Magic Lantern

An Essay by Joshua Weinstein


“It is impossible,” T.S. Eliot famously wrote in the voice of Prufrock, “to say just what I mean.” Prufrock finds many ways to express despair—he also wishes he had been a pair of ragged claws, reflects on being snickered at by the eternal Footman, predicts that mermaids will ignore him—and it was Eliot’s genius to craft a poem of breathtaking beauty from the point of view of a guy feeling sorry for himself. I don’t think Prufrock’s angst at not finding the right words should be taken as a philosophical statement about the human condition. But that apparently was what the philosopher Wittgenstein intended when he wrote, “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent.”

When I ran into Wittgenstein’s dictum in college, I thought it was silly, an example of using academic-speak to make something trivial sound profound. I still do. We can’t talk about what we can’t talk about. Nu? Then there’s the paradox of talking about what we can’t talk about in order to say we can’t talk about it—quite the tangle. Besides, speech and silence hardly exhaust the range of options. What about music? Art? Primal scream? Beethoven’s rage may have been beyond the reach of words, but he found a way to express it. Continue reading