Brett Bourbon: Finding a Replacement for the Soul, cont.

When we last left off in Part 2 (also see Part 1), Finnegans Wake, classified as nonpropositional nonsense, was being held up as an exemplar of “our variable relation to and participation in language,” and we noted that the act of reading was not quite a language game, nor quite the self-contradictory “private language” of Wittgenstein. Bourbon finds the significance of such a reading (and writing) act in the idea that in this ambiguity can be found the titular soul replacement. In the modern/contemporary absence of the authority that fuels oracular pronouncements, this irreducible “humanness” and intentionality of meaning is not negated (as Henry Adams would have it), but contained in acts that do not have fixed meaning. Thus:

We do not say that “souls are examples of nothingness”; to do so would be to understand “nothingness” as if it were like a thing. Nothing is not a special kind of something, just as nonsense is not a special kind of sense. (215)

I have two associations with this passage. The first is the madhyamika school of Buddhist philosophy, originating with Nagarjuna, which most clearly delineated the ideas of a “nothing” (sunyata) that is not a something nor the absence of something. And the argument does seem to resemble the old talk of nirvana:

If nirvana were not existent,
How could it be appropriate for it to be nonexistent?
Where nirvana is not existent,
It cannot be a nonexistent.

If nirvana is
Neither existent nor nonexistent
Then by whom is it expounded
“Neither existent nor nonexistient”?

Nagarjuna, Mulamadhyamakakarika (tr. Jay Garfield)

I.e., to predicate nirvana/souls is to construe them in such a way that they fit into the schema of “things” (samsara, if you will), which is exactly missing the point that they don’t fit into such a propositional/representational schema.

The second association is with the infamous beetle-in-a-box of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. The surrounding context is available as Wittgenstein’s Private Language Argument, but the key passage is this:

293. If I say of myself that it is only from my own case that I know what the word “pain” means — must I not say the same of other people too? And how can I generalize the one case so irresponsibly?

Now someone tells me that he knows what pain is only from his own case! Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a “beetle”. No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle. — Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing. — But suppose the word “beetle” had a use in these people’s language? — If so it would not be used as the name of a thing. The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty. — No, one can ‘divide through’ by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is.

304. “But you will surely admit that there is a difference between pain — behavior accompanied by pain and pain — behavior without any pain?” — Admit it? What greater difference could there be? — “And yet you again and again reach the conclusion that the sensation itself is a nothing.” — Not at all. It is not a something, but not a nothing either! The conclusion was only that a nothing would serve just as well as a something about which nothing could be said. We have only rejected the grammar which tries to force itself on us here.

Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

The key point is that the pain (or the beetle, or the soul) is “a something about which nothing could be said,” as it is intrinsically private. Ironically, in light of the heavy weight of Wittgenstein on Bourbon’s book, Nagarjuna’s passage seems more apropos, as Wittgenstein seems content to let the metaphysics of the private sensations remain ambiguous, while for Nagarjuna and for Bourbon they are ultimately the focus of the inquiry.

But if nonsense is not a kind of sense (as the private beetles and nirvana are not things) and nonsense is something about which nothing can be said, it is, as said earlier, something which will can only be located in the gaps of meaning, or as Bourbon puts it, in “the ways we find ourselves nonsensical, which is just to find ourselves within and in relation to language.” This best illustrates the technique of Bourbon’s enterprise, which is via negativa. By attempting to show that there is not nothing in those nonsensical gaps (though hardly a something), he is looking for a metaphorical black hole by the absence of light around it. And what is outlined there he calls the soul, or the human, and it is reached through language, envisioned through literature.

We partially constitute events and actions by virtue of our descriptions and understandings.

We also partially constitute what we are, what we exist as, by how we describe and understand ourselves…We are that kind of thing that to say or show that we exist is to say or show as what we exist; to say or show what we exist as is to say what kind of thing we are. To be something that one cannot say what it is is to ask if it is something at all, and we are also this. (214)

(The aggregation of “say” and “show” here reads like a concerted rebuke to early Wittgenstein!)

The implication is that this is how we come to “mean.” To the extent that language loses sense in these acts of description and understanding, we find whatever it is that we are. So the title of the book is meaningful as an act in progress, as we are forever “finding” the meaning-generator through language, nonsense, etc.

So we return to the initial quote: “The deformations of our variable relation to and participation in language are the only legitimate things that we can read through literature” (259). From the arguments that literature is non-propositional and nonsensical, this would seem to follow, but it is obviously a strict reading of literature. I am not certain what an alternate argument would look like following from his precepts, but it connects to what most weighed on my mind in reading the book. Bourbon speaks of constructing other people through reading nonsense into their language, but, pace Wittgenstein, these nonsensical spaces are fundamentally private. They cannot be spoken about, and they can only be identified in the negative. When “we” read through literature, who is the “we” that is reading? It is not, I think, the collective “we,” but a multitude of independent “I”s; books become that through which we read a private version of the soul. If this is the case, we gain meaning in a near-solipsistic way; we read it in others only through being able to manufacture it in ourselves. The attribution of meaning to people and nothing else appears chauvinistic, as we lack evidentiary proof that other humans have those nonsensical spaces through which they make meaning. (And so, meaning becomes private itself.) The fundamental dialogue is not between people, but between every single person as a subject and a linguistic text as an argument.

I can’t help but think of this view as bleak, in the same way that Finnegans Wake can seem bleak when gazing on its dense pages. Personally, I would prefer to look in the language game correlates of literature itself for meaning; that is, look in the usage patterns of literature’s language in public speech between people (actual language, as Wittgenstein would say) rather than in the private spaces. Literature may not be propositional and may be nonsensical, but I do not see where this prevents it from being part of a Wittgensteinian language game. This has two negative effects, however. First, it deprivileges literature from giving us special access, and second, it deprivileges the particulars of meaning and of the human, as it only requires linguistic interchange, and the internals of the participants are irrelevant. These are significant sacrifices to make, and ones that I suspect Bourbon would be loath to accept. I don’t know about myself; I think I would.