“Cambridge should come to us”
By Lars Iyer
Melville House, 2014
Lars Iyer’s excellent Spurious trilogy—comprised of Spurious, Dogma, and Exodus— ends in dramatic fashion, with a failed occupation at Plymouth University to protest the closing of the school’s philosophy department. W., one of the last remaining professors, has been relegated to teaching badminton ethics and imagines a “new age” where professors “become learning facilitators, taking our students through the Microsoft philosophy package.” Though Plymouth is not the only victim in this new educational landscape, readers can be excused for imagining that Cambridge and Oxford, the twin towers of the British educational system, are exempt from such a bleak fate.
Not so. The Cambridge of Iyer’s latest novel, Wittgenstein Jr, has fallen prey to many of the same ills. Here, a new philosophy professor, Wittgenstein Jr., must contend with students who believe that getting into the prestigious university should mark the end of their hard work, not the beginning, and his fellow faculty, “academic-output manufacturers! Impact-seekers! Grant-chasers! Citation-trufflers! Self-googlers! Web-profile updaters! Facebook posters! Tweedy voids!” While this reality is to be lamented, Iyer’s novel is so good that it is difficult to put down without feeling at least some hope. As long as writers of this stature remain, fighting the good fight, surely the world cannot be in too much trouble.
In “Nude in the Hot Tub, Facing the Abyss (A Literary Manifesto after the End of Literature and Manifestos),” published in The White Review in 2011, Iyer addresses those writers who, like him, “are at the end of Literature and Culture, stripped, bereft, embarrassed.” According to Iyer, “[t]he dream has faded, our faith and awe have fled, our belief in Literature has collapsed.” This attitude helps explain the series of pointers that close the manifesto; not everyone can—like Enrique Vila-Matas, Thomas Bernhard, and Roberto Bolaño, to use Iyer’s examples—make Art in the face of this collapse. Iyer insists, for instance, that writers “[m]ark your sense of imposture. You’re not an Author, not in the old sense. You haven’t really written a Book, not a Real Book. You’re part of no tradition, no movement, no vanguard.” This would sound like posturing if Iyer’s own books didn’t bear out his belief in the lack of an ongoing tradition.
His writing is sui generis, mixing philosophy and verbal sparring of the vaudevillian variety with pointed critiques of what passes for intellectual life in Europe and North America. In the Spurious trilogy, he achieves this by ignoring the mechanics of fiction, of “Real Books”—such as scene-setting and plot—in favor of lengthy, one-sided conversations filled with W.’s elaborate put-downs of Iyer’s intellect and philosophy career, their increasing frustrations with their profession, and the constantly deteriorating state of Iyer’s home. These conversations are peppered with references to everyone from Maurice Blanchot to filmmaker Lars von Trier to outsider musician Jandek. In the hands of a more ordinary writer, this would quickly grow mundane and repetitive, but Iyer’s wit and intelligence keep the books fresh. While Wittgenstein Jr is slightly more conventional than the trilogy—following a plot that mirrors the months of the school year and containing a greater variety of characters—it contains all of the hallmarks that made the previous books so pleasurable. Instead of long, digressive talks between dueling interlocutors, Wittgenstein Jr presents readers with a charismatic main character, the group of privileged, surly students he wins over, and even a bit of a love story, between the professor and one of those young men. Along the way, the book touches on the debauchery of youth, the transformation of higher education into career training, and the often futile lengths one man goes to in order to challenge this trend.
The Wittgenstein Jr of the title is the newest philosophy professor at Cambridge, a man who, according to at least one of his students, shares more than a few traits with the original:
He dresses like Wittgenstein, for one thing—the jacket, the open-necked shirt, the watch strap protruding from his pocket. And he behaves a bit like Wittgenstein too: his intensity—his lips are thinner than any we’ve seen; his impatience—the way he glared at Scroggins for coming in late; his visible despair.
And of course, like the real Wittgenstein, he has come to Cambridge to do fundamental work in philosophical logic.
His intensity leads him to chide his students for their “Cambridge cleverness,” which leaves them “exposed to the danger of Cambridge pride.” Oppositions such as this abound in his teaching. He finds fault not just in both cleverness and pride but in impatience and patience, clarity and obscurity, and explanation and obfuscation, among others, as well. No wonder his enrollment drops from forty-five to twelve.
His “fundamental work” is the basis of his class. Rather than providing instruction in the study of logic, he prefers to focus on “what logic means.” Though this is never made entirely clear to the students, the consequences of mistaken ideas are dire:
If the laws of logic are not followed correctly, then reason is impossible. If reason is impossible, then what is said has no validity. If what is said has no validity, then what ought to be done remains undone. If what ought to be done remains undone, morals and art are corrupted. If morals and art are corrupted, justice goes astray. If justice goes astray, chaos and evil run amuck.”
From Wittgenstein Jr’s perspective, this is exactly what has happened at Cambridge. Like the “new age” of Exodus, the third book in the Spurious trilogy, the Cambridge of this novel has created “[t]he new don—bidding for funds, exploring synergies with industry, looking for corporate sponsorship, launching spin-off companies.” Capitalism has overrun the halls of academe. Iyer clearly shows the impact such a shift has on the student experience. Near the beginning, the narrator, a student named Peters, remarks on the “[o]ld bound editions of journals in locked cabinets” inside the classroom. These musty tomes are contrary to the spirit of the university, according to the students: “Cambridge should be about us—here—in the present. Cambridge should come to us, who live in the present.” There is no need to lock away the journals; the students wouldn’t bother looking through them even if they could. Similarly, in comparing Wittgenstein Jr’s class to others, Peters wonders:
“Where is our list of key concepts? Where are our aims and objectives? Where are the learning outcomes for our lectures? Where is our virtual learning environment?”
Like the “excellent sheep” of William Deresiewicz’s recent book on the American Ivy League, Iyer’s undergraduates are incapable of dealing with uncertainty and ideas that don’t come pre-packaged for easy consumption.
Instead of this, Wittgenstein Jr. expects his students to enter into a partnership with him, not unlike the one the real Wittgenstein had with his Cambridge students, to whom he dictated The Blue Book and The Brown Book, precursors to his influential Philosophical Investigations. As the school year wears on, this group, while not achieving the solidarity of the original’s students, does realize that “we are here for him, just as he is here for us. And we are here, Wittgenstein and his men, for the sake of thought.” This understanding leads them to express their dissatisfaction with their fellow students in ways they wouldn’t have previously. They transform from a hard-partying, dance-off-hosting group into a cohesive unit that falls for “the romance of learning,” one that has “a duty to Wittgenstein. To witness. To record. To relay the Message. To watch over the gift of the Master…” And to think that they once assumed, glibly, that their teacher was merely in the midst of a nervous breakdown.
Iyer’s first pointer in “Nude in Your Hot Tub, Facing the Abyss (A Literary Manifesto After the End of Literature and Manifestos),” is to “[u]se an unliterary plainness […] The abyss needs the clear steadiness of a testimony, it needs the day-after sobriety of a witness-report to remember what went before.” This plainness is on display, to great effect, in Wittgenstein Jr. For instance, when Peters sets the scene at the beginning of Part 2, he explains:
Mulberry’s asleep behind sunglasses. Ede’s sunk so low, his head is level with the tabletop. Alexander Kirwin looks vacantly out the window. Benedict Kerwin looks vacantly out the window. Titmuss looks vacantly out the window. Guthrie looks vacantly at Wittgenstein. Chakrabarti just looks vacant. Scroggins, usually the most vacant of all: missing.
This would be merely serviceable prose if it didn’t both encapsulate the characters’ attitudes towards Wittgenstein Jr at this point in the novel, before they’ve been won-over by their teacher’s dedication, and belie, to comic effect, what is really going on in the room:
The effort of thinking. Wittgenstein stands silently in the corner of the room. He grasps his head. He shakes his head. Sweat streams from his face.
Divine help: that’s what he needs, he says. We cannot think by ourselves, no more than we can create ourselves.
Wittgenstein Jr might as well pray for divine intervention at this point, because these bored, hung-over students will be of no help to him. Like the real-life Wittgenstein, who was known to berate himself for his own stupidity in the middle of class, Wittgenstein Jr visibly suffers for his work, though this fact doesn’t impress itself upon his vacant students until much later.
At times, the syntactic simplicity of Iyers’ sentences creates a cadence all its own. In looking toward the future, Peters states,
“Cambridge is only an interlude, we agree. Cambridge is a corridor, a passageway. And we’ve milled about together, waiting for life to begin.
“After Cambridge, we’ll fall out of contact. After Cambridge, we’ll unfriend each other on Facebook. After Cambridge, we’ll forget each other’s
names. Each other’s voices. After Cambridge, we’ll begin to confuse each other with someone else.
“We fell into step with one another for a while, that is all. We passed the time…”
Peters, who earlier claimed he and his classmates weren’t ready for life outside of university, repeats the phrase “After Cambridge” four times here, emphasizing his desire to move on. This group of students “fell into step with one another” just as the sentences in this passage fall into step, each one building on the previous one even as it fails to depart from it stylistically. In less sure hands, this kind of repetition would feel clunky, redundant; in Iyer’s, it achieves a collective effect that is far greater than the sum of its parts. Here, readers see Wittgenstein Jr’s effect on his students. While they may not understand philosophy any better than they did at the outset of the class, Wittgenstein Jr’s battle with Cambridge and its dons has pushed them out of their cushy lives at university and begun preparing them for the future.
Iyer’s manifesto also insists that writers should “[r]esist closed forms, resist masterpieces. The urge to create masterpieces is a kind of necrophilia. Writing must be open on all sides so that the draft of real life—gloomy, farcical life—can pass through it, rifling its pages.” This is certainly the case in Wittgenstein Jr. One of the novel’s greatest pleasures lies in the variety of ways “the draft of real life” intrudes on the narrative. Readers looking for a portrait of contemporary college life will find much to latch onto in the exploits—at times juvenile, at others, unexpectedly moving—of Peters and his crew.
Similarly, the book, like the Spurious trilogy, contains such a comprehensive critique of the inner workings of universities that it should be required reading for all college administrators. While the Wittgenstein of the title should not scare away those unfamiliar with the thinker’s work, the novel is one of the rare books that places thought—philosophic or otherwise—at the forefront. Watching Wittgenstein Jr wrestle with his fundamental work in philosophical logic is just as satisfying as following the most plot-driven storyline. And while this may not add up to a masterpiece, it certainly exceeds the “drawing [of] stupid cartoons” Iyer refers to in his manifesto. I can’t remember the last time I was as reluctant to leave behind a group of characters.
At one point, Peters insists that “[s]omething is going on that will not be repeated.” Readers can only hope that he’s speaking for himself and not his author. Wittgenstein Jr serves as an excellent introduction to Iyer’s oeuvre, dealing as it does with his preoccupations with philosophy and the fate of the university, at the same time that it pushes his work into a world more firmly-rooted in the realism he decries in “Nude in Your Hot Tub, Facing the Abyss.” Cambridge may have “destroyed” Wittgenstein Jr, but dramatizing its ills has invigorated his creator.
Matthew Duffus is a fiction writer and book reviewer who lives in North Carolina.