Book of the Month Club: Wittgenstein Jr by Lars Iyer

Ludwig Wittgenstein, photographed by Ben Richards in 1947. Ludwig Wittgenstein, photographed by Ben Richards in 1947.

“Then it came to him, Wittgenstein says: his task, the task he would take on for his brother’s sake, and in his brother’s memory. He would construct a kind of logical mausoleum for his brother. What is his Logik but a logical tomb for his brother? And the logical resurrection of his brother?

He means to enter the region in which his brother lost his mind, and to come back out, Wittgenstein says.”

Amidst drinking, doing drugs, having various trysts, and wondering about what the future might bring, a band of friends attend Wittgenstein’s lectures. It isn’t Wittgenstein, of course. Or, a correction: it isn’t a fictionalised version of Wittgenstein. Rather, it’s the name Peters and his privileged Cambridge frat boys give him; we never find out his real name. “Wittgenstein” is a real Wittgenstein wannabe, right down to the idea that he will revolutionise logic in some way.

For the most part, the book is a very well written. The narrative juxtaposes pseudo-Wittgenstein with Peters and his friends’ slang and chattering about school. There is a hint of a story, but those looking for a three-act plot should steer elsewhere: it really is the daily meanderings of Peters and his friends through a school year attending lectures and doing various activities. But looking past it, while Peters is the narrator, as the title suggests, the book really is about the man the boys call Wittgenstein, and his relationship with each of the students. Iyer carefully reveals the man’s backstory, similar to the actual Wittgenstein’s  and yet not his, and paints the portrait of a sad and yet absurdly comical man who strives to imitate Wittgenstein at every level.

Nitpicks: The italics. There seems to be several italics per paragraph. While the actual Wittgenstein seems quite fond of his italics, Iyer exaggerates it to the point of ridiculousness. The joke is made, but reading italics upon italics every paragraph seems ever so tedious after two hundred pages. Certain bits of dialogue between Peters and his friends are written as a script dialogue, which was unconventional and slightly jarring. The book seems to stretch itself with filler of the boys’ frat parties, sports events, and sexual awakenings. It seems, at its base, an “inspiring professor” story and a love letter to philosophy. However, the latter story is ruined by an actual “romance” that, while is understandable symbolically, comes out of nowhere and unnecessary to complete the character arc of either character. The book might have actually worked better as a shorter piece of fiction, maybe a short story.

For an even better read, read Wittgenstein. Actual Wittgenstein. Culture and Value is a good place to start for non-philosophers; the book is a collection of thoughts along his career. The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is the standard of early Wittgenstinian thought, whereas Philosophical Investigations is a posthumous book of Wittgenstein’s later thought.