This is obviously a ridiculous ‘book of the year’ – it’s not really a book and I can only claim to have read it in the loosest sense. It also risks making me look hugely pretentious. But thinking about which books – of any kind, ever published – have stuck with me, I kept returning to the time I read (or tried to read) Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, translated from the German by David Pears and Brian McGuinness.
I was fourteen when my grandma died – cigarette in hand, holding a glass of wine. My grandad was in hospital at the time and died less than a year later. Though I still had family on my mum’s side, they lived far away in Indonesia. Suddenly I was aware that about a quarter of my immediate, nearby family were gone. Confused and lonesome already, I tipped into low-level depression. In the next year or so, I started picking up random books of philosophy. Maybe I saw it as a more respectable kind of self-help. At least, it seemed to make a virtue of cutting straight to the essentials. I wanted to understand the world and why it hurt, and soon I stumbled on the Tractatus, which announced on its first line: ‘The world is everything that is the case’. It was tough love, Wittgenstein-style.
A short text – the length of a poetry collection – arranged into numbered propositions (1, 1.1 . . . 2.01, 2.011), it was so blunt and compressed it read less like a book of philosophy than a series of sutras. Take this characteristic section:
2.024 Substance is what exists independently of what is the case.
2.025 It is form and content.
2.0251 Space, time and colour (colouredness) are forms of objects.
2.026 Only if there are objects can there be a fixed form of the world.
2.027 The fixed, the existent and the object are one.
It may not be the most scintillating passage, but its qualities seem clear. Terse yet expansive, gnomic yet precise, it’s weirdly consoling. It also demands a different kind of reading. Up till then I’d hardly read any poems beyond the ones I was forced to study at school. Now here was a text that made me want to read in a ‘poetic’ way, attentive to the flow of sentences, the pressure put on words like ‘substance’ and ‘form’. Wittgenstein’s aim, as he wrote in his Preface, was to discover ‘a limit to thinking’. And the world’s limits – this was mind-blowing to me – were always those of language itself (cf. proposition 5.6).
Afterwards, I found out how important poetry was to Wittgenstein (and how important his work was to lots of poets). In his posthumously published Philosophical Investigations, he writes that two different sentences can have the ‘same thought’ in common, but in a poem something ‘is expressed only by these words in these positions’. The poet Veronica Forrest-Thomson took this to heart. Her motto was from Wittgenstein: ‘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’.
But the Tractatus sticks with me because of what it meant to me then. One section, in particular, was luminous. It’s where Wittgenstein writes about how in death ‘the world does not change, but ceases.’ (6.431) The next sub-proposition explains what he means more literally: ‘death is not an event in life’ because it is ‘not lived through’ (6.4311). As we age and our eyesight dims, the world changes with our experience of it; when we die it just stops. This echoed exactly how I’d felt at my grandparents’ death. It was abrupt, prosaic. One second, we were all in the world together; the next, I was (still) and they weren’t.
Wittgenstein goes on to say something else. The flipside of the fact we can’t live through death is that our experience of the world is timeless – without an afterwards perspective, we have to confront the always-presentness of our lives. ‘Our life is endless,’ Wittgenstein writes, ‘in the way that our visual field is without limit.’ Reading this I imagined following the outer edge of the visible horizon, knowing that even if it was momentarily obscured by buildings, trees or clouds, it hadn’t gone. And sometimes, I remember, that’s a state reading can induce. It can remind us what it means to be free.