Culture Magazine

Wittgenstein and WWI Authors

By Praymont
In his analysis of writings by WWI vets, Samuel Hynes writes that:
Writing like this, seeing like this, implies a fundamental separation in the perceiver: it asserts that there is a reality in war that the customary ways of seeing and saying cannot render, and consequently it divides the soldier from the civilian, Front from Home, Us from You, Us as We Are from Us as We Were....? The whole of the war experience was unique and beyond the comprehension of those who had not fought. (Hynes, A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture [London: Bodley Head, 1990], p. 116)
Based on this next bit by J. M. Winter, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan seems to have exemplified this separation:
Harold Macmillan was one of the many who believed fervently that the men who went to war had been initiated into mysteries that they and only they could really understand. (Winter, 'Oxford and the First World War' in The History of the University of OxfordVolume VIII: The Twentieth Century, ed. Brian Harrison [Oxford University Press, 1994], pp. 3-25, at p. 24)
Here we have a group of individuals who have been marked and set apart from the majority by their experiential grasp of some profound and otherwise incommunicable truth.
Authors in this group try to gesture, at least, towards this ineffable truth but despair of capturing it in words. But who is their audience? After all, other veterans of the front already know the 'mysteries' at which the author gestures, while those individuals who had no battle-front experience are (by hypothesis) in no position to understand such matters.
Edmund Blunden points to this predicament in his 'Preliminary' to Undertones of War (his WWI memoir):
I know that the experience to be sketched in it is very local, limited, incoherent; that it is almost useless, in the sense that no one will read it who is not already aware of all the intimations and discoveries in it, and many more, by reason of having gone the same journey. No one? Some, I am sure; but not many. Neither will they understand – that will not be all my fault.' (Blunden, Undertones of War [London: R. Cobden-Sanderson, 1928], p. vii)
This despair of being understood by the uninitiated echoes Wittgenstein's remark in the 'Preface' to the Tractatus: 'Perhaps this book will be understood only by someone who has himself already had the thoughts that are expressed in it -- or at least similar thoughts'. (Wittgenstein, Tractatus, trans. Pears & McGuinness) (On a similar note, the 'Preface' to the Philosophical Investigations includes this plaintive sentence: 'It is not impossible that it should fall to the lot of this work, in its poverty and in the darkness of this time, to bring light into one brain or another -- but, of course, it is not likely'. (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. Anscombe))
Like other WWI writers (and like many writers who have experienced trauma), Wittgenstein was in the odd predicament of writing about the incommunicable. For many of these writers (e.g., Blunden), the incommunicable truth resided in their battle-front experience while, for Wittgenstein, it dwelt in 'the mystical'. While Blunden and others aspired to provide some sense of their ineffable insight, they could not hope to induce the relevant experience via their writing, for the experience in question required being plunked in the middle of horrendous violence. By contrast, those who aim at some truth about the mystical can, perhaps, through their writing foster or provoke an experiential insight into their target. (Think of romantic poets trying to kindle a sense for the sublime.) Perhaps Wittgenstein tailored his cryptic style towards such ends.
Regardless, it's likely that any hermetic tendency in the young Wittgenstein was strengthened by his WWI experience. After such knowledge, how could one hope to capture in words the profoundest truths, insights gleaned from raw and rare experience? I think, here, of Wittgenstein turning his back on the Vienna Circle members and reading to them Tagore's poems.

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