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This is the first in a series of posts which will dig into the epigrams from Culture and Value, a posthumous collection of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s personal notes.

“We tend to take the speech of a Chinese for inarticulate gurgling. Someone who understands Chinese will recognize language in what he hears. Similarly I often cannot discern the humanity in a man.”

The problem is that the individual man is as unintelligible, humanity-wise, as inarticulate gurgling. As someone ignorant of Chinese cannot recognize language issuing forth in what he hears, so Wittgenstein cannot discern humanity issuing forth in the man he meets. The task is to find humanity in the gurgling.

On this point, in another of his notes, he quotes Franz Grillparzer (1791-1872), an Austrian writer who wrote the oration for Beethoven’s funeral, as follows:

“It’s so easy to wander about amongst great objects in distant regions, so hard to grasp the solitary thing that’s right in front of you…”

One example of this, you might say, is the difficulty Wittgenstein, and everyone must have, in discerning humanity in those people right in front of us. We hear them speak, watch them laugh, share a story, but it is all over too fast to grasp something essential. Perhaps memory or art can help us discern the humanity, but this is done in retrospect, and it seems that either could change the object as they try to understand it.

So maybe memory or art is the solution to discerning the essence when what we see is sound and fury. In another note, Wittgenstein discusses the nature of art and suggests, I think, an alternative (not a solution) to his problem above.  He writes of a friend, Engelmann, who from time to time is so moved by his own manuscripts that he desires to publish them for a wider audience. After the feeling passes, however, the thought of publishing them has lost its appeal. Wittgenstein says it is like watching a man in a theatre who is unaware of being watched. He is “alone in a room, walking up and down, lighting a cigarette, sitting down, etc, so that suddenly we are oberving a human being from outside in a way that ordinarily we can never observe ourselves; it would be like watching a chapter of biography with our own eyes”. It would be like watching life itself, he says — “But then we do see this every day without its making the slightest impression on us!

He continues, “When Engelmann looks at what he has written and finds it marvellous, he is seeing his life as a work of art created by God and, as such, it is certainly worth contemplating, as is every life and everything whatsoever. But only an artist can so represent an individual thing as to make it appear to us like a work of art… A work of art forces us — as one might say — to see it in the right perspective but, in the absence of art, the object is just a fragment of nature like any other.”

This last sentence seems to join itself to the two previously mentioned notes. The “inarticulate gurgling” corresponds to the mere “fragment of nature”. We have difficulty seeing each (or what is “right in front us”) unaided. Art forces our perspective in such a way that the humanity and meaning is brought to the surface, alongside the gurgling, so that we can see it. I wonder how this is. Is it because of what art includes, or doesn’t include, or because it is determinate?

Wittgenstein ends this note by suggesting another “way of capturing the world sub specie aeterni than through the work of the artist.” This is through thought, which “flies above the world and leaves it as it is.” By the inclusion of “leaves it as it is”, I think Wittgenstein is implying that art does not do this. He may have a point here. Because art seeks to leaven what are “fragments of nature”, it cannot succeed through merely reporting what it sees like a journalist; it has to flip it upside down or inside out, play it as music or paint it on canvas, so that a new perspective emerges. As do many things, this reminds me of a poem by Wallace Stevens. Looking back over it, The Man with the Blue Guitar parallels this discussion perfectly. The first stanza:

The man bent over his guitar, 

A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, “You have a blue guitar,

You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are

Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

And they said then, “But play, you must,

A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar

Of things exactly as they are.”

Okay. So things as they are changed upon the blue guitar, but maybe there is a way that this is not so. Moving on.

I mentioned memory earlier as one possible way of discerning humanity. Memory can reflect on the gurgling from a quieter, calmer place where it i easier to distill our experience. Marylinne Robinson should be brought to bear on this, but I can’t find the quote from Gilead I’m looking for. To crudely paraphrase, John Ames says somewhere that memory can change things, but that is okay, and it doesn’t detract from memory. Good stuff that deserves looking into.

Until the next epigram…