October 3, 2014
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Lars Iyer once again proves himself a master of literary satire with the brilliant college novel Wittgenstein Jr.
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
The summary of Wittgenstein Jr given by Chad of Word Bookstores is hard to better:
Ah, Cambridge University, where the brightest posh boys wrestle with the philosophy of logic, try to kiss girls, and ingest copious drugs — all this, of course, while also trying to impress the most enigmatic of professors, the one they'd follow to the ends of the earth: Wittgenstein Jr. This is Dead Poet's Society face-down in a shallow pool of beer. This is John Williams's Stoner on horse tranquilizers.
My novel is indeed set at Cambridge University, which is called, by some, the greatest university in the world. And it is about a bunch of well-heeled lads drinking and drug-taking and trying to make an impression on their enigmatic teacher, who they nickname Wittgenstein Jr, after the famous philosopher. How I'd like to say of my novel what Nietzsche said of The Gay Science: 'Almost no phrase wherein profundity and playfulness do not tenderly hold hands'!
Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes, 'I've Had the Time of My Life'
I often have my characters sing and dance. Lars, in Dogma, is supposed to be a terrifically bad dancer – so bad, his friend W. worries, that he'll cause a cosmic catastrophe. By contrast, the dancers of Wittgenstein Jr are rather proficient. Doyle and Mulberry participate in a dance contest to resolve their simmering hostility and sexual tension. Doyle, the postmodernist, has a little bit of everything in his performance, including John Travolta's famous set-pieces in Saturday Night Fever. Mulberry, a posthumous dancer, seeks to recapitulating central moments of dance history. The rivals receive the same number of points from their judges, and are forced into a final dance-off which they perform together. The song: 'I've Had the Time of My Life' from Dirty Dancing. They rise to the occasion magnificently, Mulberry taking Patrick Swayze's role, and Doyle, that of Jennifer Grey. The judges are moved. A tie is declared. All present form a conga-line, and Doyle and Mulberry begin a passionate love-affair.
Mozart, Divertimento for violin, viola and cello, K563
Beethoven, Seventh Symphony
Brahms, Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115 (1891)
The real Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) came from a musical family, which venerated the music of the classical tradition of Vienna. Several of his immediate family were extremely accomplished performers. The Wittgensteins were wealthy enough to arrange performances in their home. Their tastes were conservative: Schubert, Mozart and Beethoven were their idols; later composers like Mahler and Wagner were incomprehensible to them. Only Brahms, a frequent visitor to the 'Palais Wittgenstein' was exempted from a suspicion of all modern music.
The sense of a vanished culture haunts Wittgenstein Jr, too. He feels acutely the loss of reverence for old European high culture among both students and dons. Mass consumer society has triumphed. New technologies of communication and reproduction mean that music, literature and art are accessible as never before. But when Wittgenstein Jr's students turn to the past, it is only to parodically restage the deaths of famous philosophers, or to deflate the pathos of the real Wittgenstein's life by staging it as a musical. Poor Wittgenstein Jr is stranded! It is true that his students come to a dim idea of the dignity of philosophy, of the philosophical life, but they have no sense of the cultural world of which German-language philosophy was once a part, let alone of the glory of the composers the real Wittgenstein called 'the true sons of God'.
Why might this matter? Hypertrophied reverence for the classics, for the titans of the arts, along with the distinction between 'high' and 'low' cultural forms, seems laughably antiquated. We are now accustomed to using the word 'culture' in an anthropological rather than evaluative sense – and rightly so, we might think. There are many cultures, after all, and to insist on the importance of a Viennese or German high culture might seem narrow-minded. But there is a danger that a full-blooded cultural relativism might lead us to hypostatise our own cultural perspective – to separate ourselves too easily from the visions of our predecessors. We might accede all too readily to simple-minded assumptions about progress and common-sense. When, in Wittgenstein Jr, I place references to Wittgenstein or Nietzsche on the same page as the names Derek Zoolander or Voldemort, this is not intended as postmodern hijinks. I want these great names to serve as indices for a lost cultural life, for a more vibrant social and political imagination.
Samuel Sebastian Wesley, Ascribe unto the Lord
Schubert's Piano Quintet in A major (the 'Trout' Quintet)
Schubert's An die Musik, ('To Music')
Wittgenstein's Jr's relationship to music is not without ambiguity. Towards the end of the novel, we find Wittgenstein Jr, with his young friend Peters, standing rapt, listening to the sound of choristers practising for a Christmas concert in King's College Chapel. He feels overwhelmed by the music, moved beyond measure. The choristers' rehearsal (I imagine them singing Samuel Sebastian Wesley's Ascribe unto the Lord) seems demonic to him. He notes that Plato, like many other philosophers, distrusted music precisely because of its power to overwhelm. And Wittgenstein Jr links this capacity to erotic desire, to physical passion. It is quite clear in this scene that my character fears his own body and its unruly desires.
A second scene. On the very last pages of the novel, Wittgenstein Jr recalls how he and his brother used to love watching his mother's performances with the quintet she led (I imagine them performing Schubert's Trout Quintet). He contrasts the temperate chamber music of the quintet with the climax-driven music of the typical concerto. Wittgenstein Jr admires the way the performers played together, harmoniously, their voices intertwined. The quintet seems to exemplify a way of living together, a kind of ethics. This scene echoes with an earlier one, where Wittgenstein Jr recalls attending matins at a monastery near his family home. Once again, my character admires collective musical practice, where voices are joined in unison. He also recalls the songs he and his now deceased brother used to play together (I imagine them playing Schubert's 'To Music'), and the warm relationship they enjoyed with their music-making parents. These recollections give us a sense of Wittgenstein Jr's loneliness – the normal human relationships that he has sacrificed for his philosophical studies. And we also learn of what my character wants: friendship, love, society.
Towards the end of the novel, my Wittgenstein allows himself to dream of the utopia that will open when he finishes his philosophical labours – when, as is his lofty ambition, he brings to term the entire tradition of Western philosophy. Only after philosophy, he suggests, will true love and friendship be possible. Only when he has brought philosophy to a fitting conclusion will he, and others, have a chance for real fulfilment.
What kind of fulfilment does Wittgenstein Jr have in mind? There is a clue in something he says he admires in his mother's quintet: a sense of imminence and urgency in their playing. He marks the contrast between what Adorno has called the 'pure doing' of chamber music – the way it invites us to focus on the moment and on the potentiality of the moment – and the drive to climax and closure we find in concertos. It is in 'pure doing' that I think my Wittgenstein discovers something of his utopia, in a manner similar to the way in which religious Jews believe there to be something of the messianic age in every Sabbath. Living 'after philosophy' means suspending goal-directed labours. It means laying down your tools, your tasks and projects. It means giving yourself over to 'pure doing', in company, in friendship, whatever that might bring.
Lars Iyer and Wittgenstein Jr links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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