David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: February 2011 (page 2 of 3)

F.R. Leavis Remembers Wittgenstein

In this essay, literary critic F.R. Leavis recollects his bizarre encounters with Wittgenstein and how his personality was inextricable from his philosophy. That latter point should be already obvious to anyone who’s read Ray Monk’s excellent biography of Wittgenstein. I should quote some of the best bits from it. Wittgenstein seemingly generated representative anecdotes about himself at a rate unmatched by any modern writer, philosopher, or rock star.

Leavis’ agenda is more or less that philosophers like Wittgenstein should stay the hell away from literature (the dismissal of Finnegans Wake elsewhere in the collection signifies a certain protectiveness of Proper Literature), but he’s too honest to ignore Wittgenstein’s peculiar genius. The whole essay is worth reading for anyone even marginally interested in Wittgenstein (one anecdote, where Wittgenstein’s interest in Leavis is raised only after Leavis chastises him for berating a student, is both touching and disturbing), but I’ll quote some of the best bits:

The ‘influence’ represented by the immense vogue generated by Wittgenstein’s genius, which was so manifest and so potent, wasn’t in general the kind that has its proof in improved understanding of the influencer and his theme, or in fortified intellectual powers. And this is the point at which to avow that I can’t believe Wittgenstein to have been a good teacher…I can’t believe that most (at any rate) of even the mature and academically officed professionals who were present supposed that they could sincerely claim to have followed, in the sense of having been able to be even tacit collaborators (that is, serious questioners and critics), the discussions carried on by Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein’s discussions were discussions carried on by Wittgenstein. I say this with confidence, deriving from my own experience of him, and my own very positive sense of the nature of his genius. I don’t question that now and then some especially gifted, well-equipped, and determined person did succeed in breaking into the battle and maintaining for a while something in the nature of an exchange. But…the wonder and the profit for the lecture-audience lay in the opportunity to witness the sustained spontaneous effort of intellectual genius wrestling with its self-proposed problems.

Wittgenstein is far, far from the only person who falls under the rubric Leavis gives in the first paragraph, but the particular dialogic nature of his incomprehensibility seems to have been iconically his.

Leavis reads William Empson’s “Legal Fictions” to Wittgenstein, who has never even heard of John Donne before. (He preferred detective stories.)

Wittgenstein went to the point at once: ‘Where’s that anthology? Read me his best poem.’ The book was handy; opening it, I said, with ‘Legal Fictions’ before my eyes: ‘I don’t know whether this is his best poem, but it will do.’ When I had read it, Wittgenstein said, ‘Explain it!’ So I began to do so, taking the first line first. ‘Oh! I understand that,’ he interrupted, and, looking over my arm at the text, ‘But what does this mean?’ He pointed two or three lines on. At the third or fourth interruption of the same kind I shut the book, and said, ‘I’m not playing.’

‘It’s perfectly plain that you don’t understand the poem in the least,’ he said. ‘Give me the book.’

I complied, and sure enough, without any difficulty, he went through the poem, explaining the analogical structure that I should have explained myself, if he had allowed me.

This, I think, almost perfectly illustrates Wittgenstein’s Ramunajan-like savantism, and its strengths and drawbacks. Strange to see it applied to natural language, however, and perhaps the entirety of Wittgenstein’s project derives from this tension, the obsessive need to seek clarity where none exists, sinking deeper and deeper into quicksand (but throwing up endless clarifications) in trying to formulate the issue precisely. Maybe this makes him the most honest positivist of all time, the one who takes the positivist’s maxims so seriously that he can never be positive about anything, even the maxims. I think the understanding of his philosophy as therapeutic or Pyrrhonist only goes half the distance–if that was the whole story, he really would have quit philosophy, as he urged others to do.

Update: Since the fancy “Related Links” thing at the bottom does not seem to be smart enough to decide that a post entitled “Wittgenstein’s Confession” is more relevant than the links it has chosen, I here offer this link to Ray Monk’s gripping account of Wittgenstein’s Confession.

Osamu Dazai and Masuji Ibuse

Ibuse-san wa akunin desu. [Ibuse is an evil man.]

Osamu Dazai

Osamu Dazai is considered one of the greatest 20th century Japanese writers. I’ve read the two of his novels that New Directions published in English, The Setting Sun and No Longer Human, but got the sense that as with many other East Asian writers, way too much was being lost in translation. Like Mishima and Kawabata, Dazai committed suicide. Dazai’s death seemed to stem from much more evident instability than Kawabata or Mishima’s (though attempting to reinstate the Emperor by coup, as Mishima did, certainly qualifies as some sort of eccentricity), but he left a mysterious note shortly before his death proclaiming that fellow writer and mentor Masuji Ibuse was an evil man.

Ibuse is best known for writing Black Rain, a miserable tale of atomic bomb survivors who were wounded and poisoned and mostly abandoned by their country. (It was later adapted by Shohei Imamura, for whom the material was a perfect fit.) Ibuse was about ten years older than Dazai and far less troubled than him. His writing was far less confessional and performative. They met after Dazai fell in love with a book of stories by Ibuse and struck up correspondence with him. Dazai threatened to commit suicide if not granted an interview with Ibuse, and so they met and Ibuse became his literary and personal mentor. Dazai fell into drugs and womanizing and suicide attempts, while Ibuse helped him out however he could–or else he enabled Dazai, depending on one’s interpretation. And then Dazai died, drowning along with his mistress in a double suicide (or possibly a murder-suicide). And then there was the letter with the above phrase, apparently with no explanation. (I haven’t been able to find a translation of the entire letter.)

Ibuse was devastated. In his book on Ibuse, John Whittier Treat says that Ibuse came to write over thirty tormented works about Dazai after the latter’s death. One begins “I have no idea why Dazai died.” Evident guilt, evident need to make sense of what had happened. To be named in the note and then have the only person capable of explaining the accusation permanently disappear: for Ibuse it seems to have been hell. I’d like to know more about it. From what little I do know, it seems that Ibuse felt a double rejection: first when his pupil abandons the path of life that Ibuse was trying to lay for him; and second when his pupil turns on him and makes him out to be the bad influence. I can’t imagine that Dazai possibly calculated the effect that the rejection would have on Ibuse, but the circumstances made it brutal.

Window Shopping for New Clothes

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Borges on Shakespeare

On the subject of Shakespeare, his strange impersonalness, and mythology, I think Borges still has it most right.

Everything and Nothing

There was no one in him; behind his face (which even through the bad paintings of those times resembles no other) and his words, which were copious, fantastic and stormy, there was only a bit of coldness, a dream dreamt by no one. At first he thought that all people were like him, but the astonishment of a friend to whom he had begun to speak of this emptiness showed him his error and made him feel always that an individual should not differ in outward appearance. Once he thought that in books he would find a cure for his ill and thus he learned the small Latin and less Greek a contemporary would speak of; later he considered that what he sought might well be found in an elemental rite of humanity, and let himself be initiated by Anne Hathaway one long June afternoon. At the age of twenty-odd years he went to London. Instinctively he had already become proficient in the habit of simulating that he was someone, so that others would not discover his condition as no one; in London he found the profession to which he was predestined, that of the actor, who on a stage plays at being another before a gathering of people who play at taking him for that other person. His histrionic tasks brought him a singular satisfaction, perhaps the first he had ever known; but once -the last verse had been acclaimed and the last dead man withdrawn from the stage, the hated flavour of unreality returned to him. He ceased to be Ferrex or Tamberlane and became no one again. Thus hounded, he took to imagining other heroes and other tragic fables. And so, while his flesh fulfilled its destiny as flesh in the taverns and brothels of London, the soul that inhabited him was Caesar, who disregards the augur’s admonition, and Juliet. who abhors the lark, and Macbeth, who converses on the plain with the witches who are also Fates. No one has ever been so many men as this man who like the Egyptian Proteus could exhaust all the guises of reality. At times he would leave a confession hidden away in some corner of his work, certain that it would not be deciphered; Richard affirms that in his person he plays the part of many and Iago claims with curious words ‘I am not what I am’. The fundamental identity of existing, dreaming and acting inspired famous passages of his.

For twenty years he persisted in that controlled hallucination, but one morning he was suddenly gripped by the tedium and the terror of being so many kings who die by the sword and so many suffering lovers who converge, diverge and melodiously expire. That very day he arranged to sell his theatre. Within.. a week he had returned to his native village, where he recovered the trees and rivers of his childhood and did not relate them to the others his muse had celebrated, illustrious with mythological allusions and Latin terms. He had to be ‘someone: he was a retired impresario who had made his fortune and concerned himself with loans, lawsuits and petty usury. It was in this character that he dictated the arid will and testament known to us, from which he deliberately excluded all traces of pathos or literature. His friends from London would visit his retreat and for them he would take up again his role as poet.

History adds that before or after dying he found himself in the presence of God and told Him: ‘I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself.’ The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: ‘Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.’

Habermas on Derrida

Last one, I promise. This is just a great passage  that identifies a more general gnostic/transcendent tendency among Derrida and a certain stream of predecessors who all tend to attract fervent, single-minded followings:

As a participant in the philosophical discourse of modernity, Derrida inherits the weaknesses of a critique of metaphysics that does not shake loose of the intentions of first philosophy. Despite his transformed gestures, in the end he, too, promotes only a mystification of palpable social pathologies; he, too, disconnects essential (namely, deconstructive) thinking from scientific analysis; and he, too, lands at an empty, formulalike avowal of some indeterminate authority. It is, however, not the authority of a Being that has being that has been distorted by beings [i.e., Heidegger], but the authority of a no longer holy scripture, of a scripture that is in exile, wandering about, estranged from its own meaning, a scripture that testamentarily documents the absence of the holy.

Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity VII

Habermas’ larger argument here is more abstruse and a bit more suspect (his strategy of accusing Derrida of recidivist foundationalism is probably accurate, but I’m not sure if his particular methods are accurate), and I won’t try to summarize it here. What I want to remark on is the part in bold, the appeal to empty, indeterminate authority. It’s not that “science” (that vague term that has so many pejorative associations in either direction) is its opposite; a better term would be public and discursive. The notion of the authority is that of a gnostic one to which access cannot be rationally assessed. So I agree with Habermas that it is fundamentally religious, and so the affinity between Derrida and Levinas is not surprising at all. (Habermas discusses that as well.) The line of thinkers appealing to this sort of authority goes back to the beginning of time. Here are some figures that I find indisputably in this corner: Parmenides, Pythagoras, Plotinus, al-Ghazali, Malebranche, Jacobi, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Schmitt, Strauss, Levinas, and Derrida.

There is something of a conservative tilt to many of these figures; I attribute it to the general desire to want to bow down to something otherworldly. That old grouch Schopenhauer complained of Malebranche’s tactic of “explaining something unknown by something even more unknown.” As a certain well-known continental philosopher (one who was very fond of Derrida, Kristeva, Adorno, and Butler but disliked Heidegger and loathed Levinas) said, “Watch out for those Levinasians. They always want to bend at the knee.”

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