Showing posts with label handle. Show all posts
Showing posts with label handle. Show all posts

Jun 28, 2016

Wittgenstein’s Handles

What was it about handles—door-handles, axe-handles, the handles of pitchers and vases—that transfixed thinkers in Vienna and Berlin during the early decades of the twentieth century, echoing earlier considerations of handles in America and ancient Greece?

Ludwig Wittgenstein, as everyone knows, abandoned philosophy after publishing his celebrated Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in 1921. He took up gardening instead, in a monastic community on the outskirts of Vienna, where he camped out for a few months in a toolshed. It was in part to draw him back into “the world” that his sister Margarete (Gretl) invited him to join the architect Paul Engelmann in designing her new house, a rigorous Modernist structure that, much changed, now houses the Bulgarian Embassy.

Wittgenstein’s participation in the project was relatively limited, his biographer Ray Monk maintains (though Engelmann himself, from professional modesty or perhaps ambivalence about the final product, claimed the collaboration was more extensive):

His role in the design of the house was concerned chiefly with the design of the windows, doors, window-locks and radiators. This is not as marginal as it may at first appear, for it is precisely these details that lend what is otherwise a rather plain, even ugly, house its distinctive beauty. The complete lack of any external decoration gives a stark appearance, which is alleviated only by the graceful proportion and meticulous execution of the features designed by Wittgenstein.

To details like the door-handles, in particular, Wittgenstein accorded what Monk calls “an almost fanatical exactitude,” driving locksmiths and engineers to tears as they sought to meet his seemingly impossible standards. The unpainted tubular door-handle that Wittgenstein designed for Gretl’s house remains the prototype for all such door-handles, still popular in the twenty-first century. (Thomas Bernhard was surely evoking his idol, Wittgenstein, when he told a friend that the only way to find an exact replacement for a broken window-handle would be to find another, identical broken window-handle.)

Monk argues, more than once, that this design project brought Wittgenstein “back” to philosophy. Viennese society is central for Monk, who reproduces Klimt’s portrait of Gretl, and notes that she introduced her brother to an influential professor of philosophy at the University of Vienna. “Through working for Gretl,” he writes, “Wittgenstein was brought back into Viennese society and, eventually, back into philosophy.”

But I doubt that the return to philosophy was prompted by social connections, which were always a mixed bag for the antisocial Wittgenstein. I prefer to believe that the prompt was in the handle. For when Wittgenstein returned to philosophy, the idea that drove him beyond all others was that the nature of language had been misunderstood by philosophers, “including,” he noted winningly, “the author of the Tractatus.” Words did not, he had come to believe, primarily provide a picture of life (the word “snake” representing, or sounding like, an actual snake); they were better conceived of as a part of the activity of life. As such, they were more like tools. (We do things with words, as J. L. Austin famously argued, things like, from a list of Wittgenstein’s, “thanking, cursing, greeting, praying.”) “Think of the tools in a tool-box,” Wittgenstein wrote in his epochal Philosophical Investigations (1953). “There is a hammer, pliers, a saw, a screw-driver, a rule, a glue-pot, glue, nails and screws.—The functions of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects.” Words may look similar, especially when we see them in print. “Especially when we are doing philosophy!”

The analogy Wittgenstein drew was precisely with handles.

It is like looking into the cabin of a locomotive. We see handles all looking more or less alike. (Naturally, since they are all supposed to be handled.) But one is the handle of a crank which can be moved continuously (it regulates the opening of a valve); another is the handle of a switch, which has only two effective positions, it is either off or on; a third is the handle of a brake-lever, the harder one pulls on it, the harder it brakes; a fourth, the handle of a pump: it has an effect only so long as it is moved to and fro.

It is the utility of handles that Wittgenstein insists on here. The pump don’t work ’cause the vandals took the handles.

This utility of handles had also caught the attention of the pioneering German sociologist Georg Simmel, but he thought utility was only half the story. In his brilliant 1911 essay “The Handle,” Simmel argued that the handle of a vase bridges two worlds, the utilitarian and the non-utilitarian. A vessel, according to Simmel, “unlike a painting or statue, is not intended to be insulated and untouchable but is meant to fulfill a purpose—if only symbolically. For it is held in the hand and drawn into the movement of practical life.”

Thus the vessel stands in two worlds at one and the same time: whereas reality is completely irrelevant to the “pure” work of art and, as it were, is consumed in it, reality does make claims upon the vase as an object that is handled, filled and emptied, proffered, and set down here and there. This dual nature of the vase is most decisively expressed in its handle.

For Emerson, too, handles had a dual nature. “All things have two handles,” he wrote in his American Scholar address, “beware of the wrong one.” Stanley Cavell notes that this gnomic admonition “itself has two handles.” Apart from the familiar reminder that there are two sides to every argument, Emerson urges scholars not to unmoor themselves in their thinking from what he called, in another essay, “the city and the farms.” In Cavell’s summary of Emerson (whom Wittgenstein was reading during his military service in World War I), effective thinking and writing require, on the part of the scholar, a certain “doubleness, of worlds, of words,” a straddling of the practical and philosophical worlds, like Simmel’s handle.

Scholars have long assumed that Emerson—who evasively names his source as “the old oracle”—found his aphorism about the two handles in the Enchiridion (handbook, or manual), attributed to the Greek stoic philosopher Epictetus. But I think he filched them (like Dylan’s handle-vandal) from a more immediate source, Thomas De Quincey’s 1827 essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts”:

Everything in this world has two handles. Murder, for instance, may be laid hold of by its moral handle (as it generally is in the pulpit and at the Old Bailey), and that, I confess, is its weak side; or it may also be treated aesthetically, as the Germans call it—that is, in relation to good taste.

De Quincey then tells the story of a fire in a London piano-factory, witnessed by his friend Coleridge, who, interrupted in his afternoon tea, expressed disappointment that the fire wasn’t more of an aesthetic spectacle.

Was Robert Frost also channeling De Quincey’s murder essay in this arresting run of (seemingly) free association, from a 1916 interview?

Love, the moon, and murder have poetry in them by common consent. But it’s in other places. It’s in the axe-handle of a French Canadian woodchopper…. You know the Canadian woodchoppers whittle their axe-handles, following the curve of the grain, and they’re strong and beautiful. Art should follow lines in nature, like the grain of an axe-handle.

Of course, Frost may be seen to be alluding to other things—here and in his related poem “The Axe-Helve,” in which a French-Canadian woodcutter named Baptiste criticizes a machine-made handle, showing with his thumbnail how the grain ran “Across the handle’s long drawn serpentine,/ Like the two strokes across a dollar sign.” Handles here stand in for the way Frost’s poetry followed the crooked, and perhaps non-commercial rhythms of ordinary speech, the grain, or what he called “sentence sounds.” (“I knew each nick and scratch by heart,” Elizabeth Bishop’s Crusoe says of his beloved knife, “the bluish blade, the broken tip,/ the lines of wood-grain on the handle.”)

Such a view of how the grain must dictate the lines of the handle—recalling how Michelangelo claimed to free the statue imprisoned in a chunk of marble—would seem the opposite of Gary Snyder’s praise of previous patterns in his poem “Axe Handles,” in which his son wants to replace a missing hatchet-handle, and Snyder suggests they repurpose a broken ax-handle.

There I begin to shape the old handle
With the hatchet, and the phrase
First learned from Ezra Pound
Rings in my ears!
“When making an axe handle
                      the pattern is not far off.”

Snyder traces the quotation to a fourth-century Chinese source, translated for him by his own teacher Chen. “And I see,” he concludes in an epiphany: “Pound was an axe,/ Chen was an axe, I am an axe/ And my son a handle, soon/ To be shaping again, model/ And tool, craft of culture,/ How we go on.” Snyder’s patterns lack the machine-made precision decried by Baptiste, resembling, instead, the pattern a writer of sonnets has in mind in setting pen to paper.

Snyder invokes the idea of literary tradition as a “handing down,” from father to son and from teacher to student, “how we go on.” In such a transfer, the ax stands in for the pen (in a different context, Snyder compared a laptop to a nice little chainsaw). In his seductive praise of the “craft of culture,” Snyder recalls Elias Canetti’s moving assertion: “It is the quiet, prolonged activities of the hand which have created the only world in which we care to live.”

Is there some unfinished business here? Was there, for example, any significance to Wittgenstein’s parenthetical joke about handles resembling one another, like brothers and sisters? “We see handles all looking more or less alike. (Naturally, since they are all supposed to be handled.)” For Wittgenstein, those handles seem to come momentarily alive; they’re animated. Handles, for potters, are often the liveliest part of the vessel; naturally, since they are all supposed to be handled. In a kindred speculative foray, Simmel imagines the handle—think of the fanciful frogs perched atop Chinese porcelain, or the serpentine handles of the potter Karen Karnes’s casseroles—as swooping down on the vessel from some other, more practical world. “This contrast between vase and handle is more sharply accentuated when, as frequently happens, the handle has the shape of a snake, lizard, or dragon,” Simmel notes. “These forms suggest the special significance of the handle: it looks as though the animal had crawled on to the vase from the outside, to be incorporated into the complete form only, as it were, as an afterthought.”

The above text was inspired by a request to make some remarks on the topic of “Utilitarian Clay” for a gathering of professional potters to be held this September in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Reluctant as I am to be drawn into one more standoff between proponents of art versus proponents of craft (a stalemate if there ever was one), I’m inclined to adopt a conciliatory approach, a reaching of the hand—or, more precisely, the handle—across this evergreen divide. While I’ve never been to Gatlinburg, my mother’s first fiancé, a Quaker conscientious objector, worked in a forestry camp outside of the town during World War II, repairing trails in the Smoky Mountain National Park and contributing to a mimeographed newsletter called The Double-Axe. He drowned in a canoeing accident after the war, and certain things of his were eventually handed down to me, including his tennis racket, as I wrote long ago in a poem called “To the Man Who Almost Married My Mother”: “My hand has worn smooth/ the handle of your tennis racket.”

—for Stanley Cavell

Christopher Benfey


May 24, 2016, 2:38 pm

Dec 10, 2013

Everything is what it is and not another thing
by David Connearn
This handle is not made to the actual dimensions of the original pattern for those of the main floor of 19 Kundmanngasse Vienna, the Palais Stonborough, the house designed to a commission by Margarethe Stonborough and completed between 1926 and 1928 by her brother, the architect Ludwig Wittgenstein, with the assistance of Adolf Loos's protégés, Paul Engelmann and Jaques Groag. It is however the product of an investigation of the identity of the original door handles, reported lost from the building during its dereliction between 1974 and 1975, and born out of a disquietude about their afterlife - their absorption within the separate and often competing discourses of contemporary product copy-writing, architectural history and philosophy. This handle is not a mere piece of door furniture chosen from a catalogue, but an apposite point of entry into the extraordinary richness of Wittgenstein’s entire architectural legacy.

It is not clear to the building’s current occupiers, the Bulgarian Cultural Institute, which of the door handles currently installed in the house are original and which are copies, made during the renovations of 1976. The original handles had a very particular specification. They are the subject of substantial commentary and have been
photographed, but no detailed design-drawings of them exist. They are anecdotally celebrated as a diminutive expression of the sensibility that required the completed ceiling of the Saal (some 44.5 square meters) to be raised 30 millimetres, or the hours spent by Wittgenstein’s friend Marguerite Respinger and others in patient readjustment of the height of a stick representing an upper floor window railing. The door handles reputedly took a year to reach completion, during which time Wittgenstein, who as an engineer was accustomed to tolerances expressed in thousandths of an inch or microns, famously left the locksmith, who asked whether a millimetre here or there really mattered, in little doubt that it really did.

Between then and now the handles have however acquired another life, in which their image has become more important than the thing itself. They have become lost in their own history, eclipsed by their representation. This is an inevitable tendency of historical process, but whilst the original material persists it behoves us to pay a requisite attention to the things themselves which, in the words of another philosopher-artist, “have a lot going for them”, before we consign their status to unquestioned convention.

The original handles were cast, requiring the fabrication of a prototype from which a mould was made. The material and means of construction of the prototype is unknown, and would generally be irrelevant beyond its utility for the requirements of that stage of
the process: it could, for instance, have been wax. But everything about these handles suggests a design narrative in which the cast, as the final form, is in fact an anomaly. They appear to have been designed one step at a time, in a manner which has distinct parallels with the method of work pictured in the activities of the builders and the commentary thereon in the opening pages of the Philosophical Investigations. A limited design vocabulary is established: bend, house, wedge, bear, fix. Each function is then interrogated as though being defined, or searched for its minimal condition or ‘rules’ of operation and application, in relation to the context of ‘usage’ – the practical and aesthetic conventions, habits and training, which ground and inform the character of the understanding of an object’s identity, utility and, occasionally, its beauty.

In the preface to the Investigations, Wittgenstein refers to himself as a draughtsman; albeit, modestly, a bad one. This is rather more than an appropriate metaphor for compositional process. It signifies a perspective, for there is a very clear formal sense in both engineering and architecture that something which cannot be drawn (specified) cannot be made. Whilst studying engineering in Berlin Wittgenstein had indeed taken additional drawing classes. This capability was put to use whilst working on jet-tip propulsion under Petavel and Lamb at Manchester, where he showed what was then an extraordinary design skill. At a more domestic scale, having exhausted the patience of Pinsent, Russell and no doubt others on countless fruitless trips to select furniture for his rooms at Cambridge, he designed his own, described by Russell on the occasion of its later acquisition as ”the best deal I ever made”. This obsessive capacity to model, to ‘bild’ remained fundamental to him. After leaving Cambridge he designed a small house for his own use in Norway, which became the template for his repeated intellectual retreats. It was recognised by the Austrian army, which gave him charge of a gunnery repair workshop during World War 1, prompting his later gift of 1million Crowns for the development a “decent” cannon. Wittgenstein later designed and built a steam engine to demonstrate its working principles to his pupils at one of the schools at which he taught during the early 1920s in rural Austria. At more serious scale, he personally designed the lift gear in the Kundmanngasse house, together with a host of other mechanisms that are
attached to its windows and doors, the sliding steel shutters that rise from the floor to cover them, and, of course, the radiators.

Yet it is these handles in particular which, though seemingly simple, show evidence of greater a density of thought than a merely imposed design. They reveal an intimate familiarity with their build-process and the particular capabilities of the material used, a tactile register of understanding which has, perhaps understandably, been overlooked.

Everything about the design of the handles is indicative of a hands-on working knowledge of the material requirements – not of a cast, but of their fabrication. The radius of the bend in the right-angled handle is tight, but not arbitrary. It is the minimum radius achievable, not in a cast object, but by actually bending the material. The radius of the bends which intersect to form the swaged handle is greater than that of its counterpart by the radius of the handle stock itself, and with 60 degrees of arc produces the clearance common between both handles and the door surface. It is also the tightest return bend that steel or malleable brass of that dimension will naturally form when levered rather than machine-pressed or cast into shape. The swage reduces non-axial leverage on the lock mechanism and handle joint. The visible part of the cylinder into which both handles fit has dimensions no greater than the minimum required to drill it across its axes in order to house the handle shafts in both directions. The combination of all the elements of the handle-ensemble in a tapered fit which bears only on the turning bush of the lock mechanism, and is held together by a single axial screw, displays not only an extraordinary and elegant efficiency, but also suggests the family resemblance of the fabricated elements to parts and functions of the machinery - the mill and lathe - used to make them: the tapered quill, the square chuck key, and the components of the machinery controls. All parts of the door handles have a specific reason to be as they are and the size they are, related to the way in which a prototype has been considered and made. Nothing is extraneous, but this exemplifies an aesthetic perspective, not a program.

The after-life of the “Wittgenstein handle” as a source of contemporary style resulting in objects that have at best a very distant family resemblance to their source – such as those by Ize, Technoline GnbH and FSB - signals a slippage in understanding which stretches beyond the objects themselves, and beyond the treatment of the house for which they were made. I suggest that the material properties of the handles designed by Wittgenstein for the Palais Stonborough are best understood in relation to the design and fabrication
requirements of a prototype. The purpose of my investigation has not been to replicate, but to focus attention on the specificity of one small item original material, and to afford it a similar consideration to that required of a manuscript fragment. By taking a closer look at what has become by peculiar default the most widely distributed but least authentically represented object of Wittgenstein’s production, I hope also to have provided an initial ‘handle’ on the importance of affording a similar attention to the detail of the largest remaining unresearched fragment of his career, now approaching the centenary of its commission. A detailed understanding of the house that Wittgenstein designed for his own use, built in Skjolden, Norway, during 1913/14, elements of which are known to have a prototypical relationship to elements of the house in the Kundmanngasse, is essential to the proper assessment of Wittgenstein's architectural thinking. It is likely to be more important than the Kundmanngasse in its relation to his philosophical work.

[A 3/4 scale fabricated model of the cast door-handles of the Palais Stonborough 1928. Brass CZ 131. David Connearn 2011.]