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Wittgenstein’s ‘Private Notebooks’ Shed Some Light on an Enigmatic Genius

By Ludwig Wittgenstein
Edited and translated by Marjorie Perloff
Illustrated. 218 pages. Liveright. $24.95.

It’s perhaps a measure of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s genius as well as his enigma that the volume of writing about him is almost comically disproportionate to the volume of writing by him. Before his death in 1951, Wittgenstein had published a total of one book, one article and one book review (the review was written when he was an undergraduate at Cambridge). Described by another philosopher as a “spellbinding and somewhat terrifying person,” he was intensely lonely, and he dedicated his “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” to David Pinsent, who died in a plane crash in 1918, calling him “my first and only friend.”

Yet as Ray Monk observed in his biography, “Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius” (1990), memoirs even by those who barely knew him are “countless,” including recollections by “the lady who taught him Russian” and “the man who delivered peat to his cottage.” The economist Friedrich Hayek happened to be a cousin, and he wrote a remembrance that recalled the few times they met, when Wittgenstein toggled between eager conversation and sudden withdrawal, at one point sticking his nose in a detective novel, “apparently unwilling to talk.”

That Wittgenstein should turn from having plenty to say to having nothing to say was in keeping with his own “Tractatus,” in which he listed more than 500 numbered statements, delving into detailed logical formulations, before arriving at his terse conclusion: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Or, as Wittgenstein put it in his notebook in July 1916, “What cannot be said, cannot be said!”

Wittgenstein wrote this down for his private consumption, scribbling the declaration in the code he had used with his siblings when they were children. He had volunteered for the Austrian army, and in August 1914 began to keep his war notebooks, only three of which survived. On the right-hand (recto) pages he wrote — in ordinary, uncoded script — what would become the notes to a draft of the “Tractatus,” which would be published in 1921; on the left-hand (verso) pages he kept his secret, coded diary, which has now been translated into English for the first time by the poetry critic Marjorie Perloff.

“Private Notebooks: 1914-1916” is a strange and intriguing record — illuminating when it comes to Wittgenstein’s preoccupations, his sexual anguish, his continuous struggles with his “work” in philosophy, along with his intermittent comments about his “job” in the military. (Like other writings by Wittgenstein that have been published posthumously, “Private Notebooks” is a bilingual edition, with German and English printed on facing pages.) Perloff also points out that unlike so many other war diaries, Wittgenstein’s includes very little about the larger stakes of the war itself. One exception is an entry that reads like a startlingly cheerful declaration that his own side was doomed: “The English — the best race in the world — cannot lose! We, however, can lose & will lose, if not this year, then the next!”

Nor did Wittgenstein share the average war memoirist’s sentimentality for his fellow soldiers. In fact, he seemed to despise them, only to clarify that what he felt wasn’t quite hatred but “disgust.” Wittgenstein was from one of the richest families in the Austro-Hungarian Empire — “the habit of polite conversation is so ingrained in me!” — and his revulsion was immediate. “My shipmates are a bunch of swine! No enthusiasm for anything, unbelievable crudity, stupidity & malice,” he wrote a few days after enlisting, the first of many complaints about “insolence” and “boorishness.” More than two years later, he was still insisting that he was “surrounded by viciousness!”

If the people around him were one kind of problem, his philosophical work was another. It was an obsession and often a torment. Sometimes he was matter-of-fact: “Did no work”; “Did some work”; “Worked pretty hard but without real confidence”; “Worked pretty hard but without much hope.” He found he could think best when peeling potatoes, likening it to Spinoza’s day job grinding lenses. The “Tractatus” would prove to be a slender book, but using language to explore the limits of language meant that Wittgenstein had embarked on something painful and painstaking. “I see details without knowing what role they will play in the whole,” he wrote. “For this reason, I also perceive every new problem as a burden.”

He experienced his sexuality as a burden, too, writing elliptically about any possible relations with men but frankly (and frequently) about his masturbation (or lack thereof), an activity he associated with not getting enough exercise. Sometimes commentary on work and sex would run together: “—Will I find the redemptive thought? Will it come to me??!!—Yesterday & today I masturbated.”

In the second notebook especially, the punctuation gets noticeably idiosyncratic. Wittgenstein was partial to exclamation points and em-dashes, sometimes doubling or even tripling them, interspersing them among other forms of punctuation, like “— ! —.” “or —!—!” or the mysterious “—.——.” Perloff cites one scholar who has argued that the long dashes represent forms of prayer. Wittgenstein, for his part, knew what he wanted them to do, at least in his published work. “My sentences are all supposed to be read slowly,” he once wrote. “I really want my copious punctuation marks to slow down the speed of reading. Because I should like to be read slowly. (As I myself read.)”

Perloff has already written a book about Wittgenstein, “Wittgenstein’s Ladder” (1996), in which she examined his “poetry of ideas.” Wittgenstein likely wouldn’t have objected; he said that philosophy “ought really to be written only as a form of poetry,” and he resisted traditional forms of argumentation, much to the disappointment of his mentor Bertrand Russell. “I told him he ought not simply to state what he thinks is true, but to give arguments for it,” Russell wrote in a letter to a friend, exasperated by Wittgenstein’s stubbornness when it came to the declarative statements in the “Tractatus.” “But he said arguments spoil its beauty, and that he would feel as if he was dirtying a flower with muddy hands.”

Guy Davenport once described Wittgenstein as someone who “thought himself into subtler and deeper problems,” and “Private Notebooks” shows the philosopher wrestling with this process in real time. His verso entry for July 24, 1916, recounts the experience of being shelled, and how much he wanted to “keep on living”; on the recto for that day he wrote, “The world and life are one” and “Ethics and aesthetics are one” — sentences that would find their way into the final version of the “Tractatus.” The war meant that Wittgenstein — and therefore his philosophizing — had changed: “My work has expanded its reach from the foundations of logic to the nature of the world.”

This transformation comes across as bewildering and almost unbearably moving. The notebooks show the circumstances in which Wittgenstein’s mystical turn toward the end of the “Tractatus” was born — not in an attempt to escape that world, but in a determination to immerse himself in it.

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