Sunday, October 21, 2007

Explain it!

F.R. Leavis on Ludwig Wittgenstein on William Empson (quoted in John Haffenden's Empson biography), in what strikes me as a kind of Cambridge intellectual Celebrity Deathmatch:

[Wittgenstein] said to me once (it must have been soon after his return to Cambridge): "Do you know a man called Empson?" I replied: "No, but I've just come on him in Cambridge Poetry 1929, which I reviewed for The Cambridge Review. "Is he any good?" "It's surprising," I said, "but there are six poems of his in the book, and they are all poems and very distinctive." "What are they like?" So I started: "You know Donne?" No, he didn't know Donne. … Balked, I made a few lame observations about the nature of the conceit, and gave up. "I should like to see his poems," said Wittgenstein. "You can," I answered; "I'll bring you the book." "I'll come round to yours," he said. He did soon after, and went to the point at once: "Where's that anthology? Read me his best poem." The book was handy; opening it, I said, with "Legal Fiction" before my eyes: "I don't know if this is his best poem, but it will do." When I had read it, Wittgenstein said, "Explain it!" So I began to do so, taking the first line first. "Oh! I understand that," he interrupted, and looking over my arm at the text, "But what does this mean?" He pointed two or three lines on. At the third or fourth interruption of the same kind I shut the book, and said, "I'm not playing." "It's perfectly plain that you don't understand the poem in the least," he said. "Give me the book." I complied, and sure enough, without any difficulty, he went through the poem, explaining the analogical structure that I should have explained myself, if he had allowed me.