Today’s poem is from Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein.
A brief overview of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s crazy-ass life: born in Vienna in 1889 to one of the wealthiest families in Europe at the center of Viennese culture (Gustav Klimt painted his sister’s wedding portrait; Mahler and Brahms gave frequent concerts at his home) the Wittgensteins were a pretty nutty bunch— think Royal Tenenbaums but richer and crazier. Three of his brothers committed suicide (one jumped off a boat, one drank poison, and one shot himself after the troops he was commanding deserted him).
In college Wittgenstein became interested in philosophy (the kind that involves equations and stuff) and attracted the attention of Bertrand Russell. He went to Cambridge and was declared a genius by Russell but pissed everyone off by being a domineering asshole about it. He inherited all his dad’s money, enlisted in the army, and fought in WWI on the front line of some of the most intense battles in history. He won numerous medals for bravery.
After the war he was mentally fucked and gave away his fortune to his surviving siblings. He retreated to the Austrian countryside and wrote a philosophical treatise called Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that was regarded as basically the most important philosophical work of the century. He became an elementary school teacher in a rural town and got in trouble for beating the children. Later in life he went through a “confessional” period during which he returned to the town and personally apologized to the then-grown children.
He eventually returned to England and rescued his siblings from the nazis by convincing Hitler they were mixed blood and not too jewish (and giving the nazis a bunch of the family fortune). WWII convinced him philosophy was stupid so he took a low-paying job in a hospital instead.
Late in life he wrote another treatise called Philosophical Investigations that clarified and refuted some of his earlier work and then died in 1951 at age 62. He was gay but not openly and, with the exception of a few brief affairs, was mostly considered to be celibate.
The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is a bizarre book written in a series of numbered epigrams that seem like poems to me. Although it supposedly contains groundbreaking logical revelations, it’s a great book just to pick up and read a few random entries, and that is the only way I have ever tried to read it. The part below is actually the ending so stop reading if you don’t like spoilers.
from Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
6.522 There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.
6.53 The correct method in philosophy would really be the following: to say nothing except what can be said i.e. propositions of natural science— i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy— and then, whenever someone else wanted to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his propositions. Although it would not be satisfying to the other person— he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy— this method would be the only strictly correct one.
6.54 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 up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)
He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.
7 What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.