Lars Iyer’s ‘Wittgenstein Jr.’ Plumbs the Deep Fun of Philosophical Fiction
A common thread runs through a few outstanding novels with the name Wittgenstein in the title—Thomas Bernhard’s Wittgenstein’s Nephew, David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress and Lars Iyer’s new novel, Wittgenstein Jr. All three are first-person works, and each could be labeled “experimental” in its own way. Though each ostensibly takes place in the real world, they’re simultaneously set in parallel universes in which a wide (even privileged) cultural education is taken for granted, littered as they are with toss-away philosophical and artistic references. And all three should be read, if not by everyone—it’s hard to imagine recommending any of them to Oprah’s Book Club—then at least by a unique crowd predisposed to enjoy the many pleasures they have to offer.
Anyone familiar with their work would agree that no one has written like Bernhard or Markson, not before or since, and the same could be said of Iyer. Like his predecessors, he appears to be in the process of creating his own personal genre, one in which the workings of his mind are on display far more brilliantly than anything as piddling as a plot.
When they work, there is a particular pleasure in artworks conceived more for the entertainment of their creators than their audiences. If you get it as such, if your brain is sufficiently aligned with the author’s, it can feel as though it was also written specifically for you. This is the experience that some people—not I, mind you, but some people—have when reading Infinite Jest, for instance. Work that alienates one reader to the point of antagonism can feel like a perfect fit to another. Like all work that fits into this special category, including Iyer’s Spurious trilogy completed just last year, Wittgenstein Jr. is a kind of porthole through which readers can watch the artist as he pokes his pet obsessions. It’s a show worth seeing, or so sayeth this particular brain, anyway.
The obsessions are the same this time as in Iyer’s last three novels: academia, philosophy, and the eccentric professors thereof, and the question of how to think deeply about thought itself while coping with the realization that no matter how much one thinks or how deeply, most thinkers will never reach the philosophical depths of those they admire most. Nor will they reach any satisfying conclusions about life itself no matter how earnestly they pursue them.
Where in his past books the camera was trained exclusively on two philosophy-professor friends, this time Iyer switches the perspective to that of a group of Cambridge students as they watch and try to comprehend their struggling, possibly-unraveling philosophy professor over the course of a single term. The professor’s real name isn’t given, but his students call him Wittgenstein.
“He doesn’t look like Wittgenstein, it’s true,” Peters, the narrator known only by his last name, informs us. “But he has a Wittgensteinian aura, we agree. He is Wittgensteinisch, in some way.”
Like Iyer’s other books, this one is composed of many short, unnumbered segments of just a few pages or even a few paragraphs each. The effect is cumulative, an accrual of sorts: a mood, a sense of a place, of relationships, of anxieties, of personal confidences shared little by little. The sections involving Wittgenstein mostly take place in the classroom or on a series of walks he takes with his students. Then also are the (often far funnier) bits about the student-narrator’s typically-collegiate activities with his classmates: drug use, sexual encounters, a visit to the emergency room, a dance-off at a club.
But the dance-off of the mind is the book’s true subject. Iyer employs a terrific combination of erudition and absurdity that calls to mind the great postmodernists.
The professor known as Wittgenstein (and Iyer) obsess about the notion of thought itself on almost every page.
A typical reverie—one of many—follows:
“Thought was once a matter of character, he says. Of living in a certain way. You were judged as a thinker by the way you lived before others. You showed what you thought by the evidence of your life.
But thought, now, is a kind of beetling, he says. The thinker is a nocturnal insect. The thinker goes about in darkness. The thinker lives and dies unnoticed. His body is swept away with all the others, like a dried-up fly in a dusty corner.
Thinking is no longer an honest pursuit, he says. No longer a decent pursuit. “There is something covert about thinking now. Something dirty.”
As with any work so personal as Iyer’s, some sections will work smashingly for some and not at all for others. A lengthy consideration of the meaning of English lawns gave me occasion to skim a bit, but that was one of only a few such episodes.
It’s to their credit that—as Dalkey Archive Press did for David Markson for many years—Melville House has continued to (and hopefully will continue to) print Iyer’s books. Wittgenstein Jr. marks the inaugural release of Melville House UK, an overseas arm of the company meant to capture “something quite exciting going on in UK writing right now,” according to founder Dennis Johnson.
If there are more books to come, I’ll be eager to read them. In fact, one gets the feeling that Lars Iyer’s project might best be understood in its completed form. Genuinely funny and intelligent and navel-gazing and strange, these parts might eventually add up to something truly big. In the meantime, almost every individual page is a pleasure, and that is more than enough reason to keep reading him.