Fuzzy logic: Ludwig Wittgenstein
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Perish the thought: trying to impress the philosophy tutor

Besides the sad realisation that after grad­uating these people will never realise the potential their teacher sees in them, there is deep melancholy beneath their fantasies about “Wittgenstein Jr” praising them.

Wittgenstein Jr 
Lars Iyer
Melville House, 192pp, £12.99

Lars Iyer’s fourth novel carries an epigraph from Ludwig Wittgenstein, impelling thinkers to “descend into primeval chaos and feel at home there”, but its core theme lies in the lament of its central character, a lecturer at Cambridge, that: “The philosopher’s misfortune is to be a part of nothing. To stand apart from everything.”

That standing apart is usually not through choice – this is an observation of a man torn down by external forces. “Wittgenstein Jr” is a nickname given to him by a group of students; his “aura” makes him an object of fascination, especially for the narrator, Peters, one of the few working-class northerners to attend Cambridge in an age when “raves are full of posh girls . . . and the DJs have double-barrelled names” and undergraduates are expected to do no more than “fill the classrooms, and pay the fees”.

His gang consists of 12 young men who veer between re-enacting Socrates’s execution and drawing cocks on their notebooks, including Ede, the self-loathing Old Etonian who feels doomed to squander his family’s heritage; tedious Titmuss, enlightened after his Indian gap year; Scroggins, who nearly dies after a ketamine overdose; and the athletic Kirwin twins, whose tragedy “is that there’s no war for them to die in”.

Besides the sad realisation that after grad­uating these people will never be together again or realise the potential that their teacher seems to see in them, there is deep melancholy beneath their fantasies about Wittgenstein Jr praising them or asking them to help him solve problems. As in Iyer’s Spurious trilogy, about two philosophy lecturers called W and Lars Iyer, the humour derives from the gulf between the protagonists’ world-changing ambitions and their awareness of their own impotence as anyone who does not fit in with the neoliberal vision of universities as sources of income is driven out.

Fighting indifference above all, Wittgenstein Jr is unashamed about reaching only a small audience, preferring to focus on those who might alter things rather than being led by numbers. As in Spurious, a crucial problem is that the ostensible comforts of 21st-century western society make the stakes feel so low. “You could say he’s risked nothing more than paper cuts,” reflects Peters, but Wittgenstein Jr wants thought to “tear out our throats” and his fulmi­nations against “English lawn” dons who facilitate the monetisation of Cambridge provide the angriest, funniest monologues. His biting dismissal of them as the “intellectual equivalents of suburban cul-de-sacs and out-of-town retail parks” has an economy familiar from the brutal put-downs that characterised Iyer’s trilogy.

A lecturer at Newcastle University who has also written two books on the French philosopher Maurice Blanchot, Iyer has never been to Cambridge and the university functions as an academic everyplace. However, the specifics of the real Wittgenstein’s life do feed into that of Iyer’s fictional hero: three of Wittgenstein’s brothers killed themselves and the suicide of Wittgenstein Jr’s brother as a 20-year-old Oxford student provides this novel’s great tragedy.

Like Iyer’s previous works, this book is written in short chapters, most just a couple of pages long, and anything longer stands out. The most striking passage is an expressionistic account of Wittgenstein Jr’s brother going to Norway to strive towards the totally logical language that Wittgenstein demanded in the Tractatus and returning with such knowledge of the human condition that he cannot survive.

Deftly, Iyer changes pace and scene, moving to a dance-off between two students before cutting back to “the look of relief on his brother’s face, when they cut down his body”. Iyer’s use of italics gives not just emphasis but rhythm to his most emotive scenes and the device is employed to heartbreaking effect in these scenes. With four words – “Philosophy invaded his brother” – this tragedy becomes that of anyone who values thought for its own sake, however burdensome such insight can be.

Eventually, the boredom, alienation and despair give over to warmer emotions as Wittgenstein Jr and Peters grow closer, but ultimately it seems as though madness is the only option left. The lecturer tells his class, “Philosophy stands between us and salvation,” knowing that the stakes remain as high as ever. The dons and the powers above them know this; hence their insistence that the subject is useless and their denial of access to it for those likely to question their monetarist ideology. There will be a time “after philosophy” but it remains to be seen whether that is because it is no longer needed or no longer allowed. Right now, Iyer’s novel insists, utopian thought remains an urgent necessity. 

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?

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Okja begins as a buddy flick – but ends up in the slaughterhouse

Korean director Bong Joon-ho works with British co-writer Jon Ronson on this tale of genetically engineered superpigs.

If Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio responsible for Spirited Away, were to branch out into live action, the result might be something like Okja – at least in part. It’s the tale of a genetically engineered breed of waddling grey superpigs, not so much porcine in appearance as manatee or hippo-like, created by the twitchy, imperious CEO of a multinational corporation, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), in the hope of solving a global food shortage.

Each of these docile beasts is despatched to a different corner of the planet to be reared. The enormous Okja grows up in rural Korea, gambolling in the fields with her young companion, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun).

Okja is no dumb animal – she saves the child from falling off a cliff by using a rope to improvise a sophisticated pulley system. She should be working in crisis management, not ending up on someone’s fork. But eventually the day comes when Mirando’s representatives arrive to claim their several thousand pounds of flesh.

The early scenes borrow the leisurely rhythms of Mija’s idyllic days with Okja; she snoozes on the beast’s vast belly, softly rising and falling in time with her pet’s breathing. Yet once she follows the kidnapped creature to Seoul, where they are taken in by a band of animal rights activists, the film lurches from one style to another. What begins as a tranquil buddy movie finishes up in the blood-soaked slaughterhouse where Okja is due to end her days; it’s as though My Neighbour Totoro had morphed into Fast Food Nation.

The film’s Korean director, Bong Joon-ho, and his British co-writer, Jon Ronson, present viewers with a transaction that reflects the ethical and ecological implications of the story.

We can have our heart-warming tale of the bond between human and animal, but only if we accept also those parts of the plot which demystify that relationship and take it to its industrialised extreme. It’s a bold strategy that has worked before for this film-maker – in The Host and Snowpiercer he used the genres of horror and action, respectively, to smuggle through political and environmental messages.

But Okja risks falling between two stools. Young children who might enjoy the first third (and can see Okja on Netflix the very day it is released in cinemas, easily bypassing the 15 certificate) would be alternately bored and traumatised by the rest of it. Conversely, adults will have an awful lot of whimsy to wade through before reaching the meat of the movie.

There are compensations. The film is sumptuously designed by Lee Ha-jun and Kevin Thompson, and crisply shot by Darius Khondji. Swinton, who played the villain in Snowpiercer as a grotesque northern schoolmarm with oversized gnashers, puts in the distorting dentures once again in Okja as both Lucy and her sister, Nancy, with whom she is locked in an irresolvable rivalry. Lucy is bleached (pink skin, platinum hair, white robes) to the point of invisibility, whereas Nancy is a harrumphing Penelope Keith type in a quilted jacket.

Other capable actors are undone by the unreasonable demands placed on them. Shirley Henderson, as Lucy’s assistant, has been directed to talk at comically high speed for want of any actual funny dialogue, and Paul Dano would be more plausible as a winsome animal rights activist if he weren’t leading the Animal Liberation Front. The group’s portrayal here as a group of touchy-feely flower children (“This is a non-lethal chokehold, OK?” one member says, as he disables a security guard) is laughable.

But no one comes out of Okja quite as badly as Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of Dr Johnny Wilcox, a wacky nature TV presenter who is like Steve Irwin trapped in Timmy Mallett’s body. The film is at its most wrong-headed in scenes where Dr Johnny, left alone with Okja, first forces her to mate with another superpig (a pointless episode that serves no plot function) and then tortures her.

It’s that risky trade-off again: enjoy the knockabout chase sequence in which Okja fires turds at her adversaries, and later you must endure the darker side of the same narrative. It will be a forgiving audience indeed that doesn’t recoil from this approach, which is too much stick and not enough carrot.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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