In Raphael’s famous fresco The School of Athens, Plato and Aristotle are depicted walking side by side, the former pointing up at the heavens, realm of the immutable forms, the latter pointing down to the empirical world. This image captures the relationship of Jan Zwicky’s Wittgenstein Elegies to Nicole Brossard’s Ardour. While diametrically opposed in topic and technique, both works are preoccupied by the link between language and reality: a revised version of Raphael’s painting would depict Zwicky in Plato’s pose, her upward gesture announcing the cerebral nature of the undertaking, while Brossard’s downward motion would, by contrast, return us to the sensual body. To the extent that these two works emblematize their writers’ respective philosophies, Wittgenstein Elegies and Ardour provide insight into two very distinct traditions of Canadian poetry.
Zwicky’s poems, like those of her contemporaries Anne Carson and Robert Bringhurst, mine the Western philosophical tradition for creative inspiration. Wittgenstein Elegies is an enduring affirmation of her intellectual sensibility: originally published in 1986, the collection has been newly revised and reissued by Brick Books on the occasion of the publisher’s fortieth anniversary. The predominant speaker in the book’s “collage of voices” is the German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), whose writings form its main intertext. In the new edition, Zwicky has included in the margin the names of the particular speaker and work being referenced to aid the reader. Although poetry may seem an incongruous mode for a philosopher so concerned with the precise relationship between language and meaning, Zwicky reveals the distinctly poetic underpinning of Wittgenstein’s thinking. She also reminds us, by including passages from his protege, the Austrian poet Georg Trakl (1887-1914), of Wittgenstein’s commitment to art. As Zwicky explains in the afterword, her ultimate goal is to refute positivist readings of Wittgenstein’s writings that see them as systematizing language; by contrast, she wants to show “how profoundly he experienced the moral dimension of language’s relation to the world.”
She does this mainly by juxtaposing poetically rendered excerpts of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and the Philosophical Investigations, two works that are typically read as expressing opposite understandings of language. The posthumously published Philosophical Investigations is traditionally seen as rejecting the idea, set forth in the Tractatus, that language can be reduced to its purest elements and thus completely described; the late Wittgenstein, it is held, realized that language could only ever be understood in the context of its usage. In undermining this oppositional narrative, Zwicky was at the vanguard of a scholarly re-evaluation that has, since the publication of Wittgenstein Elegies in 1986, led many philosophers to find a greater continuity between the two works. In Zwicky’s collection, this continuity is apparent in passages such as the following, attributed to the Tractatus:
Objects are simple signs. They are named
by simple signs. They are only named.
Signs are their representatives.
We can only speak about them, cannot put them into words.
In signalling the accidental nature of language, Zwicky prefigures the moral stakes that will be distilled in her rendering of the Philosophical Investigations:
Can one learn this knowledge? Yes, some can.
But not by taking courses. It has rules
that form no system: life alone
learns to apply them right.
If the rules of language are ultimately arbitrary and intersubjective, it is incumbent upon people to make ethical choices about their discourse: “None can speak the truth who have not mastered their own souls,” states Zwicky’s Wittgenstein; “our words are a refinement of our deeds.” Moreover, if language always points toward its own limits, then the job of poetry is to move ever closer to the “unsayable itself / directly echoed.”
Nicole Brossard is similarly interested in the relationship between word and world, although she approaches the issue from a very different social and ideological position. One of Québec’s pre-eminent writers and literary theorists, Brossard’s formalist poetics encodes the female body and lesbian desire in its explosion of rigid generic and syntactic structures. Where Zwicky looks to philosophy for her poetry, Brossard’s poetry enacts her philosophy. In Ardour, capably translated by Angela Carr, Brossard creates what Kate Zambreno has aptly named a “grammar of desire”:
tonight can i suggest a little punctuation
circle half-moon vertical line of astonishment
a pause that transforms
light and breath
into language and threshold of fire
More than an extended metaphor, Brossard’s elision of sexuality and language corresponds to an understanding that experience and expression are intimately linked. She productively mines the tension between the assertion that “living is / necessarily all à l’intérieur du langage” and the observation that “we are speechless with / every kiss.” Like Zwicky’s Wittgenstein, Brossard is acutely aware both of the power of language to define reality and of “all that’s unspeakable,” the vast realm of human experience that exceeds linguistic definition.
Brossard contrasts the “ardour” of the sensual world with the looming threat of global catastrophe, the “grey taste of excess consumption.” Against this horizon, we must “immerse our ardour / in questions and cherries / this way of staying the shadow.” Poetry, as the vehicle for negotiating word and world (“questions and cherries”), is positioned as the privileged defence against “the shadow” of late capitalism, patriarchy, and other social perils. Although dedicated to dismantling the very syntax that Wittgenstein was committed to defining, Brossard, like Zwicky, ultimately affirms the ethical dimension of language.