acts of piety


In his Remarks on Frazer’s “Golden Bough”, Ludwig Wittgenstein writes: “Recall that, after Schubert’s death, his brother cut some of Schubert’s scores into small pieces and gave each piece, consisting of a few bars, to his favourite pupils. And this act, as a sign of piety, is just as understandable as the different one of keeping the scores untouched, accessible to no one. If Schubert’s brother had burned the scores, that, too, would be understandable as an act of piety.” I have always been moved by this passage and by Wittgenstein’s use of the term “understandable”. Schubert’s brother acted in a way that was at once novel and immediately grasped. In any culture, there are rules for conduct in moments of extreme feeling – weeping, rending garments, burning candles. What was so affecting on 11 September 2001 and just afterwards was the directness and intuitiveness of the shrines, though there would have been some degree of emulation. Emulation presupposes understanding; one says to oneself, “I must do that, or something like that.” Cultural understanding is like linguistic understanding. We understand the meaning of gestures that we have never seen performed before, as we understand sentences that have never before been uttered. And we expect that kind of creativity from others in everyday life. By the time the first anniversary of the attacks came round, a number of my artist friends had told me of work they had made that somehow fell under the category of understanda­bility, as described by Wittgenstein.

more from Arthur C. Danto at The New Statesman here.