Ludwig with a Memoir

‘Closed place. All needed to be known for say is known. There is nothing but what is said. Beyond what is said there is nothing.’ Beckett, Watt

‘I wanted to take a snapshot from the book but it feels that it demands such a private form of reading.’ Daniela Cascella, (my italics) ‘I feel like that with most books, this is why I hardly ever blog anymore’ flowerville_ii

‘Making yourself understood is impossible, there’s no such thing as doing that.’ Thomas Bernhard, Three Days (Douglas Robertson’s translation)

‘I cannot help these words as he can: / mute radiance, the empty shining valley. / I cannot keep them clean, they suffocate, / fall stillborn from my mouth. / Prod them for signs of life like poisoned mice.’ Jan Zwicky, Wittgenstein Elegies

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.]

Wittgenstein and Dostoyevsky

A great many, perhaps most, of the books I choose to read are a consequence of something I’ve just read, or an intriguing comment on social media. Kaufmann’s The Faith of a Heretic led me to Norman Malcolm’s delightful Wittgenstein memoir, which in turn fixed my resolve to read The Brothers Karamazov. Malcolm’s contention that Wittgenstein considered The House of the Dead Dostoyevsky’s greatest work is unusual in that it is not one of his ‘big four’ novels.

Once when we were conversing Wittgenstein was delighted to learn that I knew Tolstoy’s Twenty-three Tales. He’d had an extremely high opinion of these stories. He questioned me closely to find out whether I had understood the moral of the one entitled ‘How Much Land Does A Man Need?’ Wittgenstein had been stiff with me at the beginning of the conversation because he was displeased with me for a reason I have forgotten. But when he discovered that I had read, understood, and valued Tolstoy’s stories, he became friendly and animated. Wittgenstein also admired the writings of Dostoevsky. He read The Brothers Karamazov and extraordinary number of times, but he once said that The House of the Dead was Dostoevsky’s greatest work.

Memoirs from the House of the Dead is therefore what I’ll read next, in the Jesse Coulson translation.