Saturday, June 4, 2016

Battlefront trauma and ethical language in early Wittgenstein & Ford Madox Ford

Let's begin with Ford Madox Ford (aka Ford Madox Hueffer until 1919). He suffered the trauma inflicted by a WWI battlefront bombardment at the Somme and in the Ypres Salient. During the War, he tried to write about the experience but found it difficult to do so (though he later wrote novels based on his experience). The resulting document is 'A Day of Battle, Written in the Ypres Salient: 15th Sep. 1916'. It wasn't published until 1980 in Esquire under the title 'Arms and the Mind'. (v. 94 [December, 1980]: pp. 78-80) The document re-appeared in Ford Madox Ford: War Prose, (ed. Max Saunders [New York University Press, 2004], pp. 36-42; 1st published in the UK in 1999 by Carcanet Press, Ltd.]) from which the following quotations are drawn.

In the document, Ford describes his difficulty in writing, or even thinking, about his experience. He says,
I have asked myself continuously why I can write nothing — why I cannot even think anything that to myself seems worth thinking! — about the psychology of that Active Service of which I have seen my share. ... — But, as for putting them — into words! No: the mind stops dead, and something in the brain stops and shuts down. (Saunders, pp. 36-37)
But he perseveres, and the results are interesting. Among his observations is the following:
In battle -- and in the battle zone -- the whole world, humanity included, seems to assume the aspect of matter dominated eventually by gravity. Large bits of pot fly about, smash large pieces of flesh: then one and the other fall, to lie in the dust among the immense thistles. That seems to be absolutely all. Hopes, passions, fears do not seem much to exist outside oneself -- and only in varying degrees within oneself. (Ibid., p. 39)
So soon after the experience, his efforts at recollection leave him stunned and hunkering amid modest observation statements. Even language about mind ('hopes, passions...') is too much. Observed stuff in motion -- that's all his writing can manage at this point. Any attempt to interpret events or discern some meaning behind the history is futile. 'It all seemed to signify nothing.' (Ibid., p. 40) Ford here confines himself to statements of observed fact, eschewing any pronouncements about the sum thereof or about their deeper meaning or value. Even his attempt at explaining his presence in the conflagration strays little from the language of observed matters of fact (here emphasizing colours):
I myself seemed to have drifted there at the bidding of indifferently written characters on small scraps of paper: WO telegram A/R 2572/26; a yellow railway warrant; a white embarkation order; a pink movement order; a check like a cloakroom ticket ordering the CO of one's Battalion to receive one. (Ibid., p. 38)
This passage calls to mind the following bit form Ernest Hemingway's WWI novel, A Farewell to Arms:
There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates. (Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms, p. 196)
Hemingway, too, experienced the intensity of a WWI battlefront. He volunteered for the Red Cross as an ambulance driver and was wounded on the Italian-Austrian front.

In the above excerpts, Hemingway and Ford put much (if not all) ethical discourse outside the limits of worthwhile language. They favour silence on such larger matters. Wittgenstein did something similar in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. 'Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.' And what one must be silent about is 'the mystical' (i.e., ethics and metaphysics).

If we agree with Ray Monk's assessment, the Tractatus's topics didn't include the mystical until after Wittgenstein's first experience of an intense battlefront. According to Monk, 'If Wittgenstein had spent the entire war behind the lines, the Tractatus would have remained what it almost certainly was in its first inception of 1915: a treatise on the nature of logic'.(Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius [London: Jonathan Cape, 1990], p. 137) Monk says that the book's scope expanded in June, 1916 to take in 'the mystical'. In that month, Monk adds, Wittgenstein's unit in the Austrian Eleventh Army took part in heavy fighting against the Russians and suffered 'enormous casualties'.(Ibid., p. 140) 'It was at precisely this time,' says Monk, 'that the nature of Wittgenstein's work changed'.(Ibid.)

Of course, the bulk of Wittgenstein's views developed before the War, and he was well acquainted with various pre-War forms of skepticism about language that had circulated in Austria (esp. in the work of Fritz Mauthner and Hugo von Hofmannsthal). But the Tractarian Wittgenstein didn't embrace the more general linguistic skepticism that one finds in Mauthner. For Wittgenstein, scientific language, especially language about observable matters of fact, was okay. His skepticism was more specifically directed at language about the mystical (inc. the ethical). Perhaps the trauma of his battlefront experience brought this side of his thinking to the fore and led to its inclusion in the Tractatus.

1 comment:

Jay A. Gupta said...

This is interesting, thanks. I think especially the Ford and Hemingway bits resonate with Kierkegaard's "subjectivity is truth". "Obscene" is the precise word for the tendency to substitute ethical abstraction for the profundity of certain kinds of experience, usually traumatic.