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This is JACKET # 14 - July 2001 | # 14 Contents | Homepage |

Marjorie Perloff

“But isn’t the same at least the same?”:

Translatability in Wittgenstein, Duchamp, and Jacques Roubaud

This piece is 8,000 words or about twenty printed pages long

The only way to do philosophy is to do everything twice.
                      — Wittgenstein, Lectures, Cambridge, 1930–32   [ 1 ]

We usually think of the ‘poetic’ as that which cannot fully translate, that which is uniquely embedded in its particular language. The poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke is a case in point. The opening line of the Duino Elegies

Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus den Engel Ordnungen? —

has been translated into English literally dozens of times, but, as William Gass points out in his recent Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation, none of the translations seem satisfactory. Here are a few examples:

J. B. Leishman (1930) —

Who, if I cried, would hear me among  the
angelic orders?

A. J. Poulin (1977) —

And if I cried, who’d listen to me in those  angelic orders?

Stephen Cohn (1989) —

Who, if I cried out, would hear me — among the ranked  Angels?

Gass is very critical of these, but his own is, to my ear, no better:

Who if I cried, would hear me among the Dominions of Angels?     [ 2 ]

The difficulty, as I have suggested elsewhere, [ 3 ], is that English syntax does not allow for the dramatic suspension of   Wer, wenn ich schriee ...and that the noun phrase Engel Ordnungen, which in German puts the stress, both phonically and semantically,  on the angels themselves rather than their orders or hierarchies or dominions, defies effective translation. Moreover, Rilke’s line contains the crucial and heavily stressed word denn (literally ‘then’), which here has the force of ‘Well, then’ or, in contemporary idiom, ‘So,’ as in ‘So, who would hear me if I cried out. . .?’ But the translators cited above seem not to know what to do with denn and hence lose the immediacy of the question. Then, too, denn rhymes with wenn as well as the first two syllables of den Engel, creating a dense sonic network inevitably lost in translation.
      The same thing happens when the translation process is reversed and it happens, incidentally, in the case of free verse as easily as in that of metrical forms. Here is William Carlos Williams’s ‘Between Walls’:

the back wings
of the

hospital where

will grow lie

in which shine
the broken

pieces of a green bottle

Here is the translation by the poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger:

Zwischen Mauern

die Hinterhöfe
des Kranken-

hauses wo
gar nights

wächst dort liegt

aus der die Scherben
einer grünen

glitzern.     [ 4 ]

Again,  what is lost is a particular syntactic suspension: the reader of Williams’s lyric doesn’t know until the final monosyllabic line that what ‘shines’ within the ‘cinders’ are not only ‘broken / pieces’ of something — something ‘green’ — but, specifically, ‘pieces of a green / bottle.’ No green grass here (‘where / nothing / will grow’) and no ‘growth.’ Only discarded objects that ‘lie’ ‘Between Walls.’ The German translation gives the game away, by leading up, not to the unknown source of the ‘broken / pieces’ ( Scherben ) or to the identity of the something ‘green’, but to the shine ( glitzern ), itself. If the word order here seems dubious, it’s because Williams is careful to specify that we see something shining in the rubble before we know what it is.
      Then, too, the ambiguity of Williams’s fifth line with its three verbs (‘will grow lie’) is lost in the line wächst dort liegt, where the adverb dort (‘there’) positions the cinders quite neatly. Nothing Enzensberger could do would remedy this situation since German has no construction comparable to the English use of the future tense to designate a permanent condition, as in ‘where /nothing / will grow.’
      Translation, it seems, always involves some slippage of meaning, especially in the case of poetry. Why is it, then, that the modernist philosopher perhaps most sensitive to the slippages of meaning, the philosopher who insisted that ‘ The limits of my language   mean the limits of my world’ (T §5.6), that indeed ‘Language is not contiguous to anything else’ (LEC 1 112),  is read around the world in dozens of different languages, without much concern as to the translatability of his propositions?

Photo of Wittgenstein, 1936       I am speaking, of course, of Wittgenstein, whose writings on how words mean are not only judged to be perfectly translatable but were originally known — indeed. largely continue to be known — not in the author’s own German, but in the English of his Cambridge translators — G. H. Von Wright, G. E. M. Anscombe, Alice Ambrose, Rush Rhees — years before his native Austria took him quite seriously. Do the ‘limits of language,’ as Wittgenstein construed them, have nothing to do with the actual language being used?

Photo, above: Wittgenstein on holiday in France
with Gilbert Pattison, July 1936 (detail)

The answer is perhaps so obvious that we don’t usually take it into account. In formulating his aphoristic propositions, Wittgenstein is not interested in connotation, nuance, or in word choice based on considerations of rhythm and sound, but in the uses of the denotative properties of words, phrases, and particular syntactic constructions. Hence, although, as in the case of any philosophical discourse, there are more and less adequate translations — translations that render as fully as possible the author’s intended meaning — Wittgenstein’s propositions are by no means untranslatable in the sense that the Duino Elegies or ‘Between Walls’ are untranslatable.
Consider the following from the facing pages (German-English) of Philosophical Investigations :

Der Hund glaubt sein Herr sei an der Tür. Aber kann er auch glauben sein Herr werde übermorgen kommen?
Kann nur hoffen wer sprechen kann? Nur der, der die Verwendung einer Sprache beherrscht.

A dog believes his master is at the door. But can he also believe his master will come the day after tomorrow? ....
Can only those hope who can talk? Only those who have mastered the use of a language? (Anscombe translation).

Or again:

Warum kann meine rechte Hand nicht meiner linken Geld schenken? — Meine rechte Hand kann es in meine linke geben. Meine rechte Hand kann eine Schenkungsurkunde schreiben und meine linke eine Quittung. — Aber die weitern praktischen Folgen wären nicht die einer Schenkung. (PI §268)

Why can’t my right hand give my left hand money? — My right hand can put it into my left hand. My right hand can write a deed of gift and my left hand a receipt. — But the further practical consequences would not be those of a gift. (Anscombe translation).

And, for good measure, here it is in French, as translated by Jacques Bouveresse:

Pourquoi ma main droite ne peut-elle pas faire don d’une somme d’argent à ma main gauche? — Ma main droite peut rédiger un acte de donation et ma main gauche un reçu. — Mais les conséquences partiques ultérieures ne seraient pas celles d’une donation.      [ 5 ]

In such cases, the issue is neither the connotative power of synonymous words (the difference between ‘orders of angels,’ ‘hierarchies of angels’ or ‘angel dominions’), nor syntactic suspension, as in Rilke’s opening construction Wer, wenn ich schriehe ...,’ nor in such subtleties of lineation as Williams’s ‘will grow lie.’ Rather, Wittgenstein is testing the actual meanings of such ordinary words as believe, hope, or give .
      If, as the central Wittgensteinian aphorism would have it, Die Bedeutung eines Wortes ist sein Gebrauch in der Sprache (‘The meaning of a word is its use in the language,’ PI §43), then these words have no inherent meaning, but depend largely on the context in which they appear. If my right hand puts money into your left hand I am giving you something. But if the left hand is my own, the act of putting money into it is may be no more than a nervous habit, rather like playing with rubber bands. For both hands are mine and so the verb ‘to give’ ( schenken, faire don ) does not seem applicable.]
      Again, we can learn from certain physical signs that a dog is waiting for his master. But to talk of a dog waiting for his master to come the day after tomorrow or on Wednesday is, of course, absurd. For whatever the cognitive or emotive power of dogs, a signifier like the word ‘Wednesday’ cannot exist for them.
      The logical implication of the distinction I have been drawing is that poetry is that which deals with the connotative and tropical power of words and the rhythmic and sonic quality of phrases and sentences, whereas philosophy (literally ‘the love of wisdom’) involves the conceptual and abstract language of making meaningful propositions.
      What, then — and this is my subject here — can Wittgenstein possibly have meant by the following entry (1933-34) in Culture and Value ?

Ich glaube meine Stellung zur Philosophie dadurch zusammengefaßt zu haben, indem ich sagte: Philosophie dürfte man eigentlich nur dichten. Daraus mußs sich, scheint mir, ergeben, wie weit mein Denken der Gegenwart, Zukunft, oder der Vergangenheit angehört. Denn ich habe mich damit auch als einen bekannt, der nicht ganz kann, was er zu können wünscht.

I think I summed up my position on philosophy when I said that philosophy really should be written only as a form of poetry. From this it should be clear to what extent my thinking belongs to the present, the future, or the past. For with this assertion, I have also revealed myself as someone who cannot quite do what he would like to do.     [ 6 ]

What does this enigmatic statement mean? If we note that the word Dichten also refers to fictionality, as in Goethe’s title Dichtung und Wahrheit, where Dichtung (‘Fiction’) is opposed to ‘Truth,’ why should philosophy, traditionally the search for truth, be presented as poetic fiction? Given Wittgenstein’s concern for ‘meaningful’ statement, aren’t the two discourses antithetical? And why should as rigorous a thinker as Wittgenstein declare that he himself is not quite up to the task of formulating this new role for philosophy?

Photo of Wittgenstein in Swansea, UK

Wittgenstein in Swansea, UK
Photo taken by Ben Richards (detail)

Wittgenstein’s overt commentary on poetry sheds little light on this question. His impatience with aesthetic theory is legendary: in the Lectures on Aesthetics, for example, he declares ‘One might think Aesthetics is a science that tells us what’s beautiful — it’s almost too ridiculous for words. I suppose this science would also be able to tell us what sort of coffee tastes good’ (LCA §160). And the notebook entries collected in Culture and Value are given to statements like the following:

If I say A has beautiful eyes someone may ask me: what do you find beautiful about his eyes, and perhaps I shall reply: the almond shape, long eye-lashes, delicate lids. What do these eyes have in common with a Gothic church that I find beautiful too? Should I say they make a similar impression on me?’ (CV 24)

‘The concept of ‘the beautiful’,’ says Wittgenstein, ‘has caused a lot of mischief’ (CV 55). And again, ‘Am I to make the inane statement, ‘It [the musical theme] just sounds more beautiful when it is repeated’? (There you can see by the way what a silly role the word ‘beautiful’ plays in aesthetics.)And yet there is just no paradigm other than the theme itself’ (CV 52).
      At the same time, the Wittgenstein who refused to theorize about art, was quite ready, in his letters, journals, and conversations, to pronounce on a given work with great conviction. The words großartig and herrlich appear again and again with reference, say, to a Mozart symphony, a Mörike poem, to Lessing’s Nathan the Wise, or Dostoievsky’s Brothers Karamazov . Schubert’s Quintet in C Sharp, op. 163 is von phantastischer Großartigkeit (‘exhibits fantastic brilliance’), Mozart and Beethoven are called die wahren Götters öhne (‘the true sons of God’), the second movement of Beethoven’s Eroica is unglaublich (‘unbelievable,’ ‘fabulous’), Brahms’s ‘Handel-variationen,’ unheimlich (‘uncanny,’ ‘sublime’).     [ 7 ]
      Negative judgments are just as emphatic: Alfred Ehrenstein’s poetry is ein Hundedreck (‘dog shit’), Mahler’s music is nichts wert (worthless’), ‘the characters in the second part of ‘Faust’ erregen unsere Teilnahme gar nicht (‘are ones with whom we can’t identify at all’). [ 8 ] The recitation of a fellow officer at Monte Cassino was so unbearable in its ‘false pathos,’ that it was like ‘receiving an electric shock.’ [ 9 ] And so on.
      The almost comic vehemence of these extreme aesthetic judgments expresses what we might call le côté Viennoise of Wittgenstein — the social code of his time whereby those who are gebildet (cultured, well educated) took it to be incumbent upon them to pronounce on the given art work or performance or concert as großartig or schrecklich, and so on. In this respect, as in his actual tastes for classical music and literature, Wittgenstein was very much of his time and place.
      To understand what he meant by the proposition ‘One ought really to do philosophy only as a form of poetry,’ we must, accordingly, look elsewhere — not at what Wittgenstein said about the poetic but at the example his own writing provides. In the Preface to what was, with the exception of the Tractatus, his one designed book, the Philosophical Investigations (1953), he notes

I have written down all these thoughts as remarks, short paragraphs, of which there is sometimes a fairly long chain about the same subject, while I sometimes make a sudden change, jumping from one topic to another.... the essential thing was that the thoughts should proceed from one subject to another in a natural order and without breaks.
After several unsuccessful attempts to weld my results together into such a whole, I realized that I should never succeed. The best that I could write would never be more than philosophical remarks .... And this was, of course, connected with the very nature of the investigation. For this compels us to travel over a wide field of thought criss-cross in every direction .... Thus this book is really only an album. (v, my emphasis)

Such commentary cleared the way for the publication for the many fragments found after Wittgenstein’s death, some in notebooks, some on separate scraps of paper or Zettel, as a further assortment of Wittgenstein’s remarks, this one left in a single box-file, is called. As G. H. von Wright, the editor of the Vermischte Bemerkungen (‘Assorted Remarks,’ which came to be translated under the misleading title Culture and Value ) explains:

In the manuscript material left by Wittgenstein there are numerous notes which do not belong directly with his philosophical works although they are scattered amongst the philosophical texts. Some of these notes are autobiographical, some are about the nature of philosophical activity, and some concern subjects of a general sort, such as questions about art or about religion. It is not always possible to separate them sharply from the philosophical text ....
Some of these notes are ephemeral; others on the other hand — the majority — are of great interest. Sometimes they are strikingly beautiful and profound. (Foreword, my emphasis)

Here Von Wright seems to be following Wittgenstein’s own lead that ‘philosophy’ shades into ‘poetry’ and vice-versa. But how and why? Some early entries in Culture and Value (see pp. 2-7) may be apropos:

Each morning you have to break through the dead rubble afresh so as to reach the living warm seed.

A new word is like a fresh seed sewn on the ground of the discussion.

When we think of the world’s future, we always mean the destination it will reach if it keeps going in the direction we can see it going in now; it does not occur to us that its path is not a straight line but a curve, constantly changing direction.

Each of the sentences I write is trying to say the whole thing, i.e. the same thing over and over again; it is as though they were all simply views of one object seen from different angles.

The thread that runs through these aphorisms and propositions is on the need for what Gertrude Stein had already called, in her ‘Composition as Explanation’ (1926), beginning again and again . Truth is not something that can be uncovered; it can only be re-discovered , day after day. The value of breaking through the dead rubble each morning and in viewing each object from as many angles as possible is that one keeps one’s mind open, that conclusions are always tentative, and that the process of discovery is always more important than any particular end result.
      Not a straight line but a curve constantly changing direction . Theoretical formulation, generalization, moral injunction: these, for Wittgenstein, are dangerous. ‘Philosophy,’ we read in Lectures 1930-32, ‘is not a choice between different ‘theories’. It is wrong to say that there is any one theory of truth, for truth is not a concept’ (LEC 1 75). At the same time, the process of investigation is itself of value, provided one is able and willing to revise one’s ideas and suppositions when necessary. ‘I find it important in philosophizing,’ says Wittgenstein, ‘to keep changing my posture, not to stand for too long on one leg, so as not to get stiff. Like someone on a long up-hill climb who walks backwards for a while so as to refresh himself and stretch some different muscles’ (CV 27). And further:

If I am thinking just for myself, not with a view to writing a book, I jump all around the subject; this is the only natural way of thinking for me. With my thoughts forced into line, to think further is torture to me. Should I even try it? (CV 28)

This is, on the face of it, a very odd statement, for why should it be ‘torture’ ( eine Qual ) simply to organize one’s thoughts, to produce a coherent linear discourse? Isn’t this precisely what we expect an ‘investigation,’ especially a philosophical investigation to do?
      Here we must come back to the 1933 statement about philosophy’s link to poetry, in which Wittgenstein ‘reveals’ himself as ‘someone who cannot quite do what he would like to do’ (CV 25). If we read this mysterious paragraph biographically, it would seem that the student of Bertrand Russell, who had set out to become the mathematical logician that we find in the opening sections of the Tractatus (1922) — although even here the eccentricity of the numbering is a kind of poetic clinamen [ 10 ] — had discovered, by the early thirties, that his métier was a mode of writing that depended on constant revision, a casting off of the ‘egg-shells of the old, sticking to’ his prior formulations (CV 43). Such writing inevitably takes the form of short fragmentary and often gnomic utterance. Not the ‘Tractatus’ or linear discourse, not even the essay in the spirit of Montaigne or the Heideggerian meditation, but a sequence of ‘criss-cross’ aphorisms, sometimes self-cancelling or even self-contradictory. Indeed, it is discourse less designed to say than to be seen as showing something. And we think of the following aphorism in Zettel :

Das Sprechen der Musik. Vergiß nicht, daß ein Gedicht, wenn auch in der Sprache der Mitteilung abgefaßt, nicht im Sprachspiel der Mitteilung verwendet wird. (Z §160)

The way music speaks. Do not forget that a poem, even though it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information. (Z §160)

But, although this proposition allies poetry to philosophy in that neither is characterized by the information-giving function of the sciences or social sciences, our initial question remains: how can Wittgenstein’s ‘philosophical remarks’ be taken as poetic when they are so markedly stripped of the usual ‘poetic’ trappings? And further: given that Wittgenstein’s propositions seem to have the same force whether we read them in the original German, or in English, French, or Japanese, what is the relation of ‘poetic’ to ‘philosophical’ meaning?
      One possible answer — and this case is often made — is that what makes Wittgenstein ‘poetic’ is his use of homilies and proverbs animated by metaphors of charming and almost childlike simplicity: for example, ‘A new word is like a fresh seed sewn on the ground of the discussion’ (see above), ‘Talent is a spring from which fresh water is constantly flowing’ (CV 10), ‘Ideas too sometimes fall from the tree before they are ripe’ (CV 27), or the famous comparison of language to a tool box in the Investigations (§11-14).
      But such figurative language may well have more to do with rhetorical strategy — the ethical argument that gives Wittgenstein credence as someone we can trust — than with the enigmatic nature of Wittgenstein’s real questions, which, whatever homely metaphor is used for pedagogical purposes, ultimately revolve around the literal meaning of words. ‘Why can’t a dog simulate pain? Is he too honest?’ (PI §250).
      A better clue to Wittgenstein’s concept of the poetic is provided by the distinction he repeatedly draws between science and mathematics. ‘Man, we read in a 1930 entry in Culture and Value, ‘perhaps populations in general — must awaken to wonder. Science is a way of putting him back to sleep’ (CV 5). And again:

People sometimes say they cannot make any judgement about this or that because they have not studied philosophy. This is irritating nonsense, because the assumption is that philosophy is some sort of science. And it is talked about almost as if it were the study of medicine. — But what one can say is that people who have never undertaken an investigation of a philosophical kind, as have, for example, most mathematicians, are not equipped with the right visual organs for this type of investigation or scrutiny (CV 29).

Indeed, there is a ‘strange resemblance between a philosophical investigation (especially in mathematics) and an aesthetic one’ (CV 25). And in 1946, when the first part of the Philosophical Investigations had been completed, Wittgenstein noted in his journal, ‘My ‘achievement’ is very much like that of a mathematician who invents a calculus’ (CV 50).
      Invent is the key word here. Philosophy, as Wittgenstein sees it, is a form of continual re-invention with a view to making language more functional, the ideal being the precision of numbers. Language can never, of course, approximate that precision which is why the process of removing its false ‘signposts,’ its mistaken assumptions and usages, is so endlessly fascinating. And, as in mathematics, this is the case, regardless of time and place, regardless therefore of the specific language in question:

People say again and again that philosophy doesn’t really progress, that we are still occupied with the same philosophical problems as were the Greeks. But the people who say this don’t understand why it has to be so. It is because our language has remained the same and keeps seducing us into asking the same questions. As long as there continues to be a verb ‘to be’ [sein ] that looks as if it functions in the same way as ‘to eat’ [essen ] and ‘to drink [trinken ], as long as we still have the adjectives ‘identical’ [identisch ] ‘true’ [wah r], ‘false’ [falsch ] ‘possible’ [möglich ], as long as we continue to talk of a river of time [einem Fluß der Zeit ], of an expanse of space [einer Ausdehnung des Raumes ], etc. etc., people will keep stumbling over the same puzzling difficulties and find themselves staring at something which no explanation seems capable of clearing up. (CV 15)

I have put in some of the German terms here so as to show that indeed language, at the level Wittgenstein studies it, has ‘remained the same and keeps seducing us into asking the same questions.’ The poetic, as I remarked earlier, is not, for Wittgenstein, a question of heightening, of removing language from its everyday use by means of appropriate troping or rhetorical device. Rather, what makes philosophy poetic is its potential for invention, its status as what we now call conceptual art — the art that, in Sol Lewitt’s words, ‘is made to engage the mind of the viewer rather than his eye’ — or, more broadly speaking, his senses — the art, as it were, that tracks the process of thinking itself. [ 11 ]
      In Wittgenstein’s practice, conceptual art begins with the investigation of grammar, the description of the actual relations between words and phrases in the larger unit in which they are embedded. The surface word order, of course, will vary from language to language, according to the rules that language prescribes for the relationship between parts of speech. But the basic relationship of parts of speech — nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions — to one another will remain the same.
      Thus, if we take the earlier example ‘Why can’t a dog simulate pain? Is he too honest?’ the original German, Warum kann ein Hund nicht Schmerzen heucheln? Ist er zu ehrlich? has a slightly different word order in English, where the noun ‘pain’ follows the transitive verb whose object it is, and the negative (‘can’t’) comes first in the sentence. But the basic syntax of the question and answer structure is perfectly clear, whichever the language.
      In fact, given the notion that ‘There are no gaps in grammar; — grammar is always complete’ (LEC1 16), the meanings of ordinary, everyday words becomes all the more tantalizing and a challenge to the philosopher as poet.
Take the following entry from Culture and Value:

Philosophers who say: ‘after death a timeless state will begin’, or ‘at death a timeless state begins,’ and do not notice that they have used the words ‘after’ and ‘at’ and ‘begins’ in a temporal sense, and that temporality is embedded in their grammar. (CV 22)

In its scrutiny of something as seemingly minor as a tense shift, this little fragment — not even a complete sentence — embodies Wittgenstein’s repeated insistence that ‘Language is not contiguous to anything else’ (LEC 1 112). For it is only inside language that the basic paradox in question reveals itself — the paradox that the so-called ‘timeless state’ after death can be talked about only within the language of temporality which is ours, which is all that we have.
      Accordingly, as Wittgenstein had put it in the Tractatus, ‘Death is not an event in life. Death is not lived through.’ Indeed, ‘If by eternity is understood not endless temporal duration but timelessness, then he lives eternally who lives in the present’ (T §6.4311).
      To take another, very different consideration of temporality, consider the following analysis of the word interval in Lectures Cambridge 1932–35:

If we look at a river in which numbered logs are floating, we can describe events on land with reference to these, e.g., ‘When the 105th log passed, I ate dinner.’ Suppose the log makes a bang on passing me. We can say these bangs are separated by equal, or unequal, intervals. We could also say one set of bangs was twice as fast as another set. But the equality or inequality of intervals so measured is entirely different from that measured by a clock. The phrase ‘length of interval’ has its sense in virtue of the way we determine it, and differs according to the method of measurement. (LEC 2 13)

Here, Wittgenstein’s investigation examines the curious shift the meaning of a single word — interval — depending on the context in which it occurs. The ‘interval’ measurable by the passage downstream of logs does not have the same status as the ‘interval’ measured by a clock. But the mystery of the word has nothing to do with the specific language in question: in French, for example, we read, ‘Aussi les critères qui détermines l’égalité des intervalles séparant le passage des rondins sont-ils différents de ceux qui déterminent l’égalité des intervalles mesurés par une horloge.’ [ 12 ]
      Whether interval, intervalle, or the German Abstand, the difference between one ‘interval’ and another remains central. ‘But isn’t the same at least the same?’ Wittgenstein’s question in the Investigations (PI §215) elicits the ‘useless proposition’ that, yes, ‘A thing is identical with itself.’ Useless, because, as Wittgenstein has already argued earlier in the book (PI §61), we still have not come to a ‘ general agreement about the use of the expression ‘to have the same meaning’ or ‘to achieve the same’.
      For it can be asked in what cases we say: ‘These are merely two forms of the same game’.’
      Or consider the following. ‘The man who said that one cannot step into the same river twice,’ we read in the so-called ‘Big Typescript’ of the late thirties, ‘said something wrong; one can step into the same river twice’ (PO 167). Literally this is the case: certainly, if Wittgenstein were walking along the banks of the Thames, he could easily step into the same river twice. But then Heraclitus, whose metaphorical aphorism Wittgenstein is calling into question, could respond that the second time around, it would not be quite the ‘same’ river.
      Wittgenstein knows this but he also knows that the ‘same’ in ‘same river’ is not quite the same as the ‘same’ of ‘I have the same pain you have.’ For how can I judge the intensity of your pain? How do I know, for that matter, that you’re not just pretending to be in pain? What can ‘same’ possibly mean in such verbal constructions?
      It is, as in the case of ‘interval,’ the inherent difference between one same and another that makes language so mysterious.
      The avant-garde artist who perhaps best understood this, even though he and Wittgenstein never met and, so far as we know, knew nothing of each other’s work (and wouldn’t have liked it if they had), was, interestingly enough, his exact contemporary, Marcel Duchamp (his dates are 1887–1968; Wittgenstein’s 1889–1951). Duchamp’s term for the all but imperceptible difference between two seemingly identical items was, the term infrathin, a term closely linked to what Duchamp also called deferral or delay .
      No doubt, Wittgenstein who dismissed specialized vocabulary and metalanguage as unnecessary (see PI §120), insisting that, on the contrary, ‘Ordinary language is all right’ (B & B 28), would have disliked the neologism infrathin, with its allusion to such scientific terms as infra-red . But the link between his own note scraps or Zettel and Duchamp’s collections of note cards is quite remarkable.


Paul Matisse’s posthumous bilingual edition of Duchamp’s later Notes contains a section reproducing forty-six scraps of paper, under the title Inframince / Infrathin . [ 13 ] Most of these were written in the later thirties when Duchamp was beginning work on the Boîtes en valise and restoring the Large Glass after its having been shattered. Suitcases were, in any case, on Duchamp’s mind, since he playfully related infrathin to what he called physique de baggage, the science of ‘determining the difference between volumes of air displaced by a clean shirt (ironed and folded) and the same shirt when dirty’ (#231).
      Infrathin, he further maintained (#5), was an adjective, not a noun, the naming function being suspect in his lexicon. Indeed, infrathin, Duchamp declared, cannot be defined, ‘One can only give examples of it.’ [ 14 ] Here are a few:

The warmth of a seat (which has just been left) is infra-thin (#4)

In time the same object is not the / same after a 1 second interval — what / relations with the identity principle? (#7)

Subway gates — The people / who go through at the very last moment / Infra thin — (#9 recto)

Velvet trousers- / their whistling sound (in walking) by/ brushing of the 2 legs is an / infra thin separation signaled /by sound. (it is not? An infra thin sound) (#9)

When the tobacco smoke smells also of the /mouth which exhales it, the 2 odors / marry by infra thin (olfactory / in thin). (#11)

Infra thin separation between / the detonation noise of a gun / (very close) and the apparition of the bullet/ hole in the target.... (#12)

Difference between the contact / of water and that of/ molten lead for ex,/or of cream./ with the walls of its / own container .... this difference between two contacts is infra thin. (#14)

2 Forms cast in / the same mold (?) differ / from each other/ by an infra thin separative /difference. ‘Two men are not / an example of identicality / and to the contrary / move away / from a determinable / infra thin difference — but (#35)

just touching . While trying to place 1 plane surface on another plane surface/ you pass through some infra thin moments — (#46)

All these are playful variants on Wittgenstein’s ‘But isn’t the same at least the same?’ A cryptic note found in the White Box (Duchamp 1975: 78) dated 1914 on the back, reads, ‘A kind of pictorial Nominalism (Check).’ Thierry de Duve, who takes this term as the title of his important study Pictorial Nominalism, notes that this is the only mention of the term nominalism in the writings published during Duchamp’s lifetime, but that there is another one, also dated 1914, in the Notes:

Nominalism [literal] = No more generic, specific numeric distinction between words (tables is not the plural of table, ate has nothing in common with eat). No more physical adaptation of concrete words; no more conceptual value of abstract words.... (185–86; see Duve, 126)

‘This nominalism,’ says de Duve, ‘is literal: it turns back on metaphor and takes things literally. Duchamp ‘intends to specify those conditions that in his eyes allow the word to remain in is zero degree, force it into the realm of nonlanguage’ (Duve 126-127).

Photo of Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp, with rotoreliefs, a still from Hans Richter's film Dreams That Money Can Buy, 1947. Photo Arnold Eagle.

Duchamp understood, of course, that such ‘zero degree’ literalism cannot exist, that an infrathin relationship between a discrete a and b always occurs, whether merely grammatical (‘ate’/ ‘eat’) or temporal (as in the relation of the noise from the detonation of the bullet and the appearance of the bullet hole), or tactile, like the warm seat just sat on. In de Duve’s words, ‘The infra-thin separation is working at its maximum when it distinguishes the same from the same’ (Duve 160).
      In aesthetic terms, the ‘interval between two names’ which is the infrathin spells the refusal of metaphor — the figure of similarity, of analogy, of likeness — in favor of the radical difference at the core of some of the most interesting conceptual art works and poetries of the past few decades.
      For no sooner is a link between two items (e.g., table/tables) made, than it is negated by a Wittgensteinian shift in focus or context.
      Duchamp’s boxes, containing miniaturized replicas of his own early works are particularly interesting in this regard.. The first example, the Box of 1914 with its sixteen notes for the Large Glass (which was not to be finished — or, more accurately, unfinished until 1922), and its facsimile of the drawing To Have the Apprentice in the Sun appeared in an ‘edition’ of five; subsequent boxes, from The Green Box (1934) to A l’Infinitif [The White Box] of 1966, were made in larger editions.
      But again and again, in what can be viewed as a Wittgensteinian act of rediscovery, their material consists of Duchamp’s notes and sketches from the World War I years, together with miniature reproductions of his early paintings and photographs of the readymades.
      Indeed, the boîtes en valise may be said to take on — and to find an ingenious solution for — the very problem of aura in the age of mechanical reproducibility that Walter Benjamin discussed so famously. For here Duchamp has found an intriguing way to make reproduction the antithesis of repetition .
      ‘The idea of repetition,’ Duchamp told an interviewer in 1960, ‘is a form of masturbation.’ [ 15 ]
      By repetition, he had in mind the hardening of what are originally innovative ideas and techniques into a signature style that is then trotted out again and again so as to please the art public and earn fame and fortune. His own friend Man Ray might have been a case in point as was the later Picasso. ‘As Francis Naumann puts it:

With time Duchamp came to the conclusion that the only way to avoid doing the same thing over and over again would be to confine himself to the repertoire of images that he had already made. In other words, just as Parisians still maintain that the only way to avoid a view of the Eiffel Tower is by climbing to its summit, Duchamp determined that the only way to completely avoid repetition in his work was to literally replicate it. (FNA 17).

It is important to understand how different replication is from repetition. The ‘repetitive’ artist or poet announces the completion of a ‘new’ work, but inspection soon reveals that it is recycling themes, tropes, and forms all too familiar. Criticism generally responds by focusing on the earlier work but being polite to the new addition. Replication, on the other hand, can be understood as a form of delay . If the artist takes his or her earlier work seriously enough to re-present it, inevitably in revised form since revision is inherent in the mere act of replication, the reader/ viewer is challenged to reconsider it.
      Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations is, as we have seen, a case in point, being in fact no more than the best-known revision of the collection of Zettel Wittgenstein had been accumulating since the early 1930s, when he gave the lectures collected in Lectures Cambridge, 1932 and the Blue and Brown Books (1933–35). The Investigations, completed in 1945 but not published until after World War II in 1953, were always considered by their author to be ‘unfinished.’
      The paradox about replication, in any case, is that Duchamp evidently never worked harder than he did on these multiples in the years when he was ostensibly doing little but playing chess. Twenty years after making the Green Box, Duchamp recalled:

I had all these thoughts [notes] lithographed and with the same ink as the originals. To find paper of absolutely identical quality, I had to scour the most improbable corners of Paris. Then three hundred copies of each litho had to be cut out, using zinc templates which I had trimmed against the periphery of the original papers. It was a tremendous work and I had to hire my concierge.... (FNA 212)

To reproduce the paintings and drawings was even harder: photographs of the originals had to be acquired from their owners and in some cases — for example, the 9 Malic Molds — Duchamp prepared a stencil and colorized the print by hand. As for the Large Glass itself, Duchamp worked long hours with Man Ray in New York to diffuse the intensity of the glass surface so that it would be transparent enough to see the paintings placed behind it.
      In the course of this process, which was paradigmatic for the later Boîtes en valise even though varying print and reproduction techniques were adopted, each image and note was altered so as to suit its context. The same Walter Benjamin who dismissed reproduction as the denial of aura, wrote in a 1937 Paris diary, ‘Saw Duchamp this morning same Café on Blvd. St. Germain ...Showed me his painting: Nu descendant un escalier in a reduced format, colored by hand en pochoir, breathtakingly beautiful, maybe mention.’ [ 16 ]
      Certainly this pochoir, which uses greater color contrasts, and more delicate line than the original and affixes a postage stamp at the bottom, is no longer the same object as the 1913 painting. As a resident of a later Boîte en valise, this particular ‘nude’ interacts with the Chocolate Grinder, Malic Molds and Comb, as well as with Duchamp’s aphoristic notes.
      The uniqueness of these boxes is that they are, in fact, unique; that the arrangement of notes and reproductions and their individual appearance is never quite the same. Tracking individual items — the Chocolate Grinder, say, or the Oculist Witnesses or Why Not Sneeze Rose Sélavy – from replica to replica or box to box, one comes to recognize them even as one recognizes the variations on language-games detailed in Wittgenstein’s writings. The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, for example, is instantly recognizable, but in the Green Box version a separate Oculist Witness panel is placed behind the so-called Capillary Tubes.
      Or again, the Bicycle Wheel retains its identity through many incarnations, but in later replicas, the stool seems smaller and the wheel’s spoke more prominent. And Fresh Widow, whose window-panes of black leather are blank in the Museum of Modern Art version, has, in some replicas (e.g. the Chicago Art Institute), outlined breasts and nipples drawn on its black panes. But then, we recall, for Duchamp, ate is never the same as eat . The same is not the same.

Something Black

One ought really to do philosophy only as a form of poetry . We are now in a better position to understand Wittgenstein’s aesthetic. Just as Duchamp’s readymades and boxes are designed, not for sight or even touch but for the exercise of the mind, so Wittgenstein’s philosophical investigations can be regarded as themselves poetic investigations in their rigorous scrutiny of language in what John Cage called its manner of operation.
      If, as Ezra Pound put it, poetry is ‘language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree,’ if it is ‘news that news,’ then the enigmatic Zettel, both of Duchamp and of Wittgenstein, the note fragments that cannot be forced into a linear, much less a causal one, and which, when replicated, are never ‘the same,’ provide a paradigm for the ‘literalist’ poetry increasingly significant in our time.
      Consider the following example. In 1986, the French Oulipo poet Jacques Roubaud published a poetic sequence called Quelque chose noir, which Rosmarie Waldrop translated in 1990 as some thing black .. [ 17 ] The sequence is based on the number nine; there are nine sections, each having nine poems, and each poem has nine strophes. This number system relates Quelque chose noir to Dante’s Vita Nuova, where the divine number 9 — the Trinity multiplied by itself — is Beatrice’s number. But in Roubaud’s poem the multiples of nine are followed by a Coda entitled Rien (‘Nothing’), whose short lines, justified at the right margin, the white page conveying the total emptiness conveyed by the words, concludes with sunset:

avant que la terre

tant d’absence

que tes yeux

de rien

before the earth

so much absence

that your eyes


Waldrop’s translation can convey with enormous precision both Roubaud’s numerology and his spatial layout as well as his insistent literalism. But the Wittgenstein connection goes further. Here is the fourth poem in the first section:


      Le résultat de l’investigation était celui-ci: le précipité des ressemblances. la toile de la ressemblance. ses fils croisés et recroisés.

      Parfois la ressemblance de partout. parfois la ressemblance là.

      Ensuite que toi et ta mort n’avaient aucun air de famille.

      Cela semble simple. alors: il n’y avait plus lieu d’une réquisition difficile. d’aucune interrogation rude. simplement le bavardage douloureux, inutile. superficiel et trivial.

      Un chien ne peut pas simuler la douleur. est-ce parce qu’il est trop honnête?’

      Il faillait faire connaissance avec la description.

      En quelque mots ce qui ne bougeait pas.

      Car cela m’avait été renvoyé reconnu, alors que rien ne s’en déduisait de mon expérience.

      Tu étais morte, et cela ne mentait pas.
(Q 17)


      The result of the investigation: a deposit of likenesses. weave of likeness. threads crossed and recrossed.

      Sometimes likeness from anywhere. sometimes this likeness here.

      Then, that you and your death shared no family trait.

      It seems simple. hence: no grounds for difficulties or demands for rude interrogation. just painful chatter, useless. superficial and trivial.

      ‘Why can’t a dog simulate pain? Is he too honest?’

      I had to make friends with description.

      In so many words, what did not move.

      For this I recognized. Though none of it derived from my experience.

      You were dead. this was no lie. (SB 15)

Roubaud’s ‘investigation’ begins by probing le précipité des ressemblances, since any word or image, Wittgenstein taught us, is part of a language game made up of family resemblances. If the body in question could only be like something familiar, something alive, it would not seem dead. But by the third sentence, the poet has recognized that Ensuite que toi et ta mort n’avaient aucun air de famille . There are no family resemblances between a person and a state — in this case, death.
      One recalls Wittgenstein’s Tractatus aphorism: ‘Death is not an event in life. Death is not lived through.’ And yet there is more than ‘painful chatter,’ for relationships between items do manifest themselves, even if they are negative ones.
      In the fifth strophe, Wittgenstein’s ‘Why can’t a dog simulate pain? Is he too honest?’, which I cited earlier, is given an ironic twist. For since, in this case, the poet can’t simulate pain either, perhaps Wittgenstein’s distinction between man and dog must be qualified. At least so far as ‘honesty’ with oneself is concerned. Given these circumstances, there can only be resignation — the recognition that Il fallait faire connaisance avec la description (‘I had to make friends with description’). Philosophy, Wittgenstein was fond of saying, leaves everything as it is ; it can only describe. The same, Roubaud suggests, may be said of poetry.
      And even then, the poet can only describe the physical facts — the ce qui ne bougeait pas or ‘what did not move.’ The ninth sentence is thus the simple fact ‘Tu étais morte, et cela ne mentait pas’ (‘You were dead. this was no lie’), with a further twist on the question about the dog: ‘is he too honest?’
      Here is what we might call poetry à la lettre — a set of strophes (whose clauses are punctuated by periods rather than commas and avoid capitalization) quite bare of ‘poetic’ constructions that uses frame and context to charge abstract nouns like ressemblance (used four times in the first two sentences) and description, as well as ordinary personal pronouns and adverbs of time and place ( Parfois, ). Yet the network of likenesses and differences, so subtly articulated in the course of the nine sentences, creates what is a highly wrought poetic text. And Rosmarie Waldrop’s faithful translation testifies to a remarkable symbiosis possible between texts in two languages. A line like ‘You were dead. this was no lie’ can closely render the meaning and tone of Tu étais morte, et cela ne mentait pas .
      But — and here is the catch — precisely because Roubaud’s poetry is so translatable, it doesn’t give the translator very much scope. To translate Roubaud into English is to subordinate oneself to the original text just as Paul Matisse remains as faithful as possible to the Duchamp originals.

The Duino Elegies, on the other hand, present a challenge that translators have not been able to resist. Inadequate as are the sober-minded translations — translations that render unto Rilke the things that are Rilke’s — a Duchampian or Wittgensteinian literalism can meet the challenge of the original text by means of infrathin play of its own.
      As I was writing this paper, I came across the following version of Rilke’s ‘First Elegy’ by Rachel Loden:

My Angels, Their Pink Wings

Who, if I pitched a hissy fit, would even
blink a powdered eyelid

among the angelic orders? The night sky
is indifferent and glittery with facts.

A third millennium giddily
boots up and Lenin, firm and pliant

from his glycerine bath, waits for kisses
in the glass sarcophagus. But I too

wish to call a meeting of the Committee
for the Deathless Beauty

of the Tsar, the standing Congress for
the Recarnation of the President. I too

wish to lie in state inside the Hall
of Pillars, in the echoes of the Capitol

Rotunda, cooing to my tricky
one, crooning to my trembling Republic.     [ 18 ]

You can read two poems by Rachel Loden
this one and ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ — in Jacket 16.

And here — an even more fanciful version — is John Tranter’s:

I hate this place. If I were to throw a fit, who
among the seven thousand starlets in Hollywood
would give a flying fuck? Or suppose some tired
studio executive, taken by my boyish beauty — no,
I’d suffocate. Charm is only makeup-deep,
I reckon, and staring in the mirror too long
can give you the horrors: that thing in the glass,
it doesn’t care. Every nymphette burns
for some drug or other. I’m not drinking tonight;
do you mind? Messages banking up, unanswered.
On the screen a masked cowboy chases
a masked cowboy: the moonlit glade
is black and white [....]     [ 19 ]

But by this time, the language game being played is obviously a different one.


[ 1 ] The following Wittgenstein texts are used in this essay.

B & B The Blue and Brown Books. Preliminary Studies for the ‘Philosophical Investigations’ . 2d. ed. New York: Harper, 1960.

CV Culture and Value, ed. G. H. von Wright, trans. Peter Winch. : University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 24.

LCA Lectures & Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and religious Belief, compiled from Notes taken by Yorick Smythies, Rush Rhees and James Taylor. Ed. Cyril Barrett (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California, 1966,, p. 11

LEC 1 Lectures, Cambridge 1930-32. From the Notes of John King and Desmond Lee . Ed. Desmond Lee . 1980; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989, p. 75.

PO Philosophical Occasions 1912-1951 . . Ed. James Klagge and Alfred Nordmann
Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993.

T Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus . 1922. Trans. from the German by C. K. Ogden. With an Introduction by Bertrand Russell. London: Routledge, 1992. Proposition numbers are indicated by §.

PI Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe; re-issued Second German-English Edition. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1997, p. 174. Proposition numbers in Part I are indicated by §.

Z Zettel, ed. G. E. M. Anscombe & G. H. von Wright. Trans. G. E. M. Amscombe. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970). Proposition numbers are indicated by §.

[ 2 ] William H. Gass, Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation . (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), pp. 57-58.

[ 3 ] See Marjorie Perloff, ‘Reading Gass Reading Rilke ,’ Parnassus : 25, no. 1&2 (2001): 486-508, pp. 491-93.

[ 4 ] For the original and Enzensberger’s facing translation, see Eva Hesse and Heinz Ickstadt (eds.), Amerikanische Dichtung: Von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart (München: C. H. Beck, 2000), pp. 228-31.

[ 5 ] See Jacques Bouveresse, Le Mythe de l’Intériorité (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1987), p. 464. Philosophical Investigations is not yet available in a full French edition.

[ 6 ] CV 24. Peter Winch’s translation is often inaccurate, and so I retranslate these entries where necessary. Here, for example, his translation ‘Philosophy ought really to be written only as a poetic composition’ rationalizes the German excessively. I follow the same practice in the case of Lectures on Aesthetics and Zettel, but not the Philosophical Investigations, which Wittgenstein himself oversaw.

[ 7 ] See Ludwig Wittgenstein , Briefwechsel mit B. Russell, G. E. Moore, J. M. Keynes, F. P. Ramsay, et. al., ed. B. F. McGuiness and G. H. Von Wright (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1980), pp. 47, 22, 47, 78.

[ 8 ] See Briefwechsel, 78; CV 67, 41.

[ 9 ] See Franz Parak, ‘Wittgenstein in Monte Cassino,’ in Wittgenstein, Geheime Tagebücher 1914-1016, ed. Wilhelm Baum (Wien: Turi und Kant, 1991),pp. 146,152. The secret notebooks are subsequently cited as GH.

[ 10 ] See my Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), pp. 42-43.

[ 11 ] Sol LeWitt, ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,’ Artforum, 5, 10 (Summer 1967): 79-83, p. 80. There are, of course, other important aspects of Conceptualism: see the excellent entries on ‘Conceptual Art’ in Encyclopedia of Aesthetics , ed. Michael Kelly (New York: Oxford, 1998), pp. 414-427. ‘The grand strategy,’ writes Yair Guttmann, ‘was to resist the attempts to sever the art object from its context’ (422). The relation of Joseph Kosuth to Wittgenstein is discussed on pp. 426-27.

[ 12 ] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Les Cours de Cambridge 1932-1935, ed. Alice Ambrose. Traduits de l’angalis par Elisabeth Rigal (Mauvezin: Trans-Europ-Repress, 1992) p. 26.

[ 13 ] Marcel Duchamp, Notes, presentation and translation by Paul Matisse (Paris: Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, 1980); rpt. Boston: G. K. Hall. 1983. The notes are reproduced as facsimile scraps, with the French and English print versions at the bottom of the page. Slash marks indicate the end of the line in the handwritten version. The book is unpaginated but the notes are numbered.

[ 14 ] See Thierry de Duve , Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp’s Passage from Painting to the Readymade, trans. Dana Polan with the author (1984; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991, p. 160. Subsequently cited in the text as Duve.

[ 15 ] Francis M. Naumann,. Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Making Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (New York: Harry N. Abrams. 1999), p. 15.

[ 16 ] Ecke Bonk, ‘Delay Included,’ in Paul Paul and Anne d’Harnoncourt (eds.). Joseph Cornell / Marcel Duchamp resonance Catalogue of the Exhibition. (Houston: Menil Foundation. 1998), pp. 95–112; see p. 102.

[ 17 ] Jacques Roubaud, Quelque chose noir (Paris: Gallimard, 1986); Rosmarie Waldrop, some thing black (Normal, Il.: Dalkey Archive Press, 1990).

[ 18 ] Rachel Loden, Jacket 16 (March 2002). Online.

[ 19 ] John Tranter, personal correspondence with the author.

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