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?

PHOTO: URSZULA SOLTYS
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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist