Obstructive Fictions #1: Wittgenstein's Mistress

David Markson's Cartesian nightmare.

David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress (1988) is the loneliest of American novels. It is lonely in its premise (the last woman on earth meditates on language, history, and culture), lonely in its publication journey (Markson’s manuscript was famously rejected fifty-four times), lonely in its execution (a monologue of obsessive consciousness), and lonely-making in its ultimate effect upon the reader. Kate, the aforementioned woman, lives on an empty beach — no apocalyptic event is offered — where she composes a daily record of memories and loosely associated facts. The document doubles as a rumination on the inadequacy of language. Slipped significations form the phantom scaffolding of a comedy, something like “Who’s on Second” as told by a depressive metaphysician. But despite its irreverence, Wittgenstein’s Mistress hews ever more closely to philosophical terror. It presents a state of ultimate solipsism, a lean, Cartesian nightmare in which the world has fallen away into language-habits, echoes, and ghosts.

This all sounds very dire — and it assuredly is — though Kate’s is a witty and charming narrative presence. Since finding herself alone on earth, she’s lived in a loft in SoHo, driven through Siberia, sailed to Byzantium, camped out in the Met and the Uffizi, and searched for a cat in the Colosseum. Whether or not any of this actually happened is unclear. (She admits to suffering through a period of insanity, which she calls “time out of mind.”) We know little about her past. She once cared for an ill mother. Her son, who may be named Simon, died young. Simon’s father may be named Adam. (Names are sometimes swapped, or changed entirely, over the course of the novel.) She was once a painter, and her monologue is clotted with anecdotes concerning artists, composers, writers, and poets. (A complete index, compiled by A.D. Jameson, can be found here.) These persistent references aren’t pedantic, or at least not terribly so. (Kate admits when she’s “showing off.”) Rather, they seem a last, desperate attempt at connection, a sucking at the marrow of facts for their nutritive value:

Even if I have no idea why this reminds me that Brahms’s friends were frequently embarrassed because prostitutes would call hello to him as they passed.

Or, for heaven’s sake, that Gaugin was once arrested for urinating in public.

Or that Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman often used to nod to each other while walking the streets in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War.

Presumably this last will at least make it seem less improbable that people like El Greco and Spinoza did exactly the same thing, at any rate.

If hardly in Washington, D.C.

Cut off from every form of relatedness — familial, societal, cultural, historical — Kate populates her loneliness with trivia. The dozens of episodes she recounts comprise a failed attempt at intimacy within an otherwise annihilated world. What are we to make of the fact that Dürer died in a Dutch swamp, or that Wittgenstein carried sugar in his pockets to give to horses, or that Artemisia Gentileschi was raped at seventeen? The particulars of human life, as relayed through these fragments — its absurdity, and sweetness, and tragedy — echo flatly over the empty beach. Without consciousness to receive it, information becomes terminal. The economy of Kate’s language, then, is closely related to its precarity as an instrument of meaning. To say even a single thing is to risk exposing herself to the untenability of her situation.

We learn that Kate spent her first years alone searching for others survivors. “Was it really some other person I was so anxious to discover, when I did all of that looking,” she writes, “or was it only my own solitude that I could not abide?” Kate’s aloneness is an extreme metaphor. Her daily recording is less about documentation than a shoring up of ontological insecurity. In a very real sense, she writes to prove that she exists. But the suspicion that her project may be a flawed one never leaves her. With every sentence, she is further impaled upon her own radical skepticism.

“Somebody is living on this beach,” perhaps the most iconic Kate-ism, is itself a microcosm of the novel’s permanent state of uncertainty. It is an example of Marksonian compression, a six word statement of seeming fact which, for the reader who has spent any time with the novel, will be read like a series of questions. (Is Kate still a “somebody”? Can this “somebody” still be said to be “living”? Is there still such a thing as a “beach” on which this “somebody” might “live”?) The novel trains us to be skeptical of precisely that which seems most apparent. In this way, we become hopelessly entangled in Kate’s solipsism. Her epistemological doubt becomes our own. In a 1990 interview with Joseph Tabbi, Markson elaborated on the narrative usefulness of a reader’s suspicion:

Suddenly, there it was, that opening of the woman “claiming” she was alone but nothing in the text to verify it, and improbable to the reader—opening things up for all sorts of infinitely more subtle questions of reality than I would have been able to deal with the other way.

Wittgenstein’s Mistress is the most frictive of the American stream of consciousness novels. If it approximates the fluidity of thought, it remains primarily interested in what snags in the silk of the mind. Kate’s memories often serve as sticky philosophical quandaries, as when she recalls a poster that was once hanging upon the wall of a certain room in one of her beach houses: “Where was the poster when it was on the wall in my head but not on the wall in the other house? Where was my house, when all I was seeing was smoke but was thinking, there is my house? A certain amount of this is almost beginning to worry me, to tell the truth.” Meaning threatens to drift free of utterance entirely. Kate inevitably devalues her perceptions, which have been rubbed away by obsessive and often fruitless analyses. The varnish of reality is slowly abraded.

For all of its ontic anxiety, Kate’s writing is also an ongoing record of prosaic life: clothing (soccer jerseys, wrap-around denim skirts), food (garden salads), housing (museums and bungalows), chores (primarily laundry), weather (mellow heat, or snow leading down to the shore). Bodily functions assert themselves nearly as often as the bloodless mind. Kate repeatedly goes out to the dunes to urinate. She stains her undergarments with menses. She masturbates. (In this instance, she does not share what she thinks about.) Kate’s natural cycles are a further dimension of the novel’s loneliness. The waste products of her mind — digested cultural ephemera — are produced at the same rate as those of her body. Her inconsistent periods, too, indicate the onset of menopause. (She wagers she’s roughly 50.) Further barrenness approaches.

There are several unrelated instances in the novel where someone is rebuffed while attempting to gain access to a home. This seems to me significant. Some are comic, as when Kate relates how Wittgenstein, in the throes of diarrhea, was turned away from a Cambridge apartment by A.E. Housman. Others are more ambiguous. Near the novel’s outset, Kate remembers how she once saw a castle in La Mancha to which she couldn’t seem to draw any closer. She eventually comes to a realization: “The explanation being that the castle was built on a hill, and that the road went in a flat circle around the bottom of the hill that the castle was built on. Very likely one could have driven around that castle eternally, never actually arriving at it.” Kate is forever circling an unreachable fastness. Language, her last hope for shelter, has collapsed with her still inside. Each referential “connection” she makes fails in its purpose. There is finally nothing to connect, and no need for a connector. The last woman, having no other option, is compelled — or damned — to pretend: “To the castle, a sign must have said.”

Markson’s influence is difficult to detect in much recent American fiction. This is surprising, given the number of writers who admire him: Kurt Vonnegut, Ann Beattie, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, to name only a few. (Wallace’s debut, The Broom of the System (1987), is also haunted by Wittgenstein, though it was published a year earlier than WM.) He is perhaps latent in autofiction’s inscription of both the work and the life within the text at hand, particularly his later, gaunter novels. The critic Frederic Jameson has written, for instance, of Karl Ove Knausgård’s fiction of “itemisation.” It is meant pejoratively, though Markson’s own lists — his endless, death-fixated facts — still possess the power to surprise and devastate. In its freshness, its provocation, its fabulous humor, its nay-saying, and its ingenious and highly original technique, Wittgenstein’s Mistress is one of the greatest experimental novels an American has yet written.