- Wittgenstein and Modernism ed. by Michael LeMahieu, Karen Zumhagen-Yekplé
If Elizabeth Bishop was, according to John Ashbery, “a poet’s poet’s poet,” then Ludwig Wittgenstein is perhaps the literary critic’s philosopher’s philosopher. A great many of us in literary studies have read Wittgenstein’s work, yet he still has cultish status. I mean this both in the sense of feeling like his work is a secret shared with select others, and also in the sense that it inspires devotion. Is this due to the extracurricular route that many literary scholars take to him? Relatively few of us are taught the Tractatus or the Philosophical Investigations (much less Culture and Value or On Certainty) as part of our formal training. Or is it the case that even if one is already knowledgeable about philosophy of language and deliberately sets out to learn about ordinary language philosophy, reading Wittgenstein can still feel revelatory?
Wittgenstein himself expressed his goal as therapy or liberation or, as he famously wrote in the Investigations, “To show the fly the way out of the fly bottle.” He reframed inherited philosophical conversations by attending to their use of language; his work offers readers texts dense to the point of being cryptic, and it also offers a methodology or interpretive orientation. As groundbreaking Wittgenstein scholar Stanley Cavell writes, “Wittgenstein’s Investigations became for me not simply an object of interpretation but a means of interpretation” (cited on 16).
In Wittgenstein and Modernism, the new collection of essays edited by Michael LeMahieu and Karen Zumhagen-Yekplé, Wittgenstein is both an object and a means of interpretation. This book gathers eleven essays by literary scholars who draw on philosophy, and philosophers who draw on literature. Each essay offers an argument that situates an aspect of Wittgenstein’s oeuvre relative to our conceptualization of modernism and/or of modernist artists including Adolf Loos, Robert Musil, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, Gertrude Stein, Henry James, Wallace Stevens, James Joyce, and Saul Bellow. And each essay demonstrates the very different ways in which each of these scholars remains devoted to Wittgenstein. Of course, I’m conjecturing—nothing is written here about how the contributors feel or first felt upon reading Wittgenstein—but this conjecture accounts for the strongest aspect of this collection, namely how original so many of these essays are. It is thrilling to read so many very different demonstrations of what happens when you cross multiply the objects and means of interpretation provided by Wittgenstein with those provided by modernist studies. (My conjecture also accounts for the weaknesses of this collection; more on that later.)
In many ways, it is easy to describe Wittgenstein as a modernist: he crossed paths with modernists in both Austria and England; the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, his only book published during his lifetime, came out in the annus mirabilis of 1922; his magnum opus, the Philosophical Investigations, was published in 1953. LeMahieu and Zumhagen-Yekplé’s thorough and lucid Introduction situates Wittgenstein’s work, early and late, relative to modernism, both philosophical and aesthetic. They trace Wittgenstein’s reception history from the embrace of the Tractatus by the logical positivists of the Vienna Circle, who claimed it as part of their movement to make philosophy work scientifically, through Cavell’s interpretation of the Investigations, where he claimed Wittgenstein’s second and very different book for modernism due to the way it “perpetually questions its medium and its sense of a break with the past,” and on to the work by the contributors to this volume (cited on 13). Some of the contributors here have been writing about Wittgenstein and modernism for nearly half a century. Allan Janik’s essay in this collection argues that Wittgenstein’s “views about style represent a highly peculiar form of Viennese modernism,” expanding on his 1973 intellectual history, Wittgenstein’s Vienna [End Page 207] (co-authored with Stephen Toulmin) (72). Charles Altieri and Marjorie Perloff, the two literary critics who have done the most to bring Wittgenstein to literary...