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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