PI’s Opening Remark

The final paragraph of a paper I am now finishing:

Wittgenstein puts away the common notions that a book, particularly a book of philosophy, should open either by presenting its undeniable first premise or by defining its terms or by telling you what is coming. He does nothing of the sort. He begins instead with a quotation from St. Augustine. That quotation serves as a blessing from St. Augustine, who Wittgenstein venerated; as an example of authority or the lack of it in philosophy, or at least of its nature and its acknowledgment or denial; as a reminder of the way in which philosophy can shape even what seem relatively unremarkable remarks, as if philosophy were always stealing a march on us, out ahead of and so determining what we have it in us to think or to say; as a critical target, carrying with it a germ, a contagion, a communicable if not wholly communicated picture of communication; as a lexicon-in-use, a first glimpse of a use (or attempt at a use) of the words whose use (and non-use) will preoccupy the pages of PI; as invoking connections between philosophy and childhood and education, of the ways in which philosophy is now accessible, now inaccessible to childhood, and of the ways in which childhood is now accessible, now inaccessible to philosophy (what makes more merry or kills more joy than childhood, than philosophy?), and of the ways in which philosophy requires us to learn how to learn and how not to learn and how to unlearn what there is to learn or what we have learnt. But of course not all of that can be clear on a first reading of the first remark. Which means, I take it, that the remark has not been read until it has been double-read, until it can be read in relation to the rest of the book and the rest of the book in relation to it. As I said, PI begins but has no beginning, ends but has no ending. When we open it at the first page and we confront its first remark, we are confronting the whole of PI, not just one remark. We may make PI’s acquaintance one remark at a time, but we do not come to understand it that way. In for a dime, in for a dollar–the book makes no small change.

Tall Grass (Poem)

Tall Grass


Small boy

Seven or eight

Hair so white blond

A blue jay will chase him from the barn

Strafing his head, hoping for hair

For a nest, presumably.



In the countryside:

A toy rifle with a scope,

A fresh gift.

Small toad

Caught, thoughtlessly dropped in the scope

And wedged, hopelessly, in the scope’s pinched middle.

Helplessly, trying to unwedge the toad

Without maiming it or killing it,

Unable to do so,

Small boy

Throws his gift, and the toad still alive, still wedged,

In the now sightless scope,

Into the tall grass down the hill from the fence.



Small boy

Looks for his kitten,

Missing for several days;

And is led by his nose,

Trailing mounting fear,

To a dark spot beneath a workbench

In an outbuilding.


Small cat

Is found, rotting, its head

Somehow gotten into but unable to get out of

A mason jar, rolled from among canning supplies,

Underneath the bench.

Unable to bear

The thought of the cat’s death, not to mention its final moments,

Small boy

Throws partially jarred carcass

Into the tall grass down the hill from the fence.


Big boy,

I wonder now about

That tall grass

Down the hill

From the fence,

That tall grass,

About whether it still hides

The guilt-edged horrors of my childhood:

Toy guns and toads, mason jars and kittens,

Knowledge of fate and death.

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