I live for serendipitous reading experiences. Take, for instance, four strands in my recent reading:
Strand 1: Errol Morris/Saul Kripke
I am an avid consumer of the lengthy essays Errol Morris occasionally publishes in The New York Times and, in May, I eagerly devoured his latest three-parter: “What’s In a Name?”
In his typically digressive footnote-heavy style, Morris explored the significance of naming, bringing to it the level of enthusiasm one expects from a not-yet-jaded philosophy grad student, which is what Morris once was. In the process, Morris weaves together disparate strands into an unexpected whole, seeing connections where, on first glance, there would appear to be none, which is mainly what I like about his writing (and his documentaries).
Along the way, I encountered (again) the logician Saul Kripke. Morris drew heavily on Kripke’s Naming and Necessity for this latest essay, and has grappled with Kripke in prior essays. Naming and Necessity is a collection of three lectures on the significance of names that Kripke delivered at Princeton in 1970, supposedly without notes, to a group of grad students that included Morris. I’d long been meaning to tackle Kripke, so after finishing Morris’s essay I finally did. Naming and Necessity is out of print but a used copy was easily procured and I made my way through it, certain I had not divined the full extent of his ideas, but intrigued enough to explore Kripke’s other writings, of which there is surprisingly little. One of the few Kripke books is Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language, which seemed promising to me because I thought seeing Kripke set himself against Wittgenstein would, possibly, help clarify aspects of Kripke’s thinking that I was unable to glean from Naming and Necessity.
So my to-be-read pile now includes Kripke’s book on Wittgenstein but, in the meantime....
Strand 2: David Markson
Years ago I read David Markson’s Vanishing Point, one of Markson’s last four novels. These novels, if you haven’t encountered them, are unique, constructed out of short seemingly random factoids, initially puzzling in the extreme, but quickly converting your resisting mind to the potato chip-like allure of consuming just one more factoid, until, by the end, the totality of factoids congeal into something much more meaningful, along the way giving you the powerful impression that you have become the writer, as you are the one constructing the meaning.
Anyway, that’s my take on Markson and, for some reason, shortly before I started the Morris essay I had decided I needed to return to Markson. I ordered the three later novels I did not have and, in the process, noticed the novel he wrote before his last four: Wittgenstein’s Mistress. It was well-reviewed and, on my review of a few pages, appeared to be a precursor stylistically to the last four novels so, after giving it a minute’s thought, I added it to the order.
Just after finishing Kripke’s Naming and Necessity, my Markson books arrived and I dove into Wittgenstein’s Mistress. At first I had no idea what he was doing, finding this book even more puzzling than Vanishing Point, as unlike the later novels Wittgenstein’s Mistress did have a character, albeit one about whom I could fathom almost nothing. After 30 pages or so, I paused, put the book down, and thought. The first thing that occurred to me was “Hey, this is a book styled after Wittgenstein’s Tractatus!” Obvious insight, given the title, and that both Wittgenstein and Markson largely employ short one-sentence-per-paragraph styles, but an insight that, nevertheless, had not occurred to me when I started reading.
The second insight was that this must be a book written in a Wittgensteinian world. Armed with that insight, I quickly finished the book. I found it incredibly funny, meaningful and moving (I actually cried at the end). I marveled that I had the good fortune to stumble on a book with so much to say about loneliness at this time in my life. I doubt I would have appreciated it as much any other time.
I then immediately dusted off my copy of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and dove back in. I find much of that short book impenetrable, which is doubly frustrating because it is written in such clear and precise prose, but it provokes thought and so, for that reason, it is one of those books I will intermittently return to again and again throughout my life, yet never really understand. As I paged through Wittgenstein, I recalled the Kripke book on Wittgenstein and felt the first two strands meld. But then....
Strand 3: Logicomix
One of the more unfortunate side effects of divorce is losing friends, both when couple friends dump you for your former mate, and when you move out of one community and into a new one.
So as part of my multi-front campaign to replenish my stock of friends, I’ve been looking into joining a book club or two, given that I read a ton and actually liked my college English seminars. Searching around I discovered a club that would soon be discussing Haruki Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland the End of the World. Having already read all the Murakamis, in the process all-but erecting a shrine to him in my living room, I figured this would be an easy one for me, so I RSVP’d and attended. Half the group hated the novel, half loved it, so we had a lively discussion, and I enjoyed it all very much.
After the meeting ended, one of my fellow Murakami partisans and I spent the next hour discussing Murakami and then other writers, each of us, at the end, exchanging specific recommendations we eagerly typed into our iPhones. At one point graphic novels were discussed. I recommended she try Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, which she, a fan of graphic novels, had inexplicably neglected to read, and she pointed me to Logicomix, one that I not only had inexplicably failed to read, but had not even heard of.
Walking home, I popped into my local Barnes & Noble and found Logicomix. Once home, I opened it and realized almost immediately that this was a book about Bertrand Russell, who was Wittgenstein’s teacher, then student of a sort.
Every reading path leads to Wittgenstein, I thought, as I finished Logicomix and....
Strand 4: David Foster Wallace
… turned to my next book club book, for in my eagerness I signed up for a second book club. This one would be reading a book I hadn’t read before, David Foster Wallace’s first novel The Broom of the System.
Imagine my shock on reaching page 42 and encountering Bertrand Russell again, as one of the characters recites Russell’s famous barber antinomy. This character, I later learned, was a student of Wittgenstein’s at Cambridge.
Four strands in one month, each starting from completely separate points, all converging on Wittgenstein. And I don’t even read much philosophy.
But wait, there’s more!
Random Serendipitous Encounter
This weekend I checked my heretofore all-but-dormant Outer Life email account and noticed the first page filled with the emails Twitter sends me when someone new starts following me. First thought: I’ve been hit by a Twitter spambot. Next thought, after checking Twitter: Saturday night The Epicurean Dealmaker recommended my writing and many of his many followers decided to follow me too. What is especially cool about this is that I’ve read The Epicurean Dealmaker for years: his is one of the longest-standing blogs on my RSS reader.
I clicked through to his actual blog to check it out -- reading his posts through Google Reader, I never actually see his blog -- and what did I see? At the top, under the heading “Food for Thought,” he lists three quotes, the first of which is “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.” (“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”) It is the final line of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, and the only one of the seven propositions in that book that stands alone without further explication.
Wittgenstein everywhere! Am I going mad? (This is not an idle speculation, given the predilection for madness in logicians, illustrated so vividly in Logicomix.) No, what I think is happening is I’m living what Wittgenstein called Übersicht, or an ultimate sight that gives us a heightened ability to see connections, so that I cannot open a novel these days, or click through to a blog, without seeing connections back to Wittgenstein.
It is particularly appropriate that this is happening at a time when I have, for reasons not entirely clear to me, mostly shifted my reading diet from non-fiction to fiction, perhaps unconsciously turning to the metaphysical side that Wittgenstein, misclassified by so many as a cold logician, actually considered to be the best path to discover the meaning of life. This is the path he was referring to in the quote above, the path that must be felt and cannot be explicated by mere logic. Feeling over theory, insight over fact, that is the direction in which my thinking has moved recently, unconsciously walking Wittgenstein’s path.
And in that process I am seeing Wittgenstein everywhere. Maybe that is madness, of a sort, but it has been such a pleasure to experience these disparate strands unexpectedly weaving together into a cohesive whole that I can’t help thinking that if this madness, more please!