Aphorisms are not of course the same thing as notebook entries, and yet one of my favorite collections of aphorisms (and the aphorism's a form I love) is Wittgenstein's Culture and Value, edited by G. H. von Wright with Heikki Nyman and translated by Peter Winch.
One thing I don’t like about blogging is the way that if you want to say two things and the two things sort of depend on each other (Thing One and Thing Two, like in The Cat in the Hat) you still have to have them upside-down. In other words, this is Thing Two but I’ve posted it first so that it appears beneath the other one.
I fell in love with Culture and Value when I first read it, have read it through at least three or four times since and have had it nagging at the back of my brain all summer that it was time to have another pass through. I retrieved it from my office last night and have just skimmed back through in a blissed-out kind of way for my very favorites. (I feel sure I must have posted some of these before?)
When I say that there’s something deeply novelistic about Wittgenstein’s aphorisms, I’m thinking of their autobiographical aspect but also and particularly of something about the way he sees familiar things like an alien. (Kafka by contrast sees alien things like an alien.) I like this book for some of the same reasons I like Austen. My new novel has observations a bit like these ones (only more minor) studded here and there, because the main character is someone who thinks about things. I’ve never been able to get interested in novels whose characters don’t think about things (this is why not-top-rate crime fiction and speculative fiction seem to me infinitely superior to not-quite-top-rate chick lit, where the characters are significantly less likely to have philosophical as opposed to emotional insights, but that's a topic for another day), and it’s probably one of my reservations about short stories as well, that they are if anything even less likely to have characters who have intellectual thoughts as opposed to, you know, experiencing sensations that are often registered or transmitted to the reader by way of the narrator’s observations of the physical world.
I also love Culture and Value because I am frivolous: I was talking a little while ago about this with a friend, really reading certain kinds of book you’re just looking for the aphorism bits which you then take out and weave together into your own account of something. There is a lot of wasted effort involved in this process, to take the pragmatic view: think of all the work the author has to do weaving together his/her aphorisms into a whole essay (I’m thinking of Walter Benjamin here especially), when all we really want to do is take them right back out again. I defy anyone to have rational disagreement with my claim that Minima Moralia is Adorno’s most delightful book, and that it’s because he’s just giving us the good parts and not the in-between ones. This is the eternal appeal of reading great thinkers’ notebooks, not intended for publication, rather than their polished finished out-there-in-the-world works. (Oh, dear, and look, how awful/excellent, the editor has a reproach to exactly readers like me: “It is unavoidable that a book of this sort will reach the hands of readers to whom otherwise Wittgentstein’s philosophical work is, and will remain, unknown. This need not necessarily be harmful or useless.” [!!!])
Wittgenstein himself is very good here on this topic, he sees right to the bones of it:
If I am thinking about a topic just for myself and not with a view to writing a book, I jump about all round it; that is the only way of thinking that comes naturally to me. Forcing my thoughts into an ordered sequence is a torment for me. Is it even worth attempting now?
I squander an unspeakable amount of effort making an arrangement of my thoughts which may have no value at all.
Raisins may be the best part of a cake; but a bag of raisins is not better than a cake; and someone who is in a position to give us a bag full of raisins still can’t bake a cake with them, let alone do something better. I am thinking of Kraus and his aphorisms, but of myself too and my philosophical remarks.
A cake—that isn’t[,] as it were: thinned-out raisins.
Anyway, here are some but not all of my favorites (you must go and get this and read it for yourself, it is really one of the most thought-provoking and memorable books that’s ever come my way):
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.
To treat somebody well when he does not like you, you need to be not only very good natured, but very tactful too.
The idea is worn out by now and no longer usable. (I once heard Labor make a similar remark about musical ideas.) Like silver paper, which can never quite be smoothed out again once it has been crumped. Nearly all my ideas are a bit crumpled.
In my artistic activities I really have nothing but good manners.
A script you can read fluently works on you very differently from one that you can write, but not decipher easily. You lock your thoughts up in this as though in a casket.
I just took some apples out of a paper bag where they had been lying for a long time. I had to cut half off many of them and throw it away. Afterwards when I was copying out a sentence I had written, the second half of which was bad, I at once saw it as a half-rotten apple. And that’s how it always is with me. Everything that comes my way becomes a picture for me of what I am thinking about at the time. (Is there something feminine about this way of thinking?)
Esperanto. The feeling of disgust we get if we utter an invented word with invented derivative syllables. The word is cold, lacking in associations, and yet it plays at being ‘language’. A system of purely written signs would not disgust us so much.
Sometimes a sentence can be understood only if it is read at the right tempo. My sentences are all supposed to be read slowly.
During a dream and even long after we have woken up, words occurring in the dream can strike us as having the greatest significance. Can’t we be subject to the same illusion when awake? I have the impression that I am sometimes liable to this nowadays. The insane often seem to be like this.
I really want my copious punctuation marks to slow down the speed of reading. Because I should like to be read slowly. (As I myself read.)
Two people are laughing together, say at a joke. One of them has used certain somewhat unusual words and now they both break out into a sort of bleating. That might appear very extraordinary to a visitor coming from quite a different environment. Whereas we find it completely reasonable.
(I recently witnessed this scene on a bus and was able to think myself into the position of someone to whom this would be unfamiliar. From that point of view it struck me as qutie irrational, like the responses of an outlandish animal.)
It is difficult to know something and to act as if you did not know it.
What is it like for people not to have the same sense of humour? They do not react properly to each other. It’s as though there were a custom amongst certain people for one person to throw another a ball which he is supposed to catch and throw back; but some people, instead of throwing it back, put it in their pocket.
Or what is it like for somebody to be unable to fathom someone else’s taste?
There is something about the cadence of the sentences that reminds me of Wayne Koestenbaum's writing (the precision of the word placement?); and also the use of italics makes me think of Toni Schlesinger.