I. A Joke About Meaning
It was early June 2013 in Montreal. The sun was shining and the school term had come to an end at Dawson College where I teach. Early summer is a time when a teacher thinks of the months just past, now seemingly resolved into sunlight. How much had been really transmitted, how much remained of the effort to bring something alive of Steinbeck or Shakespeare?
A colleague and I were walking across a boulevard called deMaisonneuve, cutting through a bit of traffic, and then going into a mall on the other side of the street to eat.
My co-worker has a sharp, lawyer-like intellect which he uses to explore varying theories of society: Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Marx. Once an engineer, he has become a specialist in political philosophy, but has retained an empirical cast of mind. He and I and a third Dawson teacher had worked together unsuccessfully to indict George Bush and Tony Blair before the International Criminal Court for war crimes committed during the invasion of Iraq. We got as far as an admission from the I.C.C. prosecutor that such “war crimes” had been committed, but they were below the “threshold” that merited investigation we were told. Our attempt to seek justice had been encouraged by a former Solicitor General of Canada, but our legal effort failed.
That was then, in the second Bush era. Now, nearly a decade later, I was talking to my friend, in the bright daylight, after our students’ marks had been submitted. I was joking, in a half-serious way, saying that twenty years of teaching had made me feel that the numerical mark assigned a person now seems much less important to me than whether a student has decent judgement or a good heart.
I must have wanted to tease my colleague and the words came quickly out of my mouth : “I teach the meaninglessness of meaning, “ I said into the traffic passing in front of us.
The remark was blurted out, but was not as careless as it might have seemed.
What I meant was something like this: that it is in the nature of schemes of meaning to collapse, and when these structures fail, then we sometimes look back at a word or intention and see it standing in a kind of heightened nakedness.
A Great Power, say, lies its way into a brutal, unjustified blitzkrieg and calls the war “Shock and Awe.” The two words, viewed retrospectively, amid the destruction created in their name, then stand bare, like signs of derision and contempt. Language evacuated of all its sense.
Something like this desolation of meaning appears in an imaginary and fictive way near the end of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I. Sir John Falstaff at that point of the play stumbles alone around a bloody, chaotic battlefield in the north of England and tells himself that HONOUR, and all the various schemes of honour, have no material substance, no temporality, and no existence. Honour is “ a word,” nothing more and Falstaff’s comic insight kills this martial idea and badge right before our eyes and makes it evaporate:
FALSTAFF: What is honour? A word. What is that word
honour? Air – a trim reckoning.
A “trim reckoning” – slim fare– a “mere scutcheon,” concludes Sir John. Honour is a coat of arms carried at a funeral, a falsely coloured flag to disguise death. The situation in the play forces each member of the audience either to assent to the comic destruction of the military code, or to somehow affirm the idea of manly virtue internally, inside his or her mind. That reconstruction must be done by the thinking audience in the same way that later only action—such as Hal’s subsequent slaying of Hotspur — can, perhaps, resurrect honour in the play. For indeed we see a whole system of values willfully destroyed in Shakespeare’s history chronicle, so that very emptying of significance requires restoration, if the moral scheme is to live again.
This vanishing of signification is one of the things I describe when I teach, though I do that textually, through specific examples of literature rather than through any semiotic theory. With Shakespeare, the evacuation of meaning in many of the plays takes place dramaturgically, not philosophically, because of a deliberate development of emotion and a thematic counterpoint that suddenly leave characters, as well as the audience, staring at an abyss. Shakesepeare does this work of de-scaffolding repeatedly and self-consciously in nearly all his work. And often he uses a concrete metaphor taken straight from theatre practice to stand for nothingness: the emptying of the physical space of the stage itself.
With his words, Shakespeare sometimes will almost relentlessly pursue an emptying of meaning. Tautology and musical repetition have a deliberately collapsing effect, as we see, for example, in King Lear’s reflection that his daughter Cordelia is dead and will not return to life again: “Never, never, never, never, never.”
So there I was with my Montreal friend, crossing the street, and I mischievously added: “Or perhaps, I teach the meaning of meaninglessness.”
“That sounds cynical,” my companion commented. “Not at all,” I retorted.
“Remember the end of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus ? Wittgenstein talks about throwing away his book once you have read and understood it.”
My friend, disregarding the reference, said: “I think that what I teach has meaning.”
“Of course it does,” I answered, “and you teach it very well, I know you do. That isn’t quite what I meant – what I am getting at is something closer to Zen, perhaps.” The allusions offered to my friend, while we entered the mall, did little to dispel his resistance to my suggestions.
I was remembering, silently in my mind, the end of the Tractatus, first published in 1921, that includes the powerful image of a discarded ladder:
My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them – as steps – to climb beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)
[Translation: Pears and McGuinness]
I had been struck by that ending when I first read it long ago and had savoured as well the Hamlet-echoing last sentences of Wittgenstein’s tract:
He [who understands me] must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.
What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.
These memories of mine, however, were not those of my colleague, and as we entered the mall across the street, I could see I was making little headway with my end-of-term koans. The nod to Wittgenstein had zero effect on my friend.
Then I further compounded the failure of self-explanation by alluding to yet another text with the metaphor of a forsaken ladder, the end of W.B. Yeats poem, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” which I proceeded to quote:
Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.
My companion again did not respond, and we vanished into the food court, changing to some other topic of talk.
Later, during the evening of that same June day, I was with another friend, a physicist who follows a path of Sufi mysticism and who also has written extensively on Shakespeare. I recounted to him my inability to share the idea of the collapse of meaning with my earlier companion. My second friend surprised me at this point because he too was highly refractory to this notion of collapsing signifiers, which I would say is almost an axiom for me. And the irritated reaction of both interlocutors made me realize that I personally have assumed a radical distrust of all explanatory schemes as a long-held tenet, and that this deep distrust of taxonomy is more unusual than I had thought, if I could judge by my friends.
This surprise of mine made me think about how the trope of the ladder was there in both allusions that had come to mind that afternoon, and this metaphor appears at crucial moments in the work of both Wittgenstein and Yeats.
That synchronicity is not an accident because both Wittgenstein in 1921 and Yeats in 1939 were reacting to the enormous intellectual upheaval caused by the aftermath of World War One. And there is a larger pattern here since the “loss of the ladder” of Being, of the idea of a scala naturae, has been ongoing in the West since the Renaissance or the Early Modern period in Western Europe. Shakespeare’s time was also one of radical transitions and the dynamic flux of the plays reflects historical tensions not unlike the ones we feel today. So I think there is a kind of deep connection not only between Yeats and Wittgenstein, but also between us and Shakespeare.
II. Yeats and Wittgenstein
The Anglo-Irishman William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) wrote “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” in 1938-1939, and it is one of his last and most impressive poems.
Yeats only married at an advanced age and the physical intimacy he finally enjoyed altered his view of the relation between the ideal and the material. In “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” Yeats reviews his previous poetry spanning two generations and confesses that “Players and painted stage took all my love,/ And not those things that they were emblems of.” His masterful imagery he says
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
Yeats is certainly thinking here of the scala naturae, the ladder of nature, the classical Chain of Being found in Aristotle, Plato, and above all Plotinus: matter at the bottom, ideas at the top. For centuries in Western Europe, the scala naturae provided an ordered, hierarchical, rational explanation of the total scheme of the cosmos.
“Now” says Yeats, in the modern period – 1938 — that so personal a ladder is “gone.”
Mind must find its origin in the heart.
The first half of “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” puts special emphasis on Yeats’ early poems and his plays suffused by Irish folklore. He also evokes his own sublimations of his frustrated erotic desire for the nationalist heroine, Maude Gonne. After this retrospection, the poet concludes by renouncing his own idealization of ascent and turns his personal scale of values upside down. The poem is musical in form, but the jangling consonants in the last six lines sing of the rough objects that support any categorical scheme, and that subsist when the ladder is truly “gone.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) was a very different figure from “Mr. Yeats,” (as I once heard a Sligo farmer refer to the dead poet.)
The philosopher was a product of Vienna, a member of one of the two richest banking and industrial families in Austria. He trained as an engineer, gave away most of his wealth, served in the Austrian Army during World War One, and went to Cambridge University on two separate occasions to study and teach philosophy.
The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was first published in German in 1921, with an English edition appearing the year after. Wittgenstein’s examination of propositional logic – the form of meaningful sentences – followed the path set out by the German mathematician Gottlob Frege and the program of Principia Mathematica published just before World War One by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead.
While the Tractatus appears to present a positivist view of logic, it is actually quite different, with strong echoes of Plato and Kant. The book presents a mimetic, atomistic view of knowledge. Logic, which shares a deep correspondence of form in common with reality, holds a mirror of fine networks – the “great mirror” Wittgenstein calls it – up to the world of facts that are constituted from “simple” objects.
A “logical scaffolding” helps a “proposition” as it “constructs a world.” Just as simple objects cohere in reality, logic builds meaningful propositions, one upon the other, as it were. And the “totality of true propositions is the whole of natural science.” However, in this mirroring Wittgenstein assumes there is a radical difference between showing and saying. Logic shows the world, according to Wittgenstein, but he insists “What can be shown cannot be said .” So, while logical propositions can represent – or mirror – the whole of reality, “they cannot represent what they must have in common with reality in order to be able to represent it – logical form.”
Like the quantum physicists whose discoveries came after the publication of his book, Wittgenstein posits an implicit order in the world that becomes manifest in logic. But there is an insuperable paradox here: “What finds its reflection in language, language cannot represent” and “What expresses itself in language, we cannot express by means of language.” In other words, at the deepest level of connection between the world and logical language, language cannot speak about itself.
Here is where the scaffold that Wittgenstein describes becomes most surprising. His metaphor of a mirror is aptly chosen since a looking-glass, taken by itself, has nothing in it save what is reflected by its blank surface. So it is with logic, and the cardinal principle of the Tractatusis: “The propositions of logic are tautologies” that “say nothing.” The logical scaffolding assembles itself “by successively applying certain operations that always generate tautologies out of the initial ones.”
It is possible to conjure an image of what Wittgenstein describes – an immaterial, empty matrix that is perfectly transparent whose virtue is to show the world. “The propositions of logic say nothing” because, one could observe, they show everything. Pure logic has the characteristics of its two extremes of identity and contradiction. As Wittgenstein puts it, “Tautology and contradiction are the limiting cases – indeed the disintegration – of the combination of signs.” Its limiting cases actually reveal the essence of logic. It says nothing and partakes of its limits, so there can be nothing logical outside logic, and “Clearly the laws of logic cannot in their turn be subject to laws of logic.”
Wittgenstein’s mysticism – that is the right word here – allowed him to accept this idea that Bertrand Russell found so disturbing: namely, that logic cannot be fully axiomatized and the Tractatus anticipated Godel’s Proof by more than a decade. In 1931 it was the Austrian mathematician Kurt Godel who established that it is impossible to give a comprehensive logical explanation of a logical system generated by that system itself. If the explanation is comprehensive, it will be inconsistent; and if it is free from contradiction, it will be incomplete.
The Tractatus is consistent, but it is more than incomplete: it is self-consciously empty, even self-destroying. That is why Wittgenstein playfully concludes by saying that his “propositions” are “nonsensical” and should be discarded in order for one to gain real insight. The understanding reader should “throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.”
Wittgenstein was more of a poet than a conventional philosopher, but his generation, and subsequent thinkers, presented convincing arguments that logical systems cannot be complete, and that totalizing schemes by definition are rife with contradiction. Openness or incompletion is a requirement for consistency, and the very emptiness of logic that Wittgenstein describes indicates how dangerous it is to blindly apply a putative logic to the world. One might say that because logic is pure form, one can put almost any content into it, and that “matter” can be manipulated arbitrarily, yet still appear to bear the imprint of necessity. And Wittgenstein applied this lesson to his own later philosophizing when he took to examining “language games,” or linguistic conventions, as his key to meaning, rather than pure logic.
The stimulating and entertaining graphic novel Logicomix (Doxiadis and Papdamitiou, Bloomsbury, 2009) puts the intellectual experience of Wittgenstein’s generation into the mouth of Bertrand Russell addressing a student audience on the “Role of Logic in Human Affairs” in 1939, just as the Second World War begins. Russell looks out at his student audience and says:
Reflect on this, please: if even in Logic and Mathematics, the paragons of certainty, we cannot have perfect assurances of Reason, then even less can this be achieved in the messy business of human affairs – either private, or public.
It was the shock of World War One, and subsequent disturbances, that made people such as Yeats, Wittgenstein and many others think of collapsing meaning and, by implication, made them think about how to reassemble or re-find meaning. Wittgenstein looked to language, Yeats to “the rag and bone shop of the heart.” A similar process – not philosophical, not strictly poetic, but dramatic –occurs in the plays of Shakespeare, a dialogical connection of actors and audience that brings Shakespeare very close to us.