It is somewhat problematic to write a review of a novel in which little happens apart from philosophising without the review itself turning into a treatise. Lars Iyer’s Wittgenstein Jr is such a novel. However, few people living or dead have ever fully understood the philosophy of Wittgenstein himself – the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus famously confounded a mind as brilliant, though deeply flawed, as Bertrand Russell’s – so all the lay reader can hope to achieve are brief glimmers of insight in an otherwise unilluminated world (usefully bearing in mind Wittgenstein’s warning against the seductive powers of language).
Wittgenstein Jr, however, is not about the actual man but a contemporary faux-Wittgenstein; he is a simulacrum of all aloof, demanding philosophy teachers as observed by a dozen or so of his feckless Cambridge students, who believe their tutor to be ‘Wittgensteinisch’. The students are baffled by his rambling, abstracted lectures, and so are we. But, there again, ‘Denken ist schwer,’ ‘thought is hard’, Wittgenstein tells them/us very early in the book, and, a page later, ‘At this stage, you should have no idea what’s going on.’
These are both sentiments which we might still feel at the end of the novel. But no matter, because as we trundle from one end to the other we encounter passages of almost poetic rumination:
‘All of England was once a lawn… was once the quintessence of lawn… England has always imagined itself in terms of rural idyll.’
And more fiery political rhetoric:
‘The new don has sold his soul!, Wittgenstein says. The new don has sold his university! The new don has monetised Cambridge! The new don has made Cambridge into an advert.’
The author is himself a lecturer in philosophy, so perhaps these latter sentiments are closer to his own concerns about academia than they are to his fictional philosopher. They are certainly very un-Wittgensteinisch, who was no Sartrean, publically-engaged intellectual. When asked how one might change the world, Wittgenstein (the actual one) replied: ‘Improve yourself; that is the only thing you can do to improve the world.’ This is advice the other Wittgenstein fails to heed as he gradually slips into an abyss of paranoia, much to the amusement, or at least intrigue, of his students.
In its structure and its regard for what characters say rather than what they do, the book recalls the glorious symposium novels of Thomas Love Peacock. Of course, the book isn’t all vague philosophising. Colour is provided by the after-hours hijinks of the students – who don’t need to be described, they are all neo-Theophrastian ‘types’ of one kind or another: a drug fiend, an aesthete, a minor aristo – which involve toga parties, competitively ridiculous summer/winter holidays and the platitudes of drug culture (many an a-hole disappears down a k-hole). All of this is somewhat less entertaining than it is simply a way of breaking up the drier – though more entertaining – philosophic tracts (themselves littered with the students’ hungover whining).
The faux-Wittgenstein speaks about not being able to read a book without throwing it across the room. I didn’t have that problem with this novel but its pseudo-philosophy prompted me several times to return to the real work of Wittgenstein, as well as to the fascinating man found within Ray Monk’s biography. This is one mark of a good book, that it encourages wider reading and, in this particular case, achieves the very aim of a novel of ideas by expanding thought.
Ultimately, however, Wittgenstein Jr does leave us with rather a bleak picture of the academic world, students in general, and philosophy in particular: ‘He watches our faces, he says. He looks for signs of understanding. But what does he see? Nothing! Nothing!’