Wittgenstein’s ‘Private Notebooks’ Shed Some Light on an Enigmatic Genius

“Private Notebooks: 1914-1916” is a strange and intriguing record — illuminating when it comes to Wittgenstein’s preoccupations, his sexual anguish, his continuous struggles with his “work” in philosophy, along with his intermittent comments about his “job” in the military. (Like other writings by Wittgenstein that have been published posthumously, “Private Notebooks” is a bilingual edition, with German and English printed on facing pages.) Perloff also points out that unlike so many other war diaries, Wittgenstein’s includes very little about the larger stakes of the war itself. One exception is an entry that reads like a startlingly cheerful declaration that his own side of him was doomed: “The English — the best race in the world — cannot I know! We, however, can lose & will lose, if not this year, then the next!”

Nor did Wittgenstein share the average war memoirist’s sentimentality for his fellow soldiers. In fact, he seemed to dismiss them, only to clarify that what he felt wasn’t quite hatred but “disgust.” Wittgenstein was from one of the richest families in the Austro-Hungarian Empire — “the habit of polite conversation is so ingrained in me!” — And his revulsion was immediate. “My shipmates are a bunch of swine! No enthusiasm for anything, unbelievable crudity, stupidity & malice,” he wrote a few days after enlisting, the first of many complaints about “insolence” and “boorishness.” More than two years later, he was still insisting that he was “surrounded by viciousness!”

If the people around him were one kind of problem, his philosophical work was another. It was an obsession and often a torment. Sometimes he was matter-of-fact: “Did not work”; “Did some work”; “Worked pretty hard but without real confidence”; “Worked pretty hard but without much hope.” He found he could think better when peeling potatoes, likening it to Spinoza’s day job grinding lenses. The “Tractatus” would prove to be a slender book, but using language to explore the limits of language meant that Wittgenstein had embarked on something painful and painstaking. “I see details without knowing what role they will play in the whole,” he wrote. “For this reason, I also perceive every new problem as a burden.”

He experienced his sexuality as a burden, too, writing elliptically about any possible relations with men but frankly (and frequently) about his masturbation (or lack thereof), an activity he associated with not getting enough exercise. Sometimes commentary on work and sex would run together: “—Will I find the redemptive thought? Will it come to me??!!—Yesterday & today I masturbated.”

In the second notebook especially, the punctuation gets noticeably idiosyncratic. Wittgenstein was partial to exclamation points and em-dashes, sometimes doubling or even tripling them, interspersing them among other forms of punctuation, like “— ! —.” “oh—!—!” or the mysterious “—.——.” Perloff cites one scholar who has argued that the long dashes represent forms of prayer. Wittgenstein, for his part, knew what he wanted them to do, at least in his published work. “My sentences are all supposed to be read slowly,” he once wrote. “I really want my copious punctuation marks to slow down the speed of reading. Because I should like to be read slowly. (As I myself read.)”

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