'The conscience of the world': Lars Iyer on Wittgenstein Jr

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Lars Iyer launches his novel Wittgenstein Jr at the Bookshop on Thursday 28 August, in conversation with Ray Monk. David Lea asked him a few questions about his book.

In describing your books to customers, I find it difficult to convey how, along with everything else they are, they are also extremely funny. I have the same difficulty with Thomas Bernhard. How explicit an influence has he been on your work? And would you like to mention any other influences?

I’m glad you found the novels funny! Thomas Bernhard is a kind of figurehead for many authors, I think. I’m reminded of what Henry Rollins said of Mark E Smith in a documentary about The Fall:

He really is that guy you really hoped you could be. If you were in a band, you really don’t want to care what people think, but you do. And you really want to crank out a record every nine months, but you can’t. And you’d love to keep surprising people and baffling your critics by every third album turning out your best music.

Bernhard’s reclusiveness from the literary scene, his intransigence, the barbed acceptance speeches he gave for literary prizes, make him an exemplar. He just doesn’t care what the literary world thinks. At the same time, he writes and writes, one masterpiece following on the heels of another.

I think Bernhard has become too familiar as the turncoat of Austria, as the scourge of fascism and Catholicism, as the enemy of the middle class, and so on. He’s become a little too easy to accommodate as a pricker of pomposity and an exposer of hypocrisy. Bernhard is more than a satirist. Satire relies on certainties and norms, on the sureness of values, for its effect. So thinking of Bernhard merely as a satirist allows us to contain his work, to make sense of his wildness. It allows us to suppose that he is one of us, on our side …

There is something devilish in Bernhard. ‘I will not serve’: that’s what his novels say. This, for me, is what is marked about his comedy. Black comedy, goes the definition, refuses to treat tragic materials tragically. It makes us laugh at tragic things. But I would go further, and say that black comedy refuses to treat comic materials solely comically, or satirical materials solely satirically. Black comedy flourishes in a time when certainty and norms are in question; when there is a lack of confidence about values. It’s wild. It’s not a safety valve. It goes too far. It is indiscriminate. One minute we might nod our heads at its targets, the next minute we might find ourselves the butt of the joke. Above all, black comedy permits no comic catharsis – no return to what is good and valuable about the world...

Did Bernhard influence me? Roger Blin: 'I know Antonin Artaud only through his trajectory in me which is endless'. I would say the same of Bernhard …

I think I’ve heard that, although Wittgenstein Jr is set in Cambridge, you’ve never actually been there. If true, was that a conscious decision, a way to preserve novelistic freedom, or a simple accident of geography?

Oh, you don’t need to go to Cambridge to know Cambridge. High-tech start-up companies, spun out from universities; new business parks and science parks; new suburbs and exurbs; new buildings going up; huge infrastructure projects to upgrade roads and railway connections: Cambridge is the poster-town for the New Economy! There is a bit of Cambridge in every town in the UK…

Why did I set the novel in Cambridge? The Wittgenstein of my novel is a version of the real Wittgenstein, who lived and worked in Cambridge for most of his life. Of course Cambridge was a very different town back then. It still had something of ‘Brideshead’ about it. It was sleepy, a lovely backwater. But the real Wittgenstein was horrified by it! ‘Everything about the place repels me. The stiffness, the artificiality, the self-satisfaction of the people. The university atmosphere nauseates me,’ he wrote on one occasion. ‘Cambridge grows more and more hateful to me,’ he wrote on another. When he heard that the prestigious Joint Session of academic philosophers was to be held at Cambridge, he said, ‘Very well, to me it is just as if you had told me that there will be bubonic plague in Cambridge next summer.’ Wittgenstein eventually resigned from the university, and pursued an itinerant life until his death in 1951.

The real Wittgenstein was horrified by the ease of the life of the Cambridge dons. My Wittgenstein dislikes the dons around him for a very different reason. They are a product of the new academic world, of the developments in higher education over the last thirty years. The collapse of post-war deference to elite universities; the abolition of tenure; the increase in student numbers; the decline of government subsidies; the adoption of techniques from American corporate business, including audits, performance indicators, and management mechanisms; the introduction of more vocational and professional degrees, MBAs and so on; the disappearance of old virtues of institutional loyalty and ‘wisdom’, of trust between colleagues; the appearance of new virtues: proactivity in ever-changing conditions (opportunism), a new ‘realism’ about the conditions of work (cynicism), compulsory modes of positivity, friendliness and approachability, the constant demand to represent yourself on various media platforms… My Wittgenstein’s Cambridge is staffed by opportunistic and cynical dons frantically chasing the money. The philosophy dons, in all of this, are worst of all, he complains.

In the novel, there are some lovely contrapuntal moments contrasting the austere, demanding philosophy of ‘Wittgenstein’ with the hedonistic, chemical-fuelled lifestyle of his students. Yet at the end of the novel ‘Wittgenstein’ is saved from despair, at least provisionally, by physical love, not by philosophy. Am I right in detecting in the novel’s structure an opposition between ‘thought’ and ‘real life’, and a scepticism on your part about the capacity of thought, and hence of philosophy, to significantly enrich real life?

For myself, I think philosophy has a tremendous role in enriching ‘real life’. The examined life really is worth living! In many ways, my Wittgenstein would agree, although he is very suspicious of academic philosophers.

‘We have philosophy professors, but no philosophers’: Thoreau said that. My Wittgenstein admires philosophers like Socrates and Augustine who embodied what they taught. For him, philosophy is primarily formative – it is about transforming our vision of the world, about a kind of spiritual progress. Rather than aim solely at the acquisition of knowledge, my Wittgenstein aims to show his students that there is such a thing as philosophical wisdom, of the kind exemplified in both the life and thought of the thinkers he admires. This, he realises, puts him in tension with not only his all-too-hedonistic students, but also with his colleagues at Cambridge, who seem far more interested in winning research grants and networking than sensitising themselves to the claim of philosophy.

My Wittgenstein eventually wants to leave behind philosophy altogether, speaking of a place and time ‘after philosophy’ – a utopia in which it would be possible simply to live. He comes to think that it is with his students, and in companionship with one student in particular, that he will find this kind of rest, this ‘Sabbath’. Alas, that dream comes to an unpleasant end (although it doesn’t do so in the early version of the novel that you’ve read…). At the same time, I think Wittgenstein knows that his utopia, his Sabbath, is only a kind of ideal to orientate his philosophical practice.

There is in your work, particularly in the Trilogy, an undertow of disgust at the modern world, as well as much accurate, and very amusing, skewering of its absurdities. And yet the Trilogy began life as a blog, and you are yourself a skilful user of the new social media platforms such as Twitter. Is this a conscious attempt to pick and choose the aspects of modernity that have value, or a resigned acceptance of modernity as unavoidable? Or neither?

Disgust - that’s what drove me to blogging. Climate change, and the reluctance of governments to do anything about it; growing inequality, both in the UK and globally; the normalisation of opportunism and cynicism, and so on and so forth: where else could I express my horror at what the world was becoming? Conventional media? I’m no journalist. And I wasn’t, then, a fiction-writer. Blogging gave me a form – or rather, it gave me a chance to find a form. Blogging can be a kind of laboratory. Perhaps something the same is possible with Twitter…

Finally, ‘Wittgenstein’ in the novel is clearly not Ludwig Wittgenstein, but his real name is never given, and he has clear points of biographical similarity with the real Wittgenstein. Did you have a model for ‘Wittgenstein’ other than his namesake, and to what extent do you think that thinking about Wittgenstein Jr the novel might also be a way of thinking about Ludwig Wittgenstein the philosopher?

My Wittgenstein is a version of the real one. He’s my take on what a Wittgenstein of the present might be like.

Like the real Wittgenstein, my Wittgenstein is from a German-speaking country, from a Catholic family who converted from Judaism back in the Vienna of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Like the real Wittgenstein, my Wittgenstein is a philosopher, with a strong interest in logic. Like the real Wittgenstein, he works at Cambridge University, and is greatly suspicious of academics. Like the real Wittgenstein, his family is musical, intellectual and cultured. Like the real Wittgenstein, he is homosexual, but is ambivalent about romantic relationships, fearing that they will take him from his work.

The real Wittgenstein feared madness (‘If in life we are surrounded by death, so too in the health of our intellect we are surrounded by madness’); so does mine. The real Wittgenstein thought of philosophy not only as a vitally important intellectual discipline, but as a kind of self-formation (‘working in philosophy […] is really more a working on oneself’); so does mine. The real Wittgenstein, although not conventionally religious, drew great comfort from a ‘non-realist’ kind of Christianity, in which ideas of consciousness of sin, despair, salvation, etc. are useful ways of describing real events in human life; the same goes for my Wittgenstein.

Above all, both Wittgensteins are possessed of a tremendous sense of vocation, and measure themselves severely by their perceived achievement in their fields. They have the same all-consuming intensity, which can make them difficult to be around. But they have charisma, too – they attract acolytes, who can sometimes be mere imitators. And both Wittgensteins have a sense that the solution to philosophical problems is somehow obvious (‘How hard I find it to see what is right in front of my eyes’), and will give them much needed rest (‘Thoughts that are at peace, that’s what someone who philosophises yearns for’).

For both Wittgensteins, philosophy is an attempt to live. For both, the world, as they find it, is not enough. Both are martyrs of a sort, suffering not only for themselves, but for others – for all human beings. They are the conscience of the world, in a certain sense. That’s what I find admirable…

Lars Iyer launches Wittgenstein Jr at the Bookshop on Thursday 28 August at 7 p.m.. Read more or book tickets.