What Do You Do with a BA in English?

May 21, 2021   •   By John Lurz

A Different Order of Difficulty: Literature after Wittgenstein

Karen Zumhagen-Yekplé

IT MAY NOT BE a truth universally acknowledged, but these days it is something of a practical truism that a student of the humanities in possession of a good major is in want of another. English, my advisees often tell me, is their “fun” major, while a different, more obviously pragmatic subject is their “useful” one. The comment cuts two ways, of course. On the one hand, it’s affirming to hear that students find my discipline enjoyable and gratifying; on the other, it’s dispiriting to hear the belittlement of its “real-world” value, as well as a tacit dismissal of the very real work that those of us in literary studies do on a daily basis. And I’m not talking about the slog of grading, the anxieties of teaching, or even the ever escalating and, with the pivot to interminable Zoom meetings, also benumbing service that attends professional university life. Rather, I’m thinking about the intellectual industriousness involved in the thoughtful analysis of literature and culture, the sometimes pleasurable but never effortless exertion demanded by an encounter with a new — or, for that matter, an old — text.

In reality, I know the students aren’t minimizing the work of reading (after all, they are often in my Ulysses class), and I also know that the “fun” so attractive to many of them is in part the promise of intellectual expansion and the aesthetic enrichment of a daily life dominated by commercial concerns about money, status, and image. So what struck me as particularly wonderful about Karen Zumhagen-Yekplé’s new book, A Different Order of Difficulty: Literature after Wittgenstein, was how seriously it takes those promises and how earnestly it analyzes the contributions of literature and philosophy to what I want, without irony, to call a practical education.

There are not, in fact, many books I know of that put the question of humanistic study’s usefulness quite so boldly or quite so baldly: “[H]ow do literature and the humanities guide us in the perplexity of existence and the struggle of life in the face of the apparent gap between the everyday real and the always unattainable yet still longed-for ‘higher’?” she asks toward the end of her introduction.

What Zumhagen-Yekplé is after here is not just an interrogation of how literature can be relevant or “useful” but, more radically, what the idea of relevance or usefulness can be in the first place. This is why I frame her book in terms of practical education: she is helping us see that what is concretely useful about studying literature is how it expands that very category and shows us ways of finding meaning, wonder, and even transformation in what otherwise looks like opacity, mundanity, and, most broadly, difficulty. As she puts it in a chapter on Joyce, “One of the things that ‘Ithaca’ conveys to us is that a longing for answers to life’s eternal questions is a deep aspect of our experience of the everyday.”

If this initially smacks of hippy-dippy, New Age cant or neoliberal self-help, the textual archive through which A Different Order of Difficulty pursues its particular practical project should lay those suspicions to rest. Mapping what she argues are the shared investments of modernist literature (broadly conceived) and the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Zumhagen-Yekplé develops an account of “the interwoven commitments related to the concerns with difficulty, oblique ethical instruction, and a yearning for transformation” that, she holds, are at the core of this historical and aesthetic moment. In other words, this is not a book that offers straightforward spiritual guidance, common-sense life hacks, or concrete recommendations for becoming your best self. Rather, as she traces the overlaps between a rigorous and “resolute” reading of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (there’s minimal discussion of the later and seemingly more accessible Philosophical Investigations) and the textual challenges of Kafka, Woolf, Joyce, and, more provocatively, Coetzee, she shows us how the imaginative intellectual work that these works demand is what can change our lives.

Doing so positions her arguments within a rich nexus of critical discussions: the expansive energies of the “new modernist studies,” the ancient and ongoing conversation between literature and philosophy, and the burgeoning field of a renewed and revamped practical criticism. If this last is, as I’ve already indicated, what I find most exhilarating, it is partly because A Different Order of Difficulty brings some of the texts I love the most to a broad and diverse discussion — including Pheng Cheah’s What Is a World?: On Postcolonial Literature as World Literature, Anna Kornbluh’s The Order of Forms: Realism, Formalism, and Social Space, and Joshua Landy’s How to Do Things with Fictions — of reading for life.

What really distinguishes Zumhagen-Yekplé’s contribution to these efforts, however, is not just her unapologetic embrace of difficulty or the quasi-mysticism she inherits from her subjects, but her deep and complex commitment to language — and to figurative, literary language in particular. This has everything to do with the “resolute” interpretation of the Tractatus that she takes from contemporary philosophers Cora Diamond and James Conant, who treat Wittgenstein’s concluding dismissal of the work’s preceding propositions as “nonsensical” in as faithful a way as possible. Doing so transforms what seems like (and, in some ways, is) an exploration of the logical structure of language into an ethical inquiry aimed at getting readers “to see the world rightly” based on a clarified understanding of what language can and can’t sensibly express.

Citing both historical and contemporary insights into Wittgenstein’s project, Zumhagen-Yekplé shows that the ultimate goal of Wittgenstein’s self-conscious nonsense is a change in the reader’s perspective that resists metaphysical theories meant to solve or explain the limits and difficulties of the world and that instead embraces the ongoing work of figuring out how to respond to those difficulties for ourselves. To the problem of other minds, the longing for existential meaning, the resistance of the world to our will, there is no ultimate solution. There is only, we could say, re-solution, a pun on Diamond and Conant’s reading program that suggests both the kind of repeated, contingent efforts at comprehension underlying Wittgenstein’s conception of philosophy as an “activity” and the kind of unyielding attitude necessary to “approach life in an ethical spirit.”

Implied in this project is a rejection of the dichotomy between facticity and transcendence and a recognition of the profound power contained in the use and abuse of ordinary language, which is where Wittgenstein’s thinking correlates most cogently with the literary figures Zumhagen-Yekplé considers. Rather than a study of “influence,” A Different Order of Difficulty is much more one of shared sensibilities or commonalities of method, what she felicitously calls a “study of coincidence.” It’s a refreshing relief from heavy-handed historicizations, and it lets her explore the ideas and investments animating these writers in a productively expansive way. We thus find her tracing a similarly “willed opacity” in Wittgenstein and Kafka. For Wittgenstein, this involves an embrace of the nonsense “that results from our attempts to give linguistic expression to our moral or spiritual experience of the world,” a discussion he pursues in his post-Tractatus “Lecture on Ethics.” For Kafka, this entails the genre of the parable that withholds any definitive or forthrightly articulatable message.

In both cases, Zumhagen-Yekplé draws out the way that figurative language — language used in an indirect mode — is the only way to point beyond the everyday reality to which our empirical existence is limited. She explains the seeming contradiction here by positing the figurative use of language as speaking to “a conception of reality capacious enough to encompass a real human yearning for an imaginative elsewhere.” Her point is that being open to aspects of language like metaphor (and, I would argue, signification tout court) begins a process of transformation that will let us “tak[e] a figurative perspective on the world” and “occupy a different interpretive reality.”

I’m going on about this node in her argument partly because it was the most difficult for me to follow. Zumhagen-Yekplé shows that, in trying to get us to see the difference between sensical and nonsensical propositions, the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus does not want us to give up on nonsense, despite the famous image of “throw[ing] away the ladder [of the preceding propositions], once he has climbed up on it.” Rather, she suggests, he wants to enable us to take a closer look at our nonsense, since it is the only mode we have for pointing to the things about the world that seem to exceed it, the only way we have for expressing our ethical and spiritual impulses. Figurative language is what allows us “to express ourselves in ways that no empirically meaningful sentence could allow.” This claim suggests just how important the adept handling of metaphor, imagery, and all the other verbal tricks that a literary education familiarizes us with is for living a (literally) meaningful life.

At the same time, the very power of this point touches on one of my few criticisms of A Different Order of Difficulty, which is the way that, for all its emphasis on and extolling of figurative language, it is somewhat short on gritty engagement with the small-scale linguistic dynamics of her subjects’ own texts. She openly admits this and forthrightly declares her departure from the dominant approaches of cultural studies and “the demand for formalism,” explaining her decision as a contribution to our contemporary efforts to develop analytical modes other than a hermeneutics of suspicion. This she certainly achieves (and without, as so often happens, undue or engulfing engagement with the vocabulary of “post-critique”). But, as someone whose name appears in her acknowledgments, I would risk devaluing all my praise if I didn’t note that her compelling high-altitude thinking didn’t leave me, with my addiction to close reading, craving some more concrete discussion of the relationship between nonsense and Woolf’s luxuriating lyricism or the role played by the unexpectedly tender texture of the questioning in Joyce’s “Ithaca.”

Nevertheless, her engagement with To the Lighthouse masterfully parses the complexity of the novel’s “religious point of view” and the impossible longing for safety and unity in the face of suffering and isolation that it implies (while also explaining the significance of “The Fisherman and His Wife” fairy tale whose presence in the narrative has always puzzled me). Using Diamond’s Wittgensteinian idea of the “difficulty of reality,” in which something or someone is resistant to our conventional ways of understanding, she locates a sense of solidarity in the struggles we all face to comprehend the world, the simultaneously exultant and melancholy opacity of the novel itself providing a goad to continue confronting obscurity in all its forms. In a similar way, her discussion of Ulysses emphasizes a “counter-epiphanic aesthetic” that aims, like Wittgenstein’s philosophy, at a longer-term transformation of the reader’s perception of the ordinary world as something essentially mysterious. A sense of being at home with this mystery is what her reading of “Ithaca’s” catechistic form seeks to cultivate, a perspective that sees the answer to questions about the meaning of life provided by literary and philosophical study as a demand for its creative, courageous, and continuous elaboration.

The continuousness of this “lively contemplation of [the] world,” which is tantamount to looking at it as a kind of aesthetic phenomenon, finds what is arguably its most concrete illustration in the book’s final turn to Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus. Extending her Wittgensteinian analysis beyond the traditional historical borders of modernism and into the contemporary moment, Zumhagen-Yekplé emphasizes the way Coetzee’s 2013 novel “works to create an overriding sense of puzzlement” and frames the gap between the title’s obvious Christian reference and the obliquity of Christianity’s significance for the narrative as a parabolic provocation to once again transform the ways we relate to the perplexity of existence as such.

Drawing out the stakes of the preceding chapters’ arguments, her most powerful point comes in a discussion of the generally literalist, what-you-see-is-what-you-get perspective on the world that the majority of Coetzee’s characters take in the novel. To this sense of anodyne peace that capitulates to the status quo and anaesthetizes all sense of curious yearning for anything different or new, she contrasts the kind of metaphorical, figurative thinking that all the texts in her study promote. But this figurative stance is not a straightforwardly allegorical outlook that would, for example, read this novel about migrants as a commentary on our contemporary global migration crisis — as if, quoting Coetzee, a literary work is “a message with a covering, a rhetorical or aesthetic covering.” Rather, it is an active transformation of our very desire for an answer or explanation to the hard questions of life — which no one, philosophical genius or not, could give to us — into the practical effort of seeing the conditions of the world and our place in it otherwise.


John Lurz is an associate professor in the English Department at Tufts University, where he teaches courses in 20th-century British Literature as well as literary theory.