Default (Philosophy) Man

Lars Iyer, Wittgenstein Jr

Melville House, 236pp, £12.99, ISBN 9780992876500

reviewed by Luke Davies

The middle-aged, middle-class white man in a state of crisis – this is a familiar enough literary theme. Its central figure has been especially prominent in 20th-century literature – from J. Alfred Prufrock to Leopold Bloom, from Jean-Baptiste Clamence to Humbert Humbert. Out of time and place, these essentially romantic characters struggle to align themselves with modern values, signalling the paradigmatic shifts that they bestride. As Hermann Hesse wrote of his own such creation, Harry Haller: ‘Haller belongs to those who have been caught between two ages, who are outside of all security and innocence. He belongs to those whose fate it is to live the whole riddle of human destiny heightened to the pitch of a personal torture, a personal hell.’

What, then, might we make of the turn this trope has taken in the 21st century? Major novels by JM Coetzee, Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers, Don Delillo and David Foster Wallace fixate on this figure in crisis, and of course it pervades 21st-century TV (think Tony Soprano and Walter White). What seems to distinguish such white middle-class males as Howard Belsey, Alan Clay and Richard Elster from their predecessors is their outright ludicrousness. Bloom might look lost in a crowd, but Soprano looks positively buffoonish on a couch. This all male ensemble appear fatter, balder and more confused with age. But the key point, surely, is that they persist. The message seems to be: their predominance might be laughably lacking in credibility or justification, but there's still no getting rid of them. 

Lars Iyer’s Wittgenstein Jr not only continues this trend, but also suggests a particular way in which we might comprehend it – within the specific context of literary and philosophical modernism.

The novel centres on a fictional Cambridge lecturer in Philosophy, Wittgenstein Jr, bearing a family resemblance to his namesake, and the breakdown he suffers during his attempt to write the Logik to end all Logiks. The story is told from the point of view of one of his students, Peters, who also becomes Wittgenstein Jr’s romantic interest. In some ways this is a reinvention of the campus novel: Wittgenstein Jr’s personal breakdown allegorising the apparent demise of the academy in typical Lodgian fashion. He finds that in Cambridge he has no sense of purpose as compared with dons of the past, that present dons have ‘thoughts that are like dogs on a leash’, and that the duties he is expected to perform include ‘courting venture capitalists, seeking business partners, looking to export the Cambridge brand.’ 

Wittgenstein Jr follows his brother (who we learn was also a don, and who committed suicide some time before the novel’s start) in attempting to combat this hostile environment: ‘in his logic, to create a sanctuary on the face of the abyss’. We learn that Wittgenstein’s brother ‘wrote of storms of meaninglessness; of pure, brute being. Of regions in which even the law of non-contradiction fails, in which nothing is identifiable. In which the non-Word devours the Word…’ To wilfully evade meaning, too, becomes the objective of Wittgenstein Jr as he elects to eschew the reflective in favour of the experiential. He writes on the board of his classroom lines from a Wallace Stevens poem:

It is possible that to seem – is to be.
As the sun is something seeming and it is.
The sun is an example. What it seems
It is and in such seeming all things are.

Subsequently he declares that he is in search of ‘ordinary life, where the things themselves are right in front of us.’ Wittgenstein Jr’s project of inaugurating the ‘voiding of logic’ in order to envelop himself in life itself brings him to Peters: his desire to be unphilosophical, and to be immersed in ordinary life, translates into his wanting to become a lover – an ambition that in the course of the novel he struggles to realise. Wittgenstein Jr ends with him departing in a taxi and promising to return as a new man, dedicated only to love. His future is uncertain, but it seems that his attempt to unfetter logic, to render philosophy obsolete, and to live on equal terms with Peters has failed.

Of course by invoking Wallace, and the spirit of modernist pleas for immanence, Wittgnestein Jr also echoes the philosopher he has been named after, challenging the post-Enlightenment pursuit of foundational truth and famously suggesting the need for an immersion in the knowable realm of the everyday. Just as both Wittgensteins seek a space outside of philosophical enquiry, it could be argued that they both also fail to keep their pledges to put an end to reflections extraneous to this position.

What, then, to make of these repetitions: of the way in which Wittgenstein Jr reiterates revelations a century old, whilst also rerunning the failures of those who have sought to end philosophical enquiry by preaching an almost Deleuzian gospel of immanence?

Wittgenstein Jr seems to me to offer a satisfying explanation as to why it is, exactly, that the fat man is still singing. Why it is, after decades of attempting to dethrone privilege, that the same white middle-aged men still dominate the stage, self-agonizing and self-pleasuring, and generally refusing to go away?

Within literary culture we have seen these figures, like Monty Phython's Horace, attempting to devour themselves. Prufrock is not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be. The equivalent has happened in philosophy: Wittgenstein, Lefebvre, Derrida, Rorty – the 20th century was dominated by an attempt to render philosophy obsolete: an ongoing sense of an ending – glimpsing the closure, but never seeing the actual end. Of course, as Beckett pointed out within the domain of literature, and as Spivak demonstrated within the realm of philosophical theory – the attempt is undermined by the fact that the professed desire to void oneself is spoken: tantamount proof of one’s existence, and of the activity of one’s mind. It is the paradox of Siddhartha attempting to think himself into a state of unthinking – about which any right-minded person should be incredulous.

Wittgenstein Jr appears in this sense to be a reflection on the conundrum that 20th-century literary and philosophical inquiry has left us with: the modernist, post-foundationalist pleas to destabilise, countered by the postmodern, postcolonial recognition that these calls have a voice – a voice that cries out against itself, but that nevertheless remains a voice, contradicting the sense that we can ever inaugurate a silence, either of those people who have been given too much stage time, or of those concepts that remained unchallenged for too long.

If we want to end the reign of white middle-class men, then an obvious first step would be to stop writing novels about them. If we wanted, similarly, to bring an end to the tyranny of the Word, then as Derrida proposed to Foucault, the obvious thing would be to write nothing at all. The point seems to be that we evidently can’t. When white men talk, they talk. When they ponder, they ponder. The feat of eating oneself is impossible, just as with that of thinking oneself into a condition of unthinking. So either we perform a mass genocide, or we face up to the fact that these burghers still exist, and think, and will continue to do so. The philosophical correlative of this would be to abandon the abnegating anti-logic of the 20th century, and instead to start thinking about how we can construct 21st-century truths. This is something that Wittgenstein Jr almost achieves when he criticises the state of the academy and argues for the need to reinstate logic – but the novel ultimately reverts to being a familiar parable about the intransigence of white men and philosophy when it finds its drama in his failings.

My objection is that for these reasons this seems to be a 21st-century novel about 20th-century failures, and our present perpetuation of them – which, as I have suggested, is reflective of a wider literary trend. The more challenging thing, it seems to me, would be to try and write a novel that really explores the alternatives: the literary equivalent to the Badiouian project of abandoning identity politics and reinstating the concept of truth. Yes the white man remains, yes the Word remains, yes philosophy remains: they will do so long as we continue to talk about them, even if it is to wish them away. The question should be: what can be achieved within these perimeters? Wittgenstein Jr asks this too cautiously. It is a (post-) modern fable on failure – when our present situation demands narratives of possibility.
Luke Davies is a teaching fellow in the English Literature department of the University of Tübingen.