Jack Solloway

Richard Barnett on Wittgenstein, War and the ‘Shadow of Silence’

Richard Barnett is a poet and a historian. Seahouses, his first collection, came out with Valley Press in 2015, and was shortlisted for the Poetry Business Prize. He taught the history of science and medicine at Cambridge, UCL, and Oxford for more than a decade, and in 2011 he received one of the first Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellowships. His history books include Medical London, a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, and The Sick Rose, an international bestseller.

Timed to coincide with the 100-year anniversary of the German publication of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Barnett’s latest book Wherever We Are When We Come To The End is an ambitious ‘poetic fantasia on logic, love and war’ and the circumstances of Wittgenstein’s philosophy. In the following interview, we cover Wittgenstein as a wartime writer, poetry and silence, and the pleasures of music as ‘meaning beyond language’. 

Hi Richard, you’ve written extensively on scientific and cultural history, and this is your second poetry book. Briefly, for our readers, what is Wherever We Are When We Come To The End and how did it come about?

Wherever is a long poem in the form and the voice of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the cloudy masterpiece of twentieth-century philosophy. I wanted the Tractatus to tell its own story – how it came to be written amidst the brutality of the eastern front in the First World War, and how this experience transformed Wittgenstein and his philosophy.

In some ways the book seems like a departure, an experiment of sorts, in contrast to your previous work. What interested you about Wittgenstein’s life and his Tractatus in particular?

Two things. First, the form of the Tractatus, its staircase of propositions and its terse, gnomic language. I encountered it by chance in my late teens, just as I was beginning to read Modernist poetry with an eye to writing, and you could easily mistake the Tractatus for a piece of high Modernism: formally inventive, crystalline yet opaque, concerned with the limits of language and the shadow of silence and nonsense. (It was even published in English in 1922, the year of Ulysses and The Waste Land.) I could see it was a work of philosophy, a difficult one, but it smelled like a poem, so to speak, the propositional structure creating verses and cantos, and allusions circling back and forth through the text. Like a lot of poems it seemed to say a great deal more than merely the words in order on the page. As an utterly unphilosophical eighteen-year-old I had no idea what I wanted to do with this form, but I knew I wanted to do something.

Another chance encounter about a decade and a half later finally set me writing. Reading Ray Monk’s magnificent biography of Wittgenstein, I came across a letter to his nephew, written some time in the thirties, in which he said that ‘[the war] saved my life; I don’t know what I’d have done without it.’ Like many of my generation I’d learned about the First World War, and to some extent about poetry, through the English war poets, and I’d quietly absorbed their vision of the war as a colossal mistake, a kind of empty circus of suffering. To find a philosopher as perceptive and as unillusioned as Wittgenstein saying that the war had saved his life – and then to find he’d worked out much of the Tractatus while serving as a forward artillery observer, about the most dangerous posting anywhere in the war – stopped me dead. I wanted to know what on earth he could have meant, and Wherever is, amongst other things, my answer to that question.

Re-writing this time of crisis, of the First World War, what do you think Wittgenstein discovered in himself there that he didn’t, say, find in Cambridge as a student?

Part of what fascinated me about the story of the Tractatus is that Wittgenstein’s life and his philosophy seem to move so closely in step. Monk and others have suggested that Wittgenstein would have written a very different book had he not gone to war. In Cambridge he’d worked closely with Bertrand Russell, who had tried (and failed) to reconstruct mathematics on a foundation of formal logic. Wittgenstein’s pre-war work aimed to do something similar for language – clarifying the nature and function of propositions, and showing how we can talk meaningfully about the world. But the Tractatus as it appeared after the war is a stranger, darker creature, concerned with the limits of language and meaning and life, and the ways in which our most profound truths might be unsayable.

So the war changed Wittgenstein, but it changed him in complex ways. He grew up in a world of duty: duty to the emperor, duty to his country, to his family, what his industrialist father – one of the richest men in Europe – called ‘the hard must’. Like many of his contemporaries he struggled to understand exactly what was expected of him and how he could possibly live up to it. (It’s worth noting that three of his brothers killed themselves before or during the war.) The war gave him a lifelong sense of what duty meant, not just in the plain military sense but as the daily discipline of living courageously in the face of mortality and meaninglessness. After reading Tolstoy’s The Gospel in Brief he experienced something like a Christian conversion, and Tolstoy’s mystical, holy-fool Christianity fed in him a sense of what might lie beyond speech and beyond death. (The numbered paragraphs of The Gospel in Brief may have shaped the Tractatus too.) His front-line service – more accurately in front of the front line, hundreds of metres into no-man’s land, during vicious artillery exchanges – seems to have drawn these threads of experience together. He won medals for his utter calm under the heaviest fire, and he seems to have emerged with a sense of life as war: bounded by death and duty, in some ways timeless and perhaps not survivable, an experience that can’t adequately be put into words, but one suffused with meaning.

Of all the descriptions, you make artillery fire sound almost balletic (if its finality wasn’t also ‘The syntax of a massacre’), and I see you mention the Imperial War Museum in your acknowledgements too. What fascinated you about first-hand accounts of warfare from this period?

I spent years, on and off, reading for Wherever, partly because I’m a historian and I love digging around in the sources, partly because there’s such a rich archive from all sides of the war, and partly because I’ve always admired poems like Alice Oswald’s Dart, which build themselves up through the counterpoint of voices and sounds. Using the numbered structure of the Tractatus, and breaking it up with the noise and chaos of the war, was a way to express not only the clash between the discipline of military life, the hierarchy and the bureaucracy, and the pandemonium of advance and retreat, but also the struggle going on inside Wittgenstein’s head. He wrote almost continuously through the war – letters, diaries, his philosophical notebooks – and sometimes we can follow his actions, his thought and his emotions over days or even hours. The notebooks themselves form a kind of poem-journal – in that echt-Modernist form, the aphoristic heap of fragments – and I drew on them as a kind of shadow to the Tractatus, showing the confusions and dead ends behind a text that can seem impenetrably perfect.

Do you agree with Frege’s criticism that the Tractatus is an artistic achievement rather than a scientific one? Does the distinction matter?

I come to the Tractatus as a poet, not a scientist or a philosopher, so I’m inclined to agree – though I’d speak with more confidence if I were a trained logician. But I’m not sure the distinction matters very much. Works of philosophy are almost by definition works of literature too, and they take on lives of their own beyond the academy. I wonder if philosophers and poets could agree that the Tractatus works in roughly the same way as a Zen koan: a gesture towards something you can’t be talked into but you can perhaps see.

Is it fair to say your priorities as a poet differ from Wittgenstein’s? If so, who do you look to instead for your influences when he fails you?

I’m sure they do: I’m mostly concerned with form, voice and story, and Wittgenstein was (I assume) seeking to express or evoke philosophical truths. But I take comfort from his view, expressed late in his life, that ‘philosophy ought really to be written only as a poetic composition.’ While I was writing I re-read Alice Oswald’s Dart, for the polyphony and the flow; Christopher Logue’s War Music, for the cinematic sweep and the scrupulous depictions of battle; John Berryman’s Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, for a historical voice in a modernist poem; Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic, for uncynical, unsentimental writing about the Christian experience; and Geoffrey Hill, for courage in difficulty and trust in the reader.

‘Whereof one cannot speak,’ writes Wittgenstein, ‘thereof one must be silent.’ It is hard to envisage this statement as running anywhere but counter to the aims of philosophy; perhaps Wittgenstein would agree. Is the book an exploration of your scepticism, would you say?

Not exactly. One way to understand Wittgenstein is as part of a sceptical, quietist tradition that sees philosophy as the disease it purports to cure (as Karl Kraus said of psychoanalysis). In this view the traditional questions of philosophy are failures of language or human understanding, not clues to the deep structure of reality, and the task of philosophers is to unpick these confusions and move on. (And of course various far-Eastern traditions teach meditation on silence and emptiness as the route to enlightenment.) At the very end of the Tractatus Wittgenstein writes that any reader who understands him will ‘throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it’. Part of the enduring fascination of the Tractatus for poets, I suspect, is Wittgenstein’s attention to the silence that surrounds and grounds speech, and the possibility of saying the right things and no more.

The book begins with silence, but music is just as important to Wittgenstein. It informs his Tractatus, in which he refers to empty space, by analogy, as having ‘tone’ and therefore ‘a pitch’. He writes elsewhere that the ‘[philosophical] proposition is not a mixture of words (just as the musical theme is not a mixture of tones).’ Why is music important to Wittgenstein’s philosophy, do you think?

Music was Wittgenstein’s most enduring source of joy, and throughout his philosophy it became the exemplum of meaning beyond language. He grew up in a city and a family that took music very seriously: his brother Paul managed, astonishingly, to sustain a career as a concert pianist after losing an arm in the war. There’s something consoling, I think, in Wittgenstein’s relationship to music – that this brilliant, brusque, domineering philosopher could acknowledge the limits of what philosophy could do for people, and, conversely, the kinds of pleasure and meaning that resist explanation or analysis. Towards the end of his life he wrote that ‘it is impossible for me to say one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?’

What music do you like listening to yourself? Does it inform your writing, and did you find in your research anything from Wittgenstein’s own tastes and habits that aligned with your own?

Russell Hoban said he wrote on yellow legal pads because they seemed less blank, and I suspect a lot of writers find the same Wittgensteinian comfort in music: it makes the silence seem less empty and gives you something to lean on while you think and stare. We share a taste for Bach, though I lack Wittgenstein’s rigorous formal knowledge – he could whistle entire oratorios from memory – and his immersion in the German musical tradition. He thought good music began to die after Beethoven, so I can’t imagine we’d agree on much else. I love the American composer and guitarist John Fahey, whose work balances an oceanic, Bach-like sense of flow with a dark malicious swing. Ragtime and early jazz, if I’m feeling cheerful. Nick Drake if not. And the ludicrously underrated James McMurtry, who takes up where Dylan leaves off.

I enjoyed the ambition, precision and experimental scope of Wherever We Are. Who are you reading at the moment that excites you?

J.O. Morgan. A friend put me on to Assurances – long after everyone else noticed how great he is – and I just tore through his collections. Such a delicacy with violence and joy and memory. And the Penguin Book of the Prose Poem has some really strong new (to me) voices like Hera Lindsay Bird and Claudia Rankine. But the lockdown mostly sent me back to my bookshelves: Geoffrey Hill, Frederick Seidel, Anne Carson, Basil Bunting, Russell Hoban.

Can you tell us about what you’re working on next – non-fiction, poetry, or otherwise?

I should apologise to everyone who’s ever asked me this question, because it brings out a silly superstitious streak and I usually make something up to misdirect them. At the moment I have about a third of the next poetry book, a heap of notes for a history book that may or may not happen, and something that might be a novella or another long poem. Not made up, I promise. Definitely not.


Richard Barnett
is a poet and a historian. Seahouses, his first collection, came
out with Valley Press in 2015, and was shortlisted for the Poetry Business Prize. He taught the history of science and medicine at Cambridge, UCL, and Oxford for more than a decade, and in 2011 he received one of the first Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellowships. His history books include Medical London, a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, and The Sick Rose, an international bestseller.

Wherever We Are When We Come To The End by Richard Barnett is published by Valley Press (£8.99 Paperback). For more information and to buy the book, click here

Jack Solloway is a writer and critic living in London. He is the Online Editor for The London Magazine. His articles have appeared in the TLS, Aesthetica MagazineReview 31 and The Times. His debut poetry pamphlet is forthcoming with Broken Sleep Books.

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