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?

Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution