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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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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