Eighty Dollars and No Sense

WittgensteinWittgenstein's Mistress

Part 1 of 5

Pages Read: 1-50, David Foster Wallace afterword, and 1-50, again

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

This is one of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s most famous dictums; it’s also, without a doubt, his most easily understood, with just about everything else he wrote falling under the category of “WTF.” (Case in point: “An expression presupposes the forms of all propositions in which it can occur. It is the common characteristic mark of a class of propositions.” Duh.)

The aforementioned piece of Wittgensteinian self-help is perhaps something I should have considered before asking for a forum in which to write about my attempt to read David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress and try to say something meaningful about it. As to why I wanted to do this, I can only say that like many writers, I have always looked to books–fiction, non-fiction, travelogues, medical texts, whatever, really–to decode the world for me. It seemed that perhaps, and I’m fully aware that this sounds insane, if deconstructed and diagrammed painstakingly enough, certain texts actually could be stripped away to reveal guidelines to reality, perfectly self-contained and achingly clear. (The “magical book” trope, i.e. The NeverEnding Story, is, therefore, the closest I’ve ever come to understanding fantasy as a genre.) This same impulse to shred, re-assemble and endlessly comment on a single text until one finds the singular answer is nowhere more apparent than in the Jewish rabbinical tradition; David Foster Wallace–rebbe to many young writers, myself included, as well as a lover of Wittgensteinian philosophy and Markson’s novel–famously shared that same urge to cite his citations. So put a different way: beneath every good novel lies a complete and unique Shulchan Oruch. And if it kills me, I’m going to figure out what Markson is trying to tell me about life, if, in fact, it’s anything at all.

But there’s a problem: as mentioned above, I understand exactly one sentence written by Wittgenstein, and that sentence is basically commanding me to shut up. Enter Nemira Gasiunas. A twenty-eight-year-old philosophy PhD candidate at Columbia, Nemira is currently completing her doctoral thesis on “perception and its structure, particularly the idea that properties like color are perceived in a graph-like form which is quite different from how they are represented in thought and language.” Easy peasy, right? Nemira has a very sage-sounding British accent and, luckily for me, a high tolerance for stupid questions. She also has a tattoo of Wittgenstein’s duckrabbit puzzle on her right forearm, just to give you a picture (literally) of her connection to this man. She claims to be just as befuddled as I am when we meet to discuss the first fifty pages, but I cannot say that I believe her, exactly. To that end, Nemira and I decided to do something so radical it rivals Wittgenstein’s chutzpah when he asserted that there are “no philosophical problems”: we read the afterword first. The afterword is, in true DFW-style, touching, meaty and profound, but for the sake of returning to the text at hand, let’s take a few key points and move on from there:

  1. Wallace’s thesis is that Markson’s novel gives us a view of what it would be like to live in a “Tractatus-ized world,” that is, a world that is an actual representation of the philosophical tenets of Wittgenstein’s first major work. Those tenets in the notoriously difficult Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (its full name) add up to basically this: the world is composed of facts. Period.
  2. Wallace advocates thinking of Markson’s narrative technique as “deep-nonsense.”

Okay, so the second isn’t exactly the most important point of the afterword, but I wanted to mention it because Wallace here shows us a handy technique for reading things that might appear inscrutable, at first. It’s a method I first learned my junior year in college, when I took a graduate school class called Radical Poetries, in which we studied Susan Howe’s Singularities and Craig Dworkin’s work and some other really avant-garde stuff that more resembled Cy Twombly’s text drawings than odes or sonnets. Speaking of not-speaking-of what one doesn’t know, I probably said a grand total of two words that entire semester. In any case, one of the students in the class told us that her friend’s six-year-old child adored Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, and that perhaps that was the key to reading Tender Buttons: just do it like a kid would! So whenever I find myself faced with a text that seems like it might fly above my head, I imagine I am six (it’s not too difficult.) This is what I had intuitively done with the beginning of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, and it’s what I would likely have continued to do if not for Wallace and my study partner.

Nemira points out first that the style of Wittgenstein’s Mistress is very much like the style of Wittgenstein’s published works, especially the Tractatus. This is to say that both Markson’s novel and the Tractatus are almost aphoristic in style (perhaps the Tao-ish format makes me think there is instruction embedded within?) and both have a tone of “determined humility,” as Nemira puts it. “There’s a lot of self questioning and self denial, “ she says. “Wittgenstein talks about language as deceptive a lot.” Markson’s narrator, too, often doubles-back to nitpick, clarify, or completely dismiss something she wrote moments earlier.

“What do you get out of it?” she asks.

Only at this point do I realize that I’ve completely neglected any literary considerations–like, errr, the plot–in an attempt to view the novel through the lens of Wittgensteinian philosophy. Before I opened to page one, I had already decided that the story was in fact not a story, but a lesson, a cheeky fictive attempt on the part of Markson to get us all to join the cult of Wittgenstein. But what if lesson number one is “don’t ignore the content and pay undue attention to the form?”

There is a woman living in a house on a beach, probably on Cape Cod somewhere. For ten years, she’s been alone on the earth; for a while, she looked for other people, and though she might have once seen a cat, by the time she gets to the beach, she’s basically resigned herself to eternal solitude. She had a child, years ago, but he’s been dead for ages. Her only companions are her thoughts, most of which–and here we circle back to Wittgenstein for a minute–are just cultural factoids she must have picked up during her life in society. “Once, Turner had himself lashed to the mast of a ship for several hours, during a furious storm, so that he could later paint the storm.” “All I can remember about the painting of Penelope is that there is a cat in it, however, playing with a ball of yarn.” “And now I have the name T. E. Shaw in my head. But it is one more of those flitting identities that I cannot catch at all.” So the question is now: why these facts?

We run out of time, but before she leaves, Nemira reminds me that I owe her money for cat-sitting some months earlier. “Eighty dollars,” I write on the check, “and no sense.”

Kelsey Osgood is a freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn. She has contributed to The New Republic, The New Yorker, Salon and Vice. Her first book, How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia, is out in paperback.

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