Paul Chan, drawings for Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Word Book. Abspenstig (alienating), 2020,
ink on paper, 30 × 22 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York.
(Badlands Unlimited, 2020)
Tilda Swinton once said in an interview, referring to her collaborator Derek Jarman, director of Wittgenstein (1993): “He was the material of his own work.” Furthermore, Jarman had projected himself into his roles, she suggests, as an artist does, telling his own story over and over again. Wittgenstein, Caravaggio, Christ. “Top marks for modesty,” she laughs. In a curious way, Wittgenstein can also be materialized and inflected by, and through, Jarman. The filmic version of the famous (and infamous) Vienna-born, Cambridge philosopher of language is—see if I can pronounce this right—silly. “If people did not sometimes do silly things, nothing intelligent would ever get done,” says Ludwig as boy-child, quoting from a personal note selected later for Culture and Value, seated behind his desk in a black box of space.
Paul Chan, das Eichhörnchen, Eichkätzchen (squirrel, oak kitten), 2020, ink on paper, 30 x 22 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York.
Silliness is not such a stretch as one would think, should one think of Wittgenstein. The ludic is at play, from conception, in the language-game itself; or the duck-rabbit as a vehicle of ambiguity, a perceptual “third thing,” a visual neologism: now ears … now beak, or “Both; not side-by-side, however, but about the one via the other.” Silliness is ruminative, i.e., we must look back over time for its sense to resonate. And it seeks a beyond. I consider the question of whether the two-headed calf should be counted as one animal or two—a serious moment for the Vatican Belvedere Gardens of 1625. Three, of course. “For the physicians, the feature distinguishing the individual was the brain; for followers of Aristotle, the heart,” wrote Carlo Ginzburg. And the dissection of the animal “was done with the aim of establishing not the ‘character’ peculiar to that particular animal, but ‘the common character’ … of the species as a whole.” A parallelism: Wittgenstein’s insistence that a student learn a new word by experiencing it through practice, being responsible to it and its usage, and eventually making the word meaningful for a greater understanding of her (whole) (linguistic) (yet shared, and seen) world.
Paul Chan, die Auferstehung (Resurrection), 2020, ink on paper, 39.25 × 27.5 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York.
Wittgenstein’s Word Book (1926) was only the second publication, following the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922), that the philosopher would see in his lifetime. Long out of reach, a new, marbled edition from Badlands Unlimited features a translation by art historian Bettina Funcke, accompanied by Sharpie-delightful illustrations by Paul Chan, and an introduction from the Wittgenstein scholar Désirée Weber. A collaborative effort without question. Inside this dictionary, meant for his elementary-school students, Wittgenstein places emphasis on the pedagogical need for regional usages, dialect, and colloquial expressions over the standard German they’d rarely encounter in the village of Otterthal, Austria, where Wittgenstein had moved to become a (by all accounts, quite intense) schoolteacher following his military service in World War I.
“Dialectical expressions should be entered only insofar as they have been admitted into the cultured language, like e.g. Heferl [Häferl; mug, little pot], Packel [small parcel], Lacke [puddle].”
The lyrical heights of language that the poet Ingeborg Bachmann so frequently praised Wittgenstein for encouraging become smaller movements of the throat, “guard[s] against confusion,” footnotes about regional German words for squirrels: “The direct translation for Eichkätzchen is oak kitten,” writes Weber. On page 49, I see that Chan is caught by the same sweetness. His word-picture of “oak kitten” looks like a friendly tree-dream just asked its companion, a small pig, if she can believe her eyes.
Paul Chan, der Geist, geistig (spirit, spiritual), 2020, ink on paper, 30 x 22 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York.
Word Book goes beyond the practical, Weber says. Matters of responsibility, experience, and authorship in a community are mentioned in prefatory materials and diffuse like light across our current intellectual moment, as if discourse were a mirror made of beveled, baroque Fels (rock), ongoing. Funcke recalls Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, “whose well-known frontispiece depicts a monarch hovering over his land, his own form composed of the many bodies of his people.” Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, another product of compulsion after World War I did its damage, selected the visual in much the same way, though Wittgenstein’s linguistic version subjects the world less boldly to its author’s consciousness. Or are we measuring and mapping the land and sea both? As a word game, I search for hidden instances of “rock.” “der Brocken, einbrocken: chunk, to crumble/to get so. [someone] into trouble.” Multiple readings are here: the paranoid and forensic, the reparative, semantophilic.
In 2020, we’re all students of the Word Book—piecing together clues about the time, space, and inhabitants of its writing; picturing the troublemakers, misspellers; divining through chance; hunting; defining what is a thinkable thing, at every rubble and primrose of the page.