An excerpt from

Wittgenstein's Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary

by Marjorie Perloff

Published by the University of Chicago Press

Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 8-9 of Wittgenstein's Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary by Marjorie Perloff, published by the University of Chicago Press. (c) 1996 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of both the author and the University of Chicago Press.

Perhaps it is this very contradictoriness, this refusal to stay in one place, that has made Wittgenstein so appealing. His "ladder" of propositions, as we know from the Tractatus, has no sooner been climbed than it must be replaced. "If I am thinking about a topic just for myself," Wittgenstein remarks in a notebook of 1937, "and not with a view to writing a book, I jump about all round it; that is the only way of thinking that comes naturally to me. Forcing my thoughts into an ordered sequence is a torment for me. Is it even worth attempting now?"

The example Wittgenstein thus set writers from Samuel Beckett (who insisted that he hadn't read any Wittgenstein until the late fifties, long after he had completed such "Wittgensteinian" works as Watt and Waiting for Godot) to Ingeborg Bachmann and beyond is that he never gave up the struggle, both with himself and with language, never allowed himself to accept this or that truth statement or totalizing system as the answer. "Language," he wrote in his notebook, "sets everyone the same traps.... What I have to do then is erect signposts at all the junctions where there are wrong turnings so as to help people past the danger points." And one of the implications of the famous aphorism "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world" is that the cult of personality, of a subject somehow outside language, that dominated American poetry from the confessionalism of the fifties to the "scenic mode" (Charles Altieri's apt phrase) of the seventies has now begun to give way to a resurgence of what was known in the heyday of the New Criticism (which regarded it with some asperity) as the "poetry of ideas."

But not the "poetry of ideas" in the traditional sense, in which it meant the expression of significant "content" in appropriate language and verse form. For if we accept Wittgenstein's premise that "The results of philosophy [and hence, by analogy, of poetry] are the uncovering of one or another piece of plain nonsense and of bumps that the understanding has got by running its head up against the limits of language" and that "These bumps make us see the value of the discovery," the "poetry of ideas" becomes the site of discovery, where the "bumps" we receive by running our heads up against the walls and ceilings of the rooms we dwell in are interrogated. And that process of interrogation is of necessity tentative, self-canceling, and self-correcting, even as it deals with the most ordinary aspects of everyday life.

Wittgenstein's Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary
Marjorie Perloff
296 pages, 17 halftones, (c) 1996
Cloth $27.95 ISBN: 978-0-226-66058-5
Paper $16.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-66060-8

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