Wittgenstein and Modernism
Even in a journal with the welcoming title Philosophy and Literature, contributors rightly feel obliged to explain why they are relating philosophical and literary texts to one another. Seeing literature as an engagingly vivid, "speaking picture" "figuring forth" the difficult abstractions of philosophy (to borrow from Sir Philip Sidney's An Apology for Poetry) was once a default way of linking the two. But such a connection shortchanges the thinking at work in literature, reducing it to a popularizing tool, and overlooks the stories, examples, and metaphors that inform some powerful works of philosophy. The most thoughtful work on philosophy and literature now sees them contributing in distinctive, equally forceful ways to shared cognitive and ethical goals.
The wide-ranging essays collected in Understanding Wittgenstein, Understanding Modernism1 and Wittgenstein and Modernism2 show the benefits of bringing literature and philosophy into conversation with each other as equal partners. Both books explore how Wittgenstein's achievements in philosophy relate to modernism in the arts. As the editors of these two volumes note, Wittgenstein and modernism invite comparison. As a starting point, Wittgenstein and modernist writers, composers, and artists responded to the same historical moment. The English translation of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus appeared in 1922, [End Page 463] the annus mirabilis of modernism in which The Waste Land, Ulysses, and Jacob's Room were published. In addition, Wittgenstein's receptivity to the literary qualities of philosophy—his claim in a 1934 notebook, for example, that "philosophy ought really to be written only as a poetic composition"—suggests an affinity with the arts that bodes well for associating him with modernism.
Simply assimilating Wittgenstein into modernism, however, runs into difficulty, partly because Wittgenstein disliked much of the modernist architecture, visual art, and music he encountered, leading him to prefer Schubert over Mahler, for example, and dismiss artists such as Picasso and Duchamp. Wittgenstein's remarkable development beyond the Tractatus complicates things further and works against establishing his standing as modernist on that book alone. I like the fact that the contributors to these two volumes use Wittgenstein's proximity to modernism—and distance from it—to raise questions instead of relying on one to explain the other. Some of the contributors explore which aspects of Wittgenstein's work come to light when we place them in the context of modernism, while others focus on how our understanding of modernism shifts when we count Wittgenstein as a modernist writer.
Rethinking Wittgenstein in the context of modernism generates the best critical work when the contributors pair specific modernist writers and artists with Wittgenstein, among them James Joyce, Robert Musil, Arnold Schoenberg, Wallace Stevens, and Franz Kafka. One of the best essays in Wittgenstein and Modernism, Michael LeMahieu's "Bellow's Private Language," shows how Bellow and Wittgenstein respond differently to their common interest in the idea of a private language. Another fine essay, Garry L. Hagberg's "A Confluence of Modernisms: Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigation and Henry James's Literary Language," in Understanding Wittgenstein, compares how Wittgenstein and James contest a dualistic picture of language that separates inner mental content from subsequent expression. In each essay, we see modernism in progress, taking shape as a writer and a philosopher think through a complex question in distinctive but mutually illuminating ways.
Another essay in Understanding Wittgenstein, Danièle Moyal-Sharrock's "Too Cavellian a Wittgenstein: Wittgenstein's Certainty, Cavell's Scepticism," deserves mention for resisting a conclusion that guides some of the other contributors, namely, that modernism as defined by Stanley Cavell sheds light on Wittgenstein. Moyal-Sharrock objects that Cavell's casting of Wittgenstein as a modernist distorts him, making him "too Cavellian" in his preoccupation with skepticism, disappointment, [End Page 464] and alienation. For Moyal-Sharrock, Wittgenstein's work "sows enlightenment, community and certainty," keeping "Wittgenstein—both early and late—from being a modernist in any but a broad, vague sense" (UWUM, p. 92). While I appreciate the editor including Moyal-Sharrock's dissenting opinion, her portrait of Wittgenstein's thought is much too rosy for me. As a counterweight to her argument, I recommend David Schalkwyk's "Wittgenstein and the Art of Defamiliarization" in the same volume, which deftly reintroduces "the sense of alienation, displacement and discomfort" (p. 187) that Moyal-Sharrock is at pains to minimize in Wittgenstein's writing.
Other essays in these two volumes are weighted more toward reconceiving modernism in light of Wittgenstein's contributions to it. First-rate essays in Wittgenstein and Modernism by Anthony J. Cascardi, Marjorie Perloff, Charles Altieri, and Kristin Boyce stand out. In different ways these critics show that Wittgenstein matters to modernism, not because of one or two texts but because of his development—more exactly, his unceasing commitment to transforming the practice of philosophy. That commitment springs from his conviction that the traditional means of doing philosophy no longer speak to his overriding interest in profound personal change. Perloff asks, "What does it mean to make self-transformation one's central purpose in life?" (WM, p. 43). What does it mean, I would add, when one feels out of sympathy, as Wittgenstein did, with one's own "alien and uncongenial," "dark time"? For Wittgenstein in the Investigations, it means continuing to write philosophy, but with a fresh availability to literary forms of expression. He discovers he can continue writing philosophy only by refashioning it, thereby risking the rebuke that he has betrayed philosophy and left it behind.
Drawing on works by Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, and Gertrude Stein, Cascardi sees Wittgenstein's receptivity to literature reciprocated in modernist writers' openness to the philosophical dimensions of their work. With regards to literature and philosophy, Cascardi concludes, modernism is "not just the place where the distinctions between them break down but rather the place where acknowledging something of value about the other is a crucial element in each one's overcoming the grip of its own tradition" (WM, p. 25). In modernism, a robust interchange between philosophy and literature becomes a key means of revitalizing and sustaining them both.
The responsiveness of literature and philosophy to one another can be extended to painting, music, and other arts. An especially stimulating case in point is a series of twelve prints by Mel Bochner illustrating [End Page 465] Wittgenstein's On Certainty, which was exhibited at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum in conjunction with a seminar taught by professor of philosophy Thomas E. Wartenberg. Each print is a different configuration of handwritten numbers. In the catalogue accompanying the exhibition (published as Illustrating Philosophy), Wartenberg does an excellent job showing how the sequence of prints succeeds in providing a visual analogue of Wittgenstein's thinking.3 In his artist's statement accompanying the series and included in the catalogue, Bochner speaks of his intention "to light up" Wittgenstein's thought, specifically "the constant circling and doubling-back of Wittgenstein's approach to philosophy." The series is not simply an optional "crutch" for understanding On Certainty, like a map or reader's guide, but a rewarding aesthetic and philosophical experience in its own right.
Illustrating Philosophy is an impressive achievement that gains even greater value when placed with the books I have been discussing. I would go so far as to say that linking Bochner's project to Wittgenstein and modernism, particularly as Cascardi describes them, opens a path forward in our own, often dark, time: philosophy, literature, and the arts, not competing with one another to survive, but drawing on each other to find new ways of continuing their indispensable work.
1. Anat Matar, ed., Understanding Wittgenstein, Understanding Modernism (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017); hereafter abbreviated UWUM.
2. Michael LeMahieu and Karen Zumhagen-Yekplé, eds., Wittgenstein and Modernism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017); hereafter abbreviated WM.
3. Thomas E. Wartenberg, Mel Bochner: Illustrating Philosophy (South Hadley: Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, 2015), unpaginated.