Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Tractatus Logico-Fountainicus

Here is the second of two papers that I turned in yesterday. An easier to read PDF of the paper can be downloaded here.

*Spoiler alert* For those of you have not seen The Fountain and intend to, the paper does give some things away.
Nearing the end of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Ludwig Wittgenstein makes an interesting and somewhat puzzling shift from his thorough and complicated (and thoroughly complicated) discussions of language and logic to a brief and very different discussion on the concepts of death and eternal life. Literally written in the trenches of the First World War, the Tractatus sprouts from a time in Wittgenstein's life when the reality of the finality of death were constantly on his mind. This inclusion in the Tractatus highlights one of the closing remarks in his book where he writes that after all of the philosophical and scientific questions have been answered, “the problems of life remain completely untouched” (6.52).1 This exploration and discussion of death and eternal life is also the subject of Darren Aronofsky's 2006 science-fiction film The Fountain.2 Written nearly a century apart, these works can play a symbiotic relationship in understanding one another, and together they show that the concept of eternal life as the immortal life of the soul is a confused notion brought on by a misunderstanding of the problem of life. Whereas the problem of life has been traditionally understood as death with the answer to the problem being the immortal soul, both the philosophical work and the science fiction film show that it is by death that the beauty and ethics of life are revealed. Eternal life is not the endless continuation of life or survival after death, but is rather the mode in which we view and live our present lives.

In this paper I will first briefly discuss the three storylines of The Fountain,showing how the logical structure presented in the Tractatus can provide an important interpretive key to understand the movie. I will then move into Wittgenstein's Tractatus to show how his logic and understanding of the world—along with his life experiences—shift his discussion in the final pages of his book to a discussion on ethics, death, and eternal life. Finally, using the Tractatus and The Fountain, I will show how Wittgenstein and Aronofsky are together able to help understand eachothers shared philosophical look at death and eternal life.
The Fountain
In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein writes that “A gramophone record, the musical idea, the written notes, and the sound waves, all stand to one another in the same internal relation of depicting. . . . They are all constructed according to a common logical pattern” (4.014). While all four are different mediums for presenting music, for a given song they all share the same logical structure which ties them together, such that a one-to-one logical relation could be made between them. This same type of logical relation, I believe, is key to understanding the three narratives portrayed in Aronofsky's film.

In The Fountain we find three distinct storylines that are interwoven to produce a broader narrative:

  1. In the storyline taking place in the present, we find the scientist Tommy on a scientific quest to find a cure to save his wife Izzi and prevent her from dying of terminable brain cancer. Because of Tommy's over-zealous desire to find the cure and be with Izzi 'forever,' he ignores her plea to spend her remaining moments with him and instead spends those days working feverishly in a laboratory, missing out on sharing the last days of her life.

  2. In the storyline taking place in the 16th century (told through Izzi's fictional novel—aptly titled The Fountain), we find the conquistador Thomas on a quest in the Americas to find the mythical tree of life and save the Spanish queen Isabella from the murderous intentions of the Grand Inquisitor. Success in this venture would not only save the queen and Spain, but would also enable the commoner Thomas and the royal Isabella to marry and make public their hidden romance.3 Because of Thomas's over-zealous desire to obtain eternal life after locating the tree, he consumes too much of the tree's sap, becomes a tree himself, and is irreparably separated from Isabella.

  3. Finally, in the futuristic storyline taking place half of a millennium from the present, we find the same scientist Tommy (who has managed for 500 years to defeat physical death and prolong his life with the aid of the bark from a tree) on quest through space to reach a dying star. He is in a race against time, hoping that the energy released from the explosion of the star will save his dying tree—which is the a reincarnation of his wife Izzi and the source of his longevity. Because of his desire to continue living forever, he takes too much from the tree, eventually killing it just before reaching his destination.
Together, these storylines share the same structure of a protagonist (each time played by Hugh Jackman) on a quest to achieve eternal life with his love (played by Rachel Weiss) and defeat death (represented by cancer, the Grand Inquisitor, and time). However, it turns out for the protagonist that his misguided quest for immortal endless life was the real threat to life, and that death was actually that which reveals that eternal life was not this endless immortality, but something wholly other.

From here, it might—and should—be asked what it is that an early 20th century philosophical work concerned with the logical structure of language could have to say about a 21st century science fiction movie with mystical overtones, and vice-versa?

That which must be passed over in silence

In a letter written to a potential publisher of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein writes, “My work consists of two parts, the one presented here plus all that I have not written. And it is precisely this second part that is the important point. For the ethical gets its limit drawn from the inside, as it were, by my book.”4 And in his published preface to the book he writes that the “whole sense of the book might be summed up in the following words: what can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.”5 It is this second part—that which is both most important and must be passed over in silence—which Wittgenstein begins to explore (but cannot state) in the closing pages of his book.

For Wittgenstein, propositions are used to describe or represent “the existence and non-existence” of the facts of the world (or states of affairs), and this representation of facts of the world is what makes up the natural or empirical sciences. As Wittgenstein puts it, “The totality of true propositions is the whole of natural science (or the whole corpus of the natural sciences)” (4.10-4.11). His discussion of the logic of language and its ability to describe the facts of the world is what takes up the bulk of the Tractatus. Because the “world is the totality of facts” (1.1), and those facts can be represented by the propositions of science, then all that which cannot be described by science is not in the world.

Because ethics are not scientific claims, nor can they be explained by science, “it is impossible for there to be propositions of ethics,” and it “is clear that ethics cannot be put into words” (6.42-6.421). This is, of course, a philosophical claim about propositional language and the logical structure of the world, as we ordinarily put our ethical claims into words and propositional form all of the time. For example, we might commonly make ethical claims and say something like “It is wrong to kill.” We may even believe that this is a true claim about reality. However, because ethical claims cannot be logically or scientifically described in the world (what would that even look like?), such ethical claims cannot be said to be in the world, but are instead “transcendental” (6.421).

So instead of being in the world, ethics lies at the limit or boundaries of the world and changes the way that we experience and see it. This is related to Wittgenstein's earlier discussion of solipsism in the Tractatus where he writes, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”6 (5.6) and uses an analogy of our physical eyes not being a part of our visual field, but rather what limits and defines our visual field. For example, when we discuss our visual field and what we can see, we do not include our eyes. It is not that ethics plays no role in our life. On the contrary, like our physical eyes, ethics are how we understand and see the world. Ethics is, in a way, our world. It is for this reason that Wittgenstein writes that “The world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man” (6.43). It is not that the state of affairs for the two men are different. For each. the facts of the world are the same. Their cups may be holding the exact same amount of Mountain Dew, though one sees and describes it as being half-full while the other sees and describes it as being half-empty. Similarly, the ethical views of a person—and it is telling that we often use the word 'view' to describe ethics—do not change or alter the facts of the world; rather they alter its limits. For example, the ethical views someone holds does not change the facts of the world concerning the state of Maine recently legalizing same-sex marriage. However, a certain religious person may see it as a sign of the increasing decadence of society, while another may see it as part of the current enlightenment and progress of the world.

The Tractatus and death.

It is in this context that Wittgenstein remarks that “So too at death the world does not alter, but comes to an end” (6.431). Here, Wittgenstein is talking about the death of the subject. In his earlier discussion on solipsism, Wittgenstein writes that “The world and life are one” (5.621), “I am my world” (5.63), and “The subject does not belong to the world: rather, it is a limit of the world” (5.632). Just as it is the eye that views and limits our visual field (where without the eye, there is no visual field), it is the 'I' (the subject) that describes and limits the world (where without the 'I' there is no world). In The Fountain, Izzi's death was for Tommy a very real change in the world. The facts of the world were different following her death than they were just moments before and were something that could have been stated with the propositions of logic and science. For example, her death could be scientifically described as a cessation of her heart and brain activity. In the film this is depicted by the flatlining of Izzi's heart monitor in the hospital at the time of her death. On the contrary, Tommy's death at the end of the film does not alter Tommy's world—at that moment his world simply seizes to be. As D.Z. Phillips puts it, “The deaths of other people are events in our world, and can be analyzed without remainder in those terms. But a complete analysis of my own death cannot be given in these terms. My own death is not an event in my world, but the end of my world.”7 The death of the self logically is the cessation of the world for the self.

Thinking about one's own death

In Ray Monk's biography of Wittgenstein,8 we get an image of a person who seemed to be constantly concerned (or even obsessed) with his own death—either in fear that his own death was impending or in contemplation of suicide. This was certainly the case while he was writing the Tractatus—which was largely done under death's watch over the European continent during the first World War. For example, Wittgenstein's close friend David Pinset writes in 1913:
During all the morning and most of the afternoon Ludwig was very gloomy and unapproachable. . . . He is morbidly afraid he may die before he has put the Theory of Types to rights, and before he has written out all his other work in such a way as shall be intelligible to the world and of some use to the science of Logic. . . . He is always saying that he is certain he will die within four years—but today it was two months.9
In a similar vein Wittgenstein writes in his 1916 journal—while stationed on a dangerous tower at the front lines of the World War—that only under this threat of death “will the war really begin for me. And—maybe—even life. May God enlighten me. I am worn, but through God I become a man. God be with me. Amen.”10 A few months later he writes in his journal about an experience he had that can be seen as the fulfillment of the previous thought: “Yesterday I was shot at. I was scared! I was afraid of death. I now have such a desire to live. And it is difficult to give up life when one enjoys it. This is precisely what 'sin' is, the unreasoning life, a false view of life.”11

The Tractatus, The Fountain, and eternal life

With such back drop, it is easily understandable why Wittgenstein moves into a discussion of death and eternal life in the Tractatus. During this time it may not have just been a question on his mind, but perhaps the question on his mind. Following his remarks on the cessation of one's world, Wittgenstein shifts from what seems to be becoming an almost nihilistic discussion of death to that of life and eternal life. Perhaps inspired by the previous journal entry, Wittgenstein writes in the Tractatus that “Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death.” And in this same numbered proposition, he continues to write that, “If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limits” (6.4311). If we do not experience our own death, and eternal life is (as it is commonly understood) to not experience death, then, as Wittgenstein notes, “eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.” As Phillips says concerning the same subject, “Eternity is not an extension of this present life, but a mode of judging it. Eternity is not more life, but this life seen under certain moral and religious modes of thought.” And again, “Questions about the immortality of the soul are seen not to be questions concerning the extend of a man's life, and in particular whether that life can extend beyond the grave, but questions concerning the kind of life a man is living.”12 Just as with the happy man, the unhappy man, and their Mountain Dew, whether or not someone has eternal life is not dependent upon the facts of the world, but upon their outlook on the world.

One question we could ask here is of whether or not Tommy, as depicted in the future storyline of The Fountain, had achieved 'immortality' or 'eternal life' in the ordinary sense (living for an endless duration). It seems that his death at the end of the film shows that he did not have this sort of eternal life, nor was he actually immortal. Rather, he had just been living for a much-extended period of time. The movie points out that to say that one has attained this sort of eternal life is confused and akin to someone saying that they have counted to infinity, or after hearing in a geometry class that parallel lines meet at infinity, sets out walking along a railroad track hoping to eventually reach the point where the two tracks come together. Because it does not make sense to speak of a life that has lived infinitely, to speak of eternal life must mean something else.

Wittgenstein alludes to this point when he continues to write that “there is no guarantee of the temporal immortality of the human soul, that is to say of its eternal survival after death” (6.4312). Wittgenstein isn't simply referring to the scientific guarantee of the survival of the human soul after death, but he is rather referring to the logical guarantee of the temporal immortality of the human soul. Imagine—and it may take a huge imagination for some—that a scientist creates a device that is able to communicate with the disembodied souls of the dead. And with this device he is able to scientifically prove that our souls survive the death of our biological bodies. Even with this, there is still no possible way that it can be guaranteed that these souls are immortal and will continue to exist forever. The souls themselves may even believe that they will continue to exist forever and communicate that information to us. However, it cannot be logically guaranteed because it is (at least logically) possible that an unknown force or natural law could destroy those souls.

Wittgenstein continues this discussion in the same numbered proposition by saying:
. . . but, in any case, this assumption [that eternal life is the temporal immortality of the soul] fails to accomplish the purpose for which it has always been intended. Or is some riddle solved by my surviving for ever? Is not this eternal life as much of a riddle as our present life? The solution of the riddle of life in space and time lies outside space and time. (It is certainly not the solution to any problems of natural sciences that is required). (6.4312)
Wittgenstein is asking what sense it has to say that simply more life is able to solve the deepest existential problems of life. If we answer the question, “What is the purpose of life?” with the answer, “To live forever,” we are still left with the next question, “Well then, what is the purpose of living forever?” Such a response would be akin to saying that the purpose of eating is simply to eat more, or that the purpose of existence is to exist even longer. This problem is portrayed well in The Fountain. Near the end of the film, the present-day Tommy is overcome with emotions at Izzi's funeral, and walks away from the proceeding angrily proclaiming that, “Death is a disease. Nothing more. A disease and I will find a cure. . . . I will live. I will fight. I will win. It won't end. Never. . . . NEVER!”13 For Tommy, death was the problem of life, and the answer to that problem would be immortality. In the future storyline we see Tommy in his spacecraft believing that he has discovered a means to avoid death and has thus answered the problem of life. And yet in his 'immortality' he is forever haunted by the ethical and emotional loss of Izzi. Of Tommy it could be asked, “So you have found a way to avoid death. Now what?”

Death is the road to awe”

In The Fountain, Izzi tells Tommy about a discussion she had with a Mayan tour guide as she was doing research for her novel. The guide, Moses Morales, said that when his father died, a seed was planted over his grave. He believed that as the seed grew into a tree, that his father would become that tree, would become the seeds of the tree, and would even become a part of the birds who ate the fruit of the tree. If he had dug into the grave, his father would no longer be there as he would now be a part of the new life of the tree and nature. Izzi recounts, “He said death was his road to awe. That's what he called it. The road to awe.”14 This line—that death was the road to awe—is repeated again in the film by the Mayan priest that the conquistador Thomas encounters guarding the passageway to the tree of life. Modeled after the biblical cherubim guarding the tree of life in the garden of Eden, the Mayan priest holds a flaming sword and tells Thomas that death is the road to awe, and that it was by the death of the First Father that life was created.

For Wittgenstein, it is not the absence of death where life exists. It is quite the opposite. Just as he discovered on the front lines of the war, it is death that reveals the true importance and eternality of life. He writes, “To view the world sub specie aeterni [under the form of eternity] is to to view it as a whole—a limited whole. Feeling the world as a limited whole—it is this that is mystical” (6.45). The acknowledgement of death enables us to view the eternality and timelessness of our present life. Just as the subject, ethics, and aesthetics lie at the limit of our world and change that world, so does death. Like the happy man whose happiness causes him to view the glass of Mountain Dew as half full, so does the acknowledgement of death cause a person to see the eternal life as a limited whole, or as Wittgenstein proclaimed in the face of death while stationed at the front lines of the war, “I was shot at. I was scared! I was afraid of death. I now have such a desire to live.”15

What then is the problem of life that death reveals? And what is it's answer? This, for Wittgenstein, is a question and answer not left up to philosophy and science. “When the answer cannot be put into words,” he writes, “neither can the question be put into words. The riddle does not exist. If a question can be framed at all, it is also possible to answer it” (6.5). This is because when we “feel that even all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched. Of course there are then no questions left, and this itself is the answer” (6.52).

It wasn't until Tommy acknowledges that he was going to die that he realizes that he had been posing the wrong problem and riddle of life. His scientific quest for eternal life and the scientific answers he found left him in the same place where he had been five hundred years earlier: mourning over the death of his wife Izzi. It is at the moment that he accepts his death—what Izzi had managed to do with her own—that he realizes that he had been asking the wrong questions all along. Rather than believing that the answer to life was in the defeating of death, he discovers that his acceptance of death provides him with a new limit and understanding of life. The problems of life were not the scientific and logical questions that he had been seeking an answer to, but were rather the ethical and aesthetic that could not be spoken. Wittgenstein writes that “It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists” (6.44).16 Along with this proposition from the Tractatus, Tommy realizes that it is not the how's or why's of life (or the world) that is mystical, but simply that he lived—and for a time he lived with Izzi—that was mystical and of utmost importance. It is the awe of life, and it is death that reveals it.
This new approach to life is portrayed in the later revision of an earlier scene in the movie where Izzi pleads with Tommy to momentarily set aside his search for a cure to her cancer and instead go for a walk outside with her to enjoy the first snowfall of the winter together. In the first iteration of the scene at the beginning of the film, Tommy turns down her pleas and resumes working on what he thought was the problem of life. Following his epiphany that he was also subject to death at the end of the film, the scene is shown again, but this time with Tommy leaving his work to join her—to address the real unspoken problem of life.

Wittgenstein continues his discussion in 6.521 saying that “The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem. (Is not this the reason why those who have found after a long period of doubt that the sense of life became clear to them have been unable to say what constituted that sense?)” He adds in the next proposition that “There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical” (6.522).
That which cannot be put into words. The awe. The mystical. This is what death reveals—what is made manifest—to the protagonist in each of his different forms in The Fountain. Death's threat by the Inquisitor, cancer, and the passage of time reveals and magnifies, but does not and cannot state to the protagonist that the awe of life is in the life he shares with his love. It is this the death at the limit of the world which shapes how we see it. And again, it was the acceptance of death that reveals that eternal life is the mystical and unspoken awe that might be everything but endless immortality. For the conquistador Thomas, the acceptance of death (though reluctant17) reveals an eternal life that was also a renewal and reincarnation of old life made new, as his death gave life to a new tree—a symbolism that is repeated when the death of a star gives new life to Tommy's dying tree aboard the spacecraft. For the present day Tommy, the acceptance of death (shown through the reiteration of the scene where Tommy sets aside his work to be with Izzi) reveals an eternal life that is the valuable and precious moments he has to share with wife. And finally for the future Tommy, the acceptance of death reveals that life is and ought to be admired for the beauty that it is. It of itself is something that is mystical and should be awed. Like the happy man and the unhappy man whose problem was not the amount of Mountain Dew in the cup, but the way in which they viewed it, it is death that lies at the limits of our lives and changes the way we view it. The problem is not in the temporally finite amount of life, but is rather in how we view life and live life.


Written a century apart and presented through different mediums, both Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain show that the concept of eternal life as the endless and immortal existence of the soul is a confused notion brought on by a misunderstanding of the problems of life. Whereas the problem of life has been traditionally understood as death with the answer to the problem being the immortal soul, both the philosophical work and the science fiction film show that it is by death that the beauty and ethics of life are revealed. Together these works show that eternal life is not the endless continuation of life or survival after death, but is rather the mode in which we view and live our present lives.

1All citations of the Tractatus are from Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D.F Pears and B.F. McGuinness (New York: Routledge, 2004).
2The Fountain, written and directed by Darren Aronofsky. Burbank, CA: Warner Bros., 2006. DVD recording. See also, Darren Aronofsky and Kent Williams, The Fountain (Broadway, NY: DC Comics, 2005). After the original 2002 production of the film was scrapped, Aronofsky and illustrator Williams made this graphic novel which sheds further light on the films story line. Production for the film resumed while the graphic novel was nearing completion.
3This is made much more explicit in Aronofsky and Williams, The Fountain, 102-8.
4Ludwig Wittgenstein, ProtoTractatus — An Early Version of Tractatus Logico- Philosophicus, ed. B.F. McGuinness, T. Nyberg, G.H. von Wright, trans. D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1971),16.
5Wittgenstein, Tractatus, 3.
6Emphasis in original
7D.Z Phillips, Death and Immortality (London: Macmillan, 1970), 50.
8Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (New York: Penguin, 1991).
9Ibid., 87-8.
10Ibid., 138.
11Ibid., 146.
12Phillips, Death and Immortality, 49.
13Aronofsky and Williams, The Fountain, 140.
14Ibid., 93.
15Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein, 146.
16Emphasis in original.
17On the other hand, the Mayan priest freely gives up his life so that Thomas (whom he sees as the First Man) may die as well to bring new life to a new tree.

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