The first philosophy seminar I took as an undergraduate was on Ludwig Wittgenstein. On the first day of class the professor made the remark that most of us (by which he meant those professing to the title of “philosopher”) were lucky to have one truly good idea, but Wittgenstein was unusual in that he had two, each of which profoundly reshaped western philosophy. The first, worked out in the trenches of World War I, can be found in The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, where Wittgenstein put forth the so-called “picture theory” of meaning. To reduce this work to an advance in epistemology, logic, the philosophy of language, or whatever other area of philosophy it roiled doesn’t fully capture what a “good idea” does in the hands of Wittgenstein. “Philosophy,” Wittgenstein wrote, “ought really to be written only as poetry.”
Róbert Gál’s Tractatus (translated from the original Slovak by David Short) bears this quote as an epigraph, which is appropriate given that it is a work brimming with ideas and animated by the perversely poetic drive of a system builder (at least in this work, which is as we discuss different from prior works). In the conversation that follows, which unfolded slowly over the course of 2023, Gál explains the relationship between poetry and philosophy, why manifestos for communication need to be written over and over again, and how writing is always circling around life and death.
Michael Schapira: I recently accompanied my wife to a conference at Cambridge, and while she was listening to presentations on an obscure nineteenth century Russian author I was trundling our five-month-old daughter out to the Ascension Parish Graveyard to visit Wittgenstein’s grave. This felt newly relevant having just read your Tractatus, which begins with a series of remarks on birth and death, or the ways that selves and biographies take shape (e.g., “1.41 – To give one’s death the contours of life.”). For me, the gravity of Wittgenstein’s work is not dissociable from the biography, making a little pilgrimage like this something that seemed worth doing. In titling your book Tractatus, after the form evoked in the title of Wittgenstein’s first great work, do you have in mind the “form of life” that motivates the tremendous ambition of a certain type of philosophical thinking (i.e., my obsession with the biography), or are you more interested in the formal, “poetic” mode of philosophical thinking that you use as your epigraph from Wittgenstein (“Philosophy ought really to be written only as poetry.”)?
Róbert Gál: Since I consider myself an aphorist, I shall express myself aphoristically. Let me put it like this: writing an idea down kills it off, while such a death is also a form of life. Because can something dead (here, an idea conveyed in writing) think?
“Not every pearl of wisdom is necessarily true. Not every catharsis necessarily amounts to understanding.” This is an old philosophical question, but what gives you the impetus to write down an idea?
Some ideas are just flying around you. And you can either let them fly, or you can try to catch them. But the question is how to know if what is flying around is the same thing you’re trying to catch. When you do not know the difference, maybe the impetus itself is the process (of creation). Maybe it’s the language that is creating what you create—through it, by using it, which does not mean exploiting it. But is it possible to think when you consistently think about what you think? My statement that you quoted is about an interiorization. There are “pearls of wisdom” that are true to you, but not true to me. And the same with catharsis.
And does the same go for humor? On the one hand, it is put forward as a paradigmatic instance of an interiorization (comedians will often say they pursue things that make them laugh, and that is their guiding principle, but for some people a joke just falls flat) but is also, as you allude to at points in Tractatus, a way of gathering attention, which can be a social and interpersonal act. What relationship does humor have with the aphorism?
A good joke should be understood straight off, just like a good aphorism. But humor is not a joke. Personal experience has taught me that humor engages the mind just as much as the mind is engaged by thinking. Hence humor is also less readily communicable.
In between these last questions I read a great little book about Rainer Werner Fassbinder by the British music journalist Ian Penman. It is not made up of aphorisms, but like your book also consists of short numbered sections with a saturated economy of depth and insight in each. The big difference is that Penman is inspired by Walter Benjamin’s desire of completing a book that was just a constellation of other people’s quotes, hence Penman’s pursuit of Fassbinder through, as the title suggests, Thousands of Mirrors provided by other filmmakers, artists, miscreants, etc. It struck me that there is some relation, perhaps only a negative one, between the form that you are pursuing, inspired by the singular logical drive of the early Wittgenstein, and the modernist impulse of Benjamin to let the cacophonous roar in and arranging it in such a way that wisdom and insight emerges. How would you characterize the relationship between these two forms?
Walter Benjamin is an author for whom I have the greatest esteem. However, I believe that the way he works with language is so elegant that any “cacophonous roar” is quite out of the question. That could well be why he so longed to write the book to which you allude. As regards my own Tractatus: the main impulse behind the numbering of the individual entries (thoughts, fragments, or aphorisms) in Tractatus was the need to preserve the awareness of their sequence in time. That could also have been achieved by simply dating them. However, numbering, in contrast to dating, is rather more abstract and a reminder that numbers also have certain relationships between them. Relationships that are fundamentally mathematical and exist irrespective of the specific content of the various entries. It is obviously possible for one to erect a structure that is ultimately of no use, a house, say, that can’t be lived in. The logic that goes with numbering (which also constitutes the text’s skeleton) is an aid to appreciating that the structure is proceeding, that the ladder we are climbing is leading somewhere. And that once we arrive at where the ladder has been leading us to, we can kick it aside and not go tumbling down.
I was struck by the lack of proper names in Tractatus—just Machiavelli and John Cage, unless I missed one. This is also notable in Wittgenstein, and it stands in contrast to much of philosophy and philosophical literature, even in the wisdom tradition that you discuss in 14.1. When Montaigne retired to his study to gain some wisdom about himself, he carved quotations into the beams to physically surround himself with pearls of wisdom attached to proper names and threaded them throughout his essays. Was there something important to you about excluding direct quotations in this text? Would including them undermine the ladder structure?
I’d say that the lack of proper names is primarily to do with that very interiorization already mentioned. It’s really a question of understanding. There’s always an ambivalence to direct quotation since, for one thing, the reason for using one is the need to express an idea with precision, while for another it’s a sign of one’s inability to put the idea in one’s own words. And we’re not speaking merely of the form or style in which something is expressed, but the content of what we’re expressing, because interiorization is, as we know, capable of demolishing any contradiction (whether real or imagined) between content and form in a non-violent way.
“6.2 If untruths shatter against a heap of truths, so too do truths shatter against a heap of untruths. Which shattering should we go for?” There is a version of this question that rages today in the spirit of John Stuart Mill and the project of liberalism (“the marketplace of ideas”, etc.), with a particular focus on social media and communication technologies. That is a leading question, whereas your question is clearly posed in good faith and shorn of any preexisting agenda. When you look out at the landscape of communication today—from scientific communication to artistic expression to political speech attempting to persuade people—do you feel yourself personally fixating on either of these heaps? And how broadly is this “we” drawn in the question? That is, is it a matter of pressing collective responsibility, or delimited by small groups or even individuals with particular projects and problems in mind?
Let me start from the end. There’s a degree of similarity between readers of poetry and readers of philosophy, at the very least a numerical similarity. That may be inferred from, for example, the size of the print-runs of the books published: in Slovakia that’s around three hundred for both genres. The numbers are the same, but that doesn’t mean the readership is. And if a given text is half one thing and half the other (the case of Tractatus), the readership is even smaller in number.
But maybe I should have begun with a postscript to my reply to your previous question. Accordingly, let me add that I invariably have my ideas at the moment when they’re written down—that way they are invariably original. (On that score we might quote, say, Nietzsche, who maintains that “the only means of actually getting to know something is to attempt to do it.”)
What you are asking here might be a result of your over-interpretation of those two sentences in 6.2—because every numbered fragment in Tractatus is a part of the whole book. Or the whole story, whether more or less visibly so to the reader, but obviously so to the writer. And if you try to read any of these fragments just by themselves (i.e., without looking at them in relation to one another), that won’t take you any deeper into it. To say that a writer is one who legitimizes his feelings through his ideas means that his feelings have a rationale. And that’s one of the reasons why all my books can be read as manifestos. Why? Because I believe in communication. But what to communicate, and to whom? As a writer, you can never expect to know your readers. So you imagine them. And the most natural way to do that is by extrapolation. When you ask a question, the first one to answer it must of necessity be you, its author. But would you be the same “you” if your own question were not asked? And maybe that is the very trap that is at issue here.
I want to ask a question about goals, with the caveat that in your prior responses there is a clear appreciation of the unpredictability and instability of the writer-reader relationship, of the act of putting form to thought, etc., that makes a discussion of goals potentially misguided. Wittgenstein, however, was never shy about expressing his goals—to solve all the fundamental problems in philosophy in the Tractatus, to show the fly the way out of the fly bottle in the Philosophical Investigations. Relative to previous works of yours—say Signs and Symptoms that bears a resemblance to Nietzsche’s Gay Science, or Agnomia’s unbroken paragraph bearing a resemblance to Thomas Bernhard—are there certain goals you have in, as you say, using a numbering system as “the text’s skeleton,” or generally adopting a systems-approach that relates parts and wholes in a specific way?
In one interview, Ralf Hütter of Kraftwerk compares a live concert to piloting an aircraft. Because a plane has to reach its destination, and if it fails to do so—or fails to do so “in the right way”—the consequences can be fatal. If we compare writing a book to piloting an aircraft (and remember that my first prose work was called Krídlovanie/On Wing), then its actual flight is always what constitutes a text’s skeleton.
And as for the “writer-reader relationship,” the fact is that unlike the Czech Republic and Slovakia, where truly no one reads these books (for a variety of reasons that I won’t go into), in translation the selfsame books have begun to find an interested readership, for which my thanks are due above all to my publishers and translators. If I were to name but one, it would be David Short, who also helped translate the bulk of my replies in this interview of ours.
Róbert Gál is a Slovak-born writer and editor living in Prague. He is the author of several books of aphorisms, fiction, and philosophical fragments available in English translation, including Tractatus (Schism Press, 2022), Naked Thoughts (Black Sun Lit, 2019), Agnomia (Dalkey Archive Press, 2018), On Wing (Dalkey Archive Press, 2015), and Signs & Symptoms (Twisted Spoon Press, 2003). All of Gál’s works are also forthcoming in German and Turkish translations.
Michael Schapira is an Interviews Editor for Full Stop.
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