Saturday, May 19, 2012

`Face Gleaming Like Lamps'

Over at The Dabbler, Elberry concludes his review of Wittgenstein in Cambridge, Letters and Documents 1911-1951 like this:

“One could say, this book takes a close look at Wittgenstein’s face; and whether or not this will interest anyone, he was nonetheless a human being and so it may have value.”

Wittgenstein appeals to some of us precisely because our philosophical training is small or nonexistent. Much of his attraction is literary. The writing is flinty and gnomic, often more like koans than logical propositions, and seems fashioned not out of the philosophical tradition but his own fractured life. Mistakenly, we sense that all we need to understand him is to have lived, as Thoreau put it, deliberately. Elberry’s observation follows a passage he quotes from a letter Wittgenstein wrote in 1938 to a student studying to become a psychiatrist: 

“Look at your patients more closely as human beings in trouble and enjoy more the opportunity you have to say ‘good night’ to so many people. This alone is a gift from heaven which many people would envy you. And this sort of thing ought to heal your frayed soul, I believe. It won’t rest it; but when you are heathily tired you can just take a rest. I think in some sense you don’t look at people’s faces closely enough.”

Surely this is good advice for a future doctor and for the rest of us. From birth we learn to open and close our faces and to read the faces of others. Lately I’ve been looking at many books of photographs, and have observed the way I look at them. First, are humans present?  If so, I look at the faces and plumb the being behind the mask. Most of my attention is paid to the faces. Part of being human is assuming we have something in common with other humans. Sociopaths look for something else, evidence of their own superiority. In a crowd of strangers I look to the faces. Next week, when I land in Kraków, in a country I have never visited, where people speak a language alien to mine, it’s their faces I’ll read, hoping they’re composed in a dialect of Esperanto I understand. Adam Zagajewski, a poet who has spent much of his life in Kraków, writes in “Faces” (Unseen Hand, 2011):

“Evening on the market square I saw shining faces
of people I didn’t know. I looked greedily
at people’s faces: each was different,
each said something, persuaded,
laughed, endured.

“I thought that the city is built not of houses,
squares, boulevards, parks, wide streets,
but of faces gleaming like lamps,
like the torches of welders, who mend
steel in clouds of sparks at night.”


Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

Wittgenstein also said: "The human face is the best picture of the soul."

"Picture" isn't a perfect translation, the German is Bild which can mean different things, but you get the idea.