Joshua Calladine-Jones reviews a collection of poetry that spars with the Wittgensteinian.
Signe Gjessing, Tractatus Philosophico-Poeticus, translated by Denise Newman (Lolli Editions, 2022), 41pp.
In 1921, Ludwig Wittgenstein borrowed a title from Baruch Spinoza: Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, a morphosis of Spinoza’s 1670 Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. One hundred years later, Danish poet Signe Gjessing also borrows the triple-barrelled title for her own Tractatus Philosophico-Poeticus, in a slim edition that has always-already been waiting to happen. It seems every other reader of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus notices its poetic potential, its exacting scale, its attempt to clarify the alpha and the omega. Doubtless, Gjessing was once one of those readers. And she has set herself no small objective: even her introduction is a manifesto on this prophetic job:
If a poem is considered an accumulation of logical units, a proposition
that follows the concept of the world should be unsayable since the
world ascribes the meaning: Everything that exists.
The most significant issue for many poets isn’t how to write, but why. If everything that exists is contained in the proposition that follows from the world-concept, then there should be no reason to elaborate any further, to expend masses of logical-poetic units, on what can be contained within that single word. Or rather: world. The Biblical connotations draw themselves here, the echoes of that opening passage to the Gospel of John. As does the Dhammapaddic suggestion that better than a thousand words is a single word that gives peace.
Happily, Gjessing navigates her poetic sequence with a knack for comic delivery, paired off with the cosmic-absurd: her use of the philosophical lexicon sometimes purposely confounding, her metaphorical semantics weirdly antique, and her framing of existential queries obliquely coy.
3.91 The universe always has swimsuit stars on. Just in case.
The humour of the pamphlet is surreal-lite, almost camp, though Gjessing doesn’t simply scapegoat ontological perils with comedy just to parodise the quantum inscrutability of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. There always seems to be a kernel of scholastic seriousness in propositions that contrast causality with the freedom of the will, even if Gjessing writes such seriousness in poetic epigrams, mirroring the frustrating aphoristic brevity of Wittgenstein’s own logico-mathematical form. And in other propositions, she talks of roses and water and silk and ladies, a multiverse of apparently bourgeois elementals, a senile cosmology of faded recall. So why these confabulations? And what is this logic? What’s the answer to it all?
4.011 The roses were just about to pack up and leave everything when
the universe fell in love with the law of causation.
To consider Gjessing’s Tractatus a work of parody misses the point. It has its own enchantment, and this enchantment is a kind of truth, a series of experiential visions. It’s a trope of literary criticism to summon poetry as the voice of truth, but the validity of clichés stands on more than the frequency with which they’re used. For Wittgenstein, truth is something proportional to the capacity of language to reflect logical possibilities of states of being, or rather, possible worlds. Gjessing responds to this framework with a lightness, an artistic revolt, a freedom for inaccuracy. After all, truth, for Wittgenstein, is a question of logical accuracy, one that holographs the notion of big-T “Truth” as incumbent on the theatre of language-being-used:
5.41 For all those results of truth-operations on truth-functions are
identical, which are one and the same truth-function of
For Gjessing, on the other hand, truth is expressive, predicated on profundity, kitsch and arcana. It’s curious to compare the propositions of Wittgenstein and Gjessing where the numbers are identical. Gjessing’s mirror-propositions are, in some sense, equally an abstraction of actions and interactions. While Wittgenstein outlines the fundamentally unchanging aspects of a statement’s object, whether we consider the statement true or not, Gjessing can say something (shockingly) similar in itself: truth is how we use it. The elements of truth, the universes that can exist, are connected by the small paths of their similarities (the ways in which they might both equally be described) joining them in a way fathomless enough to appear, as she writes it, divine:
5.41 If you let the universes slip into each other, they all slip out via
the small paths, which are divine.
What Gjessing achieves, then, isn’t so much a reworking of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus (even less so a continuation of the Spinozan tradition) but the bespoking of a phantom-limb, or the retrofitting of an evolutionary missing link. Which is to say that Gjessing locates the poetry inherent to the Tractatus, then slots it into existence. Metaphor and possibility become inseparable. When she writes of roses and swimsuits and possible worlds, we accord. We ponder, we chuckle, we et cetera, but we accord. The possible, after all, is always congruous to the imaginable, and the impossible a cousin to the imaginary-absurd.
This is something Gjessing proves in using the tractatus form as a poetic sequence, a series of truth-operations entirely her own, which validate the underlying poetry of Wittgenstein’s project: that the notion of truth is contingent on possibility. The notion of poetry, however, is truth’s contingency on im-possibility, and on imagination. On chimerical swimsuits and roses and ladies, on questioning if truth is possible at all. With a wry smile, Gjessing responds to Wittgenstien, just as Wittgenstein himself responded to Spinoza before her. It is this willingness to challenge a canonical work, to invite the reader into this rebellious poetic space, that means that Gjessing’s work can no less stand alone in (this, and a multitude of other) possible worlds.
Joshua Calladine-Jones is a poet and the literary critic in-residence at Prague Writers’ Festival. His work has appeared in 3:AM, The Stinging Fly, Minor Literature[s], The Anarchist Library, Literární.cz and other journals. Constructions [Konstrukce] is his first micro-collection, published with tall-lighthouse in 2021. Reconstructions [Rekonstrukce] is forthcoming this summer.