Wittgenstein and the “really magnificent” poem

Wittgenstein’s friend, Paul Engelmann, published their correspondence, as well as a memoir, in order to supplement the hegemonic reading of the Tractatus as a text predominately about logical theory. That is, his correspondence sought to reveal the ways in which, during and after the war, Wittgenstein’s thought had become influenced more than a little by “mysticism”. Many had, indeed, known this. However, reading the Tractatus and taking seriously its relation to mysticism had been downplayed as evidenced not only in Russell’s horrid introduction to the text, a condition for its publication sans horridity, and Russell’s letters to Wittgenstein. Engelmann sent a poem to Wittgenstein called ‘Count Eberhard’s Hawthorn’ and in the letter he added the following: “Almost all other poems attempt to express the inexpressible; here that is not attempted, and precisely because of that it is achieved.” To the poem Wittgenstein reponded thus: “…really magnificent…and this is how it is: if only you don’t try to utter what is unutterable then nothing gets lost. But the unutterable will be –unutterably– contained in what has been uttered!” Here’s the poem:

Count Eberhard’s Hawthorn

Count Eberhard Rustle-Beard,
From Württemberg’s fair land,
On holy errand steer’d
To Palestina’s strand.

The while he slowly rode
Along a woodland way;
He cut from the hawthorn bush
A little fresh green spray.

Then in his iron helm
The little sprig he plac’d;
And bore it in the wars,
And over the ocean waste.

And when he reach’d his home;
He plac’d it in the earth;
Where little leaves and buds
The gentle Spring call’d forth.

He went each year to it,
The Count so brave and true;
And overjoy’d was he
To witness how it grew.

The Count was worn with age
The sprig became a tree;
‘Neath which the old man oft
Would sit in reverie.

The branching arch so high,
Whose whisper is so bland,
Reminds him of the past
And Palestina’s strand.

Wittgenstein would later write somewhere, “I think I summed up my attitude to philosophy when i said: philosophy outght really to be written only as a poetic composition“.

Wittgenstein then advocates, in the Tractatus, a method of philosophical quietism insofar as the philosopher must keep in mind that what she wants to say cannot be said and, therefore, must be shown. The unutterable will inhere within the uttered.

Eminem makes a Wittgensteinian point to this effect in his tune Rainman. Just at the conclusion of the song Eminem exclaims, “I just did a whole song and I didn’t say shit”. The use-mention distinction is important here. If Eminem mentions the word “shit” then his claim is false as, in the first verse, he in fact uses the word “shit”. But, of course, this is silly. Better to understand Eminem as uses the word. So, what could he possibly mean that he didn’t say shit? He said nothing meaningful? He said nothing of importance? He spoke nonsense? Can he mean this? Apparently not given that most listeners catch most of the references, humor, and intent of the song. Wittgenstein too has such a problem. It’s well known that in the Tractatus he encounters various performative contradictions. As when he for example exclaims that the person who understands the text  will soon realize the propositions therein to be nonsensical. However, how can one who understands the text understand nonsensical propositions? Because they are understood not in their nonsense but AS nonsensical? Similar to Hegel’s claim regarding the manner in which the indeterminate become determinate insofar as it’s determined as indeterminate.

I’m not going to offer something like an interpretation of the Tractatus here…to many delights of my (small number of) readers. To do so would be to attack the very foundations of the book I believe. I’m not in a position to do so. Perhaps another time.


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