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  • A Different Order of Difficulty: Literature after Wittgenstein by Karen Zumhagen-Yekplé
  • Greg Chase
A Different Order of Difficulty: Literature after Wittgenstein. Karen Zumhagen-Yekplé. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2020. Pp. 342. $97.50 (cloth); $32.50 (paper).

A Different Order of Difficulty makes an important and original contribution to modernist studies by engaging with the thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein, particularly his Tractatus Logico-Philosphicus. The Tractatus appeared in English in 1922, that banner year of modernist literary production, and Karen Zumhagen-Yekplé highlights striking points of contact between Wittgenstein's philosophical treatise and works of fiction by Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and J. M. Coetzee. Perhaps fittingly, given her title—drawn from the Ithaca chapter of Joyce's Ulysses (1922)—Zumhagen-Yekplé's interdisciplinary approach demands a lot from readers. Yet, as in many of the modernist touchstones she analyzes, the challenges presented by her book are more than justified by the insights at which it arrives: A Different Order of Difficulty is powerfully argued, thoroughly researched, and at times deeply moving.

Zumhagen-Yekplé identifies three major topics that, she argues, are central to both Wittgenstein's work and that of his literary contemporaries: "difficulty, oblique ethical instruction, and a yearning for transformation" (1–2). With regard to the first of these, Zumhagen-Yekplé notes that praising the putative difficulty of modernist texts remains "a critical truism" with elitist overtones; however, she sets out to establish a productive new way of thinking about modernist difficulty (27). She does so by turning to George Steiner's essay "On Difficulty" (1978), focusing in particular on two of the types of difficulty Steiner outlines: "tactical" difficulty, whereby a text's formal difficulty serves an instructive purpose; and "ontological" difficulty, whereby a text "confronts us with unanswerable questions about the nature of human language, meaning, and significance" (30, 33).

Zumhagen-Yekplé's first major example of a modernist text that exhibits these two modes of difficulty—really, the central example in her book—is the Tractatus. Zumhagen-Yekplé's approach to Wittgenstein builds on the work of other scholars who have recently sought to recuperate the philosopher's reputation within modernist studies by challenging the enduring misconception of him as a staid logical positivist.1 Zumhagen-Yekplé reads the Tractatus as a highly wrought aesthetic work with a significant, if notably implicit, ethical purpose. She does so by promoting the "resolute" reading of the Tractatus, an interpretive program pioneered by philosopher Cora Diamond.2 Resolute readings endeavor to make sense of the Tractatus's surprising conclusion: after providing a detailed account of the logical structure of language, Wittgenstein suddenly writes, in the work's penultimate proposition, "My propositions serve as elucidations in this way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder once he has climbed up it)" (quoted in Zumhagen-Yekplé, 53). In contrast to more traditional readings, [End Page 392] resolute readings suggest that we should take Wittgenstein seriously when he deems all his prior propositions "nonsensical."

For Zumhagen-Yekplé, reading the Tractatus resolutely reveals it to be a "self-undermining pseudoargument," constructed deliberately by Wittgenstein "with the aim of disabusing readers of our confused tendency to succumb to the thrall of metaphysical systems that lead us to mistake nonsense for sense" (60). As such, Zumhagen-Yekplé understands the Tractatus as a "therapeutic" work, which seeks to guide readers up the ladder from confusion to "clarity" (47, 60). The Tractatus's project is an ethical one, Zumhagen-Yekplé emphasizes, insofar as it asks us "to take up the difficult work of self-transformation" that becomes necessary if we wish truly to understand its teachings (66).

A Different Order of Difficulty first presents this account of the Tractatus in the introduction and then, more extensively, in chapter one. Although this chapter in particular has little to say about literature per se, its account of how the Tractatus replaces one kind of difficulty (the complex logical system it ostensibly erects) with another (the difficulty of meaningful self-examination) remains of interest to literary scholars, because it...


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pp. 392-394
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