Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Ludwig Wittgenstein of Rock

I was obsessed in college with a girl who was obsessed with Ludwig Wittgenstein.

We were taking a class whose name escapes me. But we read Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein. And the professor apologized that we were reading 12 books in the semester since we easily could have spent an entire semester on any of those 12 books.

Everyone in the class had a crush on her. At the time I thought she didn't realize this, but looking back I'm not so sure.

Anyway, I pursued her and we seemed to have an amazing connection. I loved that she preferred me to the other guys in the class and I desperately wanted to be the guy she already saw me as. For weeks, we'd hang out talking until the middle of the night (about the most important and most trivial of topics) and soon fell into a relationship. We dated for most of the semester and it was wonderful.

One night she told me she hated Neil Young because after she lost her virginity, the guy drove her home and "Like a Hurricane" came on the radio. And she heard the line "You could have been anyone to me" and realized he didn't love her and never would. I told her he was an idiot, but wondered if she'd missed the overall point of the song by focusing on that one line.

In class, we read Ludwig Wittgenstein's masterpiece, a dense, hard-to-understand work called Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. The book is all about language and how people communicate and the fact that when different people use the same words they often mean different things. Language that is not based on observable facts is inexact and it has a foggy cloud of possible meanings. The best we can hope for as people as that our foggy clouds overlap enough that we can approximate communication.

Bertrand Russell wrote an introduction to the book and most publishers were only interested in it because of Russell's introduction. This greatly pained Wittgenstein, who felt that Russell completely misunderstood and misrepresented his work, yet no one would read it without Russell's wrongheaded description.

Now, this girl had read Wittgenstein before. And she had very strong opinions about what he meant. So, after we'd both finished our final papers for the class (we both wrote on Wittgenstein), I made the mistake of comparing Neil Young to Wittgenstein. As proof, I brought up "Like a Hurricane." I said that, when words can't convey what Young means, the guitar takes over, bringing you to that place he wanted you to go all along. If Young could make it happen, the guitar solo on this song would continue forever in some realm where Young and his dream-girl find ultimate love and happiness: "that perfect moment when time just slips away between us on our foggy trip."

I finished and felt very pleased with myself and my arguments. We sat in silence for a long time and I thought we were perfectly in synch, time slipping away, and the two of us united and happy.

And then she got up and told me I was worse than Bertrand Russell and I had completely misrepresented everything Wittgenstein ever meant. And furthermore, Neil Young's commitment problems had made life a living hell for David Crosby, who simply wasn't as strong as everyone thought. As she was walking out the door, she turned back and said "I can't believe you'd take my ex-boyfriend's side."

And I suddenly wanted to slide into the fog of that guitar solo, because I knew that Wittgenstein was right -- she and I used the same words and meant drastically different things. Or else she was right and I just didn't understand Wittgenstein or Neil Young. And maybe that's the best proof anyone could ever offer that Neil Young is the Ludwig Wittgenstein of rock 'n' roll.


Connie said...

Great post! You've described perfectly for me what happens when good lyrics meet good instrumentation. (And the fact that I have a huge crush on Wittgenstein didn't hurt either. I prefer the Philosophical Investigations, tho.)

Alex said...


As soon as I can work the bugs out of my time machine (and I literally mean bugs -- giant bugs from pre-history who may not entirely be herbivores), I'll be happy to hook you & Ludwig up! :)

Anonymous said...

Wow Alex! One person's perception is another's reality, eh? I haven't read Wiggenstein and am rather partial to Russell ... but when it comes to heaviness I'm with Neil:

"I've been through the desert on a horse with No Name, it feels good to be out of the rain ..."


Connie said...

If I remember correctly, you're also going to have to give one of us a sex-change operation. I'm kinda happy the way I am...

Alex said...


Sorry -- my time machine is the base model without the sex-change option. (Although I think you may be mistaken -- or else I've just learned something new about you.) :)