Sunday, 17 August 2014

A coldblooded attitude

Spirit of the Snake 

The text quotation, from Notebooks 1914-16, (N15.10.16), is distributed around the edges of this print in fragments parallel with each of the four sides.  In English, from upper left, anticlockwise round to the lower right, and in German from lower right to upper left: 

Only remember that the spirit of the snake, of the lion is your spirit 

For it is only from yourself that you are acquainted with spirit at all 

Now of course the question is why I have given a snake just this spirit 

And the answer to this can only be in the psychological parallelism: 

If I were to look like the snake and to do what it does then I should be such-and-such 

The same with the elephant, with the fly, with the wasp 

But the question arises whether even here, my body is not on the same level with that of the wasp and of the snake (and surely it is so), so that I have neither inferred from that of the wasp to mine nor from mine to that of the wasp 

Some writers have emphasised Wittgenstein’s underlying solipsism in his early philosophy and this would seem to be confirmed by the second line of the quotation above. 

In exploring the references in this print, Rosemary Miles offers an alternative starting point: 

A comment on the meaning of sign and symbol.  The image symbolises rather than represents the snake.  In 1962 Paolozzi and Kitaj painted ‘Warburg in New Mexico’.  Commenting on the picture, Kitaj quoted Fritz Saxl on Warburg’s experiences among the Indians: ‘the forming of a symbol like a snake, for lightning, must be understood as an act of enlightenment . . . the ‘like’ which keeps the two parts of the comparison distinct is omitted.  For (the Indian) lightning is the snake.  By equating the two it becomes possible to grasp the intangible.’ 

Here, ‘in action’ we are observing an example of a concept which cannot be expressed in language, (as a proposition), but only shown. 

Why are there two portrayals of Wittgenstein in the bottom left of this print?  Maybe this simply acknowledges that personality is multifaceted.  The full face image is of Wittgenstein at Trinity College, 1929, and the profile is his Fellowship portrait, 1930.  But, if a man can be more than one ‘character’ perhaps he can ‘be’ other creatures too? – i.e. assume the spirit of the snake/the shark/the salamander etc. 

Then, however, consider something fundamental to Wittgenstein: in childhood he was capable of lying and he pretended to his family that he was happy and cheerful.  As a young adult his outlook radically altered and crystalized into an enduring principle, as related in Ray Monk’s The Duty of Genius: 

Political questions, for him, would always be secondary to questions of personal integrity.  The question he had asked himself at the age of eight was answered by a kind of Kantian categorical imperative: one should be truthful, and that is that; the question ‘Why’ is inappropriate and cannot be answered.  Rather, all other questions must be asked and answered within this fixed point – the inviolable duty to be true to oneself. 

The determination not to conceal ‘what one is’ became central to Wittgenstein’s whole outlook.
In thinking about whether or not Wittgenstein would have deemed the idea of assuming the spirit of the snake relevant to truthfulness, another consideration intrudes: verbal references to snakes in idioms are often derogatory – snake in the grass; snake oil; lower than a snake’s belly; speaking with a forked tongue.

Whatever, here is an undeniably beautiful snake:


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