25 Points: Wittgenstein’s Mistress

wittgensteinmistressWittgenstein’s Mistress
by David Markson
Dalkey Archive Press, 1988
248 pages / $16.95 buy from Dalkey








1. David Markson published Wittgenstein’s Mistress in 1988, 37 years after the death of Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose name you may recognize from the novel’s title, or from his being an eminent 20th century philosopher.

2. How is it that one earns the designation philosopher, when one could just as accurately be called a philosophy professor (see also: Martin Heidegger, Immanuel Kant, et al.; technically Nietzsche taught philology)? It may have something to do with one’s work eventually being taught by other philosophy professors.

3. Or with someone someday writing a piece of experimental fiction indebted to one’s philosophy. Perhaps it helps if the title mentions one by name.

4. Possibly it is not unhelpful if one’s mentor is someone else people call philosopher (e.g., Bertrand Russell).

5. Ludwig Wittgenstein is not a character in Wittgenstein’s Mistress.

6. Maybe that’s not right. Possibly Ludwig Wittgenstein is a character in Wittgenstein’s Mistress. As are Rembrandt and Da Vinci and William Gaddis and Helen of Troy and a scratching cat that is in fact (“in fact”) only out of sight duct tape in the wind.

7. Unquestionably, a character in Wittgenstein’s Mistress is a woman named Kate, who had a son once, who is nearing menopause, who was once an artist, who knows a lot about art and art history and philosophy and literature, much of it, she claims, gleaned from footnotes. More questionably, Kate is the only person in the world.

8. Unquestionably, she believes herself to be.

9. One of the novel’s central conceits, if it is not too reductive to talk that way, is that whether or not Kate is “actually” alone in the world is pretty beside the point. Philosophers call this problem solipsism, while the rest of us call it loneliness.

10. The novel’s own text, in the context of the novel, is the artifact of Kate’s time (of course) alone at a typewriter. Ostensibly Kate’s aloneness makes the text necessarily therapeutic, rather than communicative, since there is no one in her world with whom she could communicate. Yet here the text is—in our world—as a novel, and here we are—the readers—reading, receiving it.

11. And yet Kate does concern herself with making some kind of sense: clarifying points, connecting streams of thought, “putting things well.” Is this for her or for us? Is there a distinction?

12. To read Wittgenstein’s Mistress is thus to become gradually entangled in Kate’s solipsism.

13. The novel is spider web-like: so patterned and intricate that the parts, though gossamer, form a resilient whole.

14. A D Jameson compiled an index for Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which he published at Big Other and then reposted here this summer. This is not only a testament to Jameson’s dedication and a godsend to anyone looking to write about a novel whose structure seems almost designed to thwart academic circumscription, but also a helpful illustration of the range of Kate’s ramblings, as well as their circularity.

15. The index demonstrates how Kate’s isolation becomes the occasion for her dwelling on historical minutiae and on the metaphysics of minutiae historical and present.

16. There is some biography, too, both of Kate’s life now alone, and of before. In the hands of many writers, these bits would be the novel’s core: the reader would traverse the landscape of loneliness through the juxtaposition of then-and-now, perhaps by the unnerving synonymy of the two. But Markson makes these moments seem incidental, almost superfluous. Clearly much more is at stake for Kate in her reconstructions of the lives of Penelope and Clytemnestra, her speculations on whether Rembrandt and Spinoza might have met in line at the pharmacy, her linguistic and metaphysical quandaries about where the house she has burned down is, than in her recollections of her husband, her lovers, her son, who is buried in Mexico, whose death catalyzed all this.

17. I’m wondering: is it in this choice, to emphasize Kate’s historical anecdotes and lay philosophizing, that she becomes most singular or most generalized? Is this the procession of an archetypal Thinking Person, or a portrait of a distinct Kate? Or both? One reading: the form (a web of trivia and speculation) holds for the Thinking Person, but the content is distinctly Kate.

18. Anyway. Let me posit: Wittgenstein’s Mistress is a metaphysical novel.

19. This granted, what is the aim of a metaphysical novel, and how is it distinct from the aim of a metaphysical treatise? Put another way: how is the purpose of Wittgenstein’s Mistress different from that of Wittgenstein’s own Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus?

20. I suspect it has something to do with what Descartes is trying to do in his Meditations on First Philosophy—surely a treatise, but something of a memoir, with fictive aspects—when he presents his metaphysical convictions not in the form of Aristotelian syllogisms, as the Scholastics did, but rather as the progressing thought of a meditating ‘I’.

21. All of which is to say: Surely it has something to do with the lived experience of encountering metaphysics, by which I mean the lived experience of being in the world thinking about the world, by which I mean being human.

22. Well, that seems preposterously pretentious, to equate metaphysical inquiry with being human, as if all those who go their lives without considering being qua being are less human. That isn’t what I mean. I mean—and I think Wittgenstein’s Mistress bears this out far better than the Meditations, in which Descartes (or the narrating Meditator) sits in a warm room and doubts things—that maybe encountering metaphysics need not consist in anything formal or academic. Maybe, though they help point to the novel’s depth, the moments in Wittgenstein’s Mistress when Kate quotes Pascal or Heidegger or Wittgenstein, or thinks about if things in a painting are, are not the only or the most “metaphysical” moments. Because much of the novel is not about solipsism as posited, but solipsism as felt.

23. Which brings us back to loneliness. In an interview in the summer 1993 issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction, David Foster Wallace, a champion of Wittgenstein’s Mistress and author of the clever, astute afterword in the current edition, said this: “I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of ‘generalization’ of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside.”

24. Wittgenstein’s Mistress succeeds as a piece of “serious fiction” as here defined by DFW, i.e., it undermines solipsism.

24a. (Is this going to be too clever?)

24b. Therein the kicker:

25. Solipsism undermines solipsism; a portrait of loneliness leaves us less alone.

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  1. A D Jameson

      Thanks for linking to the index! I’m glad to hear it’s been useful. I had a real blast making it.

      Wittgenstein’s MIstress is one of the best novels of the 20th Century, hands down. I love it so much, it led me to attend Illinois State, and work for a while for Dalkey.

  2. CyborgJanitor

      Her name is Kate.

  3. Daniel Goldman

      Not Karen.

  4. alan

      There’s a story that Bertrand Russell once made the point at a public lecture that no one actually espouses solipsism, only to receive a letter from a woman in attendance saying she herself was a solipsist and was surprised to learn there were no others.

  5. Mike Kleine

      Very good article on Wittgenstein’s Mistress. It’s been ~4 hours and I’m still reading up on David Markson and Zeno’s paradoxes. Fascinating stuff. Thanks Nathan!

  6. Don

      My favorite reading of ‘Wittgenstein’s Mistress’ is to read it with the assumption that the narrator is 100% reliable and accurate, that everything is as she describes. That is, what if we read it not as a metaphysical or philosophical novel but as a story about a woman who somehow does find herself in a world without any other living creatures?

  7. deadgod

      12. & 24.-25. The fact of language is a condition for the impossibility of solipsism’s premise. When thinking the word “solipsism”, one is engaged with human presence, with an effective history, beyond oneself.

      Doubting that other people are materially real is not practical; I think it’s a false, sentimental skepticism.

      But supposing in language, in some particular language, that one’s linguistic mediation is or could be accomplished “alone”, is to contradict the conditions for the possibility of that linguistic mediation.

      It could be a constructive paradox, an occasion for thought – like saying ‘This statement is false.’ But as a commitment, ‘I am a solipsist.’ is not even incoherent.

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