Is It Worth It?

Ran across a beautiful bit in Culture and Value this morning. Can't preface it better than just to give it to you.
Ist, was ich tue, überhaupt der Mühe wert? Doch nur, wenn es von oben her ein Licht empfängt. Und ist es so—warum sollte ich mich sorgen, daß mir die Früchte meiner Arbeit nicht gestolen werden? Wenn, was ich schreibe, wirklich wertvoll ist, wie sollte man mir das Wertvolle stehlen? Ist das Licht von oben nicht da, so kann ich ja doch nur geschickt sein.
"Is it at all worth the trouble, this thing I do? Only if a light greets it from above. If it be so, why should I concern myself with whether the fruits of my labor get stolen? If it really is worthy, this stuff I write, how should anyone steal its worth from me? But if that light from above is not there, then I can be no more than merely clever." –Wittgenstein, 1947

This, before a longer meditation on envy, on whether it matters if Newton or Leibniz was first, and that Newton really stood to gain much by admitting Leibniz' originality, rather than competing to have been the first one to arrive at the idea. To fight Leibniz for the very right to have the idea! And yet also the Schadenfreude of laughing at them as though we were all so charitable and generous with credit. Because we really do think there's value in propriety, and weakness in being a "mere epigone," someone without an original idea. Because no matter how clever your statement of the idea, if you are restating someone else's idea, haven't you stolen it, then? It's not really your idea, is it? It's not really worth me listening to you, then, is it?

But is that where value lies? Is it worth hashing over other thoughts? Is it worth exploring the meaning in other things? As though there were anything at which we could arrive first, of all the people in the world! Must it all be conquering virgin territory, or trespassing?

I am frequently clever, and sometimes no more than merely clever. But the question as to whether it is worth continuing in my project isn't about whether there is something original there, whether I have something new of my own. That's necessary, to a certain extent, if I'm writing for publication, and it's certainly a desirable thing, too—but it's not what makes the work worthwhile. What makes the work worthwhile, what pays me for my work before I ever sell a paragraph of it, is that Licht-von-oben.

It would be foolish to put too much religious weight on this bit, of course. Let's say instead that the question of value is not answered in the race to the idea, but in the clarity of its illumination. If I am working in the light, rather than laboring in the shadows, I do not have to seize jealous hold of the precious few things I can manage to find. I can simply lay open reality for all to see—and take correction from those who also see it. There can be community around those things that are greeted by the light. I stand to gain more from that, than from skill exercised in obscurity.


  1. That quote describes much of my experience with contemporary literature, cleverness that is (if it's not clever its nostalgic, or perhaps ironic at best). I sense something else with DFW, but it may well all be a matter of taste, right?
    My main area of 'production' is in preaching. Here I have tried to throw myself into the practice of 'putting it all on the table' in every sermon (which often reveals a great poverty). I found the idea of restraint in terms of 'saving the good stuff' (for publication, for later development, for a more 'important' occasion, etc.) would stifle what might come if risk it all in the present form.
    - David

    1. Absolutely. The only things you should save for later in preaching are the bits of ideas that don't fit the proclamation of this day's gospel truth to these people. Preaching is a time to put it all on the table, even if you then put some of it back in the drawer because you had extra.


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