Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Gets Adapted Into an Avant-Garde Comic Opera

Ludwig Wittgenstein, enfant terrible or idiot savant? A student of the great Bertrand Russell and protégé of renowned mathematician and logician Gottlob Frege, the angry young upstart’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus put both elder thinkers on notice: The days of their comfortable assumptions were numbered, in a series of austere, cryptic aphorisms and symbolic propositions that make very little sense to those of us who lack the prodigious intellects of Russell and Frege. While Wittgenstein is often dismissed, writes Paul Horwich at New York Times’ philosophy blog “The Stone,” as “self indulgently obscure,” perhaps the real reason many academic philosophers reject his work is that it renders them superfluous. Philosophy, Wittgenstein obliquely claimed in his half-mystical, hyper-logical treatise, “can’t give us the kind of knowledge generally regarded as its raison d’être.”

Given the Tractatus’s firebombing of an entire area of human endeavor, it’s no surprise it hasn’t fared well in many traditional departments, but that hasn’t stopped Wittgenstein’s work from finding purchase elsewhere, influencing modern artists like Jasper Johns, the Coen Brothers, and, not least surely, Finnish avant garde composer and musician M.A. Numminen. This odd character, who caused a stir in the 60s by setting sex guides to music, took it upon himself to do the same for many of the Tractatus’s propositions, and the results are, well…. Listen for yourself. At the top of the post, we have video of Numminen performing the fifth and final movement of his Tractatus suite—the famous final proposition of that strange little book: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” (“Woven man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen”). Numminen sings this in German, in his high-pitched, creaking voice. The rest of the suite he sings in English. Just above, hear the first movement, “The World Is…,” and below, hear movements 2-4, “In Order To Tell…,” “A Thought Is…,” and “The General Form Of A Truth Function.” He even sings the symbols, in breathless transcription. You can stream and download the full suite at Ubuweb and follow along at the Tractatus hypertext here.

 

 

Should Numminen’s tinpan alley-like compositions strike you as a particularly ridiculous setting for Wittgenstein’s genius, fear not; the Motet below (“Excerota Tractati Logico-Philosophici”), by composer Elisabeth Lutyens, treats the eccentric German’s work with a great deal more reverence.

via Leiter Reports

Related Content:

Wittgenstein: Watch Derek Jarman’s Tribute to the Philosopher, Featuring Tilda Swinton (1993)

Bertrand Russell on His Student Ludwig Wittgenstein: Man of Genius or Merely an Eccentric?

Philosopher Portraits: Famous Philosophers Painted in the Style of Influential Artists

Photography of Ludwig Wittgenstein Displayed by Archives at Cambridge

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


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  1. Alex J Goldhill says . . . | August 29, 2014 / 4:06 pm

    Are there any plans to adapt the Philosophical Investigations?

  2. in jest says . . . | October 2, 2014 / 11:07 am

    No, you see, by composing and performing the Tractatus as such, Numminen gives it a new meaning, meaning through use!

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