Thursday, February 28, 2008


What one cannot speak of, one must pass over in silence.

There are a couple of different ways to view this aphorism which shows up in the preface to Wittgenstein's Tractatus. The first is that it is a truism. If one cannot speak of something, then silence is the apparent consequence.

However, I am intrigued by the construction of this sentence. Although I cannot read the German, all translations have the same "pass over in silence."

To be silent is a non-action. To speak is an action. Silence is the cessation of speaking.

However, to "pass over in silence" gives silence an agency as though silence is a movement that one chooses.

Then there is the first half of the sentence: What one cannot speak of. How does one decide on the subjects that one cannot speak of and what is the criterion of speaking?

Given that the sentence is within the preface to the Tractatus, there is the standard of pure logic which Wittgenstein is laying out. This would limit very much what one could speak of. However, in Culture and Value (and I assume elsewhere) are attempts by Wittgenstein to conceptualize and explore various problems without coming at a clear logic immediately. Culture and Value is riff with numerous attempts at the same problems, a stuttering of the subject. Wittgenstein wrote many times of how he felt he repeated the same topics over and over.

Simultaneously, Wittengstein writes of the limits of language, of the lack of communication. In many ways, the preface to the Tractatus might be said to be mostly concerned with the inability to communicate, whether the problem lies with the subject, the speaker, or the reader (or a combination of the three).

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Kenneth Rexroth's translations

I've been perusing through various volumes of Kenneth Rexroth's translations from the Chinese and the Japanese; I have six volumes of these mostly brief love poems that capture so quickly the essence of longing or the erotic. More than the romantic ones, I love the ones where the writing is so sharp that it's as though the moment has coalesced in a few brief lines.

I wish I were close
To you as the wet skirt of
A salt girl to her body.
I think of you always.

The Japanese transliteration:
Suma no ama no
Shio yaki ginu no
Narenaba ka
Hito hi mo kimi wo
Wasurete omowamu

You say, "I will come."
And you do not come.
Now you say, "I will not come."
So I shall expect you.
Have I learned to understand you?

Japanese transliteration:
Komu to yu mo
Konu toki aru wo
Koji to yu wo
Komu to wa mataji
Koji to yu mono wo
(Lady Otomo No Sakanoe)

Even though I don't know Japanese, in looking at the transliteration, I assume that the word play in the poem by Lady Otomo No Sakanoe must be quite something. As it is, I will have to merely enjoy the way the sounds bounce off each other in that brief bit of a poem. What a sharp lady she must have been!

Monday, February 25, 2008

Visualizing Thoughts

One of Wittgenstein's logic movements in the Tractatus is from picture to thought. As someone who almost never uses visualization unconsciously (but almost always with an intent to visualize) I had to ask a friend who is more visually-inclined whether her thoughts are visual. She confirmed that her thoughts are visual and that she could not imagine how it is to think without the visual component. For me, the majority of my thoughts are either language or mood based.

It also recalls an interesting conversation I had with a couple of friends at a bar where among the three of us I was the only one who did not visualize scenes while reading. Even when I am reading a description of a setting, I do not visualize but aim to understand the function of the setting within the scene. In the same way, if someone talks about a red dress, I won't even visualize the color red. I cognitively understand what is being said but there is no visual component unless I consciously decide to think about the dress as red visually.

It would be interesting to find out if there are different brain pathways in the way people think based on what their thought associations are, whether it's visual, aural, language, smell, taste, etc. For me, my thoughts are mostly a combination of language, mood and the not yet articulated. As such, the most frustrating part of this is the limits of language and seeking out the exact words that express what I am thinking. I wonder if this is part of the reason why words and books have such primary importance in my life as it is the vehicle of thought and communication. I wonder whether for those who have a sensory component to their thoughts if language is the dressing of thought rather than the thought itself.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus preface

I am moving between Wittgenstein's Culture and Value and Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. I find Culture and Value more conducive to the brief morning commute when my brain is not up to the more pure and sustained logic of the Tractatus. However, as Tractatus was conceived as a whole work by Wittgenstein, and the only one such work published during his lifetime, it has a formal beauty not found in the brief thoughts that make up Culture and Value. Tractatus was written while he was in a prisoner of war camp in 1917 (by the way, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a great resource for bios of philosophers).

In his brief preface, Wittgenstein concludes with the following:

If this work has any value, it consists of two things: the first is that thoughts are expressed in it, and on this score the better the thoughts are expressed--the more the nail has been hit on the head--the greater will be its value.--Here I am conscious of having fallen a long way short of what is possible. Simply because my powers are too slight for the accomplishment of the task.--May others come and do it better.

On the the other hand the truth of the thoughts that are here communicated seems to me unassailable and definitive. I therefore believe myself to have found, on all essential points, the final solution of hte problems. And if I am not mistaken in this belief, then the second thing in which the value of this work consists is that it shows how little is achieved when these problems are solved.

In 1930, in one of the tidbits collected in Culture and Value, he wrote:

Each of the sentences I write is trying to say the whole thing, i.e., the same thing over and over again; it is as though they were all simply views of one object seen from different angles.

Perhaps all writing should be judged by the preface of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, that even if one should fail to meet the overall aim of the ambition posed by the question, one should still have communicated something unassailable and definitive. While I was reading Wittgenstein's preface, I was reminded of Henry James' preface for the New York edition of Roderick Hudson, his first novel:

...the private history of any sincere work, however modest its pretentions, looms with its own completeness in the rich, ambiguous aesthetic air, and seems at once to borrow a dignity and to mark, so to say, a station.

To strive for an organic unity and organic completeness in writing is perhaps one of the most difficult tasks for a writer. It requires patience as well as the discipline to cull away any word that is not part of the organic unity. It is impossible to define organic unity except to say that one notices when it is lacking. Organic unity is such a cohesion within a work of art that each part of it seems necessary. One of my musician friends once said about Mozart's works that it is impossible to conceive any note having been written differently in his compositions. Such is organic unity. And it is not applicable only to harmonic music but a criterion to all music, to all works of art.

As far as I have read in Tractatus (which admittedly is not far enough as it is a work requiring an abstract level of thought that I find difficult to sustain), there is a beautiful composition. It seems almost unearthly...odd to say about a work of philosophy, but there's an airiness to it. Wittgenstein writes in Culture and Value of thought as flight: it [thought] is as though it flies above the world and leaves it as it is -- observing it from above, in flight.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


I am in the midst of writing a long posting on Henry James' Roderick Hudson which vaguely recalls my grad school days of sitting with my laptop (the wonderful IBM butterfly which sadly broke after three years) and writing lengthy papers that meandered at length. If only I could have footnotes in my blog....I recall one particular paper on Louisa May Alcott's Little Women and Sentimental novels that included a footnote roughly a page long in 8 point font and single spaced.

But nostalgia aside, I am taking a break from that posting to put up a briefer post on Wittgenstein whom I am reading for the first time. I first read about Wittgenstein in a wonderful novel called The World as I Found it by Bruce Duffy (now sadly out of print). And while I loved the novel and was intrigued by the character Wittgenstein in the fictionalized version of his life, I never went on to read any of his writings until now (I was in grad school then and spent most of my free time daydreaming about what it would be like if I could have more free time).

I am reading the University of Chicago Press's edition of Culture and Value, a collection of notes, memos, and other short writings found through Wittgenstein's papers. I was particularly intrigued by the following two entries:

People say again and again that philosophy doesn't really progress, that we are still occupied with the same philosophical problems as were the Greeks. But the people who say this don't understand why it has to be so. It is because our language has remained the same and keeps seducing us into asking the same questions. As long as there continues to be a verb `to be' that looks as if it functions in the same way as `to eat' and `to drink', as long as we still have the adjectives `identical', `true', `false', `possible', as long as we continue to talk of a river of time, of an expanse of space, etc. etc., people will keep stumbling over the same puzzling difficulties and find themselves staring at something which no explanation seems capable of clearing up.
And what's more, this satisfies a longing for the transcendent, because in so far as people think they can see the "limits of human understanding", they believe of course that they can see beyond these.

Kleist wrote somewhere that what the poet would most of all like to be able to do would be to convey thoughts by themselves without words. (What a strange admission.)

It is nothing surprising to say that language is the medium of both communication and miscommunication. But what is more difficult to face is the limit of language, that language can only give approximate categorizations (and in this way is similar to all forms of human knowledge which can be recorded). Nothing can simulate the experience of the thing itself. We can only isolate and approximate.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Henry James, Roderick Hudson

I've long been meaning to write about Henry James whose works I admire intensely, both for the craft and James' insight into human psychology (although James was before Freud and the advent of psychoanalysis).

Over the holidays, I read several of James' novels in a spate: The Bostonians, Roderick Hudson, and Princess Casamassima. Roderick Hudson is James' first novel, with The Bostonians and Princess Casmassima being written a little over a decade later in 1886. It's stunning to think that in the decade he would write The American, Daisy Miller, The Portrait of a Lady (one of my all-time favorite novels), and Washington Square. Even while being highly prolific, James continued to experiment different ways of writing the novel.

Briefly, Roderick Hudson is about a young sculptor who is patroned by another young man, the wealth Rowland Mallet, who invites Roderick to live with him in Italy with the notion that Roderick would become a great artists by living amongst great works of art. Instead, Roderick falls in love with a cynical young American, Christina Light, who has been raised in Europe by her mother with the express idea that her daughter must marry into aristocracy, and not just any aristocracy but the best of the European aristocracy.

There are several overall arching themes within the novel. The first is the notion of helping someone. It is Rowland Mallet whose consciousness defines the mores of this novel, and he is a sensitive, cultured, refined man, perhaps an alter-ego of James' himself at this age. But unlike James, Mallet has wealth without purpose (James came from a family on the downturn of wealth). Even while appreciating art, Mallet is acutely conscious that he does not have a goal in life; as such, in helping Roderick Hudson achieve the purpose of becoming a great artist, Mallet will achieve something in his own life.

Another key theme in the novel is the function of art and the making of art. Even though it is helpful in deconstructionist theory to consider the author dead (for the purposes of intent), in the creation of a work of art, the artist-author is palpably alive, and there is a dynamic interaction between the artist and his work. It is for such elucidation that the life of an artist can throw on his work that we continue to read biographies. In Roderick Hudson, Hudson's sculptures are examined carefully for the moral pathways Hudson has taken. Moreover, Mallet and Hudson have numerous discussions about art. And finally, Hudson's artist foil is an unassuming young painter, Sam Singleton, who has saved money for his brief European education in the arts and plans to return to his small American town to become a steady bread-earner for his family.

And, as always, James is interested in what it means to be an American in contrast to the Old World of Western European culture. It's noteworthy to consider that James specifically was thinking of Balzac while writing Roderick Hudson. My guess is that James would be thinking primarily of Balzac's Lost Illusions which also centers on a young man who leaves a provincial small town, full of promise and the center of his poor family, to go to the brilliant, cosmopolitan and corrupt Paris.

The heart of the novel centers on the three characters: Roderick Hudson, Rowland Mallet and Christina Light. There is almost a feel of a love triangle, of a struggle for ascendency over Roderick Hudson between Rowland Mallet and Christina Light. Rowland and Christina are radically different characters. In his preface to the New York Edition of Roderick Hudson when James revised the book, he talks of creating Roderick's fiance, Mary Garland (whom he leaves behind in America), as the antithesis to Christina; and James does bring Mary Garland as a substantial character in the latter portion of the novel for Roderick's downfall and also to be the unrequited love interest for Rowland. However, I would argue that Rowland is the true antithesis to both Christina Light and Roderick Hudson.

How can it be that Rowland is the antithesis to Christina Light and Roderick Hudson given that Rowland is one character while Christina Light and Roderick Hudson are two characters? In many ways, Christina Light and Roderick Hudson share so many of the same flaws and charisma that they seem mere gender counterpoints to the same idea. While Christina Light is not an artist in the sense of Roderick Hudson, she is a consummate production of the self, an artist in the creation of a self-drama. And in essence, this is what attracts Roderick Hudson (why is it so hard to think of him as just one is as though his full name is more natural) so fatally to her. James attributes the beauty of both of them to their eyes (Roderick: "It was a generous dark grey eye, in which there came and went a sort of kindling glow which would have made a ruder vissage striking, and which gave at times to Hudson's harmonious face an altogether extraordinary beauty" (p . 64); Christina: "A pair of extraordinary dark blue eyes" (p. 209), "She turned upon him a moment the quickened light of her beautiful eyes" (p. 233), "judging by the light of her beautiful eyes" (p. 290)). Beyond such physical attributes, they are both individuals each driven by their own capricious moods, an irregard for others around them, a selfish and self-absorbed streak and a distinct knack for telling the uncomfortable truth. Yet, for all that, they are both highly intelligent beings who are charming and much admired by others.

As Christina and Roderick are naturals at creating a drama, Rowland is the consummate spectator. While Christina and Roderick are cut vividly from the first introductions of them, Rowland, even while being the first character introduced in the novel and being the conscious from whose viewpoint the reader understands the emotional stakes of the plot, and his qualities are first addressed by his cousin Cecilia in a socially conventional manner: know what I think of you. You have a turn for doing nice things and behaving yourself properly. You have it in the first place in your character. You are an amiable creature. Ask Bessie [Cecilia's young daughter] if you don't hold her more gently and comfortably than any of her other admirers.'
`He holds me more comfortably than Mr. Hudson.' Bessie declared roundly. (p. 51)

So, while our attention is immediately drawn to Christina and Roderick's physical beauty and energy when on their entrance into the story, we are given a rather bland, boring assessment of Rowland upon our first meeting with him. Yet, what matters in this introduction is his niceness, his conscientiousness, and the gradual drawing into his unassuming but extraordinarily close observation of life. As I noted previously, he could well be the young James' alter-ego. It is because Rowland behaves properly that the question of intruding in another life is one morally rife. It's worth considering that such a moral dilemma is not delineated in the sentimental novels that were popular in James' period, whether in America or Britain. Instead, in these novels, it is assumed in a matter of fact breeziness that it is right for the wealthy to help the worthy poor. However, what is not considered in sentimental novels is that such patronage involves leaving one's domestic circle, a sudden socioeconomic rift within the family (the one being patronised suddenly has access to a different level of privileges and opportunities than the rest of the family), as well as a complicated relationship between the patron and the patronised. From the very moment Rowland decides to take Roderick with him to Italy, his action is questioned, both by Roderick's mother and cousin as well as Rowland's cousin. James captures the situation vividly in the words of Mary Gardener: "` is like something in a fairy tale...Your coming here all unknown, so rich and so polite, and carrying off my cousin in a golden cloud'"(p. 91).

Rowland's defense of his sudden patronship to his cousin Cecilia contains mixed motivations having to do with a genuine love of art but also his own desire for more meaning in his life:

`I only wish to remind you,' she [Cecilia] went on, `that you are likely to have your hands full.'
`I have thought of that and I rather like the idea; liking as I do the man. I told you the other day, you know, that I longed to have something on my hands. When it first occurred to me that I might start our young friend on the path of glory, I felt as if I had an unimpeachable inspiration. Then I remembered there were dangers and difficulties, and asked myself whether I had a right to drag him out of his obscurity. My notion of his really having a great talent answered the question. He is made to do the things that we are the better for having. I can't do such things myself, but when I see a young man of genius standing helpless and hopeless for want of capital, I feel -- and it's no affection of humility, I assure you -- as if it would give at least a reflected usefulness to my own life to offer him his opportunity.' (p. 80)

On hearing Rowland's reasons for taking Roderick Hudson with him to Italy, his cousin demands that Rowland vouch for Roderick's moral security: "`His moral, his sentimental security. Here you see, it's perfect. We are all under a tacit compact to keep him quiet. Perhaps you believe in the necesssary turbulence of genius, and you intend to enjoin up on your protege the importance of cultivating his passions.'" (p. 81)

This dialogue between Rowland and Cecilia resonates in several different ways. First, the history of the novel at this moment bears recalling: there's James' own avowed interest in Balzac (In Lost Illusion, the young protagonist Lucien is immediately dropped by his patroness as soon as they land in Paris, and like Roderick, Lucien is immensely gifted but mercurial and undisciplined. The situation of Lost Illusions arises from taking a tempermental gifted young man and plopping him in the corrupt and fascinating environment of Paris. With Roderick Hudson, it is Europe that tempts him with gambling, drinking, and the American who has already conquered Europe -- Christina) but there's also the backdrop of the sentimental novel so popular during James' lifetime. James certainly read Charles Dickens carefully, but The Bostonians also bear witness to James' knowledge of popular political movements that based their appeal to the populace on sentiment and dramatic histrionics. Therefore, Cecilia's words about a sentimental security is in part about American morals. Europe is unsafe; it is the wide wide world and unknown to most Americans with its corrupt old aristocracy, its Catholicism, cultural sophistication as well as a different value system.

On the contrary, the very fact that James is lightly structuring Roderick Hudson on Balzac's novels (Balzac also wrote numerous religious stories and novels that are not as popular today) reveals that the Europeans have a moral value system, one that prizes a similar set of values related to home ties as well as to the necessity of discipline and hard work where art is concerned. The ending of Lost Illusions has Lucien returning to his hometown only to lose his soul to the devil, in a sense, with further moral and sexual corruption implied in his meeting with Carlos Herrara.

What is one to make of a decidely odd situation where a man is responsible for the moral well-being of another man? Moreover, Roderick Hudson has been spoiled by his mother and is unused to bearing with the outcome of his actions. As Roderick deteroriates emotionally, all but ignoring his mother and Mary who have come to Italy for the purpose of invigorating Roderick with a renewed sense of his former self pre-Christina (a tactic straight out of an American sentimental novel; consider the scene in Little Women where Amy chastises Laurie for not doing more with his life), the situation becomes even stranger with Mrs. Hudson, Roderick's mother, staring accusingly at Rowland for her son's demise. Of course, the problem is not with Rowland but with Roderick who refuses to live in any other fashion but one that follows the whims of his moods. As much as Roderick lacks discipline as an artist, so too does he lack discipline in his life. As a consequence, those who care for him inevitably do everything they can for him but are unable to understand him.

James was known to dislike Jane Austen's novels; however, he makes a similar sort of distinction in his characters. There are decidely characters who make moral scrulpes and there are characters who lack the ability to make such distinctions. The difference between James and Austen is James' larger view of the world where his interest is for when moral characters make the wrong decision. Additionally, James' most flawed and corrupt characters, such as Christina Light, are attractive. In this regard, such characters reflect James' own observations of society. James' most explicit statement of a moral character in Roderick Hudson is a description of a more minor character, Madame Grandoni, a companion to a woman artist:

Madame Grandoni...was an excessively ugly old lady, highly esteemed in Roman society for her homely benevolence and her shrewd and humorous good sense. She had been the widow of a German archaeologist who came to Rome in the early ages, as an attache of the Prussian legation on the Capitoline. Her good sense had been wanting on but a single occasion, that of her second marriage. This occasion was certainly a momentous one, but these are by common consent not test cases. A couple of years after her first husband's death she had accepted the hand and the name of a Neapolitan music-master, ten years younger than herself and with no fortune but his fiddle-bow. The marriage was most unhappy, and the Maestro Grandoni was suspected of using the fiddle-bow as an instrument of conjugal correction. He had finally run off with a prima donna assoluta, who it was to be hoped had given him a taste of the quality implied in her title. He was believed to be living still, but he had shrunk to a small black spot in Madame Grandoni's life, and for ten years she had not mentioned his name. She wore a light flaxen wig, which was never very artfully adjusted; but this mattered little, as she made no secret of it. She used to say, `I was not always so ugly as this; as a young girl I had beautiful golden hair, very much the colour of my wig.' She had worn from time immemorial an old blue satin dress and a white crape shawl embroidered in colours; her appearance was ridiculous, but she had an interminable Teutonic pedigree, and her manners in every presence was easy and jovial, as became a lady whose ancestor had been cup bearer to Frederick Barbarossa. Thirty years' observation of Roman society had sharpened her wits and given her an inexhaustible store of anecdotes; but she had beneath her crumpled bodice a deep-welling fund of Teutonic sentiment, which she communicated only to the objects of her particular favour. Rowland had a great regard for her, and she repaid it by wishing him to get married. (121-122)

I have been in liberal in quoting the lengthy description of Madame Gradoni as it displays much of what is attractive about Rowland as a character as well. Like Madame Gradoni, Rowland is an astute observer of people and personalities. Both are able to be spectators partly because they are not glamorous (there's one very funny scene where Christina declares she doesn't like Rowland because his face reminds her of an Austrian count whose face "measured from ear to ear at least a yard and a half" (p. 164)); not being the center of attention by virtue of physical beauty and not being observed, they are able to learn the art of observation (and indeed observation as practised by James and his characters is an art). Most crucially, in drawing the attention away from their physical characteristics to the point of ridiculing their physical being, James is able to delve into their inner lives and to make their inner lives shine forth. Much the same holds for the painter Singleton, the hardworking artist who spends his summers traveling and painting while Roderick fritters time gambling; Singleton is continually ridiculed by Roderick as the small man. However, in the end, Singleton is able to sustain himself. And it could well be that what invests us as readers in James' characters is their ability to sustain themselves emotionally.

As the plot deepens, Madame Grandoni and Rowland share observations on Christina, Roderick, and the situation between Christina and Roderick. And as much as Madame Grandoni and Rowland agree that Christina is a femme fatale purposefully and falsely entangling Roderick, they both voice a pity for her fate as an object to be blackmailed into a society marriage by her mother. Their conversations function on several levels:

1) as a moral viewpoint, although not a narrow moral viewpoint but one that examines the situation with a sophisticated understanding of the world
2) as foreshadowing of the most likely outcome
3) as conversation between more ordinary beings discussing extraordinary beings with extraordinary fates

It is because Rowland is not beautiful but observant that we are able to enter the novel through his viewpoint. Indeed, it would be impossible to enter the novel through Roderick's viewpoint as his is such a singularly focused expression of immediate desires.