Lamentations typically have some object, some person or thing about which one is lamenting. But what would it be like to be in a state of lamentation without object, without point and possibly without end? What if, in the face of nihilism, one’s lamentations were nothing more than raindrops posing as tears? Or at least one might suspect they were. And what if the principal lamentation of “the philosopher” is whatever metaphysical impulsion it is that causes him to take on the form of “the philosopher”? This is the condition of “Wittgenstein Jr”, a don at Cambridge so labelled by his twelve disciple-like students.
This “Wittgenstein” models the original Wittgenstein more or less exactly (though these events are set in the nominal present), taking on many of Wittgenstein’s projects of logic and life, some of his mannerisms, and even, at one point, his Viennese ancestry and family history. His young disciples are undergraduates in their final year, all male, all in thrall to his curious personality. Ostensibly they are philosophy students but it is never clear what topic in philosophy they are studying with their “Wittgenstein”. And so, in the absence of concrete particulars, we are left with gnomic statements on the nature of philosophy itself, typically undercut immediately by counter statements. This “Wittgenstein” seems inordinately caught up in his own life drama. Whether he is waging war against philosophy itself or the perceived ill-will of the Cambridge dons. He is often transported into flights of rhetorical frenzy. And this begins to set him at odds with the real Wittgenstein, one of whose mantras might have been, “back to the rough ground”. Wittgenstein Jr is not Wittgenstein. And his pronouncements, though often seemingly gnomic, are not in themselves philosophy. So why do his students, some of whom seem intensely grounded, put up with his waffle?
Love. All twelve are in one way or another in love with their “Wittgenstein”. Indeed, love is the recurring theme of the story. In this modern Symposium, Wittgenstein Jr stands in for Socrates (when he is not overtly functioning as a Christ figure). However, the vicissitudes of the academic year, and the extra-curricular activities (drugs and alcohol) in which the students partake, bring about a natural wastage. Until, during the Christmas vacation, only one student remains, with whom “Wittgenstein” takes some solace, though without permanent effect.
In the end, the reader might wish for more of the wit and/or farce of Iyer’s three earlier novels, less ponderous though arguably just as profound. Or perhaps I’m just less well-disposed to fictional versions of Wittgenstein than might otherwise be the case. Certainly Iyer remains fascinating in his technique, his willingness to create a novel of ideas, and his daring to face down the weight of preconceptions that get shipped with any use of “Wittgenstein”, real or imagined, in literature. Intensely readable, momentarily thought-provoking, but perhaps not lastingly memorable.