Owen, Wittgenstein, and the Postwar Battle with Language
The Great War left an indelible mark of horror and brutality on the Western imagination, not least on how we have come to understand the toll wars take on their survivors. This article gauges some of that effect through an examination of the work of two noted veterans: Wilfred Owen and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Through a discussion of Owen's poetry in tandem with Wittgenstein's earlier philosophy, I address the toll violence exacts on language; namely, on the attempt not to describe but to show war.
Differences in the work philosophy does and the work art does need not be slighted if it turns out that they cross paths, even to some extent share paths—for example, where they contest the ground on which the life of another is to be examined, call it the ground of therapy.—Stanley Cavell1
The battlefields of war are often described as a separate world, planet, or universe, far removed from ordinary life. Literary examples of this perception can be seen in several modern works of postwar writing: Kurt Vonnegut calling post-bombing Dresden in Slaughterhouse Five as being "like the moon,"2 while Louis-Ferdinand Céline describes war as "the apocalypse."3 As James Winn comments, war is a "world apart, a very ancient world, which exists in parallel to the everyday world but does not belong to it."4 However, despite the foreignness or otherness of battlefield experiences, the words available to its participants are nonetheless the same as those used in ordinary instances. Thus, while [End Page 344] the physical and emotional context of war is that of a different world, the modes used to describe that world are frustratingly earthbound.
One result of this tension between extreme context and the rigidity of language is that words take on different, ironic meanings. This is apparent in the use of military neologisms and jargon, such as in the case of "typewriter," which in the slang of American World War II soldiers referred to .30 caliber machine guns.5 But, as Paul Fussell famously commented, war also elicits a more subversive linguistic shift, one born out of the "collision between events and the language available" and the clash between "events and the public language used for over a century to celebrate the idea of progress."6 In this "ridiculous proximity of the trenches to home" (GW, p. 64), with the same words used to describe both the horrors of war and the everydayness of home, the figurative and literal collide and a new aspect of language dawns. The result, as I will discuss, is a poetic experience of language, one that does not separate the ordinary from the figurative—the everyday from the horrific—but highlights the confusion between these categories. To write about war, as in Stanley Cavell's comments on writing toward what he calls "self-knowledge," "is to war with words, to battle for the very weapons with which you fight."7 This is a struggle readily discernible in the preface to Wilfred Owen's collection of war poems.
Owen, perhaps the paradigmatic war poet of the twentieth century, was famously killed just a week before the final armistice of World War I. However, in preparation for a future collection, he drafted a preface, articulating a kind of instruction or key to his poems:
This book is not about heroes. English Poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except war. Above all I am not concerned with poetry. My subject is War and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.8
Evident in this preface is Owen's attempt to draw a limit to what "English Poetry" can, and cannot, "speak of." For Owen, poetry is best described through the concepts it cannot include: "heroes," "deeds," "lands," "glory," "honour," "might," "majesty," "dominion," or "power"; he even goes so far as saying that his poetry "above all" is "not concerned with poetry." A stripped-down depiction of war is, then, the most "truthful" way a poet can speak of war. I argue that by removing "poetry" from [End Page 345] the content of the words, Owen is not merely making a shift in content toward the physical and against the metaphysical but outlines a new "poetic" that collapses the borders between real and unreal.
Owen's poems are unquestionably about war in content, and thus depict war. However, by removing any trace of the kind of language that would seem overtly poetic—such as "valor"—Owen aspires to make obsolete the notion of a poetic language as poetry that is something to "understand," or "read," bringing forth the notion of a poetic effect, or overarching form, in this case—the "pity of war." This valorless picture of battle is distinguishable in one of Owen's most celebrated poems, "Dulce et Decorum Est." The first stanza of the poem appears to be following the scheme seemingly sketched in the preface: omitting any talk of "valor," these lines describe nothing but war:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,Till on the haunting flares we turned our backsAnd toward our distant rest began to trudge.Men marched asleep. Many had lost their bootsBut limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;Drunk with fatigue, deaf even to the hootsOf tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.(WP, p. 29, 1–8)
Owen gives us neither a hint of the words "valor," "power," "dominion," nor an indication that the subject matter of the poem is poetry—only war. This rejection, however, brought many commentators to regard Owen's poems as simplistic depictions of war. This conception of Owen's poetry likewise led W. B. Yeats to exclude him, and the vast majority of so-called trench poets, from his Oxford Book of Modern Verse, deeming their "passive suffering" an unfitting "theme for poetry," centering on "blood, dirt and sucked sugar-stick."9
Some commentators, such as Mary Ann Gillies and Aurelea Mahood, consider Owen's artless and realistic wartime imagery to be a reaction to the hyperbolic, figurative language used by leaders before and during the war, thus rejecting the "ritualized abstractions used to palliate the living." In Owen's poems, they say, the "means and sounds of death are not buried in abstract metaphors. Owen refuses to use figurative language … by focusing relentlessly on the instruments of death: rifles and shells."10 They add that Owen rejects metaphor, adhering to reality, as he "anchors grief in the actual experience of death instead of in empty [End Page 346] language and hollow rituals" (ML, p. 88). Similarly, Winn sees Owen's preface as rejecting the "liturgical traditions linking those abstractions with the might, majesty, dominion, and power of God," adding that Owen "is rejecting what Poetry with a capital P has come to mean—a stock vocabulary of knightly images and lofty abstractions."11
Other commentaries, however, such as Daniel Hipp's discussion of shell-shock writing, see Owen's poems not as an ideological reaction but as an aesthetical choice in realism: "Owen forgoes abstraction in favor of immediate and graphic detail. … This desire to capture the war experience through language and photographic reconstruction foreshadows the technique of realism that would mark Owen's initial war poems before giving way to a more complicated representation of battle."12 These comments, and many others discussing the central role of realism in Owen's work, rightly emphasize the ideological need to relinquish, or repress, the "hollow" cries of "valor" and "dominion" rejected in Owen's poetry. However, they nonetheless overlook what I consider to be crucial to the understanding of Owen's style—a dismissal of the division between the direct and indirect, poetic and real, in silencing that which cannot be said, and emphasizing what can only be shown.
Through a reading of Ludwig Wittgenstein's philosophy in tandem with a selection of Owen's war poems, I argue that lingual upheaval of the battlefields causes these writers to take similar paths. Both Owen and Wittgenstein create a language that highlights the collapse of the figurative into the ordinary, while banishing what both consider as a failed attempt to speak "poetically"—what Wittgenstein refers to as "nonsense." Using Wittgenstein's concepts of the "language game," "aspect dawning," and "secondary sense" from his Philosophical Investigations, I shall attempt to demonstrate that what these writers consider a "correct" use of language in their texts about war, whether philosophical or poetic, enables the dawning of new aspects and senses in a seemingly realistic picture. Here the very concept of realism must be clarified.
Reality, or realism, as seen in these texts, doesn't denote an accuracy of detail, a notion hinted at by some of the above-mentioned critics, but of form. What is mirrored in these artifacts is, in other words, the structure of reality. As Cora Diamond states, "realism" in literature, or the aim of showing life, has long—and erroneously—come to imply empiricism, which is an adherence to facts. In "this non-philosophical use of 'realism' there is a connection with empiricism, with its characteristic attempts to banish from philosophy (or from our thought more generally) myth, magic, superstition of various sorts, or what it sees [End Page 347] as that."13 Thus, a revised conception of realism may enable us to see what Owen achieves in his poems by turning to another preface—that of Wittgenstein's post–World War I philosophical text, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
Wittgenstein's preface to the Tractatus, a text begun while he was an Austrian prisoner of war during the Great War, presents a shorthand version of the book's philosophical thrust: to "draw a limit to thought, or rather—not to thought, but to the expression of thoughts." Thus, the limit Wittgenstein aims for is not on our way of thinking but, like Owen, on our means of expression: "It will therefore only be in language that the limit can be drawn, and what lies on the other side of the limit will simply be nonsense."14 Similar to Owen, then, Wittgenstein presents his postwar philosophy as marking a line in the sand of language: there are words that represent a correct use of language, and others that transgress that limit. Moreover, Wittgenstein adjoins, embedded between his philosophical mission statements, a brief definition of what kind of text he considers his work to be.
Contrary to the seemingly didactic aims of the book, Wittgenstein in his preface can be said to seek an understanding not brought upon by learning but by violence. His text is to be read by one "who has himself already had the thoughts that are expressed in it," stating that the goal of the work is not to teach but bring to "pleasure to one person who read it and understood it." Above all, Wittgenstein states, his work "is not a textbook" (T, p. 3). Thus, while Wittgenstein seems intent on regulating our means of expression, which is, one could argue, a very textbook-like goal, the manner in which this demarcation is to be achieved is very different from that of a textbook. It remains unclear, however, what exactly Wittgenstein does when he attempts to distinguish his work from a "textbook" reading of his text. A possible answer can be traced in the attempted goal of his book: to speak of what can be spoken, and show what cannot.
As Wittgenstein states in the Tractatus, propositions "can only say how things are, not what they are" (T, 3.221); thus, Wittgenstein adds, "There are, indeed, many things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical" (T, 6.522, emphasis in the original). As Diamond writes, reading "the Tractatus with understanding, Wittgenstein tells us, is not to read it as textbook. His intention is not that the book should teach us things that we did not know; it does not address itself to our ignorance."15 Thus, according to the preface, the Tractatus's analysis of language is not geared at understanding [End Page 348] what words mean but perhaps geared toward an investigation of how they demonstrate, as Wittgenstein further shows in his discussion of a pictorial theory of language later in the Tractatus. In what is known as Wittgenstein's pictorial theory of language, "A proposition is a picture of reality. A proposition is a model of reality as we imagine it" (T, 4.01).
Language, then, can either display a correct or an incorrect picture of reality. Those sentences and propositions whose elements create a correct use of language—sentences depicting objects and their logical relations—are what Wittgenstein deems "sense" sentences—"A soldier is marching slowly," to give an example. Those utterances, however, that transgress the limitation on language to correctly depict a picture of the world—ethical, religious, philosophical, and figurative utterances, to name but a few—he deems "nonsense": "The soldier died bravely." The Tractatus famously ends with its final aphorism that sense sentences are, in fact, the only sentences that generate a correct use of language, and thus are the only sentences that can say anything that makes logical or philosophical sense. On the other hand, nonsensical sentences, which merely emulate the structure of a picture, must not be spoken at all: "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence" (T, 7).
Both Owen's and Wittgenstein's war texts, I argue, can be read as demonstrations of this very specific kind of language, one that reflects the effect of war on language. What both men's texts do in relation to war is the only thing they can do, under the strict logical form outlined in the Tractatus—to show war. Seen in this way, the Tractatus's take on language can be understood, as Marjorie Perloff has said, as a demonstration of the logical shift experienced in the wake of war: "The Tractatus is not," Perloff writes, "of course, a book 'about' World War I; it contains no brief against war as such, no images of horror or bloodshed, no transcendental truths about violence and slaughter. But it is a war book nevertheless, illustrating, as it does, its own theory that certain things cannot be said, they can only be shown."16 Thus, if we were to follow the rigid instructions proposed by the Tractatus, and Perloff's note, whatever cannot be said about war is shown by all those elements of the text other than the saying—the how of form and structure.
One of the most striking characteristics of the Tractatus is how it says what it does: in numbered and ordered form, in accordance with a rigorous logical order, as discerned in this short snapshot of the very first lines of the work: [End Page 349]
1. The world is all that is the case.1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things.1.11 The world is determined by the facts, and by their being all the facts.1.12 For the totality of facts determines what is the case, and also whatever is not the case.
As Mark Lazenby writes of the Tractatus: "Wittgenstein arranges the Tractatus like a textbook. It is structured by a numbering system, which follows the logical ordering of Russell and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica, a system common to mathematical textbooks." But, he goes on to say, the "form of expression Wittgenstein employs, like a poem, attempts to convey something, yet this something defies the prose that conveys it. This attempt to show the unsayable in the prose of the Tractatus is the literary style of the book."17 In a similar fashion, Dale Jacquette sees "a kind of avant poetry and music to the clipped sentences of the Tractatus, reminiscent of the minimalist works of modern architecture that Wittgenstein admired."18 Similarly, Owen's artless depiction, as noted before, indeed says much of the physical details of war, but puts equal emphasis on a logical-poetic showing of war.
When considering, then, that Wittgenstein's seeming rejection of nonsense could be interpreted as a way to show that nonsense can only be shown, "Dulce et Decorum Est" ceases to be a clear-cut attempt to teach or describe war but becomes an attempt to show the "pity" of war:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,Till on the haunting flares we turned our backsAnd toward our distant rest began to trudge.
Upon rereading these lines, the aspects of the poem that go beyond the content come to the fore, such as with a rigorous use of both ordered rhyme scheme and sound devices to imitate the slow trudging through the battlefront mud. As Meredith Martin states, the form "of Owen's famous poem is itself 'bent double,' like the soldiers it describes."19 This is especially apparent in the first two lines of the poem, which apply sound devices and internal rhymes ("sacks," "hags," "backs") and rhythm ("knock-kneed"), a strict order almost out of place in the chaotic war scene described.
This sense of an alien regularity intensifies as the falling projectiles that, in the next stanza, will disperse the poisonous gas, killing a soldier before the speaker's eyes. Their descent is described as part of the same [End Page 350] mechanical rhythm: "Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots / But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind; / Drunk with fatigue, deaf even to the hoots / Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind." Horror and fear aren't events in these lines—they are not discussed—but shown through form. The eerie disparity between the claustrophobic order and erratic action is intensified through the use of an ordering and categorizing military jargon to describe the deadly, falling gas shells ("Five-Nines"). The emphasis on order and rhythm is stressed again at the point of its catastrophic collapse.
Furthermore, the cries of "Gas! Gas!" cause a disruption of both form and content at once, imitating the havoc a gas attack creates. As Margot Norris states, the "gas attack disrupts the limping poem as it disrupts the limping march and makes the detached poetic voice an urgent actor on the scene … reliving an experience of trauma."20 As Martin adds in her in-depth discussion of the poem's rigorous, sonnet-like structure, "The poem's formal status, bent-double and attempting to recover from the trauma at its center, gives the reader an awareness of forms as both possible and impossible emblems of recovery and survival."21
Through this balancing of the strictly factual and rigid formality, we can begin to see Wittgenstein and Owen as they attempt to show war. Once this linguistic battle is temporarily won, a stripped-down logical form is achieved and a correct view of reality breaks through: "My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed them.) He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright" (T, 6.53). Thus, while nonsensical words like "good" and "brave" are banished, they make a triumphant return through Wittgenstein's seeing the world "aright." What Wittgenstein addresses here is, I contend, what happens when ordinary language and poetic, or nonsensical, language cease to perform as mutually exclusive and are incorporated one into the other. The words "beauty" or "horror" will never, in themselves, appear in Owen or Wittgenstein, but the effect of their writing is to feel those qualities, without marring them with linguistic confusions. Ordinary things said in an extraordinary way show what we cannot and ought not say. This discussion of the transformational value of the ordinary is further addressed in Philosophical Investigations.
With his discussion of aspect dawning—seeing a picture or image as something else without losing the original image—in Philosophical [End Page 351] Investigations, Wittgenstein reiterates, albeit differently, the notion of viewing language as a diagram or picture. Looking at the diagram of a cube, to use Wittgenstein's example, we can see it as a cube, as a cube with a visible missing side or with the side not in our line of sight, as a cube made of glass, and so on. What enables this constant shift in what we see, I argue, is the result of an image of reality quite similar to that insisted upon by the Tractatus. If we were to view a picture of an iron cube, for instance, these shifting aspects would be harder, although far from impossible, to trigger. For, as in the Tractatus, the prerequisite of such shifting is viewing the scheme of a cube. Once naked form is achieved, what Charles S. Peirce calls a "diagram,"22 the image suddenly lends itself to be viewed differently. As Meredith Williams writes, the example of a cube "serves to highlight the fact that any picture, chart, schema (i.e., any isolable representational object) is susceptible to more than one interpretation, to more than one use."23
Thus the effect of a poetic text of the kind this language of war creates, like the cube, is far from being realistic in a detail-specific manner but instead serves as a launching pad for innumerable aspects of the war scene. This shift to a new kind of seeing—as proposed in Owen's mention of "warning" in his preface and Wittgenstein's comment on "seeing the world aright"—is one which, as Stephen Mulhall states, manifests "the nature of our normal relationship with language—we directly perceive the written and spoken elements of language as meaningful words and sentences, not as sounds-or-marks-to-be-interpreted."24
Literature, for Wittgenstein, is that special kind of a linguistic activity where the meaning of a proposition isn't derived solely from the context of a specific picture, as in ordinary language games: "When I read a poem or a narrative with feeling, surely something goes on in me which does not go on when I merely skim the lines for information."25 Wittgenstein likens this manner of experiencing language to seeing a painting, in which the work allows, unlike ordinary language games, the experience of its totality as well of its composite elements in isolation: "If a sentence can strike me as a painting in words, and the very individual word in the sentence as like a picture, then it is no such marvel that a word uttered in isolation and without purpose can seem to carry a particular meaning in itself" (PI, p. 215e).
Thus, the way in which war changes the concept of language is not entirely dissimilar to another use of language: poetry. The turn that language undergoes during war, and the shift intended at the end of Wittgenstein's ladder, I contend, is similar to the kind of language [End Page 352] Wittgenstein sees as literary—where language games collide one into the other, thus bringing a new and sometimes horrific image into view. It is poetry, as Wolfgang Huemar puts it, "which performs the shift from content to form in a most genuine way."26 Words and sentences that once had meaning are now revealed as constantly changing variables inserted into a much more powerful logical structure.
To reiterate, a central aspect of Wittgenstein's discussion of the shifting meanings in poetic sentences or words is the emergence of a new view of the same fact, utterance, or picture. Thus, unlike a metaphor, which attempts to characterize something in terms of something else, "in the case of a secondary use," according to Diamond, "it cannot be said what different meaning the expression has." Wittgenstein writes that if he were asked what he really meant by speaking of "fat" and "lean" days of the week, he "could only explain the meaning in the perfectly ordinary way" (RS, p. 228). Similar to the way language changes in war, this poetic doesn't demonstrate another way of saying something but another way of perceiving, as seen in Owen's "The Last Laugh." In the poem, three sets of dying soldiers' last words are put on display, all of which seem, to the speaker, to bear more than one meaning, and all of which act as elements in a larger logical image, on par with the chaotic sounds of battle:
"Oh! Jesus Christ! I'm hit," he said; and died.Whether he vainly cursed or prayed indeed, The Bullets chirped—In vain, vain, vain! Machine-guns chuckled—Tut-tut! Tut-tut! And the Big Gun guffawed.(WP, p. 55, 1–5)
The utterance "Jesus Christ!" can be used in many different ways, in many different language games, in each case used as a set picture of meaning. For example, it could be uttered in the context of a religious language game, in which case the words would likely create an image of faith or prayer. In other cases, such as, perhaps, being burnt by hot coffee, the phrase would take on a different connotation, that of an angry exclamation. In ordinary language, I contend, these uses rarely intersect since they are always said in different contexts. However, as we can see in the first stanza of Owen's poem, in war these different meanings are not resolved: "Whether he vainly cursed or prayed indeed," as "indeed," ordinarily used to ascertain meaning, here functions like an open question. [End Page 353]
The speaker does not experience a set picture of meaning but instead is presented with disarticulated paint stains and blotches, which can be forever rearranged and reexperienced. And, as if to further confound the reader's attempt at a stable image, the desire to resolve the issue by inquiring about the intended use, something quite common in an everyday setting, becomes utterly impossible: "… he said; and died." Thus, not only does wartime complicate any common-sense notion of language and how we experience it, it equally, and similarly to poetry, disallows any dissolution of the bind. What both hearer and reader are left with is an unsolved question. Following the language-game confusion that characterizes the first couplet of the stanza, the last three lines demonstrate the kind of language that results from such confusion.
Language, it seems, ceases to exist as a vehicle for communicating facts about the world and becomes, as I have attempted to show, a collection of lines and stains: "The Bullets chirped—In vain, vain, vain! / Machine-guns chuckled—Tut-tut! Tut-tut! / And the Big Gun guffawed." Thus, as the dying soldier's words are rendered both clear and unclear—since it is clear what he said, and equally unclear what is meant—the sounds of guns firing are colored with an almost human quality, and assigned a definite intent. The bullet can be seen as chirping, machine guns as laughing, and so on. This trend continues with the two remaining stanzas, as sentences that might have had, before reading the first stanza, some resonant meaning within the context depicted, are now experienced in all their aspects. The aspect dawning perceived in the language of the first stanza becomes a sort of instruction that leads to the continuous sensitivity toward seeing other aspects:
Another sighed—"O Mother,—Mother,—Dad!"Then smiled at nothing, childlike, being dead. And the lofty Shrapnel-cloud Leisurely gestured,—Fool! And the splinters spat, and tittered.(WP, p. 55, 6–10)
The destabilization of common-sense usage and meaning continues to reverberate further in the poem's second stanza. However, this stanza reveals an even starker depiction of this undoing, as language is literally left to fend for itself with the absence of any definite question or problem. All the readers have at their disposal is the lingual instruction from the first stanza; no one fixed meaning will satisfy. Thus, as "another sighed" his dying words, he is shown smiling "at nothing," and in the [End Page 354] spirit of the poem's opening lines we are left wondering what is the "nothing" he is smiling at. His absent parents? An absent God? Again, as in both poetry and war, things are seen and reseen, and the ability to set a picture is stripped from the reader and thrown behind the opaque wall of death—"childlike, being dead." Additionally, the poem's sense of an ever-deteriorating absence of meaning, and the ability to procure it, goes further as the onomatopoeic sounds of "chirping" bullets are replaced by a hostile vagueness: "And the lofty Shrapnel-cloud / Leisurely gestured,—Fool! / And the splinters spat, and tittered."
This downward spiral of meaning reaches the apex of abstraction in the last stanza:
"My Love!" one moaned. Love-languid seemed his mood,Till slowly lowered, his whole face kissed the mud. And the Bayonets' long teeth grinned; Rabbles of Shells hooted and groaned; And the Gas hissed.(WP, p. 55, 11–15)
Here meaning is not only rendered unattainable but the very attempt to extract sense out of a seemingly concrete situation reaches parody. As before, the dying words of a fallen soldier are taken beyond any one possible meaning, as his words only "seem" loving. However, Owen takes this notion further and correlates a gesture of dying with one linked to a display of love—a kiss. If a reader were to experience the soldier as kissing an invisible lover then he would see the sadness of a young love being torn apart by death. But one could also see the word "love" as referring to the mud which the soldier ultimately kisses, a show of love for the cause of the war: an image of heroic patriotism. Finally, what truly seals the sense of lingual abstraction, I argue, is the last line of the poem: "And the Gas hissed."
As I have attempted to show throughout, the power of this last line rests in its seeming realism, in the inability to discern the realism said and the destabilizing experience of successively dawning aspects. The lines that precede it again turn to a kind of eerie humanization of the wartime environment—only this time the irony is even sharper. As before, the last scene of dying in the third stanza includes an almost humanized depiction of war and weaponry: "the Bayonets' long teeth grinned" and the "Rabbles of Shells hooted and groaned." However, unlike the preceding stanzas, this final image ends with an onomatopoeia ordinarily associated with the release of gas: "hissing." Thus, although "hissing" too [End Page 355] is the same kind of onomatopoeic/humanized imagery we've encountered in earlier lines, it is, in a way, much more "realistic," or at least not as obviously unordinary as in previous images. The effect of this line is an ironic return to all that had seemed practical and descriptive in Owen's writing. After being educated by the poem as to the possibilities and impossibilities of wartime language, we have only begun to understand Owen's "realistic spirit" by the last line. The ostensible turn toward realism in the last line of the poem, then, is a comment on the manner in which one must read Owen's "realism." Sense data, seemingly reported facts, are now impregnated with uncanny humanity.
If we were to read of hissing gas in the portrayal of the soldier suffocating to death in "Dulce et Decorum Est," then "hissing" could be seen as sense data. But, now that realities of war have so intimately mixed with the absurdities and fragmentation of language, the way they do in "The Last Laugh," Owen's so-called realism seems a far cry from a textbook describing facts and actions. While indeed the signs and notes remain the same as they appear in ordinary use, a form of life asserts itself from beneath the language of reports. As Diamond writes, "When I help someone to hear the sadness in the music, there is no difference in the sounds he hears" (RS, p. 234). Much in the same way, to witness the Somme years after the Great War battle is to see a sadness that isn't in the facts, but somewhere else: "When the air is damp you can smell rusted iron everywhere, even though you see only wheat and barley. The farmers work the fields without joy" (GW, p. 69). This music is the effect of both the Tractatus and Owen's poems—to experience reality, with its dry facts, actions, and form, as inhabited by a sense of melancholy collapse.
Experiencing the reality of war, when considered thus, is seeing a collection of facts that do not necessarily comstitute a definite picture. It is a pictorial framework that triggers a different kind of approach—seeing the same thing, differently, as evident in our return to "Dulce et Decorum Est."
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—an ecstasy of fumbling,Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,And flound'ring like a man on fire or lime …Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.(WP, p. 29, 10–15) [End Page 356]
The opening words of the second stanza center on the focal point of the poem's horror—gas spreading through the ranks—while repeating the word itself as an almost separate image: "Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! An ecstasy of fumbling." Upon a first reading the sentence is understood in context and, as a result, provides a specific primary meaning to the word gas—the poisonous gas used in the trenches of World War I. Yet that emphasis allows for an effect transcending the passage's informative sheen by allowing for the primary use to be potentially replaced with the multitude of possible meanings "gas" could have in all possible language games. The fact that the poet chooses, again, to describe a shorthand use of the word—as opposed to say: "Deadly weapon-grade chlorine gas spills from the fallen shell"—brings out the absurdity of its use within the language game of war. The soldier screaming the word "gas" has, chances are, used the word before; but never like this. This process of both aspect dawning and what Wittgenstein calls secondary meaning points to new aspects in the words and images, causing us to experience word "gas" differently. Thus, for example, a returning soldier would have a shockingly new experience of the word when learning of "noble gases."
The final line of the stanza, again, repeats this flurry of secondary images, as they continue to flock out of ordinary use. "Dim, through misty panes and thick green light," the speaker sees a soldier choking to death: "As under a green sea, I saw him drowning." Here, again, words that in ordinary use would have relatively agreed-upon meanings no longer refer to only one fact. The choice of "green sea" is the closest the poet could come to the experience of seeing a fellow soldier suffocate as the result of exposure to gas. Diamond notes that the very definition of a secondary use of a word is this: when someone says that the letter e is yellow, it is "not a matter of giving a word like 'yellow' a 'metaphorical' sense—'for I could not express what I want to say in any other way than by means of the idea 'yellow'" (RS, pp. 226–27). This inability to see things in any other way can also perhaps be seen in the couplet that follows the two first stanzas: "In all my dreams, before my helpless sight / He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning." It is a "helpless" kind of seeing, not one made by choice. As a result, a parallel comes that has to do with the showing of such a sight.
With the final lines of the poem Owen elucidates his poetics of experiencing and understanding. Perhaps not in the way one understands a history lesson, but in the way one learns to identify another life. Thus, like Wittgenstein, the argument is presented not as matter of choice but of a logical necessity—if you see, then you understand. If x then y: [End Page 357]
If in some smothering dreams you too could paceBehind the wagon that we flung him in,And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;If you could hear, at every jolt, the bloodCome gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cudOf vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—My friend, you would not tell with such high zestTo children ardent for some desperate glory,The old Lie: Dulce et decorum estPro patria mori.(WP, p. 29, 16–28)
To say that Owen and Wittgenstein "choose" to reject abstraction in their reaction to war is, as I have attempted to show, akin to saying that a mathematician chooses to reject "8+7=23." In a comment about Wittgenstein's proto-Tractatus writings, Perloff remarks how, after seeing "countless deaths," the witness comes to the conclusion that: "The point cannot be argued; it can merely be felt" (WL, p. 45). Far from being a matter of choice, this philosophy of language is the result of the rigorous language game of war, as circumvented by Wittgenstein's work and Owen's poetry. In this game, as Cavell states, an omission is not choice, for if someone "cannot offer his thoughts or open his feelings then he cannot be hiding or keeping them either" (CR, p. 167). As in Martin's comment, Owen's poem, like the Tractatus, is as much a poem about telling as it is about what it is trying to tell, "an anxiety about the way that pacing and time significantly prevent the poem from 'telling' its own formal absurdities, and an anxiety from the figure of the writer as choking soldier, witnessing his own inability to tell, pace, measure, or order experience."27
Thus, through the poetic dawning of aspects, war is not only depicted but also exposed, and what is being exposed is its "essence," as both writers see it. Wittgenstein's investigation is focused not on things but on their governing movements. Thus, in terms of this essay, our interest is not only on the facts of war but of "war, and the pity of war." Not an
interest in the facts of nature, nor from a need to grasp causal connections: but from an urge to understand the basis, or essence, of everything empirical. Not, however, as if to this end we had to hunt out new facts; it is, rather, of the essence of our investigation that we do not seek to learn anything new by it. We want to understand something that is already [End Page 358] in plain view. For this is what we seem in some cases not to understand.(PI, §89, emphasis in the original)
Thus we might say that Owen's poems indeed serve, as he says in his intended preface, as "a warning": to correctly show war is to warn against its horrors, and to incorrectly discuss it is to betray the "ontological and ethical responsibilities" (WW, p. 30) of witnessing war poetry.
As we learn to read Owen's words, we may begin to imagine what Wittgenstein calls a form of life; in this case, the form of life that is war: "It easy to imagine a language consisting only of orders and reports in battle.—Or a language consisting only of questions and expressions for answering yes and no. And innumerable others.—And to imagine a language is to imagine a form of life" (PI, §19). In this way, the seemingly bleak lines of "Dulce and Decorum Est" or "The Last Laugh" cease to read as a blueprint of "passive suffering," but a poetic diagram of war, one roaring like an ever-shifting and piercing call of terror.
1. Stanley Cavell, "The Investigations' Everyday Aesthetics of Itself," in The Literary Wittgenstein, ed. John Gibson and Wolfgang Huemer (New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 25.
2. Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five (New York: Dial Press, 2009), p. 227.
3. Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Journey to the End of the Night, trans. Ralph Manheim (New York: New Directions, 1983), p. 9.
4. James Anderson Winn, The Poetry of War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 2.
5. U.S. Army Public Relations Division, "Glossary of Army Slang," American Speech 16 (October 1941): 169.
6. Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 169; hereafter abbreviated GW.
7. Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 352; hereafter abbreviated CR.
8. Wilfred Owen, The War Poems, ed. Jon Stallworthy (London: Chatto and Windus, 2006), p. 98; hereafter abbreviated WP and cited by page and line numbers.
9. W. B. Yeats, ed., The Oxford Book of Modern Verse: 1892–1935 (London: Oxford University Press, 1941), p. xxxiv.
10. Mary Ann Gillies and Aurelea Mahood, Modernist Literature: An Introduction (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), p. 86; hereafter abbreviated ML.
11. Winn, Poetry of War, p. 88.
12. Daniel W. Hipp, The Poetry of Shell Shock (Jefferson: McFarland, 2005), p. 45.
13. Cora Diamond, The Realistic Spirit (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995), p. 40; hereafter abbreviated RS.
14. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness (New York: Routledge, 2007), pp. 3–4; hereafter abbreviated T.
15. Cora Diamond, "Ethics, Imagination and the Method of Wittgenstein's Tractatus," in The New Wittgenstein, ed. Alice Crary and Rupert J. Read (London: Routledge, 2000), p. 149.
16. Marjorie Perloff, Wittgenstein's Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), p. 45; hereafter abbreviated WL.
17. Mark J. Lazenby, Early Wittgenstein on Religion (London: Continuum, 2006), p. 62.
18. Dale Jacquette, "Wittgenstein's Tractatus and the Logic of Fiction," in Gibson and Huemer, Literary Wittgenstein, p. 305.
19. Meredith Martin, "Therapeutic Measures: The Hydra and Wilfred Owen at Craiglockhart War Hospital," Modernism/Modernity 14 (2007): 49.
20. Margot Norris, Writing War in the Twentieth Century (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2000), p. 39; hereafter abbreviated WW.
21. Martin, "Therapeutic Measures," p. 51.
22. Charles S. Peirce, The Writings of Charles S. Peirce: A Chronological Edition, vol. 5, 1884–1886 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), p. 163.
23. Meredith Williams, Wittgenstein, Mind, and Meaning: Toward a Social Conception of Mind (London: Routledge, 1999), p. 158.
24. Stephen Mulhall, On Being in the World: Wittgenstein and Heidegger on Seeing Aspects (New York: Routledge, 1990), pp. 40–41.
25. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1958), p. 214e; hereafter abbreviated PI.
26. Wolfgang Huemer, "Wittgenstein, Language, and the Philosophy of Literature," in Gibson and Huemer, Literary Wittgenstein, p. 5.
27. Martin, "Therapeutic Measures," p. 51.