Use Is Life (a Wittgenstein cento in three parts)


a game   /everywhere bounded by rules

there is no outside; outside you cannot breathe

impressed by the possibility of a comparison

the more narrowly we examine   /the sharper   /the conflict

tracing round the frame

running   /up against the limits of language

language seemed to repeat inexorably

“I don’t know my way about”

we are   /entangled in our own rules

language   /like an engine idling

how high the seas run!


you are sitting at a loom   /going through the motions of weaving

a parrot understanding

designed for a god

thought is surrounded by a halo

we twist fibre on fibre

imagine a life-form

a bit of white paper with black lines on it

the picture of a man, or the man that the picture portrays?

where our language suggests a body and there is none

seduced into using a super-expression

reality in our net

tracing round the frame

language seemed to repeat inexorably

a pair of glasses   /it never occurs to us to take off

impressed by the possibility of a comparison

we predicate of the thing what lies in the method of representing it

to repair a torn spider’s web with our fingers

language goes on holiday


our language   /ancient city

words   /like well-known faces

we do not know the boundaries because none have been drawn

where is it said which way I am to follow?

you approach from one side and know your way about; you approach the same place from another side and no longer know your way about

running   /up against the limits of language

impressiveness retreats to   /illusions   /problems

we make detours, we go by side roads   /we see the straight highway before us, but cannot use it

“I don’t know my way about”

senseless   /withdrawn from circulation

we are   /entangled in our own rules

the axis   /must be rotated   /about the fixed point of   /need

a battle against the bewitchment of intelligence

clearing up the ground of language

what is hidden   /is of no interest to us

the series of examples can be broken off

explanations come to an end somewhere

the chain of reasons has an end

philosophy only states what everyone admits

in the sense in which I cannot fail to will, I cannot try to will either

back to the rough ground!

a multitude of familiar paths lead off from these words in every direction

as a man can travel alone, and yet be accompanied by my good wishes; or as a room can be empty, and yet full of light

All of the words, with the exception of the title, are by Wittgenstein, from Part 1 of the Philosophical Investigations. “The Boiler” refers to #466 and “Beetle in a Box” refers to #293. If anyone really wants it, I will provide a complete list.

This entry was posted in mockingbird poem, poem and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Use Is Life (a Wittgenstein cento in three parts)

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    Mark: I don’t know exactly how to think about this, but it’s fascinating. I’m particularly struck by this: “philosophy only states what everyone admits.” The struggle to put words to things, doomed to be imperfect, if not to fail utterly. Perhaps I’m off on my own track here, but this is where the poems seem to take me.

    • Hi Sue, and thank you for giving this a read. That phrase you picked out is a key to understanding the ‘Philosophical Investigations’. A similar one is, “philosophy leaves everything as it is.” Wittgenstein was not constructing a theory or an explanation of phenomena, but exploring how language is actually used, and how this close exploration reveals mistakes in perception about what we are actually doing and saying. “What everyone admits” is an interesting phrase, suggesting to me that what we need to know is just waiting to be revealed once the illusions are cast away; in a sense we already know it.

      I hope this cento is but the first step, and one or two more collage-poems from the PI will follow, and maybe those will be clearer or more enjoyable (one can hope!).

  2. angela says:

    Mark, I meant to revisit this the other night after I saw you post it and knew my mind was not ready to read Wittgenstein. That said, I’ve read, but not fully absorbed, but it is fun to see you do a bit of conceptual poetry which I didn’t know you did… was there a formula? Ironically, the day you posted this, that afternoon I had bought a copy of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus at the used bookshop and thought of you. These are not from that, though, correct… looking forward to the collage ~ a

    (as an aside, are you following Coursera’s Fiction of Relationship? Last weeks lectures on Kafka are causing me to pause. You are much better read on him than I, would love to know what you think of the professor’s interpretations..)

    • No formula. I’ve been reading the PI for years, keep forgetting what I need to know, sometimes even as I’m reading; this is a ladder I will apparently never throw away…. My desire was to make a poem using only Wittgenstein’s words, but without any concern for his philosophy, only poetic concerns. First I put all the words and phrases together that I wanted and when I looked at them found that I was thinking about the philosophy after all. So this cento is really about the philosophy. The next poem (I hope) will be closer to my first desire. I think it would be cool to make a poem with a strong form (say a villanelle) using only Wittgenstein’s words.

      I’m a big fan of the Tractatus. Many readers think there is a sharp distinction between that and PI, and although there are obvious differences, I think it’s a much richer experience to think about the similarities.

      I’m not taking that, or any, courses now. If you write about Kafka, I’ll be happy to riff on whatever you have to say. Thanks, as always, Angela, for your visit.

      • angela says:

        Rereading this before I turn, Mark, and have decided that Beetle In A Box resonates for me…thou, perhaps a bit bug obsessed. There is wisdom in each one of these, indeed. Funny, it took three reads to realize the words where “reality in our net” not “reality is our net”. I stare across the way at Tractatus and just went and grabbed Philosophical Grammer off the shelf (never to read, probably, but now…a bit more inspired to dig.)

  3. Bill Koch says:

    Mark, whether you intended to or not you have done one hell of a good job at capturing Wittgenstein’s insights here. Each is a lovely poem in itself that makes rich use of his suggestive way of writing, as if to show rather than explain. Wittgenstein has such a distinct way of writing, I really wonder if his language and finely crafted phrases/images can be disconnected from his philosophy. I would be interested in seeing any future experiments you offer.

    For some reason I particularly love “the axis /must be rotated /about the fixed point of /need”. It’s a lovely line of poetry, but it also raises a philosophical question about his work I hadn’t considered in precisely these terms. He focuses extensively on “use” but, and I think this is a point even he under-appreciated at times, standards of success and usefulness are going to be internal to language games as well. So questions about what games are good and what games are no longer, or never were, good can never be answered from neutral ground. This raises some serious problems for science and undermines the naturalism some people claim Wittgenstein held to. Need, however, seems to be something that points beyond the boundary of language games. Need is the territory where we risk starvation, or death from exposure to the elements. Need is the firm foundation on which many would ground “success” and “usefulness”. I wonder, however, if Wittgenstein does so ground language games. Is need a fixed point? Have you found much of a discussion of need in the “Philosophical Investigations”?

    Obviously the above isn’t a poetic critique, but simply a philosophical question. It may be that in that line from the last poem you turn Wittgenstein’s language against its former master.

    • I was struck by the poetic beauty of some of his phrases (like: “a multitude of familiar paths lead off from these words in every direction”), and sometimes his insights have to do with artistic practices such as picture-making, fiction and poetry. In truth, I initially wanted to avoid the philosophy per se because there are people far smarter than me that can discuss it. But since I found myself, with this first foray, focusing on the philosophy after all, I was keen to get your reaction.

      Need, it would seem to me, is a subjective criteria. Are your needs mine? Sometimes yes, I would suppose, and sometimes no. This is the difficult line W is always walking – between objective/subjective. He seems to approach this area, which I might provisionally describe as metaphysical, but since he can’t really say anything about it, he just takes you to the edge and encourages your mind to hang there – quite the way, I think, a good poem might do. It’s almost as though he wanted to be an artist, but his whole grounding was in the sciences.

      I second your observation that “standards of success and usefulness are going to be internal to language games as well”. I’m a bit out of my element, but it seems to me that a type of critique like Foucault’s might be more useful. He, at least, is highly attentive to the historical and local conditions of any statement. I’m afraid I have more questions than answers, and will be thinking about your response some more. It is very much appreciated.

  4. Bill Koch says:

    I’m not trying to advertise, honestly I am not, but I had a series of posts placing Wittgenstein and Foucault in debate with each other on my blog a few years ago. Unfortunately the discussion was motivated by an engagement with Meillassoux who I don’t believe you are familiar with, though I could be wrong. I include them here for the sake of offering one possible approach for bringing Wittgenstein and Foucault into relation with each other.

    The posts start with a quotation from Wittgenstein:

    and then follow with a discussion of Wittgenstein and Foucault on the idea of the “unthinkable”:

    • I’m glad you directed me back to the second post in particular. I had not read it the first time, along with Natasha’s and your comments, with the attention it deserved. Need does seem to emerge as a significant source of inquiry, but how to address it? No doubt we all tend to favor the discourses that suit our tastes. But I find the intersection of the philosophical with the poetic at the very least stimulating.

  5. Pingback: The Way Through the Rough Ground | The Mockingbird Sings

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.