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Bought a pizza. Went into the kitchen to get the pizza-cutter. My landlady and her boyfriend were at one end of the room, arranging wet clothes on a drying rack. i presume they were my landlady’s clothes as she was naked.
Although she’s not really my type – too young (24), and not really complicated enough to exasperate me – she is quite pretty, so this was an unexpected but welcome sight. However, it presented
A Question of Etiquette
– namely, how does one act in the presence of an attractive naked woman, to whom one is not actually attracted?
1. Saying hello and then acting as if nothing was unusual;
2. Staring at her fixedly, rubbing my thighs and licking my lips.
3. Leaving instantly, getting my camera, and then returning to take photos of her as if she were a monument, from different angles, considering the lighting and composition, asking her boyfriend to take a shot of me posing next to her, etc.
4. Spanking her hard on the ass with a great Pete Townshend-like arm-windmill. i nearly did this to a big-assed exhibitionist woman at my first really bad temp job in 2004 – she strutted about in barmaid clothes, exposing her considerable cleavage; fine by me, but she had a “look at me!” quality i disliked, also she was evil. Anyway, i came back to my desk to find her bent over a nearby computer, talking to one of my colleagues. As i walked past i began the Townshend arm-windmill and – in full view of the 50 or so people in the office – executed a partial slap, only halting about 3 inches from her huge buttocks. She was the only person who didn’t see it, but i think she realised something was going on, just from the looks on the other people’s faces; she turned suspiciously, to see me sauntering to my desk in my nonchalant, innocent way.
5. Saying quickly, “it’s okay, i’m not a lesbian” to reassure her.
In the end i ignored them both, looked for the pizza cutter, couldn’t find it, and went back to my room where i ate the pizza with my serial killer knife.
It was a pretty good pizza.
A line from Kurp’s review of Swift:
When puppies and kitties show up in one of Swift’s poems, you can be certain they have drowned.
i attended a talk on Swift’s Tale of a Tub in 2000. A visiting American talked for 237 hours about Swift, setting off Mexican waves of tedium and suicidal despair throughout the packed room. It was the first staff/student “seminar” and all us MA students had been encouraged to attend. It was so tedious that i don’t think a single student ever returned – except me, a couple of months later (because i half-knew the speaker). The Swift talk was one of the most tedious 237 hours of my life – worse than mere data entry because it was about a deranged Irish genius, so there was really no excuse.
i sat next to Professor_____, who kept producing faint and presumably involuntary moans of exhaustion, and about halfway through began to sag forwards like a collapsing elephant; at first, he would catch himself and snap upright, but the sagging would inevitably resume, till finally he gave up and spent the rest of the talk bent over double, head in his hands, groaning and muttering and whimpering. Another tutor fell discreetly asleep.
All the way through this ordeal, the American kept talking animatedly about Swift, seemingly unaware that at least one of his listeners was asleep, another moaning and whimpering, and the rest just glassy-eyed and zombiefied with horror. At the end of the 237 hours, the professor asked us brightly if anyone had any questions.
There was a long silence.
No one could remember anything he had said.
No one could remember who he was.
No one could remember why we were in the room or what year it was or who we were.
The silence went on for two hours, as people stretched and looked down at their blank notepads, and stared thoughtfully into space.
But where was Elberry in all this? you may inquire. Surely Elberry could be relied upon to commit an outrage. And indeed he did. Having suffered 237 hours of horror my mood was very black indeed, vengeful and bitter and murderous. Accordingly, knowing that everyone except the American knew i was 24 and unmarried and childless, i said in my Naive Elberry voice:
“My small child recently enjoyed Gulliver’s Travels and asked for more. Would you recommend The Tale of a Tub or perhaps Swift’s poetry for future bedtime reading?”
Here, by the way, is a sample of Swift’s poetry:
As Mutton Cutlets, Prime of Meat,
Which tho’ with Art you salt and beat,
As Laws of Cookery require,
And toast them at the clearest Fire;
If from adown the hopeful Chops
The Fat upon a Cinder drops,
To stinking Smoak it turns the Flame
Pois’ning the Flesh from whence it came;
And up exhales a greasy Stench,
For which you curse the careless Wench;
So Things, which must not be exprest,
When plumpt into the reeking Chest,
Send up an excremental Smell
To taint the Parts from whence they fell.
The Pettycoats and Gown perfume,
Which waft a Stink round every Room.
And a sample from The Tale of a Tub:
You take fair correct copies, well bound in calf’s skin and lettered at the back, of all modern bodies of arts and sciences whatsoever, and in what language you please. These you distil in balneo Mariae, infusing quintessence of poppy Q.S., together with three pints of lethe, to be had from the apothecaries. You cleanse away carefully the sordes and caput mortuum, letting all that is volatile evaporate. You preserve only the first running, which is again to be distilled seventeen times, till what remains will amount to about two drams. This you keep in a glass vial hermetically sealed for one-and-twenty days. Then you begin your catholic treatise, taking every morning fasting (first shaking the vial) three drops of this elixir, snuffing it strongly up your nose. It will dilate itself about the brain (where there is any) in fourteen minutes, and you immediately perceive in your head an infinite number of abstracts, summaries, compendiums, extracts, collections, medullas, excerpta quaedams, florilegias and the like, all disposed into great order and reducible upon paper.
(chosen entirely at random, save that i doubt it would appeal to a small child)
The professor’s bright helpful smile froze. i grinned horribly at him.
“Well, um,” he began, “if your…son or daughter?”
“My son, Elijah,” i nodded. “He’s a precocious three.”
“Well, um, perhaps, ah, if he likes reading he might tackle Swift in due course, but ah, um…” – and so on.
One of my few regrets is not pursuing the point with relentless, maniacal intensity, leaning forwards as if to pounce and commit a sexual assault, eyes gleaming, raving, foaming at the mouth, unleashing unexplained moans, e.g.:
“Yes, that’s very true. Uhhhhaaaaarghhhhh. My daughter, who’s 6 months old, enjoys Swift too, and Homi Bhabha and Judith Butler. Nyuuuwwwwaaaaaal! She’s made some very interesting observations about interstitial essentialist reciprocity that is to say “narrative” enclosures, mediated through Feminist gerund critiques of chaos magic, especially in regard to Shub-Niggarath and structuralist racism liminalist Fascist signification-interrogatory ethnicities and the Temple of Set, as we see in this room now. How would you respond to the Cthulhian critique of Derridean structuralism?”
By i was young and relatively easy going in those days, so i didn’t.
Everything this guy has done is genius – the reviewer, i mean, not George Lucas.
Discussing jobs with my landlady’s boyfriend, he told me one of his friends is a keen and gifted philosophy graduate, who now works as a taxi driver. An old story; i was amused last summer to find that nearly half of the would-be TEFLers on my CELTA course were Philosophy graduates and the only TEFLer i’ve stayed in touch with from my first, hellish TEFL job is likewise another Philosophy graduate, Jim. Each time we meet we talk about Philosophy – usually about the three Bosche: Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger. Jim is a cheerful, young chap – far from the agonised and beret-clad type i mentally & fallaciously associate with Philosophy students. When last we met i said that i read and think about philosophy because i need it, because most of the time my life simply makes no sense to me, nor does the world, and whereas most people don’t seem to need this kind of sense, i very much do. i find it discouragingly hard to make tea and do laundry and indeed get up in the morning, without that “sense”. The only times it does make sense are when i’m writing or thinking or reading, or (when i can find a victim) talking; or doing rune work or Tai Chi; or annihilated by pleasure. The rest of the time i feel like i’m swimming against the tide – whether a tide of the world or my fractured psyche, i can’t say (my psyche being produced by the world, even as it is that by which i perceive the world).
i’ve been reading what intelligent and lucid criticism i can find about Wittgenstein on-line; mostly, i’m uninterested in academic philosophers banging on about his legacy and his influences and whether he sucked cock in the Prater, but i have found some good words here and there. Occasionally, oafish people, while admitting his influence, will say something like “I don’t think he was a great philosopher”. i see their point – if anything he was more of an anti-philosopher, a tweed-clad zen assassin who infiltrated philosophy in order to end it by its own methods and so bring about mushin no shin – but nonetheless it seems absurd to say he wasn’t a great philosopher; one must rather expand the concept of “philosophy” to embrace this vehement anti-philosopher, who assassinated philosophy in the late 40s in the Philosophical Investigations, then continued to think and write philosophy all the same (my favourite Wittgenstein is On Certainty, a collection of aphorisms he wrote in his last year or two).
Philosophy is flexible enough to accommodate Wittgenstein, even though one could see the spirit of both the Tractatus and the PI as a tormented desire to end philosophy – to tear through the fabric of thought and come to certainty, to the basement where things have their being, and begin. Did he think, if he dealt with philosophy, he could simply live? A mistake. He had no business living apart from philosophy.
Of late i’ve come to wonder about philosophy. The concept accommodates much – just to take three Greeks, Heraclitus, Plato, and Aristotle have very little in common, and yet the word “philosophy” seems to fit all three. The concept can be stretched further, to include Plotinus, Saint Augustine, Boethius, Abelard, Descartes, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Camus – sticking here to those i’ve read and remember (i gave up on Kant on the first page). That is, there is a concept “philosophy” in my mind, and when someone says “Wittgenstein wasn’t a great philosopher” i as it were hold my mental impression of Wittgenstein’s work up against the concept “philosophy” and see if they fit. i somehow don’t feel that Dr Johnson is a philosopher, though he is certainly philosophical – that is, when i hold up my image of Johnson’s work, and place it against my concept of “philosophy”, they seem to slide past each other; whereas “Wittgenstein” and “philosophy” click, there is a congruence. Likewise with Montaigne – he seems more of a philosophical essayist, than a philosopher.
But if i’d only heard of, and read, the fragments of Heraclitus, would my concept “philosophy” match Spinoza’s elaborate, systematic work? – or would i feel that Spinoza’s Tractatus certainly wasn’t philosophy, since it is so different to a pre-Socratic fragment? But then, had i only heard of and read Heraclitus’ fragments, and a complete copy of On Nature turned up in a monastery somewhere, would i think “this is not philosophy”?
Why do i not feel Dr Johnson to be a philosopher? Is it that i primarily think of him as a lexicographer and literary critic? But then Wittgenstein wrote a dictionary, and Johnson’s best literary criticism is an excuse to draw more general, philosophical conclusions.
There is no objective concept of “philosophy”, to which everyone can refer. For myself, a philosopher is one who determinedly presses through appearance to the substratum of things – even if, as with Wittgenstein, he says nothing is hidden, that appearance is all (or, rather, all we can get to grips with). A philosopher is a diver who goes to the depths, in whatever fashion – for example, some of George Steiner’s literary criticism goes very deep, though as with Dr Johnson i would think of him more as philosophical than as a philosopher. The difference here is in the depth and the duration of immersion: in The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus has gone deep and stayed there, till he hears the mermaids – but Steiner and Johnson are more like swimmers who regularly dive, but come up again quite quickly, with an aphorism, a sentence, a possibility.
The philosopher is one who goes deeper than others, and maintains that depth for inhumanly long periods – in submarine terms, he must have profound crush depth and submergence time; in this sense, one could liken a philosopher to a Alfa class submarine. A philosopher gets to the unchanging depths; in Wittgenstein’s own words:
Beim Philosophieren muß man in’s alte Chaos hinabsteigen, und sich dort wohlfühlen.
When you are doing philosophy you have to descend into primeval chaos and feel at home there.
i was discussing Wittgenstein’s life with a friend recently; he commented, of Wittgenstein’s desire to dominate everyone around him, “i wonder if one can be said to be a great philosopher if one understands nothing about human love”. And i agreed that while he was a great philosopher, something is missing.
What we call philosophy, very much from an academic standpoint, is only one half of the picture; as Peter Kingsley argues, pre-Socratic philosophy was originally a kind of initiation – hence he deliberately refers to Empedocles as a “sorcerer”. There are vestiges of the tradition still in Plato – in the Phaedrus and Symposium, for example, thought leads not to tenure but to something akin to a state of mystical completeness – the kind of thing which academics might write articles about, but would never themselves experience or want to experience (or, actually, think possible). What we call philosophy is the intellectual attempt to penetrate to the substratum of being, but for the sake of intellectual satisfaction alone; philosophers are notoriously petty. So what exactly is the point of philosophy, if it doesn’t make you a better human being?
A hint of the loss in Phaedrus and Symposium, two of Plato’s most enigmatic and powerful dialogues. Here, wisdom is the product not of disembodied intellection but of sexual desire – and when Plato tries to tidy it up into a discarnate appreciation of beauty, this is the first betrayal of philosophy, this is where philosophy took the wrong path, away from lust and the body and into the kind of disembodied pleasure afforded by mathematics and logic. Perhaps Plato thought that since anyone can feel sexual desire, it can’t be the right path.
“Philosophy” – Greek for “the love of wisdom”. As Peter Kingsley has noted, philosophy went from being the love of wisdom to being the love of talking about the love of wisdom. We like to blame Descartes for the division of body and mind but i think it goes back to Plato – when Plato says that if it is to lead to wisdom, desire must be somehow disembodied, asexual (and so, not really desire at all), more like the pleasure Russell used to say he took in mathematics.
Wisdom is the right view of life; it is beyond intellection. This is the end of initiation – but not something you can hold in your hand, as it were, but rather an inexpressible state; it is the field within which one expresses lesser matters, just as English is the field within which i now write (but i cannot express English).
Wisdom is a practical matter; it is to do with everything we are – rather than just our understanding of logic or causality or time or language. Because we are animals with a mind and spirit, the mind is often a convenient entry point for the initiator – but it could just as well be sexual, as in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, or the mysteries of Ishtar. The mind cannot be dispensed with; nor can the body.
i regard myself as a half-fool but i think i have come a little closer to wisdom recently, as a result of the misery and anxiety and despair of the last six months. Death has a place in me now; i feel i could die today, violently and painfully, without unnecessary fuss. Since we all die, and many will die in great pain, we must make room for this within life, or our account is flawed.
i had planned to die sometime in March, as the logical solution to my vexed and pointless existence as a useless human being. i was puzzled to note that, after being saved by the offer of a job in Ultima Thule, i felt no elevation of mood, no hope – i think because i had by then come to regard death as finally irrelevant, as so omnipresent and inescapable that it no longer daunts; under the repeated uncertainty and dread of my existence, i have become like the monk who stands under the waterfall till he ceases to resist, till he lets go of who he is.
i haven’t passed into any wonderful enlightened state of being beyond mortality. i just feel a saving coldness towards my own life, for i have one foot beyond this world, in death. i think this is why i have started to feel differently when i do Tai Chi and chi kung – i am closer to my own edge. i feel like a man in a falling lift – though he is falling, relative to the lift he is weightless, he floats, he has escaped mortal gravity.
Without my steady contemplation of philosophy, and philosophical writers, i think i would have just crumbled and died in despair, cutting my wrists or hanging myself – and that would have been a terrible death, in fear and weakness. Philosophy gave me the coldness i needed, to be able to face death without fear. And i hold to this, i will not forget this resolve – so that when death comes i can make a good end.
In this sense, philosophy is a dress rehearsal for death.
i gather that a frustrated academic has gone on a killing spree over in America, driven to murder by lack of tenure:
The shootings on February 12 at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, which left three faculty members dead and two more professors and a department assistant wounded, have sparked a good deal of soul-searching within higher education. Amy Bishop, an assistant professor of biology at the university who was recently denied tenure, was arrested at the scene and has been charged with murder and attempted murder.
She reportedly flung herself at her victim with cries of “I am Dr. Amy Bishop” (italics mine). Bishop’s unpublished autobiographical novels apparently bristle with allusions to her Harvard pedigree. She is related, distantly, to the novelist John Irving, a fact she mentioned with exasperating regularity.
Each time i’ve been cruelly rejected for PhD funding, i’ve consoled myself with a flapjack and the thought that i think of my father as “Dr Elberry”, so would really prefer just to be plain old Elberry, thanks very much (you can call me Elb). i have of course considering going on a killing spree, to cheer myself up, but by the end of the flapjack i’ve usually forgotten everything and just want a cup of coffee.
Names are important – as i realise, contemplating the names i bore in my other lives – but titles strike me as a kind of Viagra. If you can’t get a hard on, for god’s sake just leave it alone. By all means change your name if need be, but a title is a way of telling people “my innermost identity is determined by a piece of paper from an institution” (“I need Viagra to get hard”). But it’s rather that one’s identity is determined by the desire that it should be so easily manipulated. Such a person is a slave.
i am reminded of a professor at my alma mater. When i was an undergraduate he was known as Mr ___, because his post-graduate qualifications for some reason didn’t count as a PhD; however, when i was doing my MA he was elevated to Professor____. i felt this was something of a demotion. He was strangely proud of his new title, despite being intelligent enough not to need external corroboration, especially by so corrupt an institution.
i found all this quite strange and indeed it was so strange that my terrifying fundamentalist Christian friend the Viking was inevitably drawn into the matter. The Viking and i attended a Chaucer reading shortly after Professor______’s ascension, taking turns reading from The Canterbury Tales; the Viking and i were the only students, the others being members of the English Depot, among them the newly-enobled Professor_____.
Although the Viking has recently become a Roman Catholic and insists i call him “Father”, he was at the time a rampant Proddy who regarded all non-fascist earthly authorities as evil and stupid and corrupt. His idea of a good church was a tin shack on a hill somewhere cold, with no windows or decorations or lighting, with a mad bearded preacher screaming about damnation and whores and sexual demons. Although he’s now a Catholic, ten years ago he was unimpressed by worldly titles. So, at the conclusion of the readings, he asked Professor____ a question, but mistakenly addressed him as “Doctor____”.
The Professor had only recently ascended to his eminence, and was therefore shocked and affronted to be addressed as “Doctor”. It was as if the Viking had thrown excrement at him. His entire (considerable) body quivered in a kind of full body ripple, as if he’d been bitchslapped by God. His face spasmed and he looked like he was going to either cry or scream. He gurgled horribly, in pain. All the other academics looked very gravely at the Viking, who was just watching this curious performance in his remorseless, inhuman way (he is a scientist).
i backhanded him across the chest and rebuked him with mock horror, “It’s Professor____!”
He was most amused by this and performed the emperor bow he now reserves for bishops, intoning solemnly, “I beg your forgiveness.”
Of course, the academics wanted him to beg for forgiveness and give them head; but they were also aware that it would seem a bit much, so instead they just tittered.
However, it was most amusing and confirmed my belief that the best way to deflate academic pretention is to unleash a raging Proddy Viking, armed with a spear.
i mention this as in one of the Professor’s earlier lives he was a street beggar who didn’t have a name; perhaps, just as Dr Johnson was so horribly voracious an eater because of his youthful near-starvation, so with the Professor, across his lives (Samuel Johnson being a rare example of a great writer for whom a title seems appropriate). If you have any real intelligence you don’t need a title, any more than you need Viagra if everything is working as Ishtar intended.
i don’t generally like what i know of T.S. Eliot’s personality – too stuffy, too eager for respectability – but i was nonetheless impressed to learn that, after writing his PhD (on FH Bradley) in 1916, he failed to return to Harvard for his viva voce, deeming the Atlantic journey not worth the trouble. He had by then written ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, so young though he was, he knew he didn’t need a title of any kind, that a PhD wasn’t worth an Atlantic crossing in 1916.
And indeed, it would not be worth crossing the street.
1. i’ve been searching online for flats in Ultima Thule. Amusing line from one description, the translation courtesy of Google:
In my apartment lived a cat and I have a part-time dog, which is usually a week during the day for me.
i’m not sure exactly what a part-time dog is but it sounds all right. i was going to apply, take a look at this part-time dog, but she says she wants someone her age (mid 40s) and though i look all beat up and scarred, and my hair is falling out, i have the demonic rage of the young.
2. Listening to a podcast by Mary Warnock. i Googled her and found some heartening hostility between her and Elizabeth Anscombe. Warnock claims that Wittgenstein’s love of violent westerns was actually an affectation, a deliberate pose. This is an example of how, looking from the outside, people see a complex, changing human being and as it were take a snapshot from just one angle, and decide that is the real man, the true self. So if she saw Wittgenstein as this cold and brutal philosophical thinking machine, then obviously he couldn’t have liked westerns (or Betty Hutton), so it must have been a pose.
Warnock has an incredibly toffee-nosed voice and i’ve been taking great pleasure in mimicking her with suitably cruel facial contortions. However, i like the cut of her jib, especially her evident loathing for modern academia, e.g.:
And if you publish you’ve got to publish according to the American style with the whole apparatus, references to your colleagues, the endless, tedious reference to what other people who’ve been working in the same field, because if you don’t you won’t get published by the professional journals. And it just makes, to me, the whole task of philosophy quite pointless, so if you refer to me as a philosopher you probably, you have to put in a little caveat that I’m not an academic philosopher.
Bravo. Yesterday a friend emailed me from a university in England:
Did I tell you I had my sabbatical refused by one of the Dean’s minions — apparently I hadn’t made a sufficient case for my research contributing to the department’s ‘research strategy’…
Naturally, she’s also a more interesting thinker and a truer scholar than the big stars of “the Department”, she just lacks the instinct for self-advancement and bullshit one needs, to get on in academia. She wrote a very good book on Milton which her publisher mutilated beyond redemption – the editors hacking a good 20,000 words out; i would say “at random” but it seems the editors were guided by a revulsion for anything interesting, expansive, profound. i witnessed its transformation from the best book i’ve read about Milton, to a confused hotch-potch of dead fragments, with every important passage either removed or merely maimed by an academic editor.
So much for academia.
3. Another flat advert by a Krautette – again, translation courtesy of Google:
You should spontaneously open and be cheerful, our WG should be no end-WG. Very much I would take with you cooking or something. I look forward to joint evenings, happy with friends or a beautiful DVD. A garden is also available in the summer I would be delighted to be able to grill with you.
i really don’t want her to grill with me.
Currently, more than half of the federal budget is devoted to social-programs spending. In Germany, it remains possible to live rather comfortably on long-term unemployment benefits, something that immigrants, who form a high percentage of welfare recipients, have noticed as well.
There were less extreme forms of slavery than outright ownership. Debtors unable to meet their debt could work it off by entering the service of their creditor for an agreed period of time with no other reward than the cancelling of the debt. And for the very poor, an arrangement existed whereby one man could hand over himself and all he owned to another, in return for the promise of being looked after for the rest of his life.
(The Hammer and the Cross: A New History of the Vikings, Robert Ferguson)
i’m planning to join my brother-in-TEFL in the town he calls Ultima Thule in mid-March. Not wholly sure what i’ll do about finding somewhere to live but i assume something will turn up (with a little sorcery). Burglar-like i’ve been casing the joint and to my amusement, consternation, and curiosity, i find what seems to be a neo-Nazi rune gild based in this tiny town in the middle of nowhere (or rather, in the middle of Germany). My brother-in-TEFL David (who looks like Jesus) reports several encounters with old school Nazi stormtroopers in leather trousers and comedy moustaches, so with my mongrel appearance i imagine i will be kicked to death quite quickly. i shall put myself under the protection of Herr Hjaldrgoð, on the understanding that he will betray me when my time comes.
Although Ultima Thule looks fucking horrible i feel it may be interesting to me. i expect nothing but pain and humiliation and oppression but that aside, i am curious to see why i am not dead. i note that two of my friends have visited Ultima Thule, which suggests the location (if not the actual, existing town) ties us together. One of these friends is my Finnish pianist friend Minna, who was my eldest sister in my last life, and who was then more like a mother (our actual mother being a kind of non-presence); the other was my mother in Egypt about 3 millenia go, and in this life opened a door in my life, about 12 years ago. There are many parallels between these two and for a while i wondered if they were simultaneous incarnations – but i think it is rather that they are just very similar, and so a similar logic prevails between us. For both these women to have visited this undistinguished heap of concrete in the middle of the Teuton wilderness, suggests it ties us together in some way – the geographical location, that is. i don ‘t believe i visited it in any of the lives i recall, but who knows. It promises to be inspiringly grim and i look forward to inspecting the subhuman inhabitants, and subjecting them to psychological experiments.
i think the thing is to enslave the local populace right away, to impose my will upon them and put them in uniforms to give them a sense of self-worth and dignity. Then they will be ready to serve my purposes.
Das Unaussprechbare (das, was mir geheimnisvoll erscheint und ich nicht auszusprechen vermag) gibt vielleicht den Hintergrund, auf dem das, was ich aussprechen konnte, Bedeutung bekommt.
Perhaps what is inexpressible (what i find mysterious and am not able to express) is the background against which whatever i could express has its meaning.
(Wittgenstein’s journals, 1931, tr. Peter Winch)