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Michael Frayn, playwright and novelist

The Guardian, May 31, 2008

He is currently writing an introduction to Constructions, a book of philosophical aphorisms to be republished by Faber, “and I think one of the sources of all this is Wittgenstein, late Wittgenstein.” The undergraduate Frayn’s first encounter with early Wittgenstein, and specifically the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which made Frayn want to dance – or so his tutor once said – but late, mature Wittgenstein, where a confident belief in the direct correspondence between the world and words is replaced by a richer sense, that there is more to language than just pointing at a thing and naming it, is what really appeals now. “We also communicate very extensively with gesture and looks on our faces, and also with just guesswork – making estimates on the basis of almost nothing at all” – the essence, one could say, of dramatic tension.

More here.


From The New Republic, April 7, 2008

Philosophers often try to write about Shakespeare. Most of the time they are ill-equipped to do so. There is something irresistibly tempting in the depth and the complexity of the plays, and it lures people who respond to that complexity with abstract thought, even if for the most part they are utterly unprepared, emotionally or stylistically, to write about literary experience. Such philosophers see profound thought in Shakespeare, not wrongly. But armed with their standard analytic equipment, they frequently produce accounts that are laughably reductive, contributing little or nothing to philosophy or to the understanding of Shakespeare.

To make any contribution worth caring about, a philosopher’s study of Shakespeare should do three things. First and most centrally, it should really do philosophy, and not just allude to familiar philosophical ideas and positions. It should pursue tough questions and come up with something interesting and subtle–rather than just connecting Shakespeare to this or that idea from Philosophy 101. A philosopher reading Shakespeare should wonder, and ponder, in a genuinely philosophical way. Second, it should illuminate the world of the plays, attending closely enough to language and to texture that the interpretation changes the way we see the work, rather than just uses the work as grist for some argumentative mill. And finally, such a study should offer some account of why philosophical thinking needs to turn to Shakespeare’s plays, or to works like them. Why must the philosopher care about these plays? Do they supply to thought something that a straightforward piece of philosophical prose cannot supply, and if so, what?

Entire article here.


From the New York Times by Perry Meisel

When the wealthy and cultivated young Ludwig Wittgenstein burst upon the hermetic world of Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore at Cambridge in 1912, three lives were changed forever. The Viennese Wittgenstein struck even Russell as perhaps more than his match. The unflappable Moore shared in a fierce but collegial relation that survived two world wars. As a combatant in the Austrian Army late in World War I, Wittgenstein completed the only book he saw fit to publish during his lifetime, ”Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” (1921). Returning to Cambridge in 1929, he began to question his own assumption in the ”Tractatus” that the study of language could yield systematic rules, preferring instead to delight in the indeterminacies of linguistic reference, and composing, among other works, ”Philosophical Investigations,” published in 1953, two years after his death.

So alluring is Wittgenstein’s appeal that it has stirred Bruce Duffy, a writer who lives in suburban Washington, to produce a historical novel centered on Wittgenstein and his English friends. Its sweeping arrangement of fact and fancy is vivid, passionate and funny. Mr. Duffy adheres faithfully enough to the outlines of Wittgenstein’s life as we know them (a full-scale biography has yet to be completed), although his book is really an accomplished orchestration of the spheres of Russell’s urbanity, Moore’s domesticity and Wittgenstein’s wanderlust that is organized around three key points in Wittgenstein’s experience -his first years at Cambridge, his service in World War I and his return to England.

Mr. Duffy intersperses his absorbing narrative with deft flashbacks that fill in the pasts of all three men (the death of Wittgenstein’s father in Vienna is probably the novel’s most extraordinary sequence). He writes with great wisdom about love, work and fame, painting raucously humorous and uncommonly moving portraits of his three principals. Russell stews deliciously in his inwardness; Moore gobbles his meals at high table at Trinity with such methodical relish that his philosophical hedonism is explained more convincingly than it is in most academic accounts.

The rendering of Wittgenstein is more dramatic and less naturally inward, testimony to his daunting intractability as both a man and a thinker. Wittgenstein’s melancholy narcissism was so profound that it frequently turned into its opposite – the feeling that he hardly existed at all. In reply to a friend’s request to take his photograph, Wittgenstein remarks: ”You may develop your film & find no image whatsoever.”

The novel’s title comes from a passage in the ”Tractatus” (”If I wrote a book called The World As I Found It, I should have to include a report on my body”) that concludes with the difficult statement that such a book would be ”a method of isolating the subject, or rather of showing that in an important sense there is no subject.” Mr. Duffy exemplifies Wittgenstein’s point both by apprehending him within a matrix of social contexts, and by dramatizing the elusiveness of subjectivity in the dream of a world he fashions with a prose that aspires to a combination of visionary expansiveness and postmodern terseness.

There are, to be sure, a few hitches. Bertrand Russell did not, pace Mr. Duffy, split infinitives. Nor did Lytton Strachey have a booming voice – it squeaked. There are also some lapses into melodrama – a visit to a Yiddish theater in Vienna, a family friend-turned-Nazi and Wittgenstein’s painful acknowledgment of his Jewish roots at the onset of World War II. Such moments aside, Mr. Duffy’s is an achievement in both fiction and historiography which deepens Wittgenstein’s mythology and should attract a wider audience to it.

David Markson, author of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, has been awarded the American Academy of Arts and Letters award in literature for “exceptional accomplishment”.

Wittgenstein’s Mistress (Dalkey Archive Press, 1988) consists almost entirely of one-sentence paragraphs. A few are two sentences. This is strikingly reminiscent of the framework of the TLP and the PI. It tells of a woman named Kate who believes she is the only person on earth. The story unfolds in a series of solipsistic meditations in which Kate attempts to unify her life-experiences, past and present, into an intelligible whole. The itinerant pace of the book reminds me of the turns and returns of the PI. The meandering ends when a panorama emerges and the landscape before one is clear and surveyable. But it is not given – every insight Kate wins is hard-won. How Wittgensteinian.

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