Those who know do not tell,
Those who tell do not know.
George Santayana, reading Moby Dick: In spite of much skipping, I have got stuck in the middle.
David Markson, This Is Not A Novel
We’re hooked on David Markson. Specifically on his novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress. (WM). Think in the Morning discovered David Markson though his brilliant study of Malcolm Lowry’s Under The Volcano. Neither Lowry nor Markson are for the casual reader yet both are accessible to anyone who is willing to put in a little time. Even a casual reading without tracing all the hidden meanings can be enjoyable. It was for us on our initial dive. David Foster Wallace (DFW) wrote the definitive review of WM. It’s included as an afterword in the newer printings of the novel. This is what Wallace has to say:
Mr. Markson has in this book succeeded already on all the really important levels of fictional conviction. He has fleshed the abstract sketches of Wittgensteinian doctrine into the concrete theater of human loneliness. In so doing he’s captured far better than pseudobiography what made Wittgenstein a tragic figure & a victim of the very diffracted modernity he helped inaugurate. Markson has written an erudite, breathtakingly cerebral novel whose prose is crystal & whose voice rivets & whose conclusion defies you not to cry. Plus he’s also, in a way it’d seem for all the world he doesn’t know, produced a powerfully critical meditation on loneliness’s relation to language itself.
David Foster Wallace, The Empty Plenum
Ludwig Wittgenstein was an abstruse philosopher you may or may not have read, whose philosophy you may not understand even if you have read him. What Wittgenstein wanted to show was “what we can say at all can be said clearly.” He was a homosexual so he probably didn’t have a mistress in the sense of a concubine. Some think Markson’s title was meant as a joke but we don’t think so. Mistress can also be defined as “a woman in a position of authority or control,” the mistress of the house for example. Kate, the protagonist and only character in Markson’s novel, is in a sense the keeper of Wittgenstein’s philosophical house. She struggles to make herself clear and to understand what Wittgenstein meant by “the world is everything that is the case.”
The world is everything that is the case.
I have no idea what I mean by the sentence I have just typed, by the way.
Kate, Wittgenstein’s Mistress
Almost everything Kate types consists of facts you might expect to hear on a TV show like Jeopardy. So many facts that, as Wallace says, “the novel’s diffracted system of allusions to everything from antiquity to Astroturf are a bitch to trace out.” Roger that.
David Markson was an inveterate card shuffler. He kept notes on index cards. Facts like: Guy de Maupassant ate his lunch every day at the Eiffel Tower so that he didn’t have to look at the Eiffel Tower when he ate his lunch. Or: Pascal refused to sit in a chair without a chair on either side of him so as not to fall into space. Or: Joseph Mallord William Turner once had himself lashed to the mast of a ship for several hours, during a furious storm, so that he could later paint the storm. Or: Rembrandt’s pupils used to paint gold coins on the floor of his studio and make them look so real that Rembrandt would stoop to pick them up. On and on. Markson was an avid collector of facts.
According to Wittgenstein’s first book (The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus): “The world is everything that is the case” and “What is the case, the fact, is the existence of atomic facts.” Markson puts together a collage of atomic facts from his index cards. He creates Kate, the only character in his novel, who lives alone without even a cat for company. In a futile attempt to understand her situation with only the facts to draw on Kate shows the real tragedy of Wittgenstein’s world. In the afterward DFW says:
The basic argument here is that Mr. Markson, by drawing on a definitive atomistic metaphysics and transfiguring it into art, has achieved something like the definitive anti-melodrama. He has made facts sad.
With WM Markson invented a unique style that, if you love it as we do, takes your breath away. We can’t help but think of a quote about Richard Brautigan we posted in a previous blog.
“The smartest thing anyone has ever written about Richard Brautigan, probably the smartest thing that ever will be written about him, appeared first in a San Francisco Sunday Examiner & Chronicle review, and lately reigns as top blurb on the blurb-page of the Houghton Mifflin omnibus editions of his books: ‘There is nothing like Richard Brautigan anywhere. Perhaps, when we are very old, people will write ‘Brautigans,’ just as we now write novels. This man has invented a genre, a whole new shot, a thing needed, delightful, and right.’”
In the same way, perhaps people will write ‘Marksons’. David Markson did. He published three follow up novels: This Is Not A Novel, Vanishing Point, and The Last Novel in a similar style.
How do we determine a fact in Wittgenstein’s Tractatusized world? This question is explored in A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, a novel by Janna Levin. The quote below is of a fictional conversation between the mathematician Kurt Godel and the philosopher Moritz Schlick at a meeting of the Vienna Circle, a group of thinkers formed to discuss scientific language and methodology.
[Godel]: “How do you recognize a fact of the world?”
Moritz [Schlick] laughs, but not rudely, and nods, which loosens his hair only marginally from its proper place before he stops himself, slightly sorry for his reaction as he takes in Kurt’s serious expression. “It is a fair question,” he confesses. “How do I verify a fact of the world?” Such a simple question. He cannot even answer this simple question. Despite his proclamations, Moritz knows something is wrong. No matter how disciplined he is in his adherence to logic, he cannot make sense of a method to verify facts of the world. He comes to ever narrowing definitions that magically take him farther from clarity. Spirals of rational thinking thread him closer to understanding only to unravel disappointingly far afield. As Moritz reaches for his coffee his motion is very slow, and it seems so even to him, the perspective telescopic. His fingers surround the cup and feel the heat. He pulls the cup to his face and sees the dark liquid. “How do I know this cup exists? I don’t,” he admits to himself. “I don’t.”
Being honest he can be sure only he sees. He can be sure only he touches. He watches Olga pull on a mammoth cigar. She has a calm about her, always at ease. The smoke drifts in curly plumes sifting through her lashes. She doesn’t seem to mind and even tends to hold the burning cinder vertically and uncomfortably close to her eyes. Her hair is collected loosely at the nape of her neck, a rumpled frame for her big and broad broken eyes.
She cannot see the cigar. What does it mean for her to say there is a cigar between her fingers? The meaning of the statement is that she feels the tobacco-stuffed wrapping. She tastes the juice and smoke. She senses it. Does it exist? That is not a meaningful question.
But what really arrests Moritz, what keeps his fingers in a frozen clutch around the cup, coffee suspended near his chin, is this question: Does Olga exist? He hangs there for what seems like a very long while. The conversation stalls, suspended along with the coffee.
“Yes, Moritz. I’m here.”
She reaches over and hooks his thumb with her forefinger. The rest of her fingers scramble over to clasp his hand. But all Moritz concedes is that he can feel what he has learned to describe as pressure on what he believes to be his hand.
The facts and only the facts lead to loneliness, depression, and solipsism. Yet, in some strange way reading the novel makes you feel less lonely, less depressed, less solipsistic. Maybe. According to DFW:
Are facts—genuine existents—intrinsic to the Exterior? admitting of countenance only via the frailties of sense-data & induction? Or, way worse, are they not perhaps perversely deductive, products of the very head that countenances them as Exterior facts & as such genuinely ontic? This latter possibility—if internalized, really believed—is a track that makes stops at skepticism & then solipsism before heading straight into insanity.
It’s nearly impossible to describe this novel without quoting long passages from it. Let’s start at the beginning to get a feel for the book. Here is how the book begins with Kate, the last living creature on earth or so she thinks, typing out her thoughts in stream of consciousness form.
IN THE BEGINNING, sometimes I left messages in the street.
Somebody is living in the Louvre, certain of the messages would say. Or in the National Gallery.
Naturally they could only say that when I was in Paris or in London. Somebody is living in the Metropolitan Museum, being what they would say when I was still in New York.
Nobody came, of course. Eventually I stopped leaving the messages.
To tell the truth, perhaps I left only three or four messages altogether.
I have no idea how long ago it was when I was doing that. If I were forced to guess, I believe I would guess ten years.
Possibly it was several years longer ago than that, however.
And of course I was quite out of my mind for a certain period too, back then.
I do not know for how long a period, but for a certain period.
Time out of mind. Which is a phrase I suspect I may have never properly understood, now that I happen to use it.
Time out of mind meaning mad, or time out of mind meaning simply forgotten?
But in either case there was little question about that madness. As when I drove that time to that obscure corner of Turkey, for instance, to visit at the site of ancient Troy.
And for some reason wished especially to look at the river there, that I had read about as well, flowing past the citadel to the sea.
I have forgotten the name of the river, which was actually a muddy stream.
And at any rate I do not mean to the sea, but to the Dardanelles, which used to be called the Hellespont.
The name of Troy had been changed too, naturally. Hisarlik, being what it was changed to.
In many ways my visit was a disappointment, the site being astonishingly small. Like little more than your ordinary city block and a few stories in height, practically.
Still, from the ruins one could see Mount Ida, all of that distance away.
Even in late spring, there was snow on the mountain.
Somebody went there to die, I believe, in one of the old stories. Paris, perhaps.
I mean the Paris who had been Helen’s lover, naturally. And who was wounded quite near the end of that war.
As a matter of fact it was Helen I mostly thought about, when I was at Troy.
I was about to add that I even dreamed, for a while, that the Greek ships were beached there still.
Well, it would have been a harmless enough thing to dream.
On it goes. Listing fact after fact, Kate circling back to correct herself and occasionally speaking of things other than facts, of her feelings for instance.
There are two stories told in the novel. The primary story is about a woman, Kate, who lives in a house on a beach on the coast. At one time she was an artist living in New York. She is or believes she is the last living creature on earth. We are not told how this happens. Several years ago she spent time looking for other people. She thinks she may have seen a cat in the Roman Coliseum. She thinks she hears a cat scratching outside the window of her house. It’s actually a piece of duck tape that has become loose and blows in the wind but she so desperately wants it to be a real cat that she gives it a name. She imagines embers floating up from a fire to be seagulls in the sky. Her fate is eternal solitude. She has only her thoughts, mostly facts she picked up before everyone disappeared, her “baggage” as she says. The question for a pedantic reader, the “bitch to trace out” per DFW, is why Markson chooses his particular facts and not others.
The backstory comes in bits and pieces. Kate once lived in Oaxaca (Mexico) with her husband, Adam, and son, Simon, (the names change throughout the story). She was unfaithful. Her relationship fell apart. Her son died. This “baggage” brings her feelings into her account.
And at least as I started to say I certainly did finally understand what it was that had made me feel depressed.
When all I had been doing was lying in the sun after the rain had stopped and thinking about cats, or so I believed.
Although to tell the truth I do not very frequently allow such things to happen.
By which I hardly mean thinking about cats.
What I am talking about is thinking about things from as long ago as before I was alone, obviously.
Even if one can hardly control one’s thinking in such a way as not to allow anything that happened more than ten years ago to come into it.
Certainly I have thought about Lucien before, for instance.
Or about certain of my lovers, like Simon or Vincent or Ludwig or Terry.
Or even about as early as the seventh grade when I almost wanted to cry because I knew, knew, that Odysseus’s dog could certainly catch that tortoise.
Well, and doubtless I have thought about the time when my mother was asleep and I did not wish to wake her and so wrote I love you with my lipstick on that same tiny mirror, as well.
Having intended to sign it Artemisia, except that I ran out of room.
You will never know how much it has meant to me that you are an artist, Helen, my mother having said, the very afternoon before.
But the truth of the matter being that I did not intend to repeat one bit of that just now, actually.
In fact when I finally did solve why I had been feeling depressed what I told myself was that if necessary I would simply never again allow myself to put down any of such things at all.
As if in a manner of speaking one were no longer able to speak one solitary word of Long Ago.
A lack of precision in what she types bothers Kate throughout the novel. It is when she notices this and attempts to correct it that she is acting in the role of Wittgenstein’s mistress.
I am not particularly happy over this new habit of saying things that I have very little idea what I mean by saying, to tell the truth …
I still notice the burned house, mornings, when I walk along the beach. Well, obviously I do not notice the house. What I notice is what remains of the house …
Obviously, it was not the storm itself that Turner intended to paint. What he intended to paint was a representation of the storm. One’s language is frequently imprecise in that manner, I have discovered …
Now and again one happens to hear certain music in one’s head, however. When I say heard, I am saying so only in a manner of speaking, of course.
While she types her account of life inside her solitary world, Kate fleshes out what it’s like to live in a Tractatusized world. Her loneliness is exemplified in some of the eccentric actions she takes.
I am certain that I once attempted to keep a makeshift accounting, possibly of the months but surely at least of the seasons. But I do not even remember any longer when it was that I understood I had already long since lost track.
I am fairly certain that I had not yet gone to Europe when I wore my last wristwatches, if that is at all relevant.
I doubt that wearing thirteen or fourteen wristwatches, along the length of one’s forearm, is especially relevant.
Well, and for a period several gold pocket watches also, on a cord around my neck.
Actually somebody wore an alarm clock that very way in a novel I once read.
I would say it was in The Recognitions, by William Gaddis, except that I do not believe I have ever read The Recognitions by William Gaddis.
In any case I am more likely thinking of Taddeo Gaddi, even though Taddeo Gaddi was a painter and not a writer.
What did I do with those watches, I wonder?
Well. But each of them with an alarm of its own, as well.
What I normally did was set the alarms so that each one of the watches would ring at a different hour.
I did that for some time. All day long, every hour, a different watch would ring.
In the evening I would set all fourteen of them all over again. Except that in that case I would set them to ring simultaneously.
This was before I had learned to depend upon the dawn, doubtless.
They rarely did that anyway. Ring simultaneously, I mean.
Even when that appeared to be the case, one learned to wait for those which had not started ringing yet.
When I say they rang, I mean that they buzzed, more truthfully.
In a town called Corinth, in Mississippi, which is not near the Mississippi River, parking a car on a small bridge I divested myself of the watches.
I believe Corinth. I would need an atlas, to reassure myself.
Actually, there is an atlas in this house. Somewhere. Perhaps in one of the rooms I have stopped going into.
For an entire day I sat in the car and waited for each watch to ring in its turn.
And then dropped each as it did so into the water. Whatever body of water that may have been.
One or two did not ring. What I did was reset them and sleep in the car and then get rid of those when they rang for morning.
Still ringing like all of the rest when I discarded them.
To tell the truth, I did that in a town somewhere in Pennsylvania. The name of the town was Lititz, Pennsylvania.
All of this was some time before I rolled the tennis balls down the Spanish Steps in Rome, by the way.
I make the connection between getting rid of the watches and rolling the tennis balls down the Spanish Steps because I am positive that getting rid of the watches also occurred before I saw the cat, which was likewise in Rome.
Well, often I did unpremeditated things in those days, as I have said. Once, from the top of the Spanish Steps in Rome, for no reason except that I had come upon a Volkswagen van full of them, I let hundreds and hundreds of tennis balls bounce one after the other to the bottom, every which way possible.
Watching how they struck tiny irregularities or worn spots in the stone, and changed direction, or guessing how far across the piazza down below each one of them would go.
Several of them bounced catty-corner and struck the house where John Keats died, in fact.
There is a plaque on the house, stating that John Keats died there.
The plaque is in Italian, naturally. Giovanni Keats, it calls him.
Actually I did read, at times, over the years. Especially when I was mad, I read a good deal.
One winter, I read almost all of the ancient Greek plays. As a matter of fact I read them out loud. And throughout, finishing the reverse side of each page would tear it from the book and drop it into my fire.
Aeschylus and Sophocles and Euripides, I turned into smoke.
In a manner of speaking, one might think of it that way.
In a different manner of speaking, one might declare it was Helen and Clytemnestra and Electra, whom I did that with.
For the life of me I have no idea why I did that.
If I had understood why I was doing that, doubtless I would not have been mad.
Had I not been mad, doubtless I would not have done it at all.
I am less than positive that those last two sentences make any particular sense.
In either case neither do I remember where it was, exactly, that I read the plays and burned the pages.
Possibly it was after I had gone to ancient Troy, which may have been what put me in mind of the plays to begin with.
Or would reading the plays have been what put me in mind of going to ancient Troy?
It did run on, that madness.
Kate’s sentences are sparse. Only one or two sentences make a paragraph. Each paragraph a different thought. A different atomic fact. In modern day technology it’s like writing using only emojis with maybe a word or two where needed. It’s a world we are headed toward where communication is on social media rather than in person. A world of lonely, solitary voyeurs. A world that greatly disturbed DFW and even Wittgenstein himself who near the end of his life wrote a second book, Philosophical Investigations, renouncing the first.
… add to the novel’s credits a darkly pyrotechnic achievement in the animation of intellectual history—the way WM so completely demonstrates how one of the smartest & most important contributors to modern thought could have been such a personally miserable son of a bitch—and the book becomes, if you’re the impotent unlucky sort whose beliefs inform his stomach’s daily state, a special kind of great book, literally profound, and probably destined, in its & time’s fullness, to be a whispering classic.
David Foster Wallace, The Empty Plenum
The meaning of life, i.e. the meaning of the world, we can call God.
And connect with this the comparison of God to a father.
To pray is to think about the meaning of life.
To believe in God means to understand the meaning of life.
To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter.
To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning [ … ]
When my conscience upsets my equilibrium, then I am not in agreement with Something. But what is this? Is it the world?
Certainly it is correct to say: Conscience is the voice of God.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Notebooks 1915
Personally, we are in disagreement with Wittgenstein on this turn around in his philosophy. We prefer the cold bleak precision of the Tractatus. We think it connects better with the real world as we see it. Of course, we could be wrong. Never the less, that is how we feel. On this we side with Albert Camus whose The Myth of Sisyphus continues to inspire us to face each day.
I’m filled with a desire for clarity and meaning within a world and condition that offers neither.
One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
DFW writes that the conclusion of Wittgenstein’s Mistress defies you not to cry. Steven Moore writes a much shorter (and easier to read) afterword in the earlier printed editions of Markson’s novel. I quote here from the final paragraph from his afterword.
… Nearly two months have passed since she broke off typing the book we are reading, and some sense of balance and renewal seems to have come to her in the meantime. After the first snow falls, she is reminded of “that old lost nine-foot canvas of mine, with its opaque four white coats of gesso./Making it almost as if one could have newly painted the entire world one’s self, and in any manner one wished.” She seems to be doing just that at the novel’s end, building fires on the beach after sunset and making believe they are Greek watchfires at Troy, starting over again where it all began. Like the woman in the hypothetical novel Kate toys with writing (a metafictional version of Wittgenstein’s Mistress itself, obviously), Kate has “gotten more accustomed to a world without any people in it than she ever could have gotten to a world without such a thing as The Descent from the Cross, by Rogier van der Weyden, … Or without the Iliad”. The throat-constricting desolation of the novel’s final lines seven pages later discourages the reader from too cheery an interpretation, but civilization seems finally to have been worth it after all. At any rate, I now couldn’t become accustomed to a world without Wittgenstein’s Mistress.
Neither could we. For us the book’s final line is a defiant fist thrust into the air like those of Tommie Smith and John Carlos in the 1968 Olympics, a revolt, a rebellion as in Camus’s The Rebel. It is a beacon of hope.
Somebody is living on this beach.
Kate, Wittgenstein’s Mistress
Some short clips might help you understand Wittgenstein’s philosophy.
Selected Reviews of Wittgenstein’s Mistress
Good one, KD
also love the song. I thought you were a Led Zepplin., dude?
Can’t a dude like more than one group?
You’re not just a dude, you are The Dude, and as a role model to us all, yes, you can “enjoy” many groups but “like” only just one.
“When people have too many choices, they make bad.” ~ Thom Browne