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  • Wittgenstein, Tolstoy, and Shakespeare
  • Peter B. Lewis

Near the middle of the first of his 1938 Lectures on Aesthetics, Wittgenstein talks about what he calls "the tremendous things in art"(LC, I 23 8, italics in original).1 Apart from a brief indication of the way in which our response to the tremendous differs from the non-tremendous, he does not refer again in this way to the tremendous things in art, though he does refer elsewhere to what he calls "supreme art." But he does provide a couple of examples of the tremendous in art, the symphonies of Beethoven and Gothic Cathedrals. Suppose, now, like the student in the Investigations §185, we are asked to continue the series. I take it that, even given the lack of information, we could safely propose, say, Homer—the Iliad and the Odyssey—and Michelangelo—the Sistine Chapel—as further examples of the tremendous things in art. The idea is that the tremendous things in art are not works that are just very good or very fine, but rather they are great, supremely great; works of stature; special cases; instances of the highest kind of artistic achievement, occupying a distinctive place in the history of (Western) civilization.

Another obvious candidate for the list of the tremendous things in art would be Shakespeare, where the name is shorthand for the great plays, the tragedies in particular, Lear, Hamlet, Othello,and so on. So it comes as something of a surprise to discover on reading that miscellaneous compendium of remarks known as Culture and Value that Wittgenstein himself had serious doubts about including Shakespeare in the pantheon of the tremendous things in art. There are seven passages in Culture and Value in which Wittgenstein reflects on Shakespeare.2 The earliest is dated 1939–40, though this passage does not appear to be critical of Shakespeare. The next two passages are [End Page 241] dated August 1946, the remainder coming in 1949 and 1950. The remarks critical of Shakespeare are, then, all very much late Wittgenstein.

It is well-known that lots of people dislike Shakespeare's plays. Generations of school children have developed indifference or boredom or hatred that persists throughout their lives. And yet that does not count against Shakespeare's greatness; for, to borrow Hume's remark on those who would prefer Ogilby to Milton, "no one pays attention to such a taste; and we pronounce without scruple the sentiment of these [people] to be absurd and ridiculous."3 That rhetoric is, however, not available, at least not immediately, when the "pretended critic" (Hume's phrase) has the intellectual clout and aesthetic sensibility of a Wittgenstein; nor, for that matter, the artistic achievement of a Tolstoy.

I have particular grounds for bringing Tolstoy into this discussion. In the first place, there is the importance of Tolstoy in the development of Wittgenstein's thinking about religious, moral and aesthetic issues. Secondly, it is by contrast with Tolstoy's criticism of Shakespeare that we can gain further understanding of Wittgenstein's remarks on Shakespeare. These two points are related. For it seems to me that it is partly through his reflections on Tolstoy's theories about art that Wittgenstein is led into commenting upon Shakespeare.

Tolstoy famously attacks Shakespeare in his pamphlet, "Shakespeare and the Drama,"4 published in 1903 when Tolstoy was seventy-five years of age. Some have taken this essay as evidence that Tolstoy was in his dotage, his mind warped by religious-moralistic fervor. Not only does this fail to do justice to Tolstoy's reasons for criticizing Shakespeare—reasons that Howard Mounce has recently argued are by no means ridiculous5 —it also neglects the fact that the essay is the culmination of Tolstoy's life-long antagonism to Shakespeare. Nevertheless, that very slur on Tolstoy's sanity attests to Shakespeare's status in our culture as something tremendous. His achievement is a standard against which others are measured. And this, I think, is at least partly what Wittgenstein is hinting at in his remarks about the contrast between the tremendous and the non-tremendous in art when he says of the tremendous that "it plays an entirely different role...


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