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  • Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary
  • Michael Fischer
Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary, by Marjorie Perloff; xvii & 285 pp. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996, $27.95.

In a frequently quoted remark from Philosophical Investigations. Wittgenstein comments on our overlooking things because they are familiar, or right in front of us every day: “One is unable to notice something—because it is always before one’s eyes” (§129). We take these things for granted instead of appreciating their strangeness. For readers of this journal, one of these familiar things might be the very project of drawing on philosophy while discussing works of literature. Not every critic does this; the New Critics, for instance, hardly ever did. From a certain point of view, turning to philosophy feels forced or odd, in need of explanation and defense.

In Marjorie Perloff’s Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of [End Page 489] the Ordinary, the works of literature under discussion include texts by Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, Ingeborg Bachmann, Lyn Hejinian, and other poets and novelists. The philosopher Perloff calls on to help elucidate these texts is Wittgenstein. She compounds the possible oddity of using Wittgenstein by admitting not only that several of these writers never read him but that he probably would not have liked their work. Nevertheless, she refers to the “Wittgensteinian poetics” of Robert Creeley and Hejinian and the “Wittgensteinian fictions” of Bernhard and Bachmann. Although I agree that there is something “Wittgensteinian” about these writers, I think that the connection goes even deeper than Perloff assumes.

Perloff begins to establish some common ground between Wittgenstein and these writers by characterizing Wittgenstein as a kind of artist himself. In Culture and Value Wittgenstein remarks that “philosophy ought really to be written only as a form of poetry.” With this comment in mind, Perloff is less interested in tracking the argument of his work than in following what Stanley Cavell has called Wittgenstein’s “spiritual struggle.” Perloff’s opening chapters demonstrate how that struggle informs Wittgenstein’s writing from the Tractatus through the Investigations. She traces Wittgenstein’s endless self-revision, showing how his writing is “‘aesthetic’ in its imaginative deployment of exempla, apposite images, parataxes, and sudden leaps of faith” (p. 15). Like some modernist avant-garde texts, Wittgenstein’s writings resist being paraphrased; they foreground and question their own construction; and they gravitate toward provisional, fragmentary forms—most famously, the philosophical remarks and sketches that make up the Investigations.

Seeing Wittgenstein as a modernist artist is a useful, if perhaps familiar, way of characterizing him. I am less convinced by the biographical details that Perloff lets into the discussion once she likens Wittgenstein’s writings to literary texts. It is as if in her view seeing Wittgenstein as an artist humanizes him and encourages us to see in his writings the imprint of his personal life. Wittgenstein’s war experience, for example, transforms “the Tractatus from logical, scientific treatise to something quite different” (p. 25). “The imperious tone of the Investigations” betrays “Wittgenstein the upper-class, singularly wealthy, culturally superior Viennese male” (p. 76). Wittgenstein’s Jewishness as well as his nationality distances him from English culture and makes him “determined to live inside the ordinary language field of his adopted nation, and yet to be so aware of its vagaries” (p. 76). Finally, Wittgenstein’s homosexuality and his consequent need to disguise his own feelings bring about his anxious insistence, or hope, that no one else can know another person’s feelings with certainty (p. 77).

I agree that the circumstances of Wittgenstein’s life align him with other modernist outsiders. But for me the more powerful ties between Wittgenstein and the poets and novelists that Perloff goes on to examine surface in the texts that they write, not in the lives that they lead. Perloff’s tying Wittgenstein’s work to his gender, class, ethnicity, and sexual orientation feels mechanical to me. I [End Page 490] don’t say that such biographical and historical factors are irrelevant, only that Perloff fails to shed any new light on how they enter...

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