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Wittgenstein’s “private diaries” shed light on an enigmatic genius

By Ludwig Wittgenstein
Edited and translated by Marjorie Perloff
Illustrated. 218 pages. Live right. $24.95.

It is perhaps a measure of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s genius as well as his enigma that the volume of writing on he is almost comically disproportionate to the volume of writing by him. Prior to his death in 1951, Wittgenstein had published a total of a book, an article, and a book review (the review was written while he was a student at Cambridge). Described by another philosopher as “a bewitching and somewhat terrifying person”, he was extremely lonely and he dedicated his “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” to David Pinsent, who died in a plane crash in 1918, calling him “my first and only friend. .”

Yet, as Ray Monk observed in his biography, “Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius” (1990), the memories of even those who barely knew him are “innumerable”, including the memories of “the lady who taught him Russian” and “the man who delivered peat to his cottage. Economist Friedrich Hayek happened to be a cousin, and he wrote a memento that recalled the few times they met, when Wittgenstein swung between heated conversation and sudden withdrawal, at one point poking his nose into a detective novel, “seemingly unwilling to talk. ”

That Wittgenstein goes from having a lot to say to having nothing to say was consistent with his own “Tractatus”, in which he listed over 500 numbered statements, delving into detailed logical formulations, before arriving at his conclusion. laconic: can’t talk about it, you have to keep quiet. Or, as Wittgenstein wrote in his notebook in July 1916, “What cannot be said, can not be told!”

Wittgenstein wrote this for his private consumption, scribbling the statement in code he used with his siblings when they were children. He had volunteered for the Austrian army and in August 1914 began keeping his war diaries, of which only three survived. On the right-hand pages (recto) he wrote—in ordinary, uncoded script—what would become the notes for a draft of the “Tractatus,” which would be published in 1921; on the left pages (verso), he kept his diary secret and coded, which has now been translated into English for the first time by poetry critic Marjorie Perloff.

“Private Notebooks: 1914-1916” is a strange and intriguing record – illuminating regarding Wittgenstein’s preoccupations, his sexual angst, his ongoing struggles with his “work” in philosophy, as well as his intermittent commentary on his “work” in the military. (Like other writings by Wittgenstein that were published posthumously, “Private Notebooks” is a bilingual edition, with German and English printed on opposite pages.) Perloff also points out that unlike so many other war diaries, Wittgenstein’s includes very few issues of the war itself. One exception is an entry that reads as a surprisingly cheerful declaration that his own side was doomed: “The English – the finest race in the world – can not to lose! We, however, can and will lose, if not this year, then the next!”

Nor did Wittgenstein share the sentimentality of an average war memoirist for his comrades-in-arms. In fact, he seemed to despise them, only to clarify that what he felt was not quite hate but “disgust”. Wittgenstein belonged to one of the richest families of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – “the habit of polite conversation is so ingrained in me!” – and his revulsion was immediate. “My shipmates are a bunch of pigs! No enthusiasm for anything, unbelievable crudeness, stupidity and nastiness,” he wrote days after enlisting, the first of many complaints about “insolence” and “rudeness.” More than two years later, he still insisted he was “surrounded by wickedness!”

If the people around him were one kind of problem, his philosophical work was another. It was an obsession and often a torment. Sometimes he was down-to-earth: “Didn’t work”; “Did some work”; “I worked quite hard but without real confidence”; “I worked quite hard but without much hope.” He found he could think better when peeling potatoes, comparing this to Spinoza’s daily work grinding lentils. The “Tractatus” would prove to be a svelte book, but using language to explore the limits of language meant that Wittgenstein had embarked on something painful and laborious. “I see details without knowing what role they will play in the whole,” he wrote. “For this reason, I also perceive each new problem as a burden.”

He also experienced his sexuality as a burden, writing elliptically about all possible relationships with men, but frankly (and frequently) about his masturbation (or lack thereof), an activity he associated with lack of exercise. Sometimes the comments about work and sex came together: “Will I find thought redemptive?” Will this happen to me??!!—Yesterday and today I masturbated.

In the second notebook in particular, the punctuation becomes noticeably idiosyncratic. Wittgenstein had a soft spot for exclamation marks and em dashes, sometimes doubling or even tripling them, interspersing them between other forms of punctuation, such as “-!-.” “Where -!-!” or the mysterious “—.——.” Perloff quotes a scholar who argued that the long dashes represent forms of prayer. Wittgenstein, for his part, knew what he wanted them to do, at least in his published work. “My sentences are all meant to be read slowly,” he once wrote. “I really want my many punctuation marks to slow down the reading speed. Because I would like to be read slowly. (As I read it myself.)”

Perloff previously wrote a book on Wittgenstein, “Wittgenstein’s Ladder” (1996), in which she examined his “poetry of ideas”. Wittgenstein probably wouldn’t have opposed it; he said that philosophy “should really only be written as a form of poetry”, and he resisted traditional forms of argument, much to the disappointment of his mentor Bertrand Russell. “I told him he shouldn’t just state what he thinks is true, but to give him arguments,” Russell wrote in a letter to a friend, exasperated by Wittgenstein’s stubbornness regarding the declarative statements of the “Tractatus.” “But he said the arguments spoil his beauty and he would feel like he’s dirtying a flower with muddy hands.”

Guy Davenport once described Wittgenstein as someone who “peered into more subtle and deeper issues”, and “Private Notebooks” shows the philosopher grappling with this process in real time. Its July 24, 1916 reverse side recounts the experience of being bombed and how much he wanted to “go on living”; on the front of that day he wrote: “The world and life are one” and “Ethics and aesthetics are one” – phrases that will be found in the final version of the ” Tractatus”. The war meant that Wittgenstein – and therefore his philosophy – had changed: “My work extended its scope from the foundations of logic to the nature of the world.”

This transformation comes across as disconcerting and almost unbearably moving. The notebooks show the circumstances in which Wittgenstein’s mystical turn towards the end of the “Tractatus” was born – not in an attempt to escape this world, but in a determination to immerse himself in it.


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