Review of Perloff on Wittgenstein by Romano

Poetic Language

and the Strangeness
of the Ordinary
By Marjorie Perloff
University of Chicago Press. 285 pp. $27.95
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), the 20th century's most influential philosopher, posed offbeat questions the way Bill Clinton burps up bridges -- endlessly, and then some.

``Why can't a dog simulate pain?'' the famously eccentric Austrian asked at one point in his classic Philosophical Investigations (1953). ``Is he too honest?''

``Why can't my left hand give my right hand money?'' Wittgenstein wanted to know later in that book, also worrying about what might be left when we ``subtract the fact that my arm goes up from the fact that I raise my arm.''
``One can own a mirror,'' this psychologically tortured aphorist mused in Zettel, another collection of his thoughts. ``Does one then own the reflection?''

Perhaps what you'd expect from a fellow who, on a more personal note, wondered, ``How can I be a logician when I am not yet a man?''

Behind such puzzling, concrete queries, of course, lay brilliant, deep-seated intuitions about traditional philosophical concepts: meaning, truth, knowledge, the good. No less than Bertrand Russell regarded this prodigal son of an Austrian steel magnate as ``the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived.''

If he were around today, however, Wittgenstein might pose another considerably more mainstream question: Who is Marjorie Perloff, and what in the name of Gertrude Stein is she making of my work?

Perloff, a well-established Stanford University literary scholar (The Futurist Moment), starts out with a genuine phenomenon to explain. She, like everyone else in modern intellectual life, recognizes that Wittgenstein, by his painstaking investig ation of the relations between language, logic and behavior, revolutionized our understanding of those notions and challenged science as a model for philosophical reasoning.

On that score, bookshelves already groan with secondary works. But why, Perloff wonders, do artists love Ludwig so much?

There's no doubting the romance, especially in fiction. It began almost immediately after his death, when Iris Murdoch offered a thinly disguised portrait of him as the anti-metaphysician Dave Gellmann in her novel, Under the Net (1954).

Fellow Austrian Thomas Bernhard kept up the grappling in Correction (1975) and Wittgenstein's Nephew (1982). Randall Collins, in The Case of the Philosopher's Ring (1978), dispatched Sherlock Holmes to probe the theft of Wittgenstein 's brain. British scholar Terry Eagleton threw Wittgenstein together with Leopold Bloom in Saints and Scholars (1986) and Washington writer Bruce Duffy, in The World As I Found It (1987), explored his place in the world of Bloomsbury.

Non-novelists, Perloff demonstrates, have long since joined in. Among poets writing ``under the sign of Wittgenstein,'' she says, are Charles Bernstein, Steve McCaffery, Joan Retallack and Rosmarie Waldrop. Add performance artist Laurie Anderson in ``Lan guage is a Virus From Outer Space,'' composer John Cage in his Norton Lectures, director Derek Jarman in his 1993 film, Johanna Drucker in her installation piece, The Wittgenstein Variations, and conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth in his ``Art Investi gations.''

Wittgenstein has become, concludes Perloff, ``a kind of patron saint for poets and artists.''
Her explanation for the popularity is that Wittgenstein ranks as the ``most radical of modernist writers,'' a believer that the ``bumps'' we get by banging our heads ``against the limits of language'' are all philosophy provides.
Wittgenstein, in her view, could not and did not want to produce any ``kind of linearity'' or ``logical progression'' or ``rational synthesis'' in his work. ``Like all good artists,'' she writes, ``Wittgenstein is selling us less a set of doctrines than a style of seeing. . . . '' A Wittgenstein text is ``alternately anecdotal and aphoristic, repetitive and disjunctive, didactic and jokey, self-assertive and self-canceling.''

Wittgenstein's work thus signals or encourages avant-garde artists to make cliched modernist points about the difficulty of communication and the impossibility of answers to deep questions. ``Philosophy,'' Wittgenstein writes in one of his posthumously p ublished remarks in Culture and Value, ``ought really to be written only as a form of poetry.'' To Perloff, that means it can be nothing else.

For anyone who has read Wittgenstein seriously, Perloff's interpretation is a considerable distortion. No modern philosopher struggled more valiantly to articulate clear, true, persuasive descriptions of the world, and to deny that philosophical problems lacked solutions. No modern philosopher would have more disdained an academic who could write of the crystal-clear Investigations that ``its negative seriality is an index to the inherent provisionality of the text.''

Perloff attempts to drive her interpretation home by extended, extremely murky readings of such mediocre figures as Gertrude Stein (who needs no extra murk). But her only way to make Wittgenstein sound as if he's playing on the same team as Stein is to p ull out his most defeatist, oblique lines (``Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent.'') and pretend they gainsay his life's work: a mass of smart judgments. As Russell wittily quipped (a line Perloff quotes, but does not sufficiently value), W ittgenstein managed in his work ``to say a good deal about what cannot be said.''

Yet Perloff finds ``no systematic philosophy in his work'' despite his own painstaking drawing of conclusions from his thought experiments. She treats his early and later work as if they're coherent parts of a whole, when philosophers conventionally rega rd the early and later Wittgensteins as virtually separate thinkers. (Some do argue against that convention, but at least they argue.)
In the end, Perloff fails to deliver Wittgenstein as a ``modernist.'' She is very much the modern literary scholar, invested in pompous and obscure ``theoretical'' nomenclature, willing to make such hyperbolic claims as that in the years leading up to an d during World War II, ``the very possibility of making connections between public and private discourse breaks down.''

He, on the other hand, was the epitome of the ruthlessly honest thinker, more likely to commit suicide than knowingly misstate a belief. ``What we do,'' he pointedly wrote, ``is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.''

Perloff often seems to be in the opposite trade. ``If a lion could talk,'' Wittgenstein wrote in one of his most famous lines, ``we could not understand him.'' He'd have just as much trouble with Perloff.


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Last modified: Wednesday, 18-Jul-2007 16:28:24 EDT