Saturday, January 7, 2012

Ethics, Narrative, and Poetry (Mainly on Yi-Ping Ong's paper,"Running against the Boundaries of Language: Lectures on Ethics by Kafka and Wittgenstein")

Musil was not at the panel on Narrative in/and Wittgenstein. If he had been he probably would have been annoyed at a paper about whether narrative was a something or a nothing, which basically just went over the rather simplistic definitions of narrative in order to demonstrate that there really is no science of narratology, or, maybe, that definitions of narrative are hopelessly limited. But he might have been interested in Wittgenstein's idea that no word or sentence can be understood apart from its temporal or contextual association or "stage setting"; in other words, everything is narrative to some extent, and this narrative is constantly shifting depending upon relations, contexts, associations. It was difficult to sit through the descriptions of what a narrative is or is not thought to be, especially if one has Musil's novel in mind, a novel that includes a chapter wherein we watch a man thinking, or chapters of essayistic exploration wherein nothing happens. But perhaps it is revealing to look at the common definitions of narrative in order to see just how radical Musil's novelistic experiment is. Some theorists, apparently, claim that a narrative, to be a narrative, must have an event; for others, an event is not enough, for them, there needs to be a conflict or complication to make a narrative. I think here of the semi-ironic motto that recurs in the Man without Qualities: Es muss etwas geschehen (something must happen) and of Musil's confession of the difficulty he faced bringing his character to action and the way in which this difficulty was the same as his difficulty with narrating. This difficulty is, of course, as much philosophical and ethical as it is aesthetic. But more to that some other time. A narrative, according to many narratologists (this word reminds me of a person one goes to see to have tonsils out), may be constituted by an event caused by an agent, something responded to by a feeling or reaction from a person (thus if a tree falls for no reason in the woods and no one hears it, it is not a narrative), or by the creation of an "emotional cadence," an "arousal and resolution of affect," and a movement toward catharsis which is a sort of completing emotional cadence.  The question was raised by an audience member who excused himself by saying he was on Eastern time as to whether or not we might ask not: is x a narrative or not, but rather is x a good/bad narrative. He wanted to argue that the example given by the speaker of a person ironing for 500 pages would be an example of a bad narrative, but the speaker insisted that such a narrative could, in fact, be a good narrative, despite the lack of conflict, resolution, emotional cadence, et cetera. Which left us with precisely...nothing.
One talk on the panel, on Wittgenstein, Kafka, and Ethics, by Yi-Ping Ong, delivered with humor, charm, and clarity, was very interesting to me, especially in terms of what it suggested about the relationship between language, aesthetics and ethics. The speaker compared Wittgenstein's "Lecture on Ethics" with Kafka's short story, "Report to an Academy" (where an Ape who has learned to speak addresses a crowd of curious humans on his evolution to "civilization")/ Ong stressed Wittgenstein's resistance to speak about the nature of ethics  as a science, and suggested that poetic language, in its ambiguities and narrative elusiveness is more fitting to approach an understanding of what it means to be (become) human.  Ethics, which Wittgenstein asserted could be no science, was chosen as the topic of his one hour lecture in lieu of a lecture on logic, which, he told his listeners, could not be explained to them in such a short time. The idea that ethics could, in contrast, be dealt with in the space of an hour, is thought to be meant ironically by Wittgenstein, if not as a hostile joke directed at his audience (whom, he assumes, would prefer to hear a popular synopsis of a complex scientific concept which would, he insultingly tells them, allow them to think they understand something which a one-hour synopsis could in no way impart).  And this misconception of the audience is an ethical problem, in fact, one which the very form and chosen subject of the talk addresses. Thinking one understands something with ease, without time, rumination, complexity is, we will remember, one of Musil's prime definitions of true stupidity.  The awareness of the difficulty of trying to speak about something like ethics amounts to, according to Wittgenstein, a "running against the bars of our own cages" (the cages of our dependence on language, I suppose), but to try to do so is "a document of a tendency of the human mind". Ong connected Wittgenstein's comment with Primo Levi's comment on his book on Auschwitz, which Levi called a "documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind," arguing that a document, in both these senses was a way to induce ethical participation rather than to make evident or provide fact. A document  as lesson, instruction, in the form of a story or narrative. In a letter to a friend following his "Lecture on Ethics," Wittgenstein wrote about why he spoke in the first person at its end, saying that "here nothing can be established. I can only appear here as a single person".

Ong then moved to Kafka's story where we see an Ape addressing his public in a similar tone to Wittgenstein, telling them that what they want to hear he cannot deliver to them (that which must be spoken is unspeakable); warning them that their expectations will probably be disappointed by his speech. The audience expects to be entertained by a freak show, but instead, the Ape deftly reverses the game by indirectly describing the violence, imprisonment and despair that are necessary stages of becoming a human being. He describes their (our) own lives and the beastliness inherent therein. His ability to speak, he tells them, only began when in captivity; consciousness, in other words, begins only in the cage. Language is a form of running up against the bars of our cages. Our cages, not the cages or their  cages, but our cages, which suggests a basic complicity in cagedness, the complicity of the cage of language. Since there is no audience present in the story, since whatever audience there is, is, in effect, off-stage, the reader is asked to reflect, respond, to see himself in the mirror of the caged ape. This is an aesthetic experience which, ideally, induces ethical participation.

It is clear that this sort of recognition could not have occurred as powerfully if it had not been created through a form of narrative or some other non-scientific, non-logical discourse. One of the questioners stressed that Wittgenstein had repeatedly maintained that ethics in particular could not be spoken of, and she asked Ong what it was that the Ape in Kafka's story was not able to say. Ong answered that the Ape can/cannot speak in the first person, and that, indeed, ethics can only be in so far as it is avowed or acknowledged, hence a nod to the participation inherent in the idea of documentation discussed above.  Does this mean that the audience has a responsibility to somehow participate in the reading experience? I would add to this that the pathic relation of reader and text is central to Modernist poetics. The reader is meant to read deeply and to be changed, pained, destroyed, burned by the words, written in blood. The book, as Kafka noted, is to be an ice-pick to the frozen soul (or something like that). A poetic text can do this in a way that a merely didactive or logical text cannot. Another questioner noted that Wittgenstein did, in fact, speak about ethics, in his Philosophical Investigations, which is, she said, a sort of narrative counterpart to the more philosophical Tractatus. This makes me think of Kierkegaard and his multi-voiced, multi-genred attempts to communicate ethical ideas. Ethics can be spoken of, this suggests, but only through stories, through relationships, through poetry. Or, perhaps, through the pairing of logic and poetry. For, as someone else mentioned, Wittgenstein himself asked whether what he was doing might not better be considered poetry than philosophy.  I need not say how all of this bears on Musil, who wanted, above all, to be a Dichter (creative writer).

Burton Pike teased me in a recent email, asking if Musil was really "hiding under every rock". And, I admit, I have a problem. But this perspectival problem makes sense, especially in a Musilian context, since he stressed over and over that we mainly see what we already have a conception of in our minds. How can I begin to see something else when these ruts have been driven so deeply into my brain? "There is hope,"Kafka wrote, "but not for us". This is probably why I took the whole day off yesterday from the conference, ended up going dancing to Balkan music and missed the 8:30 am panel on Kafka and the Holocaust. "If that's all there is," as Peggy Lee sang, "then let's keep dancing. Let's break out the booze, and have a ball. It that's all....there is...". Another form of ethics...and aesthetics.


  1. But there SHOULD be comments!

    What a pleasure to find this !

  2. Ah! And what a pleasure to be found! We send these little transmissions out into the world, and hope for a response, an echo, in attempts to find other human beings! Miraculously, as your blog is steeped in Thoreau, you found one of my few posts that doesn't mention Henry! I loved your post about Wittgenstein, metaphor, and Thoreau's dawns! I will add your blog to my blog list now. So long, other human being in the mists.