Wittgenstein and A.M. Homes

I’m currently reading the brilliant, wry and completely heartbreaking ‘May We Be Forgiven’ by A.M. Homes. (With serious thanks to Hannah G for lending it to me.) As some measure of these things, yesterday on the train the man sitting opposite me asked if I was alright because I was making anguished faces and clutching my collarbone so hard with my fingertips that they left marks. After a time I trawled my eyes upward from the page to realise he’d moved away.

Many things struck me in the book, but the below extract struck me because of the obvious relevance to Wittgenstein:

“I’m thinking of days that never were, the perfect childhood that existed only in my imagination. When I was growing up, the playground wasn’t so much a well-coiffed green as an empty lot. Our families had no desire for us to have a safe, clean place to play- as far as they were concerned, playing was a waste of time. Supplies were limited; one guy might have a mitt, another guy a bat, and the rest of us caught barehanded, sucking up the incredible sting, hands smarting not only with pain but with the thrill of success at having plucked the ball out of the sky, having interrupted the trajectory and likely spared someone the cost of replacing a window. The bottom line was, if you had time to play, you didn’t tell anyone, because if your parents knew, they would find something for you to do.

So we played quietly and out of sight, making toys out of whatever happened to be nearby- my father’s shoes made a most excellent navy, his size-nine wingtips gliding in formatting across the carpet, the smell of leather and foot sweat. And what did I use as the aircraft carrier? A silver platter that I borrowed from the dining room. And when my mother discovered the platter surrounded by shoes, she accused me of having mental problems. Why wasn’t it obvious to her that the carpet was the ocean, the battleground? She called me a nogoodnik, and I remember crying and George thinking it was all so funny.” (p. 102)

Here’s the Wittgenstein for comparison:

31.    When one shews someone the king in chess and says: “This is the king”, this does not tell him the use of this piece-unless he already knows the rules of the game up to this last point: the shape of the king. You could imagine his having learnt the rules of the game without ever having been strewn an actual piece. The shape of the chessman corresponds here to the sound or shape of a word.

 One can also imagine someone’s having learnt the game without ever learning or formulating rules. He might have learnt quite simple board-games first, by watching, and have progressed to more and more complicated ones. He too might be given the explanation “This is the king”,– if, for instance, he were being strewn chessmen of a shape he was not used to. This explanation again only tells him the use of the piece because, as we might say the place for it was already prepared.  Or even: we shall only say that it tells him the use, if the place is already prepared. And in this case it is so, not because the person to whom we give the explanation already knows rules, but because in another sense he is already master of a game. 

35. To repeat: in certain cases, especially when one points ‘to the shape’ or ‘to the number’ there are characteristic experiences and ways of pointing-‘characteristic’ because they recur often (not always) when shape or number are ‘meant’. But do you also know of an experience characteristic of pointing to a piece in a game as a piece in a game? 

In this two extracts from Wittgenstein, understanding the ‘rules of a game’ seems to take on an epistemic flavour; you have to know something (know something about games, about rules, about chess etc), in order to be able to ask what that (that chess-piece) is. This background ‘knowledge’ then enables you to see the lump of wood you’ve just pointed at as a king. But of course not only things rigidly designated by society as game pieces can be used as game pieces. One of the more wonderful things about the mindset of children (and about her spot-on depiction of this mindset) is that anything can be used and re-imagined as a piece in a game, that they possess this wonderful transformative power of turning a tray into an aircraft carrier. But more important than an understanding of what games are and how they are played in doing this (which adults presumably also share), are a certain set of qualities and values. Things such as  imagination, playfulness, creativity, inventiveness and  a desire to constantly seek out new ways of playing.

Of course his parents, with their complete and utter rejection of the value of playing, could never see the tray as an aircraft carrier. Even if it was explained to them that he was playing a game, and in that game these everyday objects just were certain things, you can still imagine his mother saying something like “But it’s a silver platter.”

I think the point I wanted to make here (which I’m sure is something Wittgenstein would also endorse) is that a failure to see something as something else doesn’t always involve a deficit in understanding or knowledge. It can involve a deficit in something much more important. (And perhaps this is part of his point about all the things that writhe and squirm under the bedrock.)

I can’t help feeling that somewhere down this line of inquiry there’s something interesting you could say about metaphors- the invitation to see something as something else, but I’m not yet sure at all how this explanation would go.

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One response to “Wittgenstein and A.M. Homes

  1. Thanks. Enjoyed the comparisons and the thoughts. Regards from Thom at the immortal jukebox (drop a nickel).

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