Clive James on WittgensteinPosted: July 17, 2011
Here’s to Clive James. Call it a herd, a brood, a pack, a platoon, a circle, a gang, but each has a person others look to in order to know where it’s at. Where it is at: what’s really happening, going on. James is one of these people. In his recent essay collection, Cultural Amnesia, he writes about Wittgenstein. You can wade through many books on LW and not find what’s in his seven-page essay. Just one example:
The Wittengenstein that matters to a writer might be mistaken for his meaning by ordinary readers, but he can never be mistaken for his poetic quality, which is apparent even in his plainest statement. The precision of his language we can take for granted, and perhaps he should more often have done the same. His true and unique precision was in registering pre-verbal states of mind. In The Blue and Brown Books (p. 173), he proposes a “noticing, seeing, conceiving” process that happens before it can be described in words. That, indeed, is the only way of describing it. It sounds very like the kind of poetic talent that we are left to deal with after we abandon the notion––as we must––that poetic talent is mere verbal ability. “What we call ‘understanding a statement’ has, in many cases, a much greater similarity to understanding a musical theme than we might be inclined to think” (p. 167). But he doesn’t want us to think about music as a mechanism to convey a feeling: joy, for example. “Music conveys to us itself ” (p. 178). So when we read a sentence as if it were a musical theme, the music doesn’t convey a separate sense that compounds with the written meaning. We get the feeling of a musical theme because the sentence means something. I thought he was getting very close to the treasure chamber when he wrote this. In 1970, reading The Blue and Brown Books every day in the Copper Kettle in Cambridge, I made detailed transcriptions in my journal every few minutes. It didn’t occur to me at the time that his prose was doing to me exactly what he was in the process of analyzing. It sounded like music because he was so exactly right.