In the underground of neutral Zürich, a group of exiled artists which frequented the Cabaret Voltaire founded the Dada movement. They beheld the catastrophic magnitude of the war and concluded that the concept of humanity had lost its meaning. According to Dada, the truth is ugly and inhumane; beauty is nothing but a delusional and a hypocritical lie. Absurdity is all that is left; only Dada remains.
Though anachronistic, the words of Christa Wolf poignantly describe the desperation that Dadaists must have felt during the war. In the case of Wolf, they express her anxiety during the Cold War’s nuclear crises:
"The realization that the physical existence of us all depends on shifts in the delusional thinking of very small groups—that is, on chance, to be sure unhinges the classical aesthetic once and for all, slips it from its mountings, which, in the final analysis, are fastened to the laws of reason. Fastened to the faith that such laws exist because they must exist" (Christa Wolf, Cassandra: A Novel and Four Essays, p. 226).
On the DVD, the words of Wittgenstein—rather than those of Wolf—accompany the performance of Cabaret Voltaire. Specifically, it’s a short quote from the war years originally published in Notebooks 1914-1916 [Aforismos, in Spanish]. In the snippet, the philosopher declares a frequent inability to discern the humanity in others. Like Wolf and the Dadaists, Wittgenstein had found that the dilemma of the limits of reason and meaning was a key point for reflection. From a linguistic point of view, this remained his main philosophical concern for the rest of his life.
Wittgenstein's circumstances during this time epitomize the intricacies of a Europe at war: although he was an Austrian fighting in the Austrian army, he had arrived in Cambridge in 1912 as a student, where he remained most of his life. His mentor and close friend, Bertrand Russell, had been incarcerated and demoted from his Cambridge professorship because of his pacifist activism. Despite Wittgenstein’s involvement in the war, he declared that Leo Tolstoy—one of the most acclaimed pacifists of the 19th century—together with Bertrand Russell had been his most important influences.
During the war years, Wittgenstein finished his Tractatus Logico-Philosoficus, one of the most significant philosophical works of the 20th century. The treatise consisted of an ordered enumeration of logical postulates and had two apparent purposes: to analyze the limits of language for conveying thoughts, and to determine a system of recognizing linguistic flaws—or misuses—that result in misunderstandings. For Wittgenstein, language was important because he considered it to be the only medium by which we could express and share experiences. In his eyes, the world consisted of nothing but the totality of describable facts; said facts were verbal propositions that associated objects. These propositions fell into three categories: the sensible—belonging to the natural sciences and daily speech; the senseless (sinnlos)—tautologies, contradictions, and even logical propositions and mathematics which reveal the limits of language and thought; and the nonsensical (unsinning)—absurd statements unable to sustain meaning. Surprisingly, Wittgenstein considered Ethics and Aesthetics, due to their metaphysical nature, to be linguistic flaws that belonged to the third category. One cannot talk about them; the only way to grasp them is through mystical experiences.
However, in a letter that Wittgenstein wrote to his publisher friend, Ludwig Von Ficker, after the publication of the Tractatus, he strikingly declares:
"The point of the book [referring to the Tractatus] is ethical. I once wanted to give a few words in the foreword which now actually are not in it, which however, I’ll write for you now because they might be a key for you: I wanted to write that my work consists of two parts: the one which is here, and of everything which I have not written. And precisely this second part is the important one. For the Ethical is delimited from within, as it were, by my book; and I am convinced that, strictly speaking, it can ONLY be delimited this way” (Jordi Fairhurst, “The Ethical Significance of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” in Teorema Vol. X2, 2121, p. 151).
Thus, was Wittgenstein cunningly eluding from talking about ethics? Was it not profoundly unethical of him to do so in such critical times? Did he think that it was impossible to describe the war with a collection of facts? Were those facts precisely that which prevented him from recognizing the human in someone? Even using the Tractatus’ sensible propositions, the facts that described the undertakings of humans during the war escaped the limits of logic and the sayable. How could or should a person fail to ethically judge what was going on? But, is it possible that Wittgenstein thought that faulty ethical discourses had contributed to the provocation of the war and therefore might have worsened the situation? Was remaining silent before the events really the best choice? The last proposition of the Tratactus was conclusive: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."
Nonetheless, the philosophical impossibility of talking about ethics in such a crucial moment in history must have been excruciating for Wittgenstein. In the 1933 manuscript known as Big Typescript he confessed:
"As I have often said, philosophy does not lead me to any renunciation, since I do not abstain from saying something, but rather abandon a certain combination of words as senseless. In another sense, however, philosophy requires a resignation, but one of feeling and not of intellect. And maybe that is what makes it so difficult for many. It can be difficult not to use an expression, just as it is difficult to hold back tears, or an outburst of anger/rag/" (Paul Wittgenstein, Philosophical Occasions, 1912-1951, p. 161).
Wittgenstein's sharp intellect did not allow him to transgress his maxim. Indeed, he deduced that philosophy fundamentally derives from logico-linguistical fallacies that merely draw the philosopher down convoluted paths of insolvable twists and turns that ultimately lead back to the starting point. Hence, philosophy remained for Wittgenstein a therapeutic exercise, valuable for self-analyzing the philosopher's anxiety and discerning what flawed non-sequitur premise had prompted the philosophical quest.
Later in life, Wittgenstein backed down from the monolithic perspective of the Tractatus. In its place, he developed the idea of language-games through which meaning is constructed contingently and in relation to the context where language is happening—a sort of game with agreed-upon rules. While this latter perspective is richer and more complex, the ineffable remained as such.