Wittgenstein on the Poetic Frontline

Richard Barnett, Wherever We Are When We Come to the End

Valley Press, 36pp, £8.99, ISBN 9781912436583

reviewed by Tim Murphy

At the outbreak of the First World War, Ludwig Wittgenstein, then in his mid-20s and a member of the second wealthiest family (after the Rothschilds) in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, volunteered as a private soldier in an Austro-Hungarian regiment. The young philosopher, who volunteered despite being eligible for a medical exemption, went on to win several medals for his bravery. Wittgenstein wrote the notes for his early treatise, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (hereafter TLP), while he was a soldier, and the book was completed during a military leave in the summer of 1918. This long poem by Richard Barnett, Wherever We Are When We Come to the End, takes its inspiration from the gestation, form, style, and subject matter of the TLP. This is Barnett’s second collection — Seahouses came out with Valley Press in 2015 — and its publication marks the centenary of the publication in 1921 of the original German TLP, Logisch-Philosophische Abhandlung, which was followed by its English-language publication in 1922.

The TLP addresses the relationship between language, logic and reality in an austere and gnomic style, with seven untitled sections of comments and elaborations structured around seven primary propositions (although the seventh proposition stands alone). In total, the TLP comprises 526 numbered declarative statements and passages that are presented as self-evident. Barnett’s three-part poem similarly consists of a series of numbered declarative statements based on a series of propositions — but here the philosopher is sometimes given a poetic rather than a logical voice. ‘There can never be surprises in logic’, the poem states, but this is qualified in an interjection — Barnett regularly deviates from Wittgenstein’s style with non-propositional and unnumbered poetic interjections — that asks whether surprises can occur elsewhere: ‘In meaning? In memory?’

The first two sections of Wherever We Are When We Come to the End are short, just one and two pages respectively. When one comes to the end of the TLP, one comes to its famous last line, which is proposition 7: ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’ Unlike in the preceding six sections, Wittgenstein offers no comment or elaboration regarding this primary proposition, leaving only a quasi-philosophical, quasi-poetic hint of something majestic. Barnett runs with the poetic part of this sense of mystery and takes up where Wittgenstein left off:

I. Silence is not the end of it.
I.0I. Everything turns, so to speak, on how one is silent.
I.0II.Not the silence but what is beneath it, beyond it, within it.
(As in the Matthew Passion.)
I.I. Silence is all that is the case.
Silence is all; that is the case.
All that is, is silence: the case.

This opening section also includes reference to the recurring character of ‘David’ and to what is sometimes called Wittgenstein’s picture theory of language: ‘David falls in silence, over and over. / (We make to ourselves pictures of facts.)’ The character is David Hume Pinsent, a descendant of philosopher David Hume’s brother with whom Wittgenstein had a relationship before the war; and making ‘pictures of facts’ concerns the logical capacity of propositions to represent the world, a central issue in the TLP. In this poem’s second section, the opening proposition that the ‘duty of an equation is to draw a picture of the world’ is accompanied by a complex-looking (to this reviewer, at least) mathematical equation regarding missile trajectory and leads to the sub-proposition that the ‘duty of artillery in war is to destroy the enemy’. In the midst of the experience of being shelled, the poet ‘renounces influence on happenings’ and identifies with ‘spirit’ and ‘freedom’ while simultaneously accepting that he ‘cannot make [himself] understood’.

The 20-page third part of Wherever We Are When We Come to the End, which like the TLP is divided into seven sections, continues to give voice to diverse aspects of Wittgenstein’s wartime consciousness and intellectual development. The proposition, ‘Under the form of eternity everything is happening at once,’ is followed by a multi-layered narrative that draws on Wittgenstein’s own notebooks, on David Pinsent’s pre-war diary, and on biographical and academic sources. Pinsent spent the war as a test pilot in England but died in an accident in 1918: another proposition states simply, ‘He fell’, and the text continues:

6.0I. His plane broke up. He fell five thousand feet.
(No space for parachutes.)
6.0II. Everything is happening at once.
He is falling and I am not holding him.
(Quite another world.)
6.0III. Is there no domain outside the facts?

In the notes that accompany the poem, Barnett states that his characterisation of Wittgenstein ‘sometimes strays from the facts and the sequence of his biography’, but there are clear indications of different military postings and the phases of the war. Family and romantic memories along with philosophical observations and religious reflections are interwoven into the poem’s fabric. Details of trench life are depicted and Wittgenstein’s first citation for bravery is included. Clearly, however, Barnett’s focus is on offering an account of Wittgenstein’s war in terms of how it contributed to the writing of the TLP. Wittgenstein later commented that his wartime experiences had made him who he was, that they had in a very strong sense formed him — and the poem addresses how the moral and metaphysical dimensions of the TLP may have been related to the author’s experiences in the trenches.

There are several references, for example, to a favourite phrase of the philosopher’s father, Karl Wittgenstein: ‘das harte Muss, das harte Muss’, meaning ‘the hard must, the hard must’. When Wittgenstein is in charge of a garrison forge, he hears his father’s voice, ‘pounding in the hammers: the hard must, Ludi, the hard must’; then ‘[d]oubled over’, his father ‘weeps with laughter’. Karl, however, was not a fun guy — his primary focus in dealing with his five sons was to prepare them for work in his industrial empire, but three of Wittgenstein’s brothers committed suicide: ‘lost boys’ who died ‘of the hard must’. The poem includes only one mention of Wittgenstein’s mother but several of ‘Uncle Paul’, who receives the philosopher in Austria after the war. Paul tells Ludwig that ‘life’ comes ‘after the silence’; and as to whether the desire ‘to go on’ is ‘enough’, Paul replies, ‘If this is all there is, it is more than enough.’

Wherever We Are When We Come to the End is a commendably daring experiment in poetic form, and its intensity and focus justify the decision to present its 23 pages of poetry as a standalone work. The poem’s subject matter, including as it does reference to formative and dramatic years in a philosopher’s life as well as to the philosophy itself, is complex, but from it, Barnett fashions a stimulating and challenging work. It is an original composition that deliberately mimics the form, style, and subject matter of another author in a spirit of respect — it is a classic pastiche poem — but the unusual element here is that the other author is an analytical philosopher rather than a creative writer. Barnett draws on Marjorie Perloff’s 1996 book, Wittgenstein’s Ladder, which argues that Wittgenstein developed a radical new aesthetic, grounded, roughly speaking, in the strangeness and limits of ordinary language. In a posthumously published set of his notes, Culture and Value, Wittgenstein wrote that philosophy ‘ought really to be written only as a form of poetry’ (‘Philosophie dürfte man eigentlich nur dichten.’) The image of Wittgenstein ‘lost for words’ in his philosophical endeavours, described here as a small man, ‘gesturing to nobody, fighting himself to stalemate’, will be familiar to poets in their work.

The question remains, however, as to whether Wittgenstein’s style, which he employed in the service of arguing for an intellectual position, is distinct enough to recommend itself for poetic pastiche. Stylistically, Barnett’s poem can claim as a merit a very strong unity of tone — there is no postmodernist play with startling contrasts and variations — but sometimes it seems there is over-reliance on the clean tight style as a means of achieving poetic gravitas. There are many strongly poetic expressions — stars are ‘crystal spheres’ that are ‘scattered like seedcorn’, for example, and graves ‘gape like cell doors’; what lies beyond death ‘is music . . . the silence of heaven’, and days of hard physical labour are accompanied by ‘[n]ights of flares and rumours’ — but the poem’s overall tone remains quite academic. This may be to do with the sense that it seems difficult, without a firm grasp of Wittgenstein’s thought, to fully or properly evaluate the poem’s intellectual dimensions. The poem is clearly the product of a great deal of research, including philosophical research, but to what extent, for example, there may be hints here of Wittgenstein’s later work, most notably of the posthumously published Philosophical Investigations (1953), which contradicted many of the TLP’s arguments about the nature of language, could be discerned only by a Wittgenstein aficionado.

There is also the matter of the numbering in the poem, which is a huge distraction and seems unnecessary. Wittgenstein’s use of indicators like ‘2.02331’ (preceded by ‘2.0233’ and followed by ‘2.024’) obviously has significance vis-à-vis logical development and emphasis and so on. It seems that Barnett’s appropriation in this instance is functional rather than cosmetic, but do poetry readers want to be called upon to track the development in lines from ‘2.542’ to ‘2.55’ to ‘2.55I’? Finally, there is the question as to how far Barnett is endorsing or taking responsibility in regard to what he appropriates from, or how he interprets, Wittgenstein’s philosophy. Some of Barnett’s statements, no less than Wittgenstein’s, are highly debatable. Just as the first proposition in this poem takes its lead on the subject of silence from the TLP’s final proposition, when one comes to the end of the poem the concluding proposition points to the first proposition of the TLP (‘The world is all that is the case’): ‘The world is all that is the case – / everything we can and cannot bear’. But is this true, or is ‘the world’ in fact something else? Is ‘the good life’, as Uncle Paul also suggests to his nephew Ludwig, really ‘the life of wonder’, and may one really say that the proposition, ‘longing is meaning’, is a viable ‘preliminary philosophy of peace’?

Tim Murphy is an Irish writer based in Madrid.