It is said that Ludwig Wittgenstein spent much of his dying days reading and rereading Anna Sewell’s classic novel Black Beauty. Why would the 20th century’s greatest philosopher have devoted so much precious time to the story of a horse?
A moment of recognition is what saves Black Beauty from the knacker’s yard. Reunion, joy and kindness complete an unlikely tale of comfort to deprivation and back again. Possibly it was the narrow escape from death that appealed to Wittgenstein – a robust personality among whose most notorious excesses was threatening a Cambridge colleague with a fireplace poker.
But it might have been something more metaphysical, more philosophical. Wittgenstein may have seen in Black Beauty’s life the essential and in his own the existential. The horse was all essence, always itself as a horse, whereas he was weighed down by the inevitable baggage of human existence and harried by how to continue to lead it – or not. His many speculations went beyond death, one of them memorably going: “The real question of life after death isn’t whether or not it exists, but even if it does what problem this really solves.”
In contrast to humans, most animals are believed to have no knowledge of death, though there are exceptions: elephants and whales, for example, with their extended mourning. In living, animals oppose the thinking and scheming existence of humans with essence, exhibiting at every moment of their existence their essential qualities, their essentiality or essentialness. Perhaps Wittgenstein saw in that an affirmation that he had honoured his essence and not led a compromised existence, or that he had denied it and led a devalued life.
Whichever, Wittgenstein showed more wisdom in death than he did at times in life. Take his terrible, indefensible behaviour when a female student came into one of his lectures and sat down. The philosopher fell silent and did not speak. Eventually, realising it was her presence that had brought on the stillness, she left. Wittgenstein resumed talking. It was a moment to cast a different light on his most-often cited quote, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
Communicating through gestures
Although animals are devoid of human speech, they are not silent relative to humans. Not being able to speak does not mean not being able to communicate, as much observation and research tell us. It is in remarkable novels about dogs, however, that the power of animals to transmit meaning and emotion are conveyed more clearly than in any scientific study.
Take the opening sentences of The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein (HarperCollins, 2008).
“Gestures are all that I have; sometimes they must be grand in nature. And while I occasionally step over the line and into the world of the melodramatic, it is what I must do in order to communicate clearly and effectively. In order to make my point understood without question. I have no words I can rely on because, to my dismay, my tongue was designed long and flat and loose, and therefore, is a horribly ineffective tool for pushing food around my mouth while chewing and an even less effective tool for making clever and complicated polysyllabic sounds that can be linked together to form sentences.”
Thus says Enzo, the old dog who narrates the novel. Through his eyes and mind we see humans, dogs, life and the afterlife. He is a philosopher and logician, too, as in the following.
“I’ll give you a theory: Man’s closest relative is not the chimpanzee, as the TV people believe, but is, in fact, the dog.”
As proof, Enzo mentions first the dog’s dewclaw as a pre-emergent thumb and then “Case-in-Point #2: The Werewolf”.
“The full moon rises. The fog clings to the lowest branches of the spruce trees. The man steps out of the darkest corner of the forest and finds himself transformed into …
“I think not.”
It is no accident that Enzo and his human, racing driver Denny, are fans of the great Formula One champion Ayrton Senna, the embodiment of essence over existence. The book opens with an epigraph taken from Senna – “With your mind power, your determination, your instinct, and the experience as well, you can fly very high” – and ends with something he might well have said: “The car goes where the eyes go. It is true, my young friend. It is very, very, true.”