<Transcription of the review of Wittgenstein Jr by Jon Day in the Daily Telegraph, Saturday 13th September.>
Bonfire of the Humanities
Jon Day relishes a clever satire on academic life that is also a love letter to the world of ideas.
Lars Iyer's previous three novellas - Spurious (2011), Dogma (2012) and Exodus (2013) - followed a pair of academics as they travelled around the country attending conferences and exchanging gnostic utterances. They were hilarious and unsettling books about the limits of friendship set against the backdrop of what Iyer calls the 'suburbification' of professional philosophy. As well as being terrifically funny they were stylistically bold: critics invoked the name of Beckett in hushed tones.
Wittgenstein Jr is both a continuation and a development of the themes of the Spurious trilogy. The book centres on the relationship between a group of Cambridge philosophy students and their don, an enigmatic, lonely figure they take to calling 'Wittgenstein'. He has gone to Cambridge to 'do fundamental work in philosophical logic' (Iyer, himself a philosophy don at Newcastle University, is fond of italics, always seasoned with a deep irony) and to write a book - Die Logik - so profound as to end philosophy.
Wittgenstein himself is not quite a character but rather a collection of aphorisms. 'It is never difficult to think', he says, 'it is either easy or impossible'. His classes are, by the standards of the contemporary academy, terrible. His students complain they have no idea what he is talking about. They revere him anyway. He is tolerated by his fellow dons.
The book is written in the repetitive, lulling metre that Iyer perfected in the Spurious trilogy. Clauseless sentences do the job of description: 'Eating in class. Mulberry, chewing gum. Titmuss, sucking mints. Doyle, eating a packet of crisps and regretting it: the crackling! the rustling! the grease!'
Wittgenstein Jr is as much a satire on the contemporary academy as it is an existential novel of udeas. But is is also a love stroy. Ultimaitely it's a novel about the idea of philosophy, about what Wittgenstein's students call 'the romance of learning' and that all-consuming erotic yearning for knowledge that you sometimes experience as an undergraduate.
It is also an elegiac book. 'There's a fire backstage, the clown comes out to warn the audience. Laughter and applause. They think it's a joke! The clown repeats his warning. The fire grows hotter; the applause grows louder. That's how the world will end', Wittgenstein says, 'to general applause, from halfwits who thik it's a joke'. Amid the humour, or despite it, Iyer is deadly serious. The bonfire of the humanities is upon us.
David Rose reviews Wittgenstein Jr at Quadrapheme.
The group of students, including the narrator Peters, who seem to behave more like third formers than undergraduates, act collectively like some uncomprehending Greek chorus similar to that in Murder In The Cathedral; witnesses to Wittgenstein’s agony yet not fully touched or involved. They represent brute Life, destined always to be creatures of the sun-suffused shallows.They act out being philosophers, realizing they are only going through the motions. Significantly, they play-act death, play-act the deaths of philosophers: the death of Socrates; the death of Nietzsche. Displays of ersatz despair which throw into relief the real despair of ‘Wittgenstein’,which is fictionally underwritten by the suicide of his brother and the temptation to follow suit.
Yet maybe the students’ desire for despair is real? Maybe there is hope for them, spiritually?