Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Wittgenstein Opera?

We really must be in the end times if people are setting Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus as an opera. But here is the link. And a very brief description:
Composed by Balduin Sulzer, the “one woman opera,” as the singer Anna Maria Pammer’s site describes it (in Google translation from German), “drives the meticulousness and insistence of the text on the top.” Drawing on the work of the Second Viennese School, “the basic musical idea comes from the music of the time of origin of the Tractatus, i.e. the time of World War I.”
Well, the Tractatus was published in 1922, so I'm not sure that qualifies as the time of WWI. Just about everything in the essay is confused and misleading:
Wittgenstein has long been associated with Arnold Schoenberg and the Tractatus has been called a “tone poem.” The chilliness, alternating with rapid crescendos, with which Pammer delivers the philosophical libretto recalls the book’s tenor, as well as Wittgenstein’s temperament more generally. Given to violent outbursts and fits of derision, Wittgenstein spent the first part of his life attempting to create perfect systems— “a logically perfect language,” wrote Russell. In between this austere pursuit, he lived just as austerely and sometimes violently. John Cage’s enactment of Wittgenstein’s theories comes closer to the intent of “show don’t tell,” but Sulzer’s adaptation perhaps best dramatizes the mystical ellipses of Wittgenstein’s first major work.
The first sentence contains a link that leads to a paper giving a lot of reasons why Schoenberg and Wittgenstein should NOT be associated. Calling the Tractatus a "tone poem" seems based on nothing more than the fact that Wittgenstein was interested in aesthetics.

The Tractatus is one of the most difficult philosophical texts to understand. In fact the introduction to it by G. E. M. Anscombe, published in 1959 (I have a first edition I picked up in a used bookstore!) is probably the most difficult book I have ever read.

Something else to note is that Wittgenstein was of the opinion that with the Tractatus he had cleared up (in the sense of exposing confusions) some of the hoariest problems in philosophy. Afterwards he essentially retired to a little cabin on a Norwegian fjord. Some thirty years later he had come to the conclusion that a lot of the Tractatus was mistaken and he wrote a new book titled Philosophical Investigations that while still quite difficult is slightly easier to read than the Tractatus.

When I got my Kindle a few years ago, I discovered that I could replace some books I had lost quite cheaply. One of the first I downloaded was the Tractatus. I was browsing through it in a coffee shop a few days later. Sitting a couple of chairs away was an older gentleman. When I closed the cover of the Kindle, getting ready to leave, he opened a conversation saying "did you get any work done?" I replied, "Oh, this isn't a tablet, it's a Kindle." "Ah, what where you reading?" I froze in my seat, gave him a glance and sheepishly replied, "the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein." After a moment's pause he said, "right, I saw the movie." And now he can see/hear the opera!

But my policy now is whenever anyone asks me what I am reading, I will always reply "Tom Clancy."

Perhaps you would like a sample of Mr. Wittgenstein's prose? This is chosen absolutely at random from the Philosophical Investigations:
Paragraph 299: "Being unable--when we indulge in philosophical thought--to help saying something or other, being irresistibly inclined to say it--does not mean being forced into an assumption, or having an immediate insight into, or knowledge of, a state of affairs."
This is the kind of writing that at first seems to be saying nothing or something very trivial, but if you start thinking about it, becomes more and more difficult the more you consider it.

And now we should perhaps listen to some Schoenberg to clear the palate? Incidentally both Schoenberg and Wittgenstein died in the same year: 1951. This is the Suite for Piano, op. 25, which was written around the same time that the Tractatus was published. The pianist is Paul Jacobs:

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