Sunday, July 10, 2022

"Forbidding Paths: Interview with Robert Wood by Douglas Messerli" (on publishing Sun & Moon Press, Green Integer, and my several blogs)

forbidding paths: interview with robert wood by douglas messerli 

You started Sun & Moon Press in 1976 and published a number of poets who have subsequently become important figures from that time including Paul Auster, Charles Bernstein and Djuna Barnes. What led you to poetry and these types of poetry in particular? 

Of course, in the strictest sense, the works we published by Paul Auster and Djuna Barnes were not works of poetry. In the best of all possible worlds such distinctions would become quite meaningless, particularly since writers like Auster and Barnes are such remarkable stylists that their works do indeed often represent works of poetry, an exploration of language. I’d like that kind of break-down of barriers to be applied to the work of many writers, not just Stein, Joyce, and Beckett, for example, but for writers I published such as Wendy Walker, Fanny Howe, Lyn Hejinian, Jaimy Gordon, Steve Katz, John Hawkes, Mac Wellman, my own work!

    Yet I also consider myself as a sort of amateur expert on genres, so, it is apparent, I do find genres interesting, and the three writers you chose reflect three very different sources of influence that came to settle upon my Sun & Moon (and latter Green Integer) endeavors. The publication of Barnes, for instance, grew out of an accidental discovery of her previously unknown stories, plays, and journalistic pieces that I had made in the process of writing a bibliography for a graduate course. As I’ve written several times, I met with Barnes (one of the last interviews with her on record) and she—as much as such a purposely difficult contrarian could—blessed my possible publication of her early works. So, the several publications of her writings grew out of my youthful (even childhood) love of theater and short fiction and her own engagement with the theater world (which I had personally engaged, entirely from the long distance of Iowa from New York) which is revealed in her interviews and theatrical writings. So, in a sense, my publication of Barnes drew on the well that I had already been digging from childhood on in my 13 and 14-year-old readings of Ionesco, Pinter, Albee, Genet and others. Although I always claim no real experience of theater before moving to New York in 1969, I had long before (at age 15 or 16) stolen Genet’s The Blacks form a local Iowa City bookstore, had been reading the plays of these figures in Theatre Guild Magazine (who, today remembers that then-essential publication? In those pages I even read, can you imagine, the Australian play, Summer of the 17th Doll, by Ray Lawler from 1955, which survived a grand total of 27 performances in New York—bet even you never heard of that one?) and in books published by Grove Press, and I saw my first Ionesco play already by the age of 17 or 18 (The Killers) at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. So I was not totally an innocent when it came to theater. And Barnes’ writing (even her stories fit into the dramatic traditions of Synge, Wilde, and O’Neill, the latter of whom she worked with) perfectly fit that bill. Theater was my first love and fiction my second. So Barnes came, somehow, out of the past, quite literally! And then, to be able to actually link up with her and talk to her about her meeting the early naturalist American playwright David Belasco and the legendary acting couple Lunt and Fontanne….!” Well it was a magic link with a world I had embraced through the intellect only.

     Paul Auster and Charles Bernstein, on the other hand, were of other universes. First of all they were both my contemporaries. Auster I’d heard of, strangely enough, through the art world, but had never met him before he sent me copies of all three of the New York Trilogy volumes. When I realized that I never would be an actor (and since I’d never written dramas except in my imagination, where I composed not only plays but musical comedies), I had turned to fiction in college, and actually did some writing—enough, at least, to get me into a course of the University of Wisconsin with Isaac B. Singer. And, ultimately, my Ph.D. was in American and world fiction (believe it or not, a strange combination permitted by my very conservative University of Maryland English Department). So when I read Auster’s work, well these fictions were simply so innovative and original, and fit so perfectly with the integration of genres which I so admired, that I just had to publish them—despite the fact (which I did not know at the time) that nearly every major publishing house in New York had disparagingly dismissed them! It wouldn’t have mattered to me, of course, impervious as I was to agents and commercial publishers. For me to publish a book simply depended upon whether or not I loved the writing! It has been my way of publishing always. Folks kept writing, asking or not they might become “readers” for my “company.” I couldn’t even comprehend the question. How was I to make a decision based on the emotional responses of someone else. Similarly, writers kept suggesting that they might send selections from their works. What nonsense, I always wrote back. How could I know whether the work was any good if I hadn’t read the whole thing through? I didn’t know how eccentric I was! 

     And, finally, Charles, well…poetry was my last—or at least, latest—literary love. I hadn’t understood poetry until I became a student with the American scholar and hands-on critic Marjorie Perloff. But once I’d taken a course with her I’d become a convert—almost more religious than those who grow up in the faith. And I began writing poetry soon after. Only I didn’t yet know what it was I wanted to do with language. Everything I had produced seemed so utterly strange to most people; some suggesting that my works sounded as if they’d been translated from another language. That didn’t bother me a fig, of course: Stein wrote in Steinese, Barnes’s language did sound like it had been translated from another century and language; so did Hawkes and everyone else I liked. But, working as I did in collage, I hadn’t yet found my own voice, although William Carlos Williams had certainly given me some clues. Then I heard Charles Bernstein read, very early on, in Washington, D.C. And everything changed. That was a voice that sounded something like the one which I had heard inside myself—very American, highly literary and literate, but just as disjunctively expressed as were my own attempts. I didn’t need collage, I quickly realized, I just needed to think out loud. After a bit of social dancing, Charles and I quickly became fast friends.

     So, yes, in some senses, those three you asked about were all poets. But my recognition of their talents came from very different sources. I was already all over the planet without quite realizing that fact. But, truly, your question has pinpointed three major intersections of my interests, a past embroiled in theater, a later commitment to innovative fiction, and a more recent embracement of a more radical poetics: Barnes, Auster, Bernstein, a would-be early tributary of Sun & Moon Press, or, expressed another way, Stein, Steve Katz, Susan Howe/Carl Van Vechten, Russell Banks, Lyn Hejinian--a pattern repeated again and again. 

In that sense your own early writing, writing from this period, crossed genres successfully and there is a dialogue that takes place between poetry, performance and theatre. Can you discuss your relationship to other cultural expressions and how they worked with poetry? 

Well, my own earliest writing seemed to me to be trying out of my new concepts of poetry in the trilogy of Dinner on the Lawn, Some Distance, and River to Rivet; but what I didn’t know at the time is that I was already wavering widely between genres, Dinner was still devoted to a kind of abstract version of Williams’ ordinary speech, Some Distance represented a far more deeply autobiographical exhumation of my past, and River to Rivet, with its maxim-like introductions, was a kind of critical poetics, a subterranean declaration of poetic intent.

     From there everything only got more complex. As I said above, I love genres, and in works like Maxims from My Mother’s Milk/Hymns to Him I explored new ways to combine maxims with hymns, critical pronouncements with prayers, and a sense of matriarchal surety with patriarchal doubt  while still focusing, from a very strange angle, on a vaguely autobiographical narrative.

     After explored translation along with re-creation, a performance of the “imitation game” (which I now realize was so important for my generation of gay men) with an insistence upon breaking all the rules in order to “break through” in time, space, and, yes, with the body itself.

     Then I went “wild,” so to speak, freely combining fiction with film and poetry in Along Without, and drama, fiction, poetry and, most notably, performance (along with video) in The Walls Come True, etc.

     Ever since, I have realized that my work is so very difficult to assimilate because it never quite behaves. It always is striving to be something else than the reader might suspect. Just when you think you might have it pinned down—off Messerli goes on yet another tangent, throwing in 19th century melodramatic tropes in First Words just when we thought he was so “Language-poetry”-oriented, or, as in Between, asking other poets to play poetic chess with him. After years of being perceived as a kind of poet of wit (as perhaps you might describe another Sun & Moon discovery, Rae Armantrout), I become a moody romanticist in a work like Dark and in the yet-to-be-published volume Stay.

      After years of writing and waiting for my little audiences to follow up on what I’ve been doing, I suddenly realized that my poetry, just like my publishing, just like by fictions, dramas, and memoirs, are always lived in “between,” existing in the interstices of literature and interchanges between my personas as writer, publisher, performer, friend, wit, clown, etc. I might as well be invisible. But I certainly don’t try to be someone who exists between the lines. I just feel that sometimes that is where reality and experience really lies. So many writers I know get very focused early in their lives; they know what they can do best and they continue to do it, year after year after year. Never changing, or, perhaps, changing just enough to make their audiences feel they doing that same thing again but from a slightly new, original angle. Some of us, Charles Bernstein is similar in many ways, just keep popping up as something other than we are supposed to be. It’s worked for Charles; I’m not sure it has for me. To most, I’m still a publisher of the not-so-distant past. But actually I’m writer who does the same activity in publishing, performing, etc. I draw no lines between my amores.

After Sun & Moon folded, you started Green Integer. Green Integer has published some fantastic work in translation (such as Adonis’ If Only the Sea Could Sleep, which was one of my favourite titles) and some lesser known works by eminent authors (Freud, Musil, Joyce). What is the difference between these two presses? And how has publishing changed from when you first started forty years ago?

Actually, I began publishing the earliest of Green Integer titles while I was still publishing Sun & Moon. I had long wanted to try a less complex and more focused manner of publishing. Sun & Moon by that time had over 300 titles, and was a non-profit organization which requires numerous other activities and perspectives. I had a long-running salon series, a bookstore, and traveled to Frankfurt each year. Increasingly, over the past few years, I had begun to focus more and more of my attentions upon translation in Sun & Moon, in relation to Sun & Moon’s Classics series. And financially, it was becoming more and more difficult  to survive through publishing new American poets and fiction writers, particularly given the beautifully four-color-covered books I designed for Sun & Moon.

      Green Integer, it seemed to me, offered several simpler alternatives: each book, published in a small 6 x 4 ½ format, focused on the author alone (in a black-and-white cover photo), and identified itself, even through the Press name (a green integer or number), as being part of a series. The first couple of books I printed (using a few dollars I had put away through my own writing activities, not through Sun & Moon)—a book by Gertrude Stein and Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer—sold out immediately (we ultimately published 6 printings of the latter book). Meanwhile, we were selling fewer and fewer copies of our works of poets and fiction writers. Something had changed from the days of Paul Auster, Russell Banks, Steve Katz, etc. Newspapers such as The New York Times Book Review, who had previously reviewed nearly all of our new fiction titles, were now paying little attention to newer, experimental work. There was a new generation of book editors who professed interest only in the “popular,” and, I feel, also lost the audiences of the book review pages or sections (today there is only one American newspaper, The Times, with a separate book section).

     Moreover, I was tiring of the “nonprofit” world, wherein so much of my time was dedicated to writing grants and justifying what, given our remarkable track record, should have been apparent. Maybe I was just tired, after all those years of publishing. of the way in which I had been working.

     I loved Sun & Moon Press, but Green Integer offered me a new way of thinking and acting, a more immediate way to focus on important writers who would help to educate younger readers through course adoptions (I have always perceived my role as a kind of educator). Did I really need to promote the careers, to reiterate time and again the literary worth—as I had had to do for so many years—of writers like Stein, Oscar Wilde, Henri Michaux, Paul Celan, André Breton, Adonis, Sigmund Freud, César Vallejo, Knut Hamsun, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, Djuna Barnes, etc.? Generally, these books could sell well by virtue of their names alone, and then, I could slip in other, lesser known authors, whose work I felt was equally of value. And for a great many years that worked just fine.

     But then, one day, it appeared that even Céline, Ford Madox Ford, or Thomas Mann were no longer selling. Something quite radical had happened in American reading habits. These days, many of our Green Integer titles find difficulty in the bookstores. Publishing even what might be described as “classics” no longer assures anyone of sufficient sales, alas. The barbarians have long ago crawled over the gates. What sells as literature today is….let us just say it lies outside of my definition of what is interesting. If I sound like an old man, I do apologize. I’m open to all sorts of writing…but am simply disinterested in much work that seems to fascinate today’s audiences—younger and older. And I am afraid that the kind of innovative poetry and fiction Sun & Moon (and, to a lesser degree, Green Integer) published is a thing of the past.  


At various times in your life you have lived in Philadelphia, Washington, Wisconsin, New York and for an extended and ongoing period Los Angeles. How do you think America as an idea, as a frame, as a place has influenced your own writing? And what do you think of as the defining characteristic of the American avant garde?

Oh my, I don’t know how even to begin to cogently answer that question. Yes, I’ve lived in most parts of the USA—except for the South! And even then, since I used to be a literary Southernist in the early days of my teaching career, you might argue that I have imaginatively lived there as well (although I do think imagining it is quite enough!). I love the US, and I cannot imagine writing in any other language than American, so very different from English. And I love my numerous friends who live across many states.

     Yet, I do think that if I were younger and didn’t happen to live with a man (for, now, 45 years), who no longer likes to travel, I would have exiled myself to Paris or Rome (and I can think of many other Italian cities), maybe even Sydney or Melbourne. The US is so wed to violence and political and social discord that, frankly, I can see no way out—at least in my life time. Yes, we all know that violence can occur anywhere, but the difference is that in Paris or Copenhagen it still comes as a shock. Here we’ve so assimilated it that even the deaths of dozens of school children result in little but a societal series of “tskings.” And, yes, literary values are changing throughout the world, but the Europeans (let’s forget the British who never really “cottoned” much to the literary avant-garde) still find a way to embrace and value the experimental.

     On the other hand, I live quite apart from what appears to be the typical American milieus. And I absolutely love my big paradise, Los Angeles. I felt at home here the moment we moved west from Washington, D.C. While East Coast cities may feel themselves to be the center of the universe, Los Angeles allows you to feel the links the US truly has to the rest of the planet, many of whose former citizens have moved here. There’s something liberating about living in a city whose major language is Spanish and where Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Farsi and numerous other languages are commonly spoken. What New Yorkers seldom realize, for example, is that Los Angeles has enormously rich art, theater, and music scenes that are perhaps even more vital that it’s touted cultural contribution, film.

     I’d love to explore your final question about a particular notion of US avant-gardism (I try to avoid the word, American, since that represents several other different countries and cultures), which I do believe once existed, but no longer does; but I don’t dare to embark on such a journey in these brief paragraphs. Maybe someday I’ll attempt to answer your question, a very important one, in an essay or two.

For readers unfamiliar with your work you blog on a regular basis and this covers sociological observations, cultural reviews and a whole host of other experiences. You are also working on some major new projects, including a large stories project. Can you discuss briefly for us some of your current and future directions?

Thank you for asking that question, since it is connected to how I now spend most of my time. I’m not really that interested in “blogs,” but they are useful in introducing very large audiences (my poetry, PIP, blog, for example, has over one half million hits, and my film blog as almost as many) from around the world to my cultural writings.

     Since 2005, rocking backwards and forwards out of the cradle, as I joke, I have written cultural memoirs, writing on new works of theater, dance, art, music, film, TV, fiction, poetry, politics and numerous other topics in single volume publications. It now totals 15 volumes from 2000 to the present, and hopefully will continue until I can no longer write or think.

     It began from the insistence of some of my friends such as Mac Wellman that I needed to write an autobiography, particularly given the fact that I have known so many major world figures in the arts. But I couldn’t imagine focusing all that energy on myself. As I said earlier in this interview, I am naturally drawn to being in “between” things. So I determined each year to write serious “review-like” essays (but much more thoughtful and personal than newspaper or magazine reviews) about the cultural events I experience each year—and in the longer past—and then adding further insights, generally in italicized passages, on the occasions when I personally knew the artists, recalling our meetings and recounting our specific experiences.

     Suddenly in writing these volumes I began attending and commenting on more and more cultural events each year until now it has truly consumed my life, and only a small portion of the many essays I write annually can be assimilated into the MY YEAR volumes. Accordingly, my six blogs (one for general subjects, the Green Integer blog; a second for film, World Cinema Review; another for poetry, The PIP (Project for Innovative Poetry) blog; one for fiction, EXPLORINGfictions; another for art, Art Là-bas; one for theater, etc, USTheater, Opera, and Performance; and a final one for a vaguely-conceive US masterworks, which is a kind of commentary on what I think is important in US culture). Since finances determine that I cannot publish all of these quickly (only five have been published as printed books to date, although I plan another two this year), my blogs offer a way to share these numerous writings.

     What I also began to perceive in writing these thousands of essays is that—particularly since, as I argue above, we are losing our cultural heritage—it is crucial that some of us attempt to reclaim or simply document our times, to help to explain to the rest of century what we who were born near mid-century 2000 were thinking and how our generational perspective influenced that thinking. Without a history of letters and journals, it may be possible that history itself, in some respects, is ultimately wiped away. I even save e-mails, but I don’t imagine many people do these days. So how will we tell our stories to future generations? Will we and all our artifacts simply be forgotten as libraries turn more and more to the immediate and popular needs of the culture? Well, these are some of the questions my annual memoirs privately address. And I’ve almost discovered a new life in the process. If I’d had known as much in my first 50 years as I have learned in the past 10, I can only imagine what I might have been able to achieve and communicate. So who knows, what’s ahead? Death, obviously; but every day presents so many possible directions in which life can lead. I’m sure that as long as I can I’ll trot down many winding paths, particularly ones that are overgrown and slightly forbidding.

Los Angeles, February 5-18, 2015

Reprinted, in abridged form, from Work & Tumble [Australia]


Monday, May 16, 2022

Douglas Messerli | "The Redeeming Word" (on Ludwig Wittgenstein's Private Notebooks 1914-1916, edited and translated by Marjorie Perloff)

the redeeming word

by Douglas Messerli


Ludwig Wittgenstein Private Notebooks 1914-1916, Edited and Translated by Marjorie Perloff (New York: Liveright, 2022)


What was the important 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein really like as a human being? Although we have a provocative film by Derek Jarman about him (1993), a fine fiction concerning the man by Bruce Duffy, The World As I Found It (1987), and we have numerous observations from the many students, biographers, admirers, detractors, and acolytes who met him or simply report second-hand, describing him in various terms—"He was very impatient and easily angered” (Norman Malcolm); at times he is "absolutely sulky and snappish"(David Pinsent); Wittgenstein was a tormented soul who made little effort to be liked (Ray Monk); “Both he and his setting were very unnerving. His extraordinary directness of approach and the absence of paraphernalia were the things that unnerved people” (Iris Murdoch); “he used his power over people to extract worship” (Alice Ambrose), while others describe him as somewhat affable at moments, a man who loved popular films and reading detective stories.  Although Ambrose also noted that there was “a very great deal in him to love, there were as many others such as Elizabeth Anscombe who apparently believe that all that truly matters is the philosophical writing itself, even though much of Wittgenstein’s thinking was left unpublished at the time of his death since his was a commitment to an ongoing revelation of thought that could never be entirely completed except with death.  Other than his   first book, Tractatus Logico-Philosphicus (1922), he produced, as Marjorie Perloff tells us, “approximately 20,000 pages of manuscript and typescript,” some of it almost ready for publication. The final volume that was assembled by his former students, disciples. and editors became Philosophical Investigations. Yet, for Anscombe the entire focus on Wittgenstein should necessarily be on these philosophical writings with no attention at all to his corporeal being, an argument arising, it appears, from the solipsistic position that since she does not fully understand Ludwig, no one else should attempt to:


“If by pressing a button it could have been secured that people would not concern themselves with his personal life, I should have pressed that button.... Further, I must confess that I feel deeply suspicious of anyone’s claim to have understood Wittgenstein. That is perhaps because...I am very sure that I did not understand him.”


    Surely there is a certain logic to Anscombe’s thinking. I myself have noted that among my friends a person of special genius produces various contradictory reactions in others, some finding this remarkable writer and raconteur to be off-putting and dismissive, others angry that their brilliant acquaintance doesn’t allow them equal time in conversations to express their own views; some outrightly hate the intelligent friend, demeaning any expressed viewpoints more out of envy it appears than actual logic; and still others sit quietly at the feet of my genius friend in dumb admiration. None of these reactions seem appropriate to the person I know well and love. But that is always the way with individuals of genius or any kind of notable eccentricity.

      Does it truly matter that the philosopher was also a living, breathing being who had sometimes very ordinary habits and desires? Other than our fascination in any celebrity’s ordinariness isn’t it the art, writing, dance, music, acting, or thinking that is paramount?

      Of course it does very much matter. We want our gods always to be slightly fallen messes of human frailties so that we are not made to feel that their gifts were out of reach for us ordinary human beings. And we like to imagine how someone very much like us might also have been able to accomplish all the other things he or she did. Perhaps if, like Charles Dickens or Leo Tolstoy, the latter a writer who Wittgenstein very much admired, the philosopher had simply had a wife whom he deeply loved, cheated on, or maltreated no one might make an issue of Wittgenstein’s private life once a biographer a biographer had provided us with all the juicy tidbits.

       But so much of Wittgenstein’s private life remains unknown and unexplored, and as we have begun to discover in the years since his death, much of this was not his own doing as it was a series purposeful acts by those to whom he entrusted his manuscripts and others who have kept still in their biographical studies, it clearly becomes even more important that we need to know as much about the man as we can, even if that is highly selective and limited information.

      This particular genius, moreover, was not only a queer human in the sense of being an odd fellow, something we might well expect of a great intellect, but was queer in the 20th century use of that term, a homosexual, which has been well documented in his commentary and remarks.

       And as Marjorie Perloff suggests, without putting it as bluntly as I now do, the Austrian-born philosopher who spent most of his days in England was the subject of homophobia and the resistance to the revelation of his sexuality that always travels along with that state of mind. In 1954 the editors of what came to be called The  Nachlass—the collection of Wittgenstein’s unpublished notebooks, ledgers, typescripts, and collection of clippings—decided to publish his notebooks written during his service in World War I from 1914-1916, what was left along with three of four other such notebooks of the same period which were missing, “lost or destroyed.” But as Perloff notes, “they chose only those sections they regarded as philosophically relevant,” excluding the entries of the verso side of the notebooks which were coded, acceding perhaps the master’s suggestion of “Keep Out,” although the code was an easy one that Wittgenstein had used as a child with his sisters in which a is replaced by z, b by y, etc. The 1961 edition, published by Blackwell (later by the University of Chicago Press in 1979) contains only the right-hand pages, without giving any evidence of what is missing.

      When later in the 1960s the executors were trying to decide what to do with the coded remarks for a new Cornell microfilm edition of the Nachlass, another of the three executors, Rush Rhees commented:


“I wished (and do) that W. had not written those passages. I do not know why he wanted to; but I think I do understand in a way, and I understand then also why he chose this ambiguous medium. I fear especially that if they are published by themselves—not in the contexts (repeat: contexts) in which they were written; so that what was a minor and occasional undertone to Wittgenstein’s life and thinking, will appear as a dominant obsession.”


      The phrase “minor and occasional undertone,” Perloff perceptively argues refers to Wittgenstein’s expression of “sexual (specifically, homosexual) desire.” To solve their dilemma, Perloff tells us, quite shockingly, first a microfilm of the entire manuscript was produced, and then a second was made in which the coded remarks were blacked out. Scholars saw the expurgated copy only.

      The third of Wittgenstein’s literary executors, G. H. von Wright, however, took a different tack and published a book of 1,500 remarks from different manuscripts of Wittgenstein to express the philosopher’s views on “culture and value,” published in German as Vermischte Bermerkungen in 1977. The bilingual, German/English edition of this book has gone through several printings, and Perloff finds it inevitable, accordingly, that given this focus on Wittgenstein’s cultural values that his private notebooks might also draw, as it did, the attention of readers. The Private Notebooks were finally published—transcribed from the code cracked by Alois Pilcher and fellow scholars— by Wilhelm Baum under the title Geheime Tagebūcher, published in Vienna in 1991.

       Elizabeth Anscombe immediately sued, which basically banned the book until in 2014 Baum changed the title to Wittgenstein im Ersten Welkrieg along with new introductory material explaining the context of his book. But by this time, after major biographies by Brian McGuinness and Ray Monk, the actual edition of the private notebooks was basically ignored. And in his comments about them Monk downplays any essential significance, suggesting that Wittgenstein was not as uneasy about homosexuality as he was about sex itself. “Sexual arousal, both homo- and heterosexual, troubled him enormously. He seemed to regard it as incompatible with the sort of person he wanted to be.”

      Yet for the years after Wittgenstein’s death, his most private and personal of works remained unavailable in English until this year’s wonderful translation of Private Notebooks 1914-1916, by Perloff, published in a bi-lingual by Liveright.

       That does not mean that we suddenly have a true revelation of the “gay” Wittgenstein, if there was ever such a being. Even uncoded, Wittgenstein’s notebooks are written in a kind of code, a decorum that simply refuses to fully discuss many things, and not just of the sexual kind. But certainly this is not the sort of daily diary that any straight doughboy might have kept—or even a homosexual one such as Wilfred Owen.*

        First of all Wittgenstein, who might easily have been given a medical exemption and because of his family wealth and social standing surely could have served as an officer, chose instead to enlist as an ordinary foot soldier in the Austro-Hungarian Empire Army serving as a searchlight orderly on a boat, the Goplana, crawling up and down the Vistula River from Kraków to Gdańsk, almost always under the watch and gunfire of the Russian enemy. Wittgenstein had no political allegiances and at one point in the notebooks even proclaims that the British will surely win being a superior people. And he had previously given away most of his inheritance to poets and writers selected by an agent, having little knowledge of contemporary poetry.

          It is clear, given these strange decisions, that the young thinker saw the experience as a kind of crucible in which to examine his own life to see if he might survive the kind of moral intensity he would have to undertake in order to truly examine meaning as he intended to. Accordingly, he wrote a personal record of that experience while simultaneously attempting to get to the heart of issues in which his philosophy would take him: “What cannot be said, cannot be said,” later expressed in Tractatus as “Of what one cannot speak, of that one must be silent.” He hoped that by the end of his service, if he survived, that he might be made over into another man, which he finally comes to realize by the Notebook’s end, which he has indeed become simply as a survivor.

        That does not mean that he does not express the pain he suffers. Like any soldier, for much of the time he is simply worn out from the terrible sleeping accommodations and the long nights he is made to stand duty, usually alone without a properly working searchlight. And the vast majority of the entries are devoted to the “pack of rogues,” tough, uneducated thugs from the far reaches of the Austro-Hungarian Empire such as, Perloff suggests, “the provinces of Serbia or eastern Hungary” all too ready to make fun of the somewhat effeminate book-reading effete (his voice was described as a “ringing tenor”) who probably was equally dismissive of and aloof from them. Given the intensity of their torment it is also apparent to any gay individual who has been bullied that they knew he was a homosexual.

       Indeed, any gay reader will recognize in passage after passage of these strange notebooks an understated representation of gay bullying and determined denigration. No matter what his opinion is of them, it clearly hurts, and ultimately ends in his deep depression, having perhaps never before encountered so many coarse beings who he describes as seemingly “non-human.”

      Just a few random passages from Private Notebooks makes it clear how much this becomes a repeated theme. He begins good naturedly enough, recognizing how ridiculous his position is:




“I’ll need a great deal of good humor and philosophy to feel at home here. When I woke up this morning, I felt as if I were in the middle of one of those dreams in which, for no reason at all, you are suddenly sitting in a schoolroom. Given my position, there is of course much to laugh at & I perform the most menial tasks, smiling ironically.”


     But quite soon, the complaints show his inability to keep either humor or philosophize about the situation.




“Day before yesterday at the captain’s. I was quite rattled & didn’t appear appropriately military to him. He was a little sarcastic toward me and I didn’t find him very likeable.”




“Again: the stupidity, insolence and malice of this bunch knows no limits. Every job turns into torture.”




“Yesterday a terrible day. In the evening the searchlight would not function. As I was trying to fix it, I was interrupted by my shipmates with shouts and catcalls etc.”




“Night before last, terrible scenes: practically everyone drunk.”




“Yes. again: it is infinitely hard not to take a stand against the malice of human beings! For the malice of beings inflicts a wound every time.”


     A year later things have obviously gotten even worse:




“Am morally blank; but I see the enormous difficulty of my position and so far, it is entirely unclear to me to how to correct it.”




“Talked to Gürth today about my humiliating position. No decision yet.”




 “My situation is still not resolved. My mood very variable.—.”


     And for days after, he repeats again and again, “Situation unresolved.” Indeed we wonder at moments whether or not some of the problems stem from his own sexual responses to the other crew members; at one point later in the Notebooks Wittgenstein suggests that things have become very tense with a Lieutenant and that it may come to a duel. Interestingly, in the midst of these cries for help, he still expresses his sexual feelings, an odd placement for them.




“Situation unresolved! = . Mood wary but dark.—”


     The very next day:




Strongly sexually aroused. Undecided. Restless in spirit.=.


     And the following days he writes still of an unchanged “situation.” That this “situation” and his sexual arousal is somehow connected is made even more clear when a few days later he receives a letter from his beloved friend and student David Pinsent:




“Lovely letter from David yesterday!— ....Replied to David. Feeling very aroused.” (Compare this with the entry from 21.12.14.: “A letter from David!! I kissed it.”)


And his feeling of arousal continues over the next few days.

      In short, the pattern is quite clear: like so very many bullied gay school boys, the torture  appears to alternate with sexual desire, perhaps even for one of his bullies, a kind of early S & M syndrome, which would explain, if true, what William Warren Bartley’s biography of Wittgenstein claims, to have unearthed evidence of the philosopher’s taste for “rough trade” in a Viennese park.

      The tension between these two forces as expressed in these notebooks is not dissimilar from the pulls between his belief in God and a denial of religion that is very much at the heart of Wittgenstein’s philosophical undertakings—characterized in these notebooks as “my work” meaning his writing, not his activities as a soldier—that activity itself being generally expressed in an alternating pattern of progress and a complete breakdown, days of good work followed by an inability to move on. One might be tempted, in fact, to describe Wittgenstein as being somewhat like a manic depressive, with a pattern of remarkable achievement before collapsing into near despair.

      If these personal expressions, however, still seem ambivalently expressed even with the code broken we must also ask ourselves how could they not be so at a time when homosexuality was outlawed in both England and Germany (paragraph 175 of German penal code was not abolished until 1994, and despite the later openness of homosexuality in Weimar Germany after the War, British law required imprisonment and other punishments until section 28 was abolished in 2000). One need only to recall the evident suicide of another Cambridge University genius, Alan Turing to realize the consequences of openly expressing one’s homosexuality.**

       In fact, Wittgenstein appears to be quite open about his homosexuality with regard to his trip to Vienna with his commander. Returning to his home city, he mentions his mother and family only in passing, but makes an important note to himself: “Let me note here that my moral standing is now much lower than it was at Easter.” (2.1.15), which to me reads as an obvious statement of having had some sexual encounters while in the city. One can only wonder, moreover, if his “moral standing” has anything to do with Gürth, who in describes in the entry from 10.1.15, “Had many very pleasant hours with Gürth. Am very curious about my future life.—.” Or, perhaps, it is more connected with his repeated trips to the baths, which even though were universally used by men and women to get a thorough cleansing of the body in the days before some had indoor plumbing, were even then a place where one could engage in same-sex activities in the gender-separated sweating rooms and pools.

    And, finally, any gay male would recognize that it was highly unlikely that a heterosexual doughboy would note again and again throughout the Private Notebooks every time he masturbated. If a straight soldier were even to keep such a diary it might surely be full of the visits he made on return to Krákow to the brothels or a woman’s apartment, but surely would not record for himself his masturbatory habits as does Wittgenstein. I may be mistaken, but appears to me that young heterosexual males don’t like to even talk about masturbation since it presumes that they are unable to find sex with a female, and might hint of sexual abnormality.

     Far from Monk’s assertion that sexual arousal “troubled him enormously,” this Wittgenstein seems very much fascinated by it, perhaps by the fact that he even could continue to fantasize a sexual object successfully enough to masturbate; despite the tortures his fellow “rouges” put him through, he still could get aroused, or today as we might describe, he still remained quite sexually horny.

     This is clearly not a record of his humiliations or misdemeanors but almost a listing of his abilities to retain his sexual identity despite what he describes in these self-reflective works, which up until the end of these writings haunt him: “Not in the best of health and sick to my soul as a result of the bigotry and meanness of my compatriots” (6.18.16). To the very end Wittgenstein is aware of his being queer, different and hated by those around him for simply who he is. But he has survived and by the end of the Private Notebooks seems to have answered his question of 1.6.15, “Is there a priori an order in the world, and if so, of what does it consist?

       On 12.8.16, answers: “The ‘I’ makes its appearance in philosophy by means of the idea that the world is my world. / This is connected with the fact that none of our experience is a priori. / Everything we see could be otherwise.

       19.8.16: “Surrounded by viciousness. God will help me,” he closes with a sense of hope, even if as he earlier comments: “The redeeming word...has not yet been articulated.” (p. 149), which I can only imagine, if such a word does exist, to be “liebe, love.”  

       In the end, accordingly, Wittgenstein’s personal life does very much matter, not only because it has helped lead him to his philosophical revelations, but shows us a suffering yet enduring and even resilient individual battling the sexual bigotry around him. It angers me when I am told by others, accordingly, that these issues don’t matter in the life of a thinker I so very much admire. I am not interested in his sexuality for prurient reasons but for the fact that he did think it worth his keeping a record of his personal engagement with a world which he had been ill-raised to confront but with which he obviously deemed it necessary to engage.

      The fact that even a “god,” as John Maynard Keynes (himself a gay man) described him, had to endure harassment for being gay in his own life, and suffered yet more homophobia by his beloved followers and admirers, and now even after Perloff’s important contribution, is still being denied the truths he himself recorded*** reveals that homosexuality is still a troubling topic for many in our society. The advances many gays have made in the last several decades is being threatened anew in the US and throughout the world.


*Owens wrote back from the war:  “There are two French girls in my billet, daughters of the Mayor, who (I suppose because of my French) single me out for their joyful gratitude for La Déliverance. Naturally I talk to them a good deal; so much so that the jealousy of other officers resulted in a Subalterns’ Court Martial being held on me! The dramatic irony was too killing, considering certain other things, not possible to tell in a letter.”


**Three of Wittgenstein’s brothers committed suicide, which helps to explain some of his final entries about suicide in Private Notebooks. In two instances, the reasons for the brothers’ deaths seem vague, but in his brother Rudi’s case, he was known, before his drinking a glass of milk and potassium cyanide in a Berlin bar, to have what a friend described as a “perverted disposition.” Shortly before, he evidently sought advice from the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, an organization campaigning against Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code, which prohibited homosexual sex.


***An anonymous reader on Amazon wrote almost as much as Perloff has in her short section introductions and final essay to this book in an attempt to browbeat the critic and deter any potential reader for her having even suggested that Wittgenstein was a homosexual. His or her running thesis is “This book is mostly Perloff’s attempt to conjure and reify Wittgenstein as a homosexual. She does this without evidence and by implication, inference, insinuation, leaps in logic, fake causality, association, and by saying “no doubt” and “of course” a lot. What she lacks in evidence, she attempts to make up for by brow-beating the reader into submission and agreement. For some reason she wants Wittgenstein to have been a homosexual. Her narrow personal agenda, in this regard, casts a pall over this book. She abdicates her responsibility. She disrespects the reader and she disrespects Wittgenstein and his legacy.”

      I laughed heartily at these comments since most readers have now long know of the philosopher’s sexual preference, the subject even of a movie by note director Derek Jarman. The homophobia of this review is so obvious that it is quite frightening.

      Does he or she imagine that the Wittgenstein’s coarse military compatriots are mocking and abusing him for his proper use of German or his ability to speak English, for his refined manners, or something similar? These are generally not the sources of the kind of bullying he implies.


Los Angeles, May 15, 2022

Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (May 2022)


Monday, January 24, 2022

Douglas Messerli | "The Double Room" (after Baudelaire)

The Double Room

                              (after Baudelaire)

some rooms are like dreams, spiritual rooms, where the dense air is tinted blue and pink.

There the soul can bathe in indulgence fragranted by desire and regret as at twilight, when all the blues become roseate, a sensate dream in eclipse. The furniture, elongated, languid, almost prostrate, seems to be dreaming itself, endowed with that somnambulistic existence we attribute to vegetables and precious rocks. Even the hangings speak the silent language of the heavens, of flowers, of suns about to set. 

No abomination of art upon the walls. Compared to the dream, to the obscure impression, art, with its statements, is blasphemy. In this room everything is bathed in a vagueness that produces harmony itself. 

An infinitesimally scant scent, exquisitely chosen, mingled with the slightest small of damp, floats through this hothouse environment, cradling the spirit in sleep. 

Over the window and bed muslin in diaphanous masses cascades into snowy cataracts. And on the bed lies the Idol, sovereign of my dreams. How has she come to be here? What magic power has placed her upon the throne of so much contemplation, so much pleasure? Does it matter? She is there, and I genuflect.

Yes, it is her eyes from which the flame pierces the darkening sky; those subtle and terrible spheres which I recognized by their aw-inspiring spite. They attract, subjugate, devour the gaze of the impudent. How often have I studied those black stars, arousing in me so much curiosity—and admiration. 

To what benevolent demon do I owe all this mystery, silence, perfume, peace? O yes! What we usually call life, even at its fullest and happiest hours, cannot compare to what I now experience, minute by minute, instant by instant. 

No! There are no more minutes, no seconds left! Time has disappeared. It is Eternity, an Eternity of pleasure that rules now. 

But on the door a knock, a resounding clamor of the fist, and I, as in some infernal nightmare, feel a pitchfork being stuck into my gut.

Enter the ghost, a sheriff come to torture me in the name of the law; or an infamous whore come with accusations to add to the petty pleasure of her life and the sorrow of mine; or a boy from the newsroom sent by the editor to back the sequel to my last installment.

That paradisiacal room along with the Idol, sovereign of my dreams (my Sylphid, as the great René used to say), all that enchantment has vanished with the brutal knock. 

How awful! I remember. Yes, now I recall! This filthy hovel, the dwelling place of boredom is my own. Look at those stupid, dusty, dilapidated tables and chairs; no fire in the hearth, without even embers, soiled by spittle. And these excuses for windows with furrows traced by the rain across their muck; manuscripts half-erased; the almanac wherein my pencil has circled sinister dates. 

And that intoxicating perfume wafting from a world beyond this? The stank of stale tobacco commingled with the sickening of must has taken its place. A rancid smell of waste. 

In this narrow world, so full of disgust there is but one object of delight: a vial of opium, my terrible, old love, who like all mistresses, alas, betrays me as often as she takes me to her breast. 

O yes, Time has returned to be reinstated as the sovereign lord of this place. And with him his entire retinue of Memories, Spasms, Fears, Agonies, Nightmares, Nerves, Rages, and Regrets, all have come back.

I can assure you that every second now is accented strongly by the clock, each after each calling out, “I am Life, unbearable, unmerciful Life!” 

One second only in the lives of men announces good news, and that news puts terror into the heart of every man. 

Yes, Time again rules; he has resumed his tyranny. He pokes me with his fork-shaped prod as if I were an ox: “Move on, you beast! Sweat, slave, sweat! Live and be damned!”