Alone Again, Naturally

LouvreWittgenstein's Mistress

Part 2 of 5

Pages Read: 50-64, then 50-100, then 50-100 again

So, the plot: basically, our heroine Kate is the last woman––nay, living being––on earth. Or, she thinks she is, according to the summary on the back of the book. The doubt is borne of her recognition that for periods of time over the last decade, she was insane, but she doesn’t seem to think she is now, or at least she doesn’t mention it. Her speech is what I might call schizotypal, but nothing about the way she behaves––as far as a reader can tell––might qualify as crazy—that is, within the context of being the last person on earth.

It’s unclear exactly when everyone disappeared, but based on the information she releases in little bits over the course of the first one hundred pages, it seems that it just happened one day. Poof. Everyone was gone. She was living in SoHo, then in a loft, working as a painter. First she picked up and moved to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, burning paintings for warmth and coating giant canvases in gesso (is it color or the absence of color? Nemira asks) to pass the time. That whole section reads, to a relatively young person like me, who knows her idea of joyful solitude is the folly of her youth, like a grown-up version of The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Leaning your own paintings against the wall like it’s your guerrilla art fair! Racing around the big entrance hall in a wheelchair! If hell is other people, then heaven… well, you get it.

But things get desolate pretty quickly. After leaving New York City, she sets out in various cars she finds to see the great sites of the world, sleeping mainly in museums like the Louvre, wandering through the Coliseum, empty of the throngs of tourists that are certainly there right now, speeding across the flat Siberian landscape on her way to Leningrad (or is it Saint Petersburg? And if they have different names, are they in fact the same city?). Finally she lands in what I thought was Cape Cod but is actually the Hamptons, where she doesn’t bother to tell time by way of a watch anymore, and subsists mainly on whatever packaged food she guesses might still be edible after this time. She no longer bothers to pour water into the top of a toilet, instead preferring to squat in the sand dunes to take a shit. She doesn’t wear clothes often, because, well, why bother? Mostly, she writes: about Brahms, about the horrors perpetrated by the ancient Greeks, about Rembrandt’s mischievous students, who painted coins on the floor of the master’s studio and watched as he tried to pick them up. She spends big chunks of her pages arguing over the shape of a person in a painting: Is it a “person?” A shadow? Just a smidge of burnt sienna?

“If it were you, and you woke up and there was nobody left on earth, what would you dwell on?”

When I ask Nemira this question, my tone is somewhat desperate, because I have started to feel that I have stumbled upon something. Why these facts? A vast majority of the statements she writes fall into one of two categories: a) answers to highbrow Trivial Pursuit questions, or b) something that occurred over the decade that has passed since everyone disappeared, despite her intermittent insanity. (Can a memory retained during a psychotic episode be a “fact?”) This invites the question: What qualifies as a reliable “fact” in Wittgenstein’s philosophy? Must it be impersonal by definition, like Dylan Thomas’s birthday? Should the image of her dead child’s face count, or have time and memory shaped his features enough that she can never really be sure she is picturing him? Or is the “fact” of the loss of her child (alternately called “Simon” and “Adam,” so long as we’re discussing the fallibility of memory) so unbearable to consider that she instead has to busy herself with inconsequential arguments like why people never think about “The Last Supper” as a painting of a Passover Seder? (Because people forget the subjects are Jewish, she realizes eventually with relief! “As if,” Nemira says, “explanations are somehow comforting to her.”)

“Obviously the emotions and stuff aren’t going to get in there,” Nemira says,” because they’re the kinds of things ‘one can’t say anything about,’ but that still leaves a lot of facts.”

They shouldn’t get in there, Nemira perhaps means to say, but they do, despite Kate’s best efforts to avoid the unspeakable. See page 71:

Actually, I am not feeling tired . How I am feeling is not quite myself.

Well, perhaps what I am more truthfully feeling is a kind of depression. The whole thing is fairly abstract, at this point.

In any case, doubtless I was already feeling this way when I stopped typing. Doubtless my decision to stop typing had much to do with feeling this way.

Though it’s “abstract” and therefore can’t be analyzed, Kate’s melancholy nonetheless makes itself known. As a reader, this was actually a relief for me, because while in the first 50 pages I thought of her more as a vehicle for Wittgensteinian thought, in the second 50 I began to think of her as a person––a smart, likeable, very funny (check out her hilarious dig at Wuthering Heights), morally ambitious (that gets near it but not quite to it) person. “She has this determination not to be pretentious or speak falsehoods, and she references that a lot, which Wittgenstein does too,” Nemira says. She is also clearly in an immense amount of pain that I just wanted her to acknowledge, dammit. So even though she does it in this skittish but falsely certain way––there is, after all, much reason to “doubt” her assertions in this passage––I felt like I was glad to know there was grief under there, because after denial comes anger and bargaining and eventually you get all the way to acceptance. Kate/Markson continues:

I have already forgotten what I had been typing when I began to feel this way.

Obviously, I could look back. Surely that part cannot be very many lines behind the line I am typing at this moment.

“She has to deduce her feelings,” Nemira says. Reading the passage, indeed, makes you feel as if Kate is extrapolating her feelings by analyzing the text as if she were a college student and it were an academic paper. In other words, she is attempting to somehow convert her feelings into Wittgensteinian “facts.” Instead of thinking about how she felt earlier, she is instead asking herself how many lines ago did I type that I was depressed.

On second thought I will not look back. If there was something I was typing that had contributed to my feeling this way, doubtless it would contribute to it all over again.

I do not feel this way often, as a matter of fact.

Generally I feel quite well considering.

Still, this other can happen.

It will pass. In the meantime there is little one can do about it.

Anxiety being the fundamental mood of existence, as somebody once said, or unquestionably should have said.

Though to tell the truth I would have believed I had shed most of such feelings, as long ago as when I shed most of my other sort of baggage.

But we do not share her somewhat shaky Zen determination not to rise above the past. We want to know what it is that made her feel this way. We don’t really believe her when she says she’s shed most of her baggage, and that she is usually pretty okay, all things considered. We are right to doubt, as doubtless as she says it all is, because there, not “very many lines behind,” is the answer.

The slides that I took of my mother and father still exist, presumably.

Presumably old slides of Simon still exist, too.

I suspect there is something ironical in my knowing so many things about Leonardo and yet not knowing if the slides that I took of my mother and father, or any of my little boy, still exist.

Of if they exist, where.

Time out of mind.

I have snapshots of Simon, of course. For some time one of them was in a frame on the table beside my bed.

But quietly suddenly I do not feel like typing any more of this.

“I guess it’s ironical,” Nemira says, skeptically, “but more than that it’s just fucking tragic.”

As I write this, I have laying around me in stacks resembling the foundation of a tiny fortress various books that I feel could contribute to my understanding of Kate’s mourning. The Broom of the System, for one; Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, a biography by Ray Monk, and beside that, a scholarly companion to the works of Markson, published by the Dalkey Archive, naturally. Some of Markson’s other novels, including Reader’s Block and The Last Novel. Onto my hard drive I have downloaded The Complete Works of Ludwig Wittgenstein, which, for the sake of your digital storage capacity, I suggest not doing. I also have access to the Kindle Cloud Library of one former head of the Food and Drug Administration (long story) who has a keen interest in David Foster Wallace and, as a result, numerous titles on his e-shelf about various approaches to Wittgenstein. Each of these books––physical or virtual––promises to provide me with a principle around which to organize my time with Kate and/or a distraction from looking in on her loneliness like a child tapping on the glass of a fishbowl. This academicizing, in other words, is for me what the loom is to Penelope: a way to channel all that messy unspeakable-ness.

And yet I keep returning to the totally irrational––and yet nonetheless heartbreaking—possibility that Foster Wallace put forth in the afterword: “The big emotional thing is that, whether her treatment of linguistic constructs as existents is out of touch with reality or simply an inevitable response to the novel’s reality, the solipsistic nature of that reality, as far as Kate’s concerned, remains unchanged.”

So no matter how deeply I delve into the scholastics of it, no matter how much I labor (likely in vain) to understand the Tractatus, it will not provide her with a companion. It will not rebuild the burnt house of her past. It will not resurrect her child or erase the scars left by her troubled marriage. Not if someone reads the novel and catches the philosophical joke about Bertrand Russell’s debate with Alexius Meinong about “non-existent objects.” Not if someone likes this article on Facebook and confirms, at least for a fleeting moment, that I have written something that is being read and therefore exists and therefore that I myself exist.[1] If I determine that Kate is, in fact, “mad” and has, for the entire time she’s been working on her opus, been surrounded by her fellow patients in a state ward for the chronically insane—even then, she’ll still be alone.

There is a distinction to be made between this sort of depression and the depression I generally felt while I was still doing all of that looking, by the way, the latter having been much more decidedly a kind of anxiety.

Although I believe I have noted that.

One day I appeared to have finally stopped looking, in any event.

[1] Although of course one need not have actually read something to “like” it.

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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