February 11, 2011

The A to Z of SPURIOUS: from Mount Batten to Tohu Vavohu


Many critics have regarded Lars Iyer‘s novel Spurious as a satire about a dysfunctional relationship between failed intellectuals. And so it is. But… for those of us who have been friends with failed intellectual or who have been failed intellectuals ourselves, then it is not merely a satire, it is also delightfully familiar, perhaps even painfully real. One reviewer, after being told about the book, replied: “Several years ago, I had a flatmate who was a lonely, melancholic, and dipsomaniacal failed academic (and a Blanchot scholar, no less!) so this book may veer dangerously close to realism, for me.”

Indeed, for all its esoteric references, this novel is primarily about the sickly pleasure of those late-night conversations when you have read too Blanchot and drank too much gin. As real an experience as being a mine worker. As Iyer says:

I hope Spurious can be enjoyed by a reader entirely unfamiliar with the names and ideas mentioned in its pages. In large measure, I think, it is the way W. and Lars enthuse about a scholarly project or a specific thinker that makes the novel entertaining (if indeed it is entertaining). On the other hand, perhaps there is something to be gained from focusing in a little more depth on some of the recurring ideas, names and objects in Spurious, since they are not entirely arbitrary. That is the aim of this A to Z.

[To read other installments of the A to Z, click here.]

M is for…

Mount Batten

Outcrop of rock in Plymouth Sound, on which Mount Batten Tower, a circular artillery fort, was built. Mount Batten is a gateway to Turnchapel and other parts of the coast. Reachable from Plymouth by water taxi, it was the site of one of Lars’s moments of illumination.

Mount Edgcumbe

Country house and extensive grounds, bequeathed to the city of Plymouth by the Duke of Edgcumbe. Reachable by ferry, it is a favourite haunt of W. and Lars.

N is for …

Newcastle upon Tyne

City in the northeast of England, on the north bank of the river Tyne. Newcastle played a major role in the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century, and was a major coal mining and shipbuilding area until the 1980s. Subsequently, the city was marked by poverty and unemployment. Newcastle saw concerted regeneration in the late 1990s and 2000s.

Lars lives in Newcastle, a city he and W. greatly admire not least because it, like Plymouth, is on the periphery.


Both W. and Lars have notebooks, W. following the advice of a friend, to write about the ideas of others using black ink, and, at the back, to develop his own ideas using red ink. Lars, according to W., fills his notebook with pictures of cocks and monkey butlers.

O is for …


Only hyperbolic praise can help one’s friends survive the Stalinist control procedures imported into British academia from business. Without it, as in Stalin’s USSR, there’s always the risk that ‘somebody’s going to be shot’.


Classical Greek word meaning alas. The only word of ancient Greek that Lars learned from his studies, according to W.

P is for …


Childishness, immaturity, triviality. Defining characteristic of W.’s and Lars’s sense of humour, which they’ve always regretted.


Branch of investigation that deals with questions concerning the nature of reality and the source of values. Most of the intellectual figures W. and Lars refer to in Spurious are philosophers, and we can deduce that they are employed in some capacity to teach philosophy. It also seems evident that W.’s and Lars’s route into philosophy was through Kafka, and therefore through literature. Indeed, both W. and Lars blame their inability to philosophise on the baleful influence of literature, and wonder what they might have become if they had a background in mathematics.

As they tell Sal, W. and Lars regard as impossible coming up with their own original philosophy, presumably given their idiocy. Nevertheless, they both rise early each morning to read and write philosophy, and W. in particular thinks he might be on the brink of having a philosophical idea.


City in the southwest of England, magnificently located on the stretch of coastline called the Sound, between the mouths of the river Plym and the Tamar. The Hoe, the public space running along much of the Sound, gives a splendid view of what is the largest natural harbour in the country.

Like the equally peripheral Newcastle, Plymouth is a poor city, which condition the imminent departure of the Royal Navy will only exacerbate.

Plymouth Gin

Gin distilled at the Black Friars Distillery in Plymouth, formerly a monastery of the Dominican Order. With corporate buyouts in the 2000s, Plymouth Gin was relaunched as a brand, and its bottle redesigned. Gone, sadly, is the depiction on the inside of the label of a monastery friar, whose pictured feet, it was said, should never run dry.

Plymouth Gin is best in enjoyed with water, rather than tonic, and should be sipped from a wine glass for full appreciation of its bouquet.


W. and Lars recall a visit to Poland, which took place before the events recorded in Spurious. They journeyed from Warsaw to Wroclaw in the company of a guide, and claimed to have learnt a great deal from the steadily paced drinking of the Poles.

R is for


Locks of hair hanging in corkscrew-like curls, as worn by Orthodox Jews. W. is cultivating his ringlets, which, he claims, are particularly disliked by drivers.

Franz Rosenzweig, 1889-1929

Great German Jewish thinker, known for developing what he called the ‘new thinking’, which combines philosophy and theology. Unlike what he calls the ‘old thinking’ of previous philosophy, which placed emphasis on an abstract, atemporal attempt to grasp reality, Rosenzweig takes up the insights of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche in order to understand what is particular to individual human existence in its relation to God. In their correspondence, he and his friend Rosenstock co-develop an argument as to the significance of speech in human moral life, claiming that the moral self awakens in its address to the other person in speech.

The Star of Redemption, his masterpiece, was written in a six month burst of creativity whilst Rosenzweig was in military service during World War I. Upon his return to civilian life, Rosenzweig founded a well-known centre for Jewish adult education in Frankfurt, the Lehrhaus, which attracted Kafka, among other German-Jewish intellectuals, through its doors. Shortly afterwards, Rosenzweig was diagnosed with a progressive paralysing illness which soon saw him completely ‘locked in’. In the years that remained to him, Rosenzweig was, through a method of ‘dictation’, able to keep up a prolific correspondence and translate the Hebrew Bible in collaboration with Buber.

Eugen Rosenstock (later, Rosenstock-Huessy), 1888-1973

German born philosopher and sociologist, known to posterity chiefly as a friend and correspondent of Rosenzweig, who he influenced with his idea of ‘speech-thinking’. Rosenstock argued for the importance of speech as a responsive and creative act, claiming, in particular, that theoretical thought has thus far failed to attend to the significance of the vocative case in speech, in which the self is summoned or called by the other person. He thus replaces Descartes motto Cogito, ergo sum, I think therefore I am, which grounds the experience of the world in the thinking subject with the motto ‘Respondeo etsi mutabor’—‘I respond although I will be changed’.

As has been revealed in recently published correspondence, Rosenzweig fell in love with Rosenstock’s wife, Margit Heussy, or Gritli. This love was reciprocated with Rosenstock’s knowledge, and inspired the central notion of revelation in The Star of Redemption.

S is for …


W.’s partner and inspiration. A talented worker with glass, she has practical skills, which W. and Lars entirely lack. Sal wonders why W. and Lars haven’t developed their own philosophy, and finds their work, when presented, to be vague and boring.


Ancient language of the Indian subcontinent, with a status analogous to that of Latin or ancient Greek in Europe, being of only scholarly interest outside its use in religious liturgy. According to W., Lars tried and failed to learn Sanskrit as part of his study of Hinduism.

Schelling, F. W. J., 1775-1854

German idealist philosopher mentioned in passing in Spurious, whose unfinished Ages of the World was a particularly important influence on Rosenzweig.

Scholem, Gershom 1897-1982

Philosopher and scholar of Judaism, known for his writings on Jewish mysticism, messianism and Sabbatai Zevi. Scholem was one of several thinkers who sought to rethink the relationship to Jewish tradition in the wake of the World War I. He placed particular emphasis on the tradition of philosophical commentary on Jewish sacred texts and ideas. The story that Scholem tells in Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, which is paraphrased in Spurious, was originally from a Hasidic lesson told by Agnon.


Literally meaning to swarm, it is used in German to mean something similar to enthusiasm, exaltation or fanaticism. In a late essay, Kant characterises as Schwärmerei all attempts to access an immediate knowledge of the supersensible. For him, all such claims of direct knowledge – of ‘supernatural communication’ or ‘mystical illumination’ – entail ‘the death of all philosophy’ since the knowledge being claimed is not demonstrable to others.

Southwest, The

Region of England, encompassing the counties of Devon and Cornwall. The southwest is particularly admired for its natural beauty and warm, sunny climate.

Spinoza, Baruch, 1632-1677

Rationalist philosopher, famed for his claim that nature is an indivisible, uncaused substantial whole identical to God. For Spinoza, talk of God’s purposes, intentions, aims or goals is anthropomorphising; rather, everything which exists is brought into being with necessity by nature. In his masterpiece, the Ethics, Spinoza argues that human happiness depends upon the life of reason, as distinct from the ephemeral goods we normally pursue. Our main good, Spinoza argues, is the difficult to attain knowledge of God – of nature in its entirety. It is this knowledge which allows us to experience part of the infinite love that God/nature has for itself: in short, beatitude.


Spurious is a novel, presenting the conversations and adventures of W. and Lars had over the course of two years. It would seem that the book derives from conversations that Lars has recorded and put on his blog. Some of these conversations are fictional, W. protests: he claims not to recognise himself in everything Lars has written.

It is also a name of a weblog, on which W. and Lars were introduced.


French city on the borders of Germany, and home to the university where Levinas and Blanchot studied in the 1920s.

Syriac Book of Baruch, The

Apocryphal apocalyptic text written in the decades following the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Baruch is a scribe in the Book of Jeremiah, but is here promoted to prophet. Like Jeremiah, he is subject to various visions concerning the apocalypse and the coming of the Messiah.

T is for …

Talmud, The

A compilation of rabbinical discussions concerning the Jewish law, ethics and other topics forming the basis of religious authority in Orthodox Judaism. W. sends Lars two quotations from the Talmud, the first of which looks forward to the restoration of the Kingdom of the House of David, that is, the coming of the Messiah.

The second quotation reflects the despair that followed the Roman persecution of the Jews after the second destruction of the temple. The claim that ‘those that emit semen to no purpose delay the Messiah’ might seem a surprising one, but was directed against contemporary practices. Rather than bringing children into a corrupt world, men masturbated, or took wives too young to have children. For the rabbis, who believed that all souls are stored in heaven since the beginning of the creation, waiting only to be born, such practices only prevented the coming of the Messiah.

Béla Tarr, 1955-

Hungarian film director, whose work is characterised by a narrative slowness, bleakness of vision and apocalyptic sensibility that reflects their source material, the novels of Tarr’s close friend and collaborator, Krasznahorkai. Tarr, unlike Tarkovsky, refuses to give any sense of religious redemption in his films.

Tarr’s productions are notoriously disaster prone. He has said that his latest film, currently shooting in Budapest, will be his last. Tarr is an extraordinary interviewee, seeming to have stepped directly from one of his own films.

Playing Tarr’s films to his students comprises a great deal of W.’s teaching. He particularly admires the director for his devotion to the concrete, which is quite the opposite of W.’s and Lars’s windy enthusiasm for lofty philosophical ideas.

Andrei Tarkovsky, 1932-1986

Spurious alludes to Nostalghia, Tarkovsky’s bleakest film, which sees the madman Domenico, played by Erland Josephson, set himself on fire in a public square in Rome as a warning to humanity.


Resort in the Black Forest, close to Freiburg, where W. and Lars hire a pedallo to go out onto the lake.

Tohu vavohu

Hebrew phrase, used in the Books of Genesis and Jeremiah. It is translated in the King James Bible as ‘without form or void’ and has the general sense of chaos and disorder. This phrase can be found on the cover of Godspeed You Black Emperor!’s 1999 mini-album, Slow Riot for New Zerø Kanada.