The Man is the Work?


Reading the biography of your intellectual guru comes as a sobering experience. I’ve always thought the relation between the man and the work should remain a mystery, forever hidden behind the myriad mundane and not-so-mundane details of the few decades they have spent in this life. The more you know about the author, the more they emerge ‘just like everyone else’; with despicable habits, preposterous beliefs, and faults. The image of the flawless genius collapses, and with it the charm of the work, a charm you now realise was partly constituted by the enigma of the author-figure, the super-human thinker. I can no longer recall my favourite arguments in the Philosophical Investigations or the autistic arrangement of the Tractatus without simultaneously being moved by the selfish, egotistic, obsessive, and indecisive nature of the author, Ludwig Wittgenstein, traits I don’t particularly appreciate or consider justifiable no matter the magnitude of the work such a personality produced.

Perhaps this problem holds only if you believe that the Man is the Work. We can ask ourselves: what is the relation between the author and the text, the finished product and the life of the person who produced it? Could we reduce the disclosure of ideas in print to the whole context of the author; his life, habits, temperament, personality, failures, successes, and so on? The answer to this depends on the relation we think obtains between the author and the epoch he thinks and writes in. From a certain perspective the author is only the manipulator of already existing ideas; his skill lies precisely in his ability to crystallise an epoch, to shine a new and clear light on a certain historical thought-space, giving us all the illusion of the creation of new knowledge, when all he has done was point to a new way of seeing what is already there. The author then is the tool, the confluence, the nimbus, the centre of transformation. The work thus produced is independent of the author, what he has been through has no bearing on the ethical status of the work, no more than a carpenter’s misgivings should move us to consider a chair worthy or otherwise.

From a purely matter-of-fact point of view, however, it is fairly obvious that Wittgenstein’s circumstances and personality where directly involved in his ability to conceive of the ‘language-games’; if he hadn’t read Otto Weigner as a teenager, if he hadn’t developed an intellectual antagonism to Bertrand Russell, and more generally if he hadn’t been selfish and self-absorbed, ‘language-games’ may have never entered the philosophic vernacular. This much is true. But this doesn’t prove that the work is purely a consequence of Wittgenstein’s person, unless of course you are a believer in creation, in the emergence of completely new ideas, ideas that fall back on nothing, are a synthesis of nothing, and are an extension or modification of nothing. Pure creation, however, is a meaningless notion. What is purely created would have nothing to tie it to our world. Any apparent creation must be grounded in already existing beliefs if it is to be understandable, and importantly if it is to appear as a creation in the first place, as something new, as novelty. We are thus subject to culture, to history; we are not creators but consumers of ideas, ideas grounded in place and time.

This might seem a depressing conception of the role of the author; instead of pure creation we find manipulation of what is already there. Instead of revelation we find grounded insights. But the role of the author is not to create new ideas; it is to live and think in a certain way so as to be able to move us into seeing an aspect of the world differently. The intended effect is not to be found in ideas but in the minds and lives of everyone who encounters the text, and who are thus moved in fundamental and important ways. This is the beauty of the text; it’s independence of whatever plans the author had for it. And it is this role of the author, the author as mover of minds, where his life and personality emerge as crucial, for not everyone is able to move others in such a way.

In this context I recall Rosanov’s conception of the humanities to involve “the author understanding his existence in terms of its general significance”. This dialectic, at once historically grounded yet personally shaped and motivated, is the only way to come up with a work that has the potential of moving people to think differently, to reconsider their values, and the whole purpose and meaning of their lives. Wittgenstein’s later work had this effect on me, and not because the text embodies his life, but because his life was lived in a way that made the text possible, irrespective of what I think of his personality and values. In the meantime, however, please hide from me all biographies of Dostoevsky.