Sunday, September 5, 2010

"Wittgenstein's Mistress" -- A Writer's Read

Sadly, David Markson died earlier this year. I'd never heard of him before then. Damn you, experimental fiction writers of relative obscurity! I don't know what learning of his work while he was still alive would have done for me, but I feel shortchanged just the same. O, bother!

Nevertheless, probably the best way we can honor writers who've passed is by continuing to read them, which is -- happy to say -- what I've done. You should to, specifically with reference to "Wittgenstein's Mistress." It's the kind of story that surprises you, I think. It's one that might require a certain amount of diligence, but continuing to read pays off fairly quickly. For my own reading, the narrator's philosophical ruminations and mode of conveying these terms took an interval to get acclimated to, but when I was fully acclimated -- O, boy! Things really started to engross, engrossingly, like they had never engrossed before. (An aside: I'm going through a "using the word 'engross' with liberality" phase, presently. It shall hopefully pass soon.)

Actually, truth be told, I'm feeling a bit daunted by reviewing this book, if only for the fact that it has such a rabid and devoted following of writers and scholars, all of whom know it and its author better than I ever will. I've heard Markson described as a writer's writer. After "Wittgenstein's Mistress" that seems like an apt description. So hopefully I have something meaningful to contribute to their profound and heady discussion already in progress, but if I fail in this endeavor just know my heart was in the right place, Markson devotees. -- Can't blame me for trying, is all I'm saying!

Here I try:

As it happens Ludwig Wittgenstein is one of my favorite philosophers, so finding my anchor of relevance within the rapid tides of narrator Kate's sporadic stream of consciousness was rather straightforwardly achieved (or as straightforwardly as a work of this nature allows). This is not necessary, but having an understanding of some-to-many facets of the arts in the western world for the last several hundred years might avail you in your reading of "Wittgenstein." There are plenty of references to most all of the western arts, I mean. (William Gaddis is one oft-cited writer whom it happens I know of and very much enjoy his work, which also helped.)

If there was a single defining characteristic of "Wittgenstein's Mistress," it seemed to me to be the notion of the certain, preordained ephemerality of our signs and symbols, or more precisely: of the sum total of humankind's cultural achievements (and in that regard humanity's achievements of every sort). (An aside: I have to believe existentialists like Camus would have found much to like about "Wittgenstein's Mistress.")

The fact that Kate has little-to-no knowledge (or at least fails to express it if she does) of eastern culture and other places beyond her westernized outlook seems to me to even more pronouncedly support this idea of emphemerality. Without the east and other places' having their own individual "keepers of the flame" or some such, a "Kate" of their own, they have already faded to dust, which is ultimately the destiny of that knowledge which Kate has accrued and shares freely and not always with certitude, what's more.

There's the stink of inevitable death all over Kate's narrative, as it unavoidably must be. Whatever she really is, what we know is that Kate is the end in and of herself. Kate evidences this slow decay of ideas somewhat abruptly when she discovers a cache of books in the basement of the house in which she has taken up residence. The rub is that the books are written almost exclusively in German, of which she has paltry little knowledge. It thus renders them, in this place she resides, superfluous and useless, or in one word: extinct.

Kaputt. Sehr tot. Kein "Sein und Zeit." Kein Heidegger.

But here, let me briefly describe the plot of a novel that hardly relies on its plot (which is why I've saved adumbrating it till now). "Wittgenstein's Mistress" follows narrator Kate who alleges to be the last person left on the planet (and very possibly the last animate being, all told). I might have said the last person "alive" but there doesn't seem to be anyone, living or dead, around. No corpses. Empty automobiles and other human machinery, yes. However, that is it. She's alone, all alone. The mystery of everyone's disappearance (explainable with any of a great number of possibilities) appears to be somewhat beside the point, when judged from the vantage Kate's unique perspective affords.

What's true is the single, stand alone quality of the Absurd. Kate and the world exist for as long as that is the case. Neither will exist when one or the other is ended. That said, there is of course an important missing component to this, the other individuals with whom meaning might have once been shared. They are entirely absent, thus removing a key element of the relevance of culture: that it belongs not to one but many, and can be transmitted to even more who will learn it by birthright or wish to understand it in whatever way they will as outsiders.

Kate, for her own part, becomes the perfect trumpeter of this altered state of humankind, considering these "new" circumstances of existence, as she notes herself, hardly differ from her life previously. She was alone then and remains alone in less abstract terms now. She seems both melancholic and unfazed by this turn, also, moving more towards the former as the narrative reaches its close, as if she laments not taking fuller advantage of some sort of intimate relationship while that was still a possibility. But knowing she cannot, there is a grimness to her accepting the inevitability of her fate. Subsumed by the greater end of the civilization.

If Kate is mad, as she asserts she once was, this is entirely beside the point, too. She may well be mad, but the world of which she describes is the only world she knows, and likewise, it's the only reality we're given as readers. And everything she puts forth might as well be the case. . .


  1. Sounds like a conceptually intriquing yet difficult book. Did you read Wallace's nod:

    ""W's M" is a dramatic rendering of what it would be like to live in the sort of universe described by logical atomism. A monologue, formally very odd, mostly one-sentence 6s. Tied with "Omensetter's Luck" for the all-time best U.S. book about human loneliness. These wouldn't constitute ringing endorsements if they didn't happen all to be simultaneously true -- i.e., that a novel this abstract and erudite and avant-garde that could also be so moving makes "Wittgenstein's Mistress" pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country."

  2. I hadn't previously encountered this gloss by Wallace but I think it's very good, very accurate.