Clive James on Wittgenstein

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. 

5 Comments on “Clive James on Wittgenstein”

  1. Anthony Daly says:

    Although I find James (very) amusing as a (tv/film/culture) critic, I was (very) disappointed by his essay on Wittgenstein, which (unlike Guy Davenport, say) shows little (if any) genuine understanding of the the man or his ideas. Only James’s article on Walter Benjamin (in same volume) is worse; an even greater travesty of the truth. By and large I subscribe to the Swansea interpretation (esp Rush Rhees, Dewi Phillips, and Peter Winch) though the best (short) essay on the man is still (probably) Erich Heller’s (in Encounter 1959)
    Almost all the standard biographies (Malcolm to Monk) are a waste of time (imo) though I haven’t (as yet) managed to locate a(nother) copy of von Wright’s (massive) photographic album, which I (last) saw in early 80s at Univ of Basel

    • royhamric says:

      Anthony, Thanks for your comments and the link to the Encounter article, which I will read. I think we can’t fault James’s reaction since it is basically a subjective, aesthetic response as a prose writer to Wittgenstein’s prose, how LW could freshen James’s mind as a hungry student, as if he had suddenly found himself at the well drinking pure water. I would very much like to see the von Wright photographic album. I’m a serious reader of Wittgenstein, but I’m not a serious student of philosophy. James’s comments on Benjamin are harsh, and, again, I believe that comes from his aesthetic response as much as anything. On Benjamin, James is again reacting to his style as much as anything, and once a real writer has a harsh reaction to another writer’s style it’s all over. Taste. Thanks again for your comments.

  2. tarzan says:

    Guy Davenport on Wittgenstein on Being Kind

    Wittgenstein did not argue; he merely thought himself into subtler and deeper problems The record which three of his students have made of his lectures and conversations at Cambridge discloses a man tragically honest and wonderfully, astoundingly absurd. In every memoir of him we meet a man we are hungry to know more about, for even if his every sentence remains opaque to us, it is clear that the archaic transparency of his thought is like nothing that philosophy has seen for thousands of years. It is also clear that he was trying to be wise and to make others wise. He lived in the world, and for the world. He came to believe that a normal, honest human being could not be a professor. It is the academy that gave him his reputation of impenetrable abstruseness; never has a man deserved a reputation less. Disciples who came to him expecting to find a man of incredibly deep learning found a man who saw mankind held together by suffering alone, and he invariably advised them to be as kind as possible to others.

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