Wittgenstein’s phonofilm

1. This illustration introduces a brief note in Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle (1979), a series of occasional conversations with Wittgenstein recorded by the Austrian philosopher Friedrich Waismann between 1929 and 1932 (p. 50). The note comes at the end of the entries for 22 December 1929. Given the precise nature of the illustration, the date is significant. What Waismann drew, no doubt at Wittgenstein’s prompting, was an example of the new optical sound-on-film technology which combined an audio-track with the visual frames on celluloid film. The first, called Phonofilm, patented in 1919, was soon overtaken by improved systems like RCA Photophone, initially exhibited in 1927. Since the first major ‘talkie’, The Jazz Singer (1927), used a different system with the sound recorded on a separate disc, the illustration reflected a detailed knowledge, again most probably on Wittgenstein’s part, of the latest technological developments in the film industry. The following statements then appear under the illustration:

Phonofilm statements

2. There are several oddities about this gnomic record (prose-poem?), beginning with the fact that the ‘I’, no doubt the au courant Wittgenstein, begins with the ‘magic lantern’, a mode of visual projection developed in the 17th century, which was, of course, silent. Most probably he wanted to bring the ‘old simile’ into the new era of sound film — as Waismann’s heading for the entry intimated, the simile concerned ‘Language and World.’ So, again reading between the lines, which is pretty much where all the reading must happen here, the primary function of language as a bearer of knowledge is, like the old magic lantern, to picture the world. This effectively adds one more analogy to the many Wittgenstein used in the Tractatus (1921) to clarify his so-called ‘picture theory’ of language: he refers to tableau vivant, gramophone records, musical scores, models, hieroglyphic and alphabetical scripts, and more (see ‘Strip Teasy’ post).

3. The new sound film technology changed the terms of the analogy not simply by adding audio but by distinguishing two sets of relationships. First, there is technical relationship between the sound-track and the film-strip (as in the illustration); second, there is the experiential relationship between the music and the film. (Note: we pass over the more obvious links between sound-track and music, film-strip and film). Then we have the analogy with language and the world. As the two final statements and the pairings to the right of the four-part grouping indicate, this applies only to the experiential music-film connection. So ‘language accompanies [begleitet] the world’ as ‘music accompanies the film’. (Note: no mention of speech, the key element of the ‘talkies’).

4. So far, perhaps so good. But what about the question marks under film-strip and sound-track in the four-part grouping? They appear to create space for additional terms on the other side of the equation. Here it seems Waismann got the order wrong: presumably sound-track should come first, mirroring music, followed by film-strip, mirroring film. Are there any contenders? Two terms that might match language and world, making the updated magic lantern analogy do even more work?

5. It is impossible to be certain. Besides the cryptic nature of the statements, we can never be sure about the accuracy of Waismann’s reporting. (In this case, the translation — I am using Schulte and McGuinness’s English version — does not create further complications.)  Yet, given the tenor of the conversations on that day in December 1929, during which Wittgenstein kept emphasizing how his thinking had changed in the eight years since the publication of the Tractatus, one possible pairing could be logical notation/sound-track, fact/film-strip, or maybe just name/track, object/strip. That said, if the question marks are not placeholders but queries expressing doubts about any viable options, then the terminology is not the issue. The key thing is to understand why, in this cryptic scenario, the experiential relationship (music/film) trumps the technical (track/strip).

6. Some of Wittgenstein’s other remarks provide a few suggestive clues. Earlier on the same day—assuming the notes are recorded chronologically—he commented:

I used to believe that there was the everyday language [Umgangssprache] that we all usually spoke and a primary language that expressed what we really knew, namely phenomena. I also spoke of a first system and a second system. Now I wish to explain why I do not adhere to that conception any more.

I think that that essentially we have only one language, and that is our everyday language. We need not invent a new language or construct a new symbolism, but our everyday language already is the language, provided we rid it of the obscurities that lie hidden in it. (45)

This sounds like Wittgenstein claiming he used to believe the task of philosophy was to create an ideal or logically perfect language, but now thinks it is only about clarifying ordinary language. In fact, he never made the first claim, though many philosophers at the time, including Bertrand Russell, believed he did (again, see ‘Strip Teasy’ post).

7. Yet, if we re-read these comments with the sound film analogy in mind, then a different possibility emerges. He once believed philosophers could gain special access to the projection room to see the technical workings of the primary phonofilm system, the optical sound-track and the film-strip, but now he thinks otherwise. Like ordinary moviegoers, all they have is the music accompanying the film, or, in the analogy, the lived experience of language accompanying the world. On this reading, the question marks are not placeholders (e.g. for logical notation/fact) but queries casting doubt on the idea of a primary language existing above or apart from the everyday version. When it comes to language and the world, there is only the music and the film.

8. This becomes a little clearer considering what Wittgenstein goes on to say about the limits of formal logic in a passage immediately following his remarks about everyday language being the only one we have.

There is nothing wrong with a symbol like ‘φx’, if it is a matter of explaining simple logical relations. This symbol is taken from the case where ‘φ’ signifies a predicate and ‘x’ a variable noun. But as soon as you start to examine real states of affairs, you realise this symbolism is at a great disadvantage compared with our real language. (46)

The reason?

It is of course absolutely false to speak of one subject-predicate form. In reality there is not one, but very many. For if there were only one, then all nouns and all adjectives would have to be intersubstitutable. For all intersubstitutable words belong to one class. But even ordinary language shows this is not the case. (46)

He followed this with a series of examples, beginning with the two statements ‘This chair is brown’ and ‘The surface of this chair is brown.’ ‘If I replace “brown” with “heavy”,’ he added, demonstrating the non-substitutability of adjectives, ‘I can utter the first proposition and not the second.’

9. In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein claimed ‘logic is transcendental’ (6.13) and used clothing metaphors to describe the logical form hidden under everyday language (4.002, and see ‘Strip Teasy’ post). In 1929, following developments in the film industry, he changed analogies not to reinforce the ‘old simile’ of the magic lantern, or, we could now add, of clothed bodies, but to challenge the underlying two-language view, anticipating the future directions of the Philosophical Investigations (1953) where he insisted that ‘nothing is hidden’ (435) and that ‘understanding a sentence is much more akin to understanding a theme in music than one may think’ (527). 


Wittgenstein und der Wiener Kreis (1967)

GPT-3 completes Finnegans Wake

In this sequence of regenerations, GPT-3, the latest iteration of OpenAI’s powerful text generating language model, completes James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939), first using the initial sentence of the original as a prompt, then working from the final words. Cunningly, the third version of the opening picks up the unstopped ending, endorsing the standard view of the Wake’s circularity. As I argue in Artefacts of Writing, the final words can also be read as opening onto the blank space remaining on the final printed page, leaving room for us, or GPT-3, to continue in our/its own way. As cunningly, the final version (8) of the ending takes us back to the beginning, mimicking version 3. In my view, version 7 is the most moving, given the way Finnegans Wake actually ends (with ALP contemplating death as an joyceanic release from a difficult life). That said, version 4 is also a pretty good description of what a bio-cultural intelligence might ideally think after reading the Wake (see What is creative criticism?).

Does this mean GPT-3 heralds the advent of a post-human world of reading and writing? The computer scientist, Douglas Summers-Stay, an early GPT-3 researcher, gave an engagingly apt and cautionary answer in 2020:

GPT is odd because it doesn’t ‘care’ about getting the right answer to a question you put to it. It’s more like an improv actor who is totally dedicated to their craft, never breaks character, and has never left home but only read about the world in books. Like such an actor, when it doesn’t know something, it will just fake it. You wouldn’t trust an improv actor playing a doctor to give you medical advice.

See Gary Marcus and Ernest Davis, ‘GPT-3, Bloviator: OpenAI’s language generator has no idea what it’s talking about‘, MIT Technology Review, 22 August 2020; and for another astute assessment of GPT-3’s capabilities, see Luciano Floridi and Massimo Chiriatti Massimo, ‘GPT‐3: Its Nature, Scope, Limits, and Consequences‘, 1 November 2020, revised March 2022. 


Version 1
Version 2
Version 3
Version 4
Version 5
Version 6
Version 7
Version 8

Englishing Ishwar (with AI)

1. Let’s assume you are an ‘abcedminded’ human reader like the one Joyce anticipates in Finnegans Wake (1939): trained in the Latinate writing system and existentially immersed primarily in the English language and at least one of its many cultures. For you, the text above is unreadable. In what sense?

Not illegible, as if you’re encountering something badly digitized.

Not boring, as if it is insufficiently engaging.

Not inscrutable, as if this is a gnomic remark.

Not corrupted, as if you’re an AI machine blocked from extracting scrambled data.

Unreadable for you in the sense that the writing is inaccessible, whether seen as a string of letters making up individual words, as graphemes representing phonemes, or as meaningful phoneme-grapheme complexes. Perhaps, after a bit, you start discerning individual letter-shapes (ও, say or, ত), then noticing spaces between the words (making the first line 5 words), maybe you even infer from the layout (title and 4 lines) that this is probably a poem. Bear in mind that readers trained in this language and script would grasp all these things as readily as you, and they, might read the expression in this 😊.

2. Given the advances in machine translation, especially since the deep learning revolution of the 2010s, you need not of course feel at a loss for too long. You could begin by turning to Google translate, which, after automatically detecting Bengali, currently offers this translation:

Scripture reading
Search the scriptures as much as you can.
Be thou the world’s learned head.
If there is no love for God.
As much as you read, as much as you listen, nothing.

If you listen to Google’s female AI voicing of the original, you may pick up the rhymes, which make pairs of the four lines (aa, bb), contributing to the poem’s simple song-, even nursery-rhyme-like, sound in Bengali (none of which makes the transfer to Google English).

3. There are options other than Google, however. Though Deep-L, which claims to be ‘the world’s most accurate translator’, doesn’t currently support Bengali, GPT-3, the latest (2020) iteration of OpenAI’s powerful text generating language model, had no difficulty with the task, given the simple prompt ‘Translate this into English.’

Science Class
Do as much research as you can.
Be the chief of the world, the head of the scholars.
If there is no love for God, nothing is learned.
No matter how much is read and heard, nothing is known.

Subsequent regenerations produced ‘You are the Earth’s chief Pandit’ for the second line, and ‘No matter how much you study or listen, it won’t help’ for the last.

4. So how do the latest machines compare to human translators? As it happens, the English-language Indian poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra has recently been collaborating with the Indian scholar Rosinka Chaudhuri on a project to bring a series of poems by the 19th-century Bengali poet Ishwar Gupta (1812-59) into English for the first time, including শাস্ত্রপাঠ (Sastrapath), which they render as ‘Reading Scriptures.’ The collaboration involved an extended email correspondence and an iterative process of drafting and redrafting, producing 10 English versions in all. I’ll focus on Chaudhuri’s literal rendering of the original Bengali (A), which Mehrotra (who has Hindi but not Bengali) then used as the basis for the evolving English drafts, the last of which (J) appears below the literal version.

A. Search for the [meaning of] the shastras as much as you want
Become the Chief Pandit of the world.
If you have no love for Iswar [however]
What you read, what you hear, comes to nothing at all.

J. Pore over scriptures as much as you want,
become chief of pundits,
but without Ishwar in your heart
what you read, what you listen to, comes to naught.

Much can be said about the many large and small choices made in the process of turning A into J (for all the versions see below). Most notable, especially in comparison with the Google and GPT-3 versions, are the desire to find a viable contemporary English idiom/voice, the incorporation of rhyme, now simplified as a(a)aa, and the conspicuous decision to keep ‘Is(h)war’ (pronounced ‘Ishwor’). As the translators explain in a footnote to the published version, Gupta was punning on his first name as ‘Ishwar means “god” in Bengali as well as in most North Indian languages.’ They could have added that Gupta means ‘hidden’ and ‘secret’ in Sanskrit, giving him more scope for mischievous play on his name (‘secret God’).

5. Do these differences matter? In a fundamental, deeply philosophical sense, yes because they tell us something about the ways in which (written) languages exist as vast digital corpora for the likes of Google and GPT-3 and as highly individual, historically lived experiences for the humans for whom the process of translating a 19th-century Bengali poem today is as much a cultural as it is a linguistic challenge.

6. Despite all the progress made in the last decade, the machines still cannot manage the playful equivocation at the heart of ‘Reading Scriptures’. Yet it is not as if they escape the cultural challenges of translation, treating it simply as a rule-governed linguistic process, finding statistical correspondences between written languages, for example. Inevitably, since there is no culture-free language, their correlations have cultural consequences too.

6.1 For the machines, ‘Reading Scriptures’ is a relatively uncomplicated devotional poem, something like a Bengali/Hindu version of 2 Corinthians 3:6: a warning to pundits/Pharisees who fail to grasp the true/living ‘spirit’ of religious piety because they are too preoccupied with the superficial/dead ‘letter.’ The Sanskrit word ‘shastra’ (scripture) neatly captures the blend of ‘manual, book, or treatise’ and ‘rule, law, or precept’, as in the English phrase ‘letter of the law’.

6.2 By contrast, for Chaudhuri and Mehrotra, these four lines constitute a knowingly crafted, even crafty example of a double poem which is devotional, like 2 Cor. 3:6, and anti-devotional, like Finnegans Wake. Without Ishwar in your heart, Gupta, the modernizing, satirical, very idiosyncratic Hindu-reformer and sly poetic celebrator of earthly life, says, referring not to God but to his own poetic oeuvre, anything you learn through reading or listening will amount to nothing. In short, it is not the divine spirt of the shastras/scriptures but the endlessly generative, secular letter, as practised by Gupta and later Joyce, that giveth life.

7. As this example shows, we still need human translators to see this. By contrast, the machines’ linguistic correlations confirm Douglas Summers-Hay’s apt description of GPT-3 as ‘an improv actor who…has never left home but only read about the world in books.’ Will this always be the case? Your guess is as good as mine, though, as we learn more about the way languages (and writing) evolve digitally and bio-culturally, I suspect differences will always remain, even as the boundaries become increasingly blurred.


Thanks to Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Rosinka Chaudhuri for permission to reproduce their draft translations of ‘Reading Scriptures’ here. You may not reproduce them without seeking further permission. If you wish to quote them for academic purposes, please reference this post. Their workings are especially valuable, as these are impossible to track in deep learning AI systems. Their workings remain a mystery, even for their creators. 

For more about Ishwar Gupta, see Rosinka Chaudhuri, The Literary Thing: History, Poetry and the Making of a Modern Literary Culture (Oxford University Press, 2013; Peter Lang, 2014), especially chapter 2.

For more examples of Mehrotra’s creative-translation work, see his Collected Poems (Shearsman Books, 2022) and Ghalib: A Diary (New Walk, 2022), the latter is an original poem based in part on a translation.

For more on GPT-3, see Gary Marcus and Ernest Davis, ‘GPT-3, Bloviator: OpenAI’s language generator has no idea what it’s talking about‘, MIT Technology Review, 22 August 2020; and Luciano Floridi and Massimo Chiriatti Massimo, ‘GPT‐3: Its Nature, Scope, Limits, and Consequences‘, 1 November 2020, revised March 2022. 


Sastrapath (Romanized version)
Lao tume jata paro śastrer sandhan,
Hao tumi prithibir, pandit pradhan.
Iswarer prati jadi, prem nahi roy
Jata para, jata śuno, kichhu kichhu noy.

Reading the Scriptures (literal)
A. Search for the [meaning of] the shastras as much as you want
Become the Chief Pandit of the world.
If you have no love for Iswar [however]
What you read, what you hear, comes to nothing at all.

Reading Scriptures

B. Look for meaning in scriptures as much as you want,
Become Head Pundit to the world,
But if you have no love for Ishwar,
What you read and what you hear will come to nought.

C. Read scriptures as much as you want/like,
become chief of pundits,
but without Ishwar in your heart
what you read, what you listen, comes to nought.

D. Read scriptures for all it’s worth,
become chief of pundits,
but if you don’t have Ishwar in your heart
what you read, what you listen, comes to nought.

E. Pore over scriptures for all they’re worth,
become chief pundit to the world,
but if you don’t have Ishwar in your heart
what you read, what you listen, comes to nought.

F. Pore over scriptures for all they’re worth,
become chief pundit to the world,
but if you don’t have Ishwar in your heart
everything that you read or listen comes to nought.

G. Pore over scriptures for all they’re worth,
become chief pundit to the world,
but unless there’s Ishwar in your heart
but unless Ishwar resides in your heart
everything that you read or listen comes to nought.

H. Pore over scriptures as much as you want,
become chief pundit to the world,
but unless Ishwar resides in your heart
but if Ishwar doesn’t reside in your heart
everything that you read or listen comes to nothing.

I. Pore over scriptures as much as you want,
become chief pundit to the world,
but if Ishwar doesn’t reside in your heart
everything that you read or listen comes to nothing.

J. Pore over scriptures as much as you want,
become chief of pundits,
but without Ishwar in your heart
what you read, what you listen to, comes to nought.

What is creative criticism?

1. Questions like this are always risky. All too often they conjure up a readily identifiable object with equally identifiable distinguishing properties, as if we’re asking, ‘What is an African elephant?’ Having no such objecthood or qualities, creative criticism, as a necessarily singular and ever-changing practice, escapes this kind of definitional logic.

2. Or so I thought, until I wrote an essay on the topic for a book called The Critic as Amateur (2020). Following the usual academic protocols, the manuscript was submitted for peer review by two readers. They liked it but wanted me to define what I meant by ‘creative criticism’ and to set out my ‘method’ more clearly. Exercising my right of reply, I told the editors I could do neither because, bafflingly but perhaps also tellingly, the readers had somehow missed the point. All I could suggest is that we confront this head on by prefacing the published version with the following mock ‘trigger warning,’ using some wording from the readers’ reports:

The following does not contain a definition of ‘creative criticism’ which is not a determinate or determinable critical method and can never be a school. Using Rabindranath Tagore and Maurice Blanchot as guides, the essay takes an alternative, anti-scholastic route through the labyrinth of a multilingual intellectual history in order to explore the possibilities for creative criticism as a practice, particularly in today’s corporatized university, and to reaffirm the public value of literary innovative writing in all its unpredictable, generative and experiential dimensions.

The Critic as Amateur is specifically about literary criticism—hence ‘literary writing’—but, for reasons that should become clearer soon, I prefer the adjective ‘innovative’, which is less presumptive, perhaps less burdened too.

3. Things worked out in the end as the editors published the essay with this prefatory warning and no other major changes, but the experience left me with a nagging question: is it possible to produce a brief, non-definitional, non-prescriptive guide to the kind of creative criticism that underpins a book like Artefacts of Writing? Here’s an attempt at a very short, five-step, open-ended how-to:

Step 1: Begin by ferreting out by whatever means you can examples of writing you find genuinely puzzling, perhaps even impossible to read. (Remember you are a human reader with a bio-cultural brain now living in an age when words like these are regularly ‘read’ by machines for machine-purposes, which serve larger all-too-human interests, usually of corporations or states, too of course.) These writings may be puzzling because they are in a language or writing system you don’t know, or because they seem foreign to you in some odd or indefinable way, despite being superficially legible given your own prior training and experience as a reader.


Step 2: Do whatever you can to avoid becoming one of the many bad male readers who populate James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939)—some of whom are rather bot-like. Take only one example: the ‘ornery josser, flat-chested fortyish, faintly flatulent and given to ratiocination by syncopation in the elucidation of complications’ (FW, 109).  Besides all that, the josser ‘cannot read a quite everydaylooking stamped addressed envelope.’ Why? Because he focuses exclusively on the letter it contains, its contents, or, even more narrowly, what he supposes to be the letter’s meaning, ignoring not only the envelope itself but ‘the enveloping facts themselves circumstantiating it.’ So don’t be a josser: read as an embodied bio-cultural brain encountering equally worldly, even if digital, inscriptions in all their myriad, changing forms and contexts—since, as Joyce also notes, ‘the world, mind, is, was and will be writing its own wrunes for ever’, whether on stone, papyrus, bamboo, parchment, paper, or, we could now add, online (FW, 19, see the ‘Strip Teasy’ post).

Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist.

Step 3: Bear in mind that the culture might already have packaged these innovative forms of writing in various envelopes as ‘political’, ‘literary’, ‘philosophical’, ‘religious’, ‘visual art’ or something else. If you are attached to a university, things may be trickier still because these envelopes may link to various established and circumstantiating fields or disciplines or sub-disciplines, creating more thickets of preconception. All these larger and smaller envelopes may be interesting, even helpful, so worth attending to, but, to make the most of Joyce’s analogy, don’t forget that you can always create your own, since, by definition, letters can always be readdressed and put in new envelopes.

The world is everything that is the case.

Step 4: In the ideal scenario, these puzzling, always worldly encounters with innovative writing will re-make you as a reader, and then encourage you to find or create a critical language, perhaps even a new mode or so-called ‘voice’, in which to write about the experience. Even more ideally, making something of your experience in this idiom will give these forms of writing a new lease of life, helping others see the special kinds of work they can do, and so reaffirm their public value. Much may depend on this creatively-critical ability since it marks the increasingly fragile difference between you and the many machines now doing so much of the reading out there. GPT-3, the latest (2020) iteration of OpenAI’s powerful text generating language model, is now capable of producing plausibly human-like prose starting from a very minimalist prompt, such as ‘Write a 100-word essay on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake’ — for the result see below.

The world is all that is the case.

Step 5: If all else fails, and you’re still not sure how to orient yourself as a creative critic, then take inspiration from this ancient Zen saying, which applies to many concepts, including creative criticism: ‘A finger is needed to point at the moon, but what a calamity it would be if one took the finger for the moon.’

The world is everything, that happens to be the case.


The sentence/letter intersecting this post/envelope is the first proposition in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus in various iterations, beginning with Zhang Shenfu’s Chinese translation from 1927-28 (literal back translation: ‘The world is everything that happens’), then Wittgenstein’s original German from 1921, followed by the English of C. K. Ogden from 1922 (GPT-3’s preferred option), David Pears and Brian McGuinness from 1961, and Peter Caws from 2006. It is, to my mind, an endlessly beguiling puzzle as a proposition and as a translatable sentence. As one of the most innovative exercises in writing to emerge in that year of abundance, 1922, the English Tractatus asks to be read alongside Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Mansfield’s The Garden Party and other Stories, and Joyce’s Ulysses.


 GPT-3’s short essay on Finnegans Wake:

Wake essay

And here is GPT-3 regenerating responses to the prompt ‘Explain this in simple English’ — this being the opening of Finnegans Wake:

GPT3 Wake opening

literary activism…politics..human rights

Exhibit A

1. The text above comes from the minutes of a meeting held by the founding centre of the international writers’ group PEN in London on 5 October 1926. It is essentially a draft of what would become PEN’s original ‘Statement of Aims’, the final wording of which was collectively agreed the following year. This statement, in turn, formed the basis of what would become the ‘PEN Charter’ in 1948 (see ‘Shadows and Ghosts: The Evolution of the PEN Charter‘).

2. There are several ways to think about the wording of this document. You could, for instance, begin by seeing it simply as a strategic move in the debates PEN was at the time having with itself as a relatively new organisation. From the start, its inaugural president, the English writer John Galsworthy, was insistent about keeping PEN apart from, perhaps above, the increasingly polarized politics of the immediate post-war years. ‘It meddles not with politics,’ he wrote in a letter to the London Times on the eve of PEN’s first international congress in April 1923. Three years later, he had reasons for wanting to reaffirm this commitment. At the congress held in Berlin in May 1926, he had been challenged by a group of young German writers of the left—the so-called ‘Gruppe 1925’, which included Bertolt Brecht, Robert Musil, and Ernst Toller—who considered PEN’s stance on politics outdated and naïve at best, irresponsible at worst. The draft statement was Galsworthy’s response.

3. Yet it was not just a rallying call designed to bolster internal support for the kind of literary activism the London centre believed PEN should represent. By adding the disclaimer about politics, the draft statement took a position in a wider contemporary debate about writers and their public role. For one thing, it allied PEN to champions of an autonomous ‘Republic of Letters’ like Julien Benda, whose polemic against intellectual partisanship La Trahison des Clercs appeared in 1927. For another, the disclaimer linked PEN to the International Committee on Intellectual Co-Operation, the precursor to UNESCO within the League of Nations, which was founded in 1922. Despite its role as an advisory body to the League, the ICIC, like PEN, saw itself as an international association of non-aligned clercs in Benda’s sense. Its founding members included Henri Bergson, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Paul Valery, and Gilbert Murray, many of whom had close ties to PEN (see Artefacts of Writing, Chap. 1).

4. As the ‘Gruppe 1925’ showed, it is not difficult to critique this non- or anti-political position. Brecht and his co-members thought it damned PEN as an establishment dining club. Today we might be more inclined to focus on what it reveals about early PEN’s parochialism not just as a largely Anglo-European affair but as a coterie of clercs who had no qualms about appointing themselves guardians of the universal—Benda’s eternal ideals of justice, truth, and beauty. ‘We writers are in some sort trustees for human nature,’ Galsworthy declared, toasting PEN’s inauguration in 1921. As it happens, it was not long before events caught up with him. At the Dubrovnik congress, just over a decade later, members of the newly Nazified German PEN tried to save themselves from censure by invoking Galsworthy’s humanistic ideals, showing how amenable his strictures against political meddling were to political meddling. The strategy failed. PEN took a stand against Nazism and, for the first but not the last time in its history, it expelled one of its own centres. ‘After 1933’, as the international secretary Hermon Ould later put it, ‘the International PEN and a Totalitarian form of government were shown to be incompatible.’ Does this mean PEN’s early efforts to stand ‘apart from politics’ were fatally undermined? Flash forward to Exhibit B, which comes from PEN International’s current website.

Exhibit B

5. The key detail here is the apparently unremarkable wording about its charitable status: ‘International PEN is a registered charity in England and Wales with registration number 1117088.’ To appreciate the significance of this you need to search gov.uk’s official Register of Charities where you can learn two things. The first is that PEN International was incorporated as a charity under the law of England and Wales only in 2006. The second is that it defines its primary object as a charity in the following elaborate terms:

To promote human rights (as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“UDHR”) and subsequent United Nations conventions and declarations and in regional codes of human rights which incorporate the rights contained in the UDHR and those subsequent conventions and declarations) throughout the world.

Its second and only other charitable object is ‘to advance the understanding, appreciation and development of the creative art of writing.’

6. So far, perhaps still so unremarkable. At this point, however, it is worth recalling that, until the changes introduced under the Charities Act (2006), human rights organisations were officially barred from charitable status under English law because they were deemed to be political. This changed with the passing of the Human Rights Act (1998), which laid the foundations for a new statutory understanding of such organisations—in effect making the promotion of human rights a legitimate ‘charitable purpose’ in the eyes of the state. Determining exactly what this means, especially for an organisation like PEN, is not straightforward, since, as the Charity Commission specifies in one of many guidelines on this necessarily vexed issue, ‘the purposes of a charity must be clear, unambiguous and exclusively charitable,’ or, more bluntly, ‘an organisation will not be charitable if its purposes are political.’ In another document, the Commission explains that ‘political purpose’ means ‘any purpose directed at furthering the interests of any political party; or securing, or opposing, any change in the law or the policy or decisions of central government, local authorities or other public bodies, whether in this country or abroad.’

7. And yet, ever since its founding in 1921, even under Galsworthy’s presidency, PEN has been campaigning on behalf of writers against any number of abuses, whether by state or non-state actors, ranging from specific acts of persecution and censorship to policies on free expression and linguistic rights. So how can it be ‘a registered charity in England and Wales’? Again, the Charity Commission’s guidelines provide some intricate pointers.

Whilst a charity cannot have political activity as a purpose, the range of charitable purposes under which an organisation can register as a charity means that, inevitably, there are some purposes (such as the promotion of human rights) which are more likely than others to lead trustees to want to engage in campaigning and political activity.

So, PEN can campaign to change laws, policies, and political decisions, since that is a legitimate ‘activity’, not an illegitimate ‘purpose’. In another, arguably more intricate formulation, the guidelines accept that promoting human rights is at best ‘analogous’ to ‘existing charitable purposes’, rather than charitable per se. ‘Given that respect for human rights is widely regarded as a moral imperative’, the Commission notes, ‘the well-established charitable purpose of promoting the moral and spiritual welfare and improvement of the community provide a sufficient (but not the only) analogy for treating the promotion of human rights generally as charitable.’ In these variously subtle senses, then, PEN still ‘stands apart from politics.’

8. Why bring these two exhibits and historical moments together? Not to claim that PEN’s early position on politics prefigures the strange convolutions of English charity law in the twenty-first century. Rather, tracing the genealogies of thought and action connecting early PEN’s efforts to create space for itself and for literature outside politics with the terms in which human rights are conceptualized today, reveals something about the history of literary activism over the past century, and perhaps something about its future too.

For more on the history of PEN, see PEN: An Illustrated History (2021), and the  Writers and Free Expression project.

For more on the fate of the UK Human Rights Act, see Merris Amos, Why UK approach to replacing the Human Rights Act is just as worrying as the replacement itself, 23 June 2022.

Englishing Mqhayi

S.E.K. Mqhayi (1875-1945)

1. At one moment in The Brown Book (1934-35), a preliminary draft of what became the Philosophical Investigations (1953), Wittgenstein (1889-1951) reflects on the challenges of translation, imagining what might be involved in bringing the language of an fictional ‘tribe’ into English. Part of the difficulty, he insists, is that translation is never simply a matter of linguistic transfer:

Whether a word of the language of our tribe is rightly translated into a word of the English language depends upon the role this word plays in the whole life of the tribe; the occasions on which it is used, the expressions of emotion by which it is generally accompanied, the ideas which it generally awakens or which prompt its saying, etc., etc. (§48, p. 103).

This underpins a key aspect of Wittgenstein’s new thinking in the 1930s, when he began to take issue with the governing ‘picture’ metaphors of the Tractatus (1921), which foreground the relationship between language an the world, shifting to the ‘game’ analogies of the Investigations, which focus on the relationship between language and culture, or what he would go on to call a ‘Lebensform’ (life-form or mode of life) — see ‘Strip Teasy’ post. As this passage indicates, a ‘Lebensform’ for Wittgenstein includes social practices and dialogic forms, the cognitive as well as the affective, and more.

2. S. E. K. Mqhayi (1875-1945), the leading Xhosa imbongi (ceremonial poet), writer, journalist, historian, and language activist of his generation, was acutely aware of these challenges, though, in his case, the strange ‘tribe’ comprised the decidedly non-fictional architects of the British empire. Reacting against the mission-educated intellectuals who switched to English in the 1880s, Mqhayi made it his life project to defend, reform, and enrich isiXhosa, now one of South Africa’s eleven official languages (with an estimated 8.2 million first-language speakers). As he recognized, this inevitably involved much more than a knotty set of linguistic and orthographic issues. He had, in addition, to address an array of historical, social, and political questions concerning the threats to Xhosa culture, given the dominance of English and everything that came with it, first under British rule in the Cape Colony and then, after 1910, under white South African rule in the Union of South Africa. The subtlety and sophistication with which Mqhayi approached these questions, which stands in marked contrast to the prevailing colonialist views of the time, can, as Wittgenstein intimated, be seen through his handling of one key word: ‘Bible’.

3. In the final section of ‘Aa! Hail the Hero of Britain!’, a sardonic ‘praise’ poem he wrote on the occasion the Prince of Wales’s imperial propaganda tour of South Africa in 1925, Mqhayi marked the foreigness of the word and everything it signified for Xhosa culture by using the English loan iBhayibhile

Hay’ kodw’ iBritan’ eNkulu –
Yeza nebhotile neBhayibhile;
Yeza nomfundis’ exhag’ ijoni;
Yeza nerhuluwa nesinandile;
Yeza nenkanunu nemfakadolo.
Tarhu, Bawo, sive yiphi na?
Gqithela phambili, Thol’ esilo,
Nyashaz’ ekad’ inyashaza!

Hail, Great Britain –
You come with a bottle in the one hand and a Bible in the other;
You come with a preacher assisted by a soldier;
You come with gunpowder and bullets;
You come with cannons and guns-which-bend-like-knees.
Please forgive me o God, but whom should we obey?
Go past, Calf-of-the-big-animal,
Trasher-with-the-feet, trashing us for a long time already!

This passage includes loans for other foreign concepts and things too: ‘kanunu’ from ‘cannon’, ‘ibhotile’ from ‘bottle’ (here a metonym for ‘alcohol’, ‘spirits’ especially), and ‘ijoni’ for ‘soldier’ (an adaptation of Johnny). This is an extract from the 2008 translation of the revised 1942 text by Antjie Krog, Ncebakazi Saliwa, and Koos Oosthuyzen. In the latest version, which appears in the anthology Stitching a Whirlwind (2018), Oosthuyzen and Gabeba Baderoon made other choices. They opted simply for ‘shotgun’ rather than the more poetic ‘guns-which-bend-like-knees’, for instance, and rendered the final line as ‘Trampler who has been trampling forever!’

3.1 The poem itself, or rather Mqhayi’s public performance of a version of it at a mass gathering for the Prince in King William’s Town (now Qonce) on 20 May 1925, supports Wittgenstein’s claims about the intercultural challenges of translation, especially when seen from the perspective of the attendant colonial officials and journalists. For them, Mqhayi was a ‘praise poet’ who, as this honorific suggests, could be relied on to raise the tone of a public occasion, singing the praises of leaders, chiefs, or a figure like the visiting Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII). What they got, however, was a skilled imbongi making the most of the opportunity his traditional role really afforded, which was, as a defender of free expression, to speak truth to power. Hence Mqhayi’s forthright reckoning of Britain’s imperial adventures and his description of the Prince as ‘Calf-of-the-big-animal’, part of a long line of ‘dung-coloured’ British ‘tramplers’ going back to Queen Victoria, the original ‘she-buffalo’.

The Illustrated London News noted that Mqhayi ‘wore a vermilion cape’, while ‘the chiefs behind’ him were ‘attired in a queer mixture of European garments.’ Given the significance of the colour red in Xhosa culture, this is a pointed contrast. However, the authenticity of this photograph is debatable. Other accounts have Mqhayi dressed in the full regalia of an imbongi, including a leopard-skin ‘kaross‘ (cloak), and a spear (see below).

3.2 Did Mqhayi’s words cut through the barriers of language and culture on that autumn day in 1925? If the tendentious British news coverage is anything to go by, the answer is probably no. According to the Illustrated London News, ‘the mbongo chanted the Prince’s praises’ and in response the crowd of 10,000 ‘shouted words meaning “Let the heavens drop blessings”‘ (ILN, 13 June 1925, p. 1170). In his most detailed account of the event, Ralph Deakin, the correspondent for the London Times who furnished the ILN copy, repeated this view, calling Mqhayi, whom he never named, ‘the official tribal chanter of praises’  (Southward Ho!, 1925, 91-92). He also claimed ‘the ten thousand voices cheered merrily’, shouting ‘”Imvula Mayine!” (Let the heaven drop blessings!).’ Since the phrase, translated literally, means  ‘Let it rain!’, it is unclear whether the crowd was invoking heaven’s blessings or hoping the Prince might help bring an end to the droughts they had recently suffered. For Deakin, the Prince’s semi-official chanter in print, the event was little more than a mass expression of loyalty to the Empire and so a further endorsement of the tour’s propaganda mission. Yet he noted that Mqhayi ‘sat with a look of dread uneasiness’ before his performance and that the Prince ended the proceedings by cautioning the crowd ‘against tendencies to mistrust those in authority.’ So perhaps someone had intimated that Mqhayi’s ‘praises’ were not all they seemed. Reading the poem in the context of the equally colonialist British Pathé News coverage of the royal visit makes the poetic and political trenchancy of Mqhayi’s performance clearer still. 

The Prince of Wales on his South African tour in 1925

4. A decade earlier, in his classic prose work Ityala Lamawele (The Lawsuit of the Twins, 1914), Mqhayi used a different term for ‘Bible’, focusing on the moment it arrived among the amaXhosa with British missionaries and their military attendants in the early nineteenth century. ‘Aniyivanga n’imbalasane yomQulu ozayo?’, or, in Thokozile Mabeqa’s 2018 translation, ‘Did you not hear the great news of the coming Book?’ (77). Asked by Dumisani, official court imbongi of the historical King Hintsa (1789-1835), this question forms part of the poem that concludes Ityala Lamawele. As the context makes clear, Dumisani is alluding to the visionary speeches the wise elder Khulile had given earlier in the narrative. Among other things, Khulile refers to ‘a Book [yomQulu], a Volume with many parts gathered into it, that will come from the west, carried by foreign nations emerging from the sea.’ This ‘Book’, he adds, will tell of ‘the resurrection of the dead’ (69). A key figure in the story of the lawsuit—he intervenes decisively in the judicial proceedings — Khulile is a vital repository of oral history, including customary law, a prophet who warns of the ‘pandemonium’ to come, and an advocate of creative engagement with Christianity and the new literate order it presages (69). ‘You must look to the Book,’ he insists, ‘study it in the morning and in the evening, because help will come through greater understanding’ (70).

4.1 Mqhayi’s choice of ‘yomQulu’ (‘umqulu’ is the modern basic form) reflects his acute understanding of the relationship between language and culture. In context it means, as Pamela Maseko explains in the introduction to the new Africa Pulse translation, ‘something voluminous, consisting of volumes, the Bible’ (xi). Given its literal sense — ‘roll’ as in ‘a roll of cloth or material’ — Mqhayi may also have wanted the word to signal a precolonial worldview on grounds Wittgenstein would have appreciated. Looking back from a distance of almost a century to a turning point in Xhosa history, he does not have Khulile or Dumisani use an anachronistic loanword like ‘iBhayibhile’. Nor does he have them use ‘incwadi’, the more general isiXhosa word for ‘book,’ another term developed after the arrival of ‘the tribe with the very smooth hair’ (77). ‘Incwadi’ is an ingenious poetic extension of the root word ‘cwadi’, which refers to the Boophone disticha, a bulbous African flowering plant with a brown, papery stem. That the stem looks like the densely packed leaves of a book no doubt explains this figurative elaboration, though other factors may also have been at play. As some of the common English and Afrikaans names indicate — ‘poison bulb’/’gifbol’ and ‘sore-eye flower’/’seeroogblom’ — the Boophone disticha not only has a book-like stem. It is poisonous and bad for the eyes. The precolonial ‘yomQulu’ sidesteps these anachronistic, potentially ambiguous associations.

Boophone disticha
Common names: century plant, poison bulb, sore-eye flower (English); gifbol, seeroogblom, kopseerblom, boesmangif, perdespook (Afrikaans); kxutsana-yanaha, motlatsisa (S. Sotho); incumbe, siphahluka (Swazi); incotho, incwadi (Xhosa, Zulu); ibhade (Zulu)

5. Mqhayi’s sensitivity to the historical and cultural embeddedness of language is also reflected in the inventive way he uses the defamiliarizing device of focalization in Ityala to describe the arrival of the British, their strange language, and mysteriously lethal weaponry through the eyes of early-nineteenth-century Xhosa royal messengers:

It comes from the sea; it is a tribe that looks as though it regularly attacks other tribes. Their language is so complicated, no one understands it. As for fighting, they are powerful people who fight using the heavens; the heavens thunder once, smoke and fire explode, and then something falls in the distance. (Lawsuit, 72-73)

In the original 1914 preface to Ityala, he clarified the stakes involved in his literary-linguistic project, underscoring the inseparability of language and culture, while also leaving no doubt about the broader challenges facing the amaXhosa:

The language and mode of life of the Xhosa people are gradually disappearing because of the Gospel [he used ‘yeliZwi’, literally ‘the voice’] and the new civilisation which came with the nations from the West, the sons of George (Gogi) and his wife (Magogi). (3)

In a note, the editors of the Africa Pulse edition explain the sardonically playful allusion to Gog and Magog, the biblical barbarian hordes who threaten the civilized order of the amaXhosa: ‘The British King George V (Gogi) and his wife, the queen (Magogi),’ father and mother to the trampling ‘Calf-of-the-big-animal’ (80).


I am grateful to Koos Oosthuysen and Pamela Maseko for their advice on various aspects of isiXhosa usage. Parts of this post appeared inLiterary Space/Creative Practice: Reading Ityala Lamawele in English Today‘, Current Writing, 33.1 (2021).

For more on Mqhayi and the Bible, see Ncedile Saule, ‘S.E.K. Mqhayi and the Bible: Traditional poetry and essays in context‘, Southern African Journal for Folklore Studies, 21.2 (December 2011).

For another translation of ‘Hail’, see S. E. K. Mqhayi, Iziganeko Zesizwe, eds. Jeff Opland and Peter. T. Mtuze, (2017), 246-57. This is based on the longer, 140-line version of the text printed in Imvo Zabanstundu (‘Black Opinion’) on 31 March 1925 (note the date), rather than the edited and revised 80-line version which appeared in Mqhayi’s later collection Inzuzo (1942), the source for the 2008 and 2018 translations. As the 31 March date indicates, Mqhayi produced a written address to the Prince in advance of his three-month tour of South Africa, which ran from May to July 1925. It was as forthright as the 1942 version. Exactly what he improvised on 20 May 1925 will never be known, though his oral performance is likely to have borne some relation to the printed versions.

For more on Mqhayi and the imbongi tradition, see Jeff Opland and S.E.K. Mqhayi, ‘Two Unpublished Poems by S. E. K. Mqhayi‘, Research in African Literatures, 8.1 (Spring, 1977); and Jeff Opland, Xhosa Oral Poetry (1983; Cambridge, 2009). And for a photograph of Mqhayi in the full regalia of an imbongi, see the cover of S. E. K. Mqhayi, Abantu Besizwe: Historical and Biographical Writings, 1902-1944, ed. Opland (2009).

David Yali-Manisi (1926-99), Mqhayi’s successor in the imbongi tradition, took up his preoccupation with the oppressive duality of the British legacy, symbolized most powerfully by the gun and the Bible, in a series of performances during the apartheid era, notably at the 1820 Settlers Monument in Grahamstown (now Makhanda) in the late 1970s. See Jeff Opland, ‘The Image of the Book in Xhosa Oral Poetry’, Print, Text and Book Cultures in South Africa, ed. Andrew van der Vlies (Wits University Press, 2012), especially pp. 298-305.

Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit.2

Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit (left) Jastrow’s (right)

1. Ludwig Wittgenstein used his own schematic version of Joseph Jastrow’s duck-rabbit figure in ‘Philosophy of Psychology — A Fragment’, a draft addendum to his Philosophical Investigations (1953), to clarify what he meant by “noticing an aspect.” He began with a more straightforward example: “I contemplate a face, and then suddenly notice its likeness to another. I see that it has not changed; and yet I see it differently” (§113). The duck-rabbit illusion added a further dimension by obliging him to “distinguish between the ‘continuous seeing’ of an aspect and an aspect’s ‘lighting up’.” (I am using Schulte’s revised translation of ‘Aufleuchten’, which Anscombe originally rendered as ‘dawning’.)

1.1 Writing as a philosopher, or, more accurately, as the philosopher’s anti-philosopher, Wittgenstein was not especially interested in the neuroscience of all this, though he recognized that “its causes are of interest to psychologists” (§114). Jastrow, who was a psychologist, did not go into any detail about the neural workings of the illusion either. The image is just one of many he used to illustrate his central thesis about the creativity of human vision in ‘The Mind’s Eye‘, an article he wrote for the general readership of Popular Science Monthly in 1899:

It is a commonplace taught from nursery to university that we see with our eyes, hear with our ears, and feel with the fingers. This is the truth, but not the whole truth. Indispensable as are the sense organs in gaining an acquaintance with the world in which we live, yet they alone do not determine how extensive or how accurate that acquaintance shall be. There is a mind behind the eye and the ear and the finger tips which guides them in gathering information, and gives value and order to the exercise of the senses. This is particularly true of vision, the most intellectual of all the senses, the one in which mere acuteness of the sense organ counts least and the training in observation counts most.

Though Jastrow took his own duck-rabbit image from Harper’s Magazine, it first appeared in Fliegende Blätter, a German weekly, in 1892.

1.2  This section of  ‘Philosophy of Psychology — A Fragment’ revisits §5.5423 of the Tractatus (1922):

Tractatus cube

2. The strange phenomenon of “noticing an aspect” was, for Wittgenstein, essentially a philosophical matter relevant, in the first instance, to epistemology. “The importance of this is the difference of category between the two ‘objects’ of sight” (§111), he commented, before adding “we are interested in the concept and its place among the concepts of experience” (§115). The challenge, in other words, was to construe the difference and relationship between the face seen directly (but still as a face), and the same face seen in the light of a particular likeness; or, by analogy, the same drawn lines (as visual marks) seen as a rabbit and as a duck–in the latter case, we can’t put the same visual cues in the same category simultaneously. (This relates to Wittgenstein’s broader interest in, and concept of, ‘family resemblance‘ and to his claim ‘meaning is a physiognomy‘.) To put it in Jastrow’s terms, we could say the first ‘object’ is seen with the physical eye, the second created by the ‘mind’s eye’. For contemporary neuroscientists, as for Wittgenstein, it would be more plausible to say that the bio-cultural brain, which learns instinctively from experience and through specific training, generates both, producing the rich visual world of ordinary ducks and rabbits (and their representations) as well as the peculiarities of the duck-rabbit illusion — the latter in fact shows the extraordinary, albeit automatized, creativity involved in ‘seeing things’, whether that means recognizing faces as such (Wittgenstein’s ‘continuous seeing’), a vital imperative for newborns, or seeing likenesses between them (Wittgenstein’s ‘lighting up’) — see also the phenomenon of pareidolia (seeing faces in things) and the neuroscience behind it.

3. The philosophical ramifications of this are beyond the scope of this post. What is relevant here are the connections underlying Wittgenstein’s preoccupation with the modalities of visual perception and his interest in writing and reading. These emerge explicitly in another section of the ‘Fragment’:

151 of Fragment

In German, the reversed, handwritten word is ‘Freude’. Wittgenstein focuses on the contrast between the way we see the word and the image, in effect noticing different aspects in each case. We judge the writing aesthetically, for instance, and relate it to our motor skills as practised writers. Again, he simply raises the issue of perceptual difference, steering clear of causal explanations — for contemporary neuroscientists (see Dehaene and Wolf) the learned automaticity of reading, the abstractive power of the brain and its deep interconnectedness go a long way towards such an explanation.

3.1 Wittgenstein invites us to compare his example of mirror-writing to one in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1871). Towards the end of the first chapter, in a bid to escape her disturbing conversation with the White King and Queen, the first mirror-world figures she meets, Alice picks up a book, only to encounter another puzzle:


At first she thinks it is “some language I don’t know” — crucially, for Wittgenstein, she still sees this as language, not as a series of visual marks, since this is already part of her learned, perceptual repertoire (‘continuous seeing’). But then, in a ‘lighting up’ moment, a “bright thought” strikes her: “Why, it’s a Looking-glass book, of course! And if I hold it up to a glass, the words will all go the right way again.” She then reads “Jabberwocky” in the mirror, only to find herself at a loss once again. “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are!”, she says, “However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate—.”

4. Wittgenstein would have appreciated Alice’s new sense of befuddlement. His own extended reflections on reading in the Philosophical Investigations itself (sections §156-78) include the following passage:

169 of Phil Investigations

Confusingly, Anscombe turned Wittgenstein’s original line of asemic manuscript squiggles (‘arbitrary flourishes’, he calls them) into the following sequence of typographically familiar, non-phonetic symbols, some of which are both utterable and meaningful:

Anscombe 169

For the everyday duck-rabbit illusions of writing in English, think only of the way we can’t see the letters ‘s’, ‘t’, ‘o’, and ‘p’ and the word ‘stop‘ at the same time, or the way we can see the configuration Reading at the beginning of a sentence as the activity (pronounced reeding) and as the place name (pronounced reding) but not as both at once. Like Lewis Carroll and James Joyce (see the ‘Strip Teasy’ post), Wittgenstein took nothing for granted when it comes to the peculiarities of the literate brain or the many ways of seeing and knowing it affords. 

5. Section §169 (above) of the Investigations focuses on the puzzles of the grapheme-phoneme connection, but, returning to the ‘Fragment’, we can see that Wittgenstein’s interest in the modalities of visual perception relates to his concerns about semantics as well. To illustrate another, again slightly different, form of aspectual seeing, he offered this example:

116 of Fragment

For Wittgenstein, we experience the specific meaning of an individual word, whether heard as a phoneme or read as a grapheme, in a comparably shifting, highly contextualized way — the word now taking the place of the cube/box/etc. “You can say the word ‘march’ to yourself,” he notes later in the ‘Fragment’, “and mean it at one time as an imperative, at another as the name of a month. And now say ‘March!’ — and then ‘March no further!’ — Does the same experience accompany the word both times — are you sure?’ (§271). Earlier, via another example of cryptic inscription in the ‘Fragment’, he made the connection to how we experience meaning as we read too:

234 of Fragment

Pleasure image

Thoreau ‘bathes’ in the Gita

1. A curious (but also characteristic) thing happens in the final paragraph of ‘The Pond in Winter’, the 16th section of Henry Thoreau’s Walden (1854). In the preceding five paragraphs, Thoreau describes the working practices of a hundred Irish labourers who arrive to cut large slabs of ice from the frozen Walden Pond in the winter of 1846-47 as part of what was by then a burgeoning international ice trade. Started in 1806 by the New England businessman Frederic Tudor, this extraordinary local enterprise had become a major export business by the 1840s, extending not just to the southern United States but to England, South America, India, China, and Australia. ‘Thus it appears’, Thoreau comments, marvelling at the interconnectedness of things, ‘that the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well.’ He then makes the following, seemingly surrealistic leap:

In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions.

This is not the first time Thoreau references the Gita admiringly in Walden. In the first section, entitled ‘Economy’, he describes the ancient Hindu epic, which formed part of the larger Mahabharata, as a powerful expression of ‘abstract thought’, holding it up as a counter to the ‘insane ambition’ of ‘nations’, the United States included, for whom material achievements are all. Yet, tangled as it is in the description of the ice trade, this second reference is the strangest. 

2. Having abruptly switched from the fine art of ice cutting to reading the Gita, Thoreau then develops the allusion, extending the chain of implicit metaphors — the Gita as a Walden Pond of the intellect, reading as mind-cleansing — describing how, after putting the book down, he goes to the pond for a drink: ‘and lo! there I meet the servant of the Bramin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug.’ After thus quenching his thirst and his imagination, he notes, ‘the pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges’. This opens another associative chain: Thoreau as a modern American equivalent of the ancient Hindu priest, Walden as a new kind of Gita, even the ice trade as an intimation of a more profound intercultural trade in thought. Hence the final lyric sentence of the paragraph (and so ‘The Pond in Winter’ section), which follows the Walden ice on a sea route around the coast of Africa to an India Alexander the Great never saw (i.e. east of the Indus river):

With favoring winds it is wafted past the site of the fabulous islands of Atlantis and the Hesperides, makes the periplus of Hanno, and, floating by Ternate and Tidore and the mouth of the Persian Gulf, melts in the tropic gales of the Indian seas, and is landed in ports of which Alexander only heard the names.

Given the endless play on the literal and the figural, Thoreau may also have been imagining this voyage as a future for his own book. If so, he was not far off the mark. Gandhi would count ‘Civil Disobedience‘ (1849), the essay often paired with Walden, among his key influences, and Sreekrishna Sarma speculates about Thoreau’s connections to Tagore. 

Ice trade
Extent of the New England ice trade by the 1850s. Source: Wikipedia

3. Thoreau was not exactly ‘bathing’ in ‘the Gita.’ He was reading Charles Wilkins’s 1785 English translation entitled the Bhagvat-geeta, or Dialogues of Kreeshna and Arjoon, the first full rendering of the Sanskrit original into a European language. Tellingly, in his translator’s preface, Wilkins framed the dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna (in modern spelling), which is ostensibly about war, as an argument against the polytheism of the even more ancient Vedas in favour of what he called the ‘unity of the Godhead’ (24). ‘The most learned Brahmans of the present time,’ he adds, ‘are Unitarians according to the doctrines of Kreeshna’ (24). This made his ‘Geeta’ less alien for English readers versed in the Christian tradition, especially those, like Thoreau’s mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, who played a leading part in the Unitarian movement that emerged in New England in the late-18th century — the copy of the Wilkins Gita Thoreau read at Walden in fact belonged to Emerson. 

4. What did Thoreau make of it? The fullest answer to this question appears not in Walden but in his first, post-Walden book A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849). Though wary of what he there called the Gita’s ‘sublime conservatism’ — he rejected its justification of the caste system — he recommends it to American readers as, among other things, an antidote to European writers who presume to be ‘speaking for the world’ despite the ‘limited range’ of their ‘own sympathies and studies’, and as an unmatched guide to ‘spiritual discipline’. To illustrate the latter, he cites ‘Lecture V: Of the Forsaking of Works’, where Krishna details various aspects of yogic practice:

Wise men call him a Pandeet, whose every undertaking is free from the idea of desire, and whose actions are consumed by the fire of wisdom. He abandoneth the desire of a reward of his actions; he is always contented and independent; and although he may be engaged in a work, he, as it were, doeth nothing. (53)

Thoreau underscores this with a further quotation from ‘Lecture VI’:

He is both a Yogee and a Sannyasee who performeth that which he hath to do independent of the fruit thereof; not he who liveth without the sacrificial fire and without action. (62)

This idea of thought or action performed without worldly reward, combined with inner contentment, independence, and disinterested devotion, resurfaces in the parable of the ‘artist in the city of Kourou’ (i.e. the ancient Kingdom of Kuru where the Gita is set) with which Walden concludes. Like a Yogi, the artist devotes himself single-mindedly and without thought for any reward (e.g. selling ice for profit) or extrinsic goal to the task of carving a perfect wooden staff, in the process of which he escapes the ravages of time and discovers Brahma. The result, according to Thoreau? He finds ‘he had made a new system in making a staff, a world with full and fair proportions.’ Thoreau no doubt intends this as a commentary not just on his own period of yogic seclusion on Walden Pond but on the writing and reading of his new updated American Gita as well. 

5. Coincidentally, on the other side of the Atlantic, another reader was responding to the Gita’s lessons in yogic discipline with equal enthusiasm. ‘The Indians distinguish between meditation or absorption—and knowledge,’ Matthew Arnold wrote in a letter to his friend and fellow poet Arthur Hugh Clough in March 1848, ‘and between abandoning practice, and abandoning the fruits of action and all respect thereto. This last is a supreme step, and dilated on throughout the Poem.’ Besides the passages Thoreau cited, he probably had the following sentence from ‘Lecture XII’ in mind: 

Knowledge is better than practice, meditation is distinguished from knowledge, forsaking the fruit of action from meditation, for happiness hereafter is derived from such forsaking. (99)

Clough was not impressed, but Wilkins’s Gita left its mark on Arnold, explicitly in early poems like ‘Resignation‘ and implicitly in the non-partisan, anti-sectarian concept of culture he developed in Culture and Anarchy (1869). Though the latter is now chiefly associated with the easily and routinely derided phrase ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world’ (see webnote d), there are many other senses Arnold gives his key term over the course of the book as a whole, some of which recall his comments on the Gita and reflect his broader critique of mid-nineteenth-century liberalism, which he saw as too preoccupied with narrow, self-interested, and overly rationalistic calculation. ‘Culture is the disinterested endeavour after man’s perfection’, he says at one point, echoing the perfectionism of Thoreau’s artist; or, recalling the Gita on ‘forsaking the fruits of action’, ‘the free spontaneous play of consciousness with which culture tries to float our stock habits of thinking and acting, is by its very nature, as has been said, disinterested.’ Culture not as a canon of great books, in other words, but as a modernized yogic path of the kind Thoreau attempted to cut for himself and his readers in Walden.


For more on the Gita’s influence, particularly in relation to T.S. Eliot, see Amit Chaudhuri, ‘Human kind cannot bear very much reality‘, N+1, 28 March 2022. 

‘Niwt’: the hieroglyph for ‘city’

1. This is the ancient Egyptian hieroglyph niwt (pronounced ‘nee-oot’), one of the earliest known written inscriptions meaning ‘city’ or ‘town’. As the economic historian Robert S. Lopez (1910-86) intimated in his 1966 essay ‘The Crossroads within the Wall‘, it is also an apt symbol for the intricacies of what it might mean to think  interculturally.

The cross represents the convergence of roads which bring in and redistribute men, merchandise, and ideas. This convergence entails a quickening of communication which is nearly always a great advantage, but may become a handicap if speed grows so frantic that the city has no time to keep its share of the incoming goods and to impress its mark on the goods it re-exports. The circle, in the hieroglyph, indicates a moat or wall. This need not be materially erected so long as it is morally present, to keep the citizens together, sheltered from the cold, wide world, conscious of belonging to a unique team, proud of being different from the open country and germane to one another. The wall, too, may become an obstacle if it is too high and tight, if it hinders further growth, above all if it frustrates the opportunity for exchanges beyond it. (27)

‘Communication plus togetherness,’ Lopez continues, ‘or, a special aptitude for change combined with a peculiar feeling of identity: is this not the essence of the city?’ Lopez’s astutely balanced analysis has a particular pertinence to ancient city-states, which are also intimately associated with the origins of writing (see the ‘Scott’s paradox’ post). It could just as well be applied, figuratively if not literally, to the modern nation-state, whether in its older, Europeanized monolingual, monocultural forms, or its newer, post-European multilingual, multicultural iterations. In each case, the double-edged symbolism of the circle and the cross points to the promise and the perils of belonging and interconnection, identity and change. The need to juggle these competing imperatives is, as I argue in the book, central to Joyce and Tagore’s thinking about language, culture, community, state-making and more.

2. A. K. Ramanujan (1929-93), the great Indian poet and scholar, quotes Lopez in his 1970 essay ‘Towards an Anthology of City Images‘, which is, among other things, a powerful defence of literary thinking — Ramanujan is especially interested in literature’s potential as a complement to the positivistic forms of thought that dominated the social sciences in the first half of the 20th century. After citing the descriptions of two cities, modeled on the ancient port of Pugaar (Pukar) and the inland capital Madurai (Maturai), in the Tamil epic Silappatikāram (c. 5th century CE), he comments: ‘Pukar is pre-eminently the Crossroads City and Maturai, the Walled City.’ Yet the epic does more than weigh the costs and benefits of these two contrasting cityscapes. For Ramanujan, it shows the classical poet’s ‘intuitive grasp of a typology of cities’ as well as a ‘grasp of structural relations and their entailments in the details of experience’, which is ‘worth the social scientists’ attention.’ The reason? ‘The poet’s detail not only offers realisations and intuitions of structure, but a whole repertory of hypotheses that might be the beginnings of fresh scientific observations’ (69).

3. Much the same could be said of the way Joyce imagines the Dublin of Finnegans Wake (1939) neither as an idealized city on the hill in the Platonic/Christian tradition, nor as one of the many fallen cities of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), but as an ever-changing intersection of two world-historical forces, each potentially creative and destructive: a free-flowing, circulatory ‘feminine’ force, associated chiefly with the river Liffey and Anna Livia Plurabelle (ALP); and a master-building, rising-and-falling (tumescent-detumescent?) ‘masculine’ one, linked primarily to the port city of Dublin itself and Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker (HCE) — see the history of the phrase ‘beyond the pale‘. Tagore applied his version of this doubling vision to India as a whole, or, rather, to the free, independent future India he dreamt in Gitanjali (1910), where he wrote (in Ketaki Dyson’s English translation): ‘We shall give and receive, mingle and harmonise: / there’s no turning back / on this seashore of India’s grand concourse of humankind’ (151). Again, as with Joyce and the ancient Egyptian scribes, the crossroads, or crosscurrents, are as necessary, and potentially as dangerous, as the containing circle or wall. 


“I’m not a robot” – revisiting Xu Bing

Xu Bing “A Case Study of Transference” Performance with two live pigs inked with fake English and Chinese characters, discarded books, cage 1993-1994 Enclosure: 500 x 500 cm Performance at Han Mo Arts Center, Beijing, 22 January 1994 徐冰 “一个文化转换个案的研究” 装置及表演,两只种猪,猪圈及印刷 © Xu Bing Studio

1. With ‘A Case Study of Transference’ (1993-94), Xu Bing radically extended the scope and philosophical import of his breakthrough work 天书/ Tiānshū or Book from the Sky (1988). In that vast, composite installation, for which he devised 4,000 pseudo-characters, he raised questions about the Chinese writing system and its classical, paper-based media — printed books, scrolls, placarded newspapers. Now he took issue with the Latinate (‘alphabetical’) writing system and the ‘Western’ book form as well. In addition, by creating a live installation in an art gallery using real pigs in a pen littered with books, he brought the wordless, extra-literate world of non-human animals into view.

1.1 As the photograph above intimates, this created an intricate play of perspectives as well as an element of unpredictability. While monoliterate spectators at the Han Mo Arts Center in 1990s Beijing might have contrasted the evidently asemic Chinese characters on one pig with the potentially legible English (?) words on the other, those able to read both scripts might have made more of the difference between the nonsensical characters on the ink-stamped pigs and the legible print in the books. Yet, as the expressions on the spectators’ faces suggest — read them as you will — the real, challengingly Zen-inspired contrast in this performance piece is between the world of awkward (?), embarrassed (?), puzzled (?), meaning-seeking (?) human beings and other, less conceptually and ethically troubled forms of warm-blooded life. As Xu Bing commented of the pigs:

These two creatures, devoid of human consciousness, yet carrying on their bodies the marks of human civilization, engage in the most primal form of “social intercourse.” The absolute directness of this undertaking produces a result that is both unthinkable and worth thinking about. In watching the behavior of the two pigs, we are led to reflect on human behavior.

Thinking the unthinkable, or at the limits of the thinkable, lies at the heart of Xu Bing’s koan-like artistic practice. The shift in perspective ‘A Case Study’ demands recalls Rabindranath Tagore’s aphoristic poem, no. 147 from the collection Fireflies (1928): ‘The worm thinks it strange and foolish / that man does not eat his books.’

2. From today’s perspective, these early asemic works do more than invite us to think about human behavior. They ask us to reflect on the bio-cultural peculiarities of human learning and intelligence, where the pertinent contrast lies not only with the natural intelligence of non-human animals but with the artificial intelligence of machines. This is particularly true for the literate — now the overwhelming majority of the world’s population (see Fourth Proposition) — for whom culture alone effects a radical transformation of the brain. Whereas we have evolved to pick up speech naturally — hence Steven Pinker’s ‘language instinct‘ — we must be taught to read and write, a process which, as Stanislas Dehaene and others have argued, re-purposes parts of the visual cortex evolution produced — hence ‘bio-cultural’. 

3. As any user of Google, Weibo or Facebook knows, machine learning has been developing apace since the 1990s, re-shaping societies and everyday life across the world for better or worse. Think only of landmark spectacles like IBM’s Deep Blue beating Garry Kasparov at chess in 1997, or Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo defeating Ke Jie in 2017. Yet over the same two decades ordinary literate brains held their own in one vital domain. Unlike the AI machine learners, they could solve the semic or asemic Latinate letter-strings known since 2003 as CAPTCHAs. Named after the English polymath Alan Turing (1912-54), CAPTCHA (later reCAPTCHA) stands for ‘Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart.’ They are most commonly used for online security purposes and to block spam.


4. The first-generation, text-based CAPTCHAs exploited the human brain’s extraordinary ability to abstract generalizable patterns from very little experiential data and many, often distorting contexts: first, during the ‘natural’ learning phase, picking out phonemes like /w/ from many differently accented voicings of the w-sound, and then, during the ‘cultural’ phase, extracting graphemes like ‘w’ from countless written, printed, or digitized forms of the letter W/w. Learning to read Latinate systems involves the further process of connecting these abstract sound-letter types neurologically, and, for Anglograph readers, mastering the many exceptions — as in the word ‘write.’

W fonts

As early as 2007, reCAPTCHA (version 1) took advantage of this bio-cultural prowess, turning all its users into proofreaders for various newspaper and book digitizing projects — hence the company slogan ‘stop spam/read books’. After acquiring it in 2009, Google continued to use free human brain power in this way to compensate for the limits of the OCR scanners it was using for Google Books.

5. All this changed in 2017 when Dileep George and his colleagues developed a probabilistic algorithm for cracking text-based CAPTCHAs with human-like efficiency, obliging us, once again, to think at the limits of the thinkable. As literate viewers of Xu Bing’s ‘A Case of Transference’, we may once have wanted to say (or at least think) ‘I read therefore I’m not a pig.’ But for how much longer will we feel so assured about our bio-cultural uniqueness when we tick the box ‘I’m not a robot’? For Stanislas Dehaene, the leading contemporary neuroscientist, the answer clear: ‘this computer algorithm, however sophisticated, applies only to CAPTCHAs. Our brains apply this ability for abstraction to all aspects of our daily lives’ (Dehaene, 2020, 29). For instance, when it comes to natural language learning, ‘children quickly manage to surpass any existing artificial intelligence algorithm’ long before they can read (67):

By the time they blow out their first candle, they have already laid down the foundation for the main rules of their native language at several levels, from elementary sounds (phonemes) to melody (prosody), vocabulary (lexicon), and grammar rules (syntax).

So, for Dehaene, the prospect of machines posing a real threat to our precarious bio-cultural uniqueness is a long way off. The challenges developers face getting bots to unscramble tricky visual cues offers some reassurance too. One recent example: OpenAI’s otherwise highly advanced ‘neural network’ Clip continues to be derailed by some elementary mixed-messages — the percentages measure the accuracy of the algorithm’s object classifications. For the broader question of AI and natural language, see  Stefanie Ullmann, “‘Can I see your parts list?’ What AI’s attempted chat-up lines tell us about computer-generated language“, 28 April 2021; and Gary Marcus and Ernest Davis, “GPT-3, Bloviator: OpenAI’s language generator has no idea what it’s talking about“, 22 August 2020. For the latest on AI and human creativity, see ‘Art for our sake: artists cannot be replaced by machines‘, 3 March 2022. And, finally, for an entertaining demonstration of machine learning and the Latinate alphabet, see Tom Murphy’s video (and associated paper) Uppestcase and Lowestcase Letters, April 2021.

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