PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Books

Lars Iyers' 'Wittgenstein Jr' Is a Portrait of the Genius as a Tortured Thinker

Lars Iyer's latest novel explores sadness and genius while contemplating the end of philosophy.


Wittgenstein Jr

Publisher: Melville House
Length: 240 pages
Author: Lars Iyer
Price: $23.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-09
Amazon

In 1966, John Lennon wrote "Tomorrow Never Knows", a song with little outward progression, played primarily in the key of C. Deceptive in its simplicity, and a testament to the genius of The Beatles, the song reveals its depths and slight-of-hand-style progression as you study and examine it.

The same might be said for Wittgenstein Jr., the new novel by Lars Iyer. As you read it, the book seems to follow the pattern of a song written in one key, a song without a bridge and little-to-no outward progression. But as you dig deeper, as you contemplate and explore the novel, you’ll unravel the texture and complexity of its seemingly simple structure.

On its surface a campus novel about a group of students at Cambridge who fall in with a professor of philosophy, Wittgenstein Jr. is more a portrait of a tortured genius than a bildungsroman, which, ostensibly, is the shape it assumes at first glance.

The professor is an eccentric genius to whom the students refer as Wittgenstein Jr, after Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Like the real Wittgenstein, Iyer’s professor is in search of an anti-philosophy, one that will end the need or necessity for philosophy. Also like the real Wittegenstein, the professor doesn’t teach a traditional course -- there’s no syllabus, no class schedule, there are no structured lectures or tests. Instead, each class consists of the genius riffing and thinking out loud while he tries to discover his much-sought-after anti-philosophy.

Told from the point of view of a student named Peters, the novel, in a sense, takes a lead from The Great Gatsby, in which the narrator is often a passive observer instead of an active player. This narrative choice works well for the first two-thirds of the book; however, Peters switches from passive to active in the final act, and the transition feels clunky.

Although perhaps the most important philosopher of the past century, Wittgenstein published only one book in his lifetime, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. His later work, Philosophical Investigations, was compiled from notes and partial manuscripts and published posthumously. Other manuscripts were found and subsequently published; so, too, were lecture notes taken by students and compiled thematically.

In his prose, which is minimalistic, Iyers often mirrors lecture notes, in a possible ode to some works published under Wittgenstein’s name.

Wittgenstein, on his chair at the front of the room. Who will come with him to wash off his brain? Outside. Wittgenstein, walking ahead of us. Students in surging groups. Students everywhere, a sea of them, moving in fast currents.

Vacillating between fragmented sentences and flowing prose, the narrative often feels intimate and immediate, a feat that F. Scott Fitzgerald couldn’t manage in his masterpiece. However, good prose should feel seamless, and great writers can present their style in a way that conceals it. This isn’t always the case with Wittgenstein Jr.

For example, Iyer is a fan of italics. One might even say that he’s obsessed, and this obsession often undermines the subtly and simplicity of the prose. A great writer can pen a novel without italicizing a single word. The force of strong writing renders italics superfluous, or irrelevant. Here, Iyer makes love to ctrl + i, and as a result the book is littered with italics. Flipping open the book, turning to a random page, will yield at least four or five italicized words. In fact, you might be hard pressed to find another work of fiction employing italics so liberally.

Iyer, a lecturer in philosophy, also employs philosophical concepts liberally. Unlike the italics, however, the philosophical ruminations work to great effect. If you’re wary of philosophy, if you took a philosophy class in college and hated it, if you’ve never felt or expressed interest in philosophy, don’t worry: this isn’t a didactic work. You will not find the history of philosophical concepts and arguments expressed here. You will not have to wade through sections that feel plucked from a textbook. The philosophical investigations are expressed solely through the context of this book, and many of them feel new and fresh. Many of them are expressions of Wittgenstein Jr’s torment.

Depression, sadness, gloom -- these three themes permeate the novel, and the subtle prose conveys them with deftness, immediacy, transmitting them to the reader, who slowly begins to understand Wittgenstein Jr’s obsession with bringing an end to philosophy.

Why is Wittgenstein Jr. so obsessed with conceiving an end to philosophy? What haunts him? What drives him? These questions are central to the novel, and they are, at their core, what drives and motivates the character and the narrative. They are the hinges on which the structure turns. And they are both an asset and a liability: structurally, the novel moves much like a song performed in one key, without a bridge or a chorus.

Wittgenstein Jr remains in a sort of structural stasis as Wittgenstein’s thoughts and life, as his motivations, unravel. Then the novel peaks near the end, where it tightens its focus but loses its passive narrator. This is both its strength and its weakness. When a character’s role in the narrative changes so dramatically, it feels as though the author has finally decided to wrap things up. As an ending, the device seems to violate the law of non-contradiction: it both works and it doesn’t work. Rather like philosophy itself, this novel’s success depends on what you, the reader, bring to it.

6

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.

Books

'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.

Music

1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.

Film

'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.

Music

The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Music

Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.

Music

15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.

Books

'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.

Music

20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.

Film

Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.

Film

The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.

Television

Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).

Music

Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.

Music

Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.

Music

Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.

Music

Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.

Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.