"My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)"
Austere and uncompromising, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein had no use for the avant-garde art works of his own time. He refused to formulate an aesthetic, declaring that one can no more define the "beautiful" than determine "what sort of coffee tastes good." And yet many of the writers of our time have understood, as academic theorists generally have not, that Wittgenstein is "their" philosopher. How do we resolve this paradox? Marjorie Perloff, our foremost critic of twentieth-century poetry, argues that Wittgenstein has provided writers with a radical new aesthetic, a key to recognizing the inescapable strangeness of ordinary language.
Wittgenstein's ladder is an apt figure for this radical aesthetic, and not just in its ordinariness as an object. The movement "up" this ladder can never be more than what--Wittgenstein's contemporary, Gertrude Stein, called "Beginning again and again." Wittgenstein shows us, too, that we cannot climb the same ladder twice: the use of language, the context in which words and sentences appear, defines their meaning, which changes with every repetition. Wittgenstein's aesthetic brooks no theory, no essentialism, no metalanguage---only a practice, a mode of operation, fragmentary and elliptical.
Taking seriously Wittgenstein's remark that "philosophy ought really to be written only as a form of poetry," Perloff begins by discussing Wittgenstein the "poet." She examines two of his works, the Tractatus and the Investigations, less from the standpoint of what they say than of what they are--radically poetic works that exemplify a practice through which grammar becomes the focus of attention. Wittgenstein's obsession with the working of language, Perloff argues, is an index to his particular form of marginality -- national, cultural, religious, sexual -- a marginality that is perhaps representative of the modernist condition.
Perloff turns next to such consciously or unconsciously Wittgensteinian writers as Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, the Viennese postwar writers Ingeborg Bachmann and Thomas Bernhard, and contemporary American language poets from Robert Creeley and Ron Silliman to Rosmarie Waldrop and Lyn Hejinian. Wittgenstein, Perloff argues, provides us with a "ladder" whereby we may see that the seemingly opaque language forms of Stein or Hejinian, Beckett or Bernhard, can make perfectly good "sense" when we learn, so to speak, how not to read them. Wittgenstein's stringent interrogation of language as cultural and social practice--"the limits of my language mean the limits of my world"--has provided an especially crucial paradigm for the new experimental poetics, all the while transforming our reading and viewing habits as well.
Perloff ends with a coda on an artist's book produced explicitly as a "commentary" on Wittgenstein's aesthetic: Joseph Kosuth's Letters from Wittgenstein, Abridged at Ghent. Here it is photography, embedded in writing, that becomes "philosophy." And what we learn is that the poetics of everyday life--inherent as it is in our demotic culture--is anything but banal. Marjorie Perloff is the Sadie Dernham Patek Professor of Humanities at Stanford University. She is the author of many books, most recently Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media, published by the University of Chicago Press.
Praise for Marjorie Perloff:
"Poets and general readers alike have good reason to be grateful to Perloff, a critic not only superbly well-informed, not only skilled in communication, but also fun to read. I imagine that the most haughtily arcane of the poets will acknowledge the patient intelligence she brings to her reading of their work, and that the most resistant of readers will respond to her clear and lively prose."
Advance Praise for Wittgenstein's Ladder:
"Wittgenstein proposed to use ordinary language for philosophy, Gertrude Stein used ordinary language for poetry. The implications of these decisions are what
Perloff explores brilliantly."
"In liberating Wittgenstein from the confines of sterile analytical debates among 'language philosophers' Perloff has managed a kind of 'debut' in which Wittgenstein, for the first time, can be seen and appreciated as a creative thinker whose writings straddle the divide of literary and philosophic composition."