Maybe He’s Just Fucking With Us

Farm Animals

Wittgenstein's Mistress

Part 3 of 5

Pages Read: 100-148, then 100-150

Last time Nemira and I met, I was the one dominating the conversation, because I am the expert in writing about loneliness and melancholia (please forgive my bragging.) This session, she took over, telling me how she started to see all these parallels between the novel and her dissertation. This was frightening for me, because I am sort of pretending to understand the philosophical ideas she puts forth–there’s a lot of nodding and “mm-hmm”-ing and wondering if my facial expression belies my confusion. Anyway, at the risk of ignoring the plot for a moment–spoiler alert: Kate’s still in the beach cottage–let’s listen to Nemira tell us a bit about what she studies.

“My project is about how we represent perceptual properties–like colors, and sounds, tones, pitches, loudness, that sort of thing–and spatial properties, and how they’re more similar than people had thought. What I’m working on right now is an argument to the effect that one of the reasons people posit for thinking that we represent a space in which objects are located is to explain certain properties of spatial experience, right?”

I try to look like I understand. I obviously fail.

“A space,” she clarifies, “gets you a notion of a system that is wider than just the things that you are seeing at the time. It gets you the notion of possibilities. Places where things could be. And you can apply that notion to colors and sounds. So there’s more to an experience of something’s color than just that one atomic fact about its color. In order to have the meaning that it has, it has to be embedded within a larger framework, so that framework must be there in the background. So I’ve been reading Wittgenstein’s later stuff and what keeps coming up is this renunciation of the Tractatus”–here we’ll remind ourselves that DFW (and I!) believe Kate is living in what he calls a “Tractatus-ized world”–“and his own renunciation of his mistake in treating all facts as separate rather than forming systems.”

If that’s still Greek to you, think about it this way: instead of the word “space,” insert the word “category.” When you go to a farm, for example, you see a number of things that fit into the animal category: goats, cows, pigs, maybe even a llama. But this doesn’t mean that these creatures are the sole beings that comprise the animal category; in a sense, they draw our attention to the category as a whole, to all the animals we cannot see, be they lions or marmosets or rats. The early Wittgenstein accorded the category relatively little importance in his logical system of the world.  What is of utmost importance is the individual goal.[1] (I should have gone with cat, in staying with Kate’s world, come to think of it.)

So Kate is living in Tractatus-ville, but does she personally believe what young Wittgenstein did––that the individual goat is more important than the goat as part of the farm’s ecosystem? I would argue no. Or at least, she seems to be fighting against the idea that all facts are singular and separate from one another. How is she fighting against this? By making lists, she is trying to connect the facts, to create a system, through which she can make sense of the world:

Somehow I would also appear to know that Bach had eleven children, however.

Or perhaps it was twenty children.

Then again it may have been Vermeer who had eleven children.

Though possibly what I have in mind is that Vermeer left only twenty paintings.

Leonardo left fewer than that, perhaps only fifteen.

(Quick aside: interesting that she is comparing paintings and children here; the idea of paintings and loved ones is very tied up for her. Anyway…)

“And that’s one thing that a space allows you to do”––space here is perhaps the text itself––“in a more abstract sense, put things in their right places. Organize them. In order to get some coherence to the world and language, you have to put them in their proper places.”

But can she be successful at this? She seems to be working with a limited number of facts, because these are the ones she lives, for whatever reason, or has chosen: facts about Greek tragedies/mythology, facts about painters, facts about composers. She attempts to put them all in their correct places, because, in Tractatus-world, “there is a drawer for each and every thing,” as Wittgenstein wrote in one of his notebook discursions. So theoretically, with a limited number of things, one could organize them properly.

Several problems arise: first, what if one item belongs in more than one list, or drawer, as Wittgenstein would have it? (Vermeer, for example, belongs in the list of painters with children and the list of painters who went bankrupt.) Second, if she chooses not to include certain facts, is her project incomplete, or is she just making an executive decision as the artist to use certain materials? Third, what if she is citing facts without realizing it? Like when she says she wakes to a “rosy-fingered dawn” (The Odyssey) or when she consistently refers to her vistas “fill[ing] up with snow” (Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”). When she invokes those phrases and gives no indication that they are not products of her imagination––that they are facts, in other words––has she left them dangling? Finally, what about when new facts weasel their way in, and then you start to go on a little mental tangent, imagining that Van Gogh is in Giotto’s studio, even though that could never have happened? Or what if––a classical philosophical quandary, solipsism––this is really all in her head? Is she only ordering “representations” of things, a favorite word of both hers and her imaginary lover’s (whose works she’s never read?

“Things are cluttered, to tell the truth,” she writes.

I agree.

Better to think of those nice tennis balls. How nicely they correspond to their description, since they are “real” tennis balls, as opposed to the house that burned down or the tape that sounds like a cat scratching. Those tennis balls all lying equidistant from one another. (That theme of inevitable equidistance, which comes up often, is so soothing to me––kind of like, “no matter where you go, there you are.”) Seeing the balls makes Kate feel “generally delighted.” How independent from one another they all are. From one another, and from Giotto’s sheep, and from painters from Delft, and from baseball players. Individuals. Like her.

“A system has to consist of more than one thing,” Nemira says, “but in this case, there is just one person––a unity. But she’s trying to get order back into this empty world.”

Kate’s tortuous attempt to order things reminds Nemira of her own life, she says. “This is often what it feels like for me writing a paper. I have that anxiety about whether or not I’m trying to force together two things that don’t belong together.” As a non-academic writer, I face that same issue. Often, when I conceive of a piece, I am doing it with an outlet in mind, and therefore I search for a hook, a personal-to-universal trajectory that is so beloved by readers nowadays. “Robin Williams Had Depression. So Do I. My Story.”[2] Is the constituent invalid here? Is there really no connection at all? Perhaps this is a writer’s experience in general, and perhaps it was Markson’s. Speaking of our invisible hero, there is an eerie little thing that Markson completists will pick up on located on pages 114-115. Kate is at the beach using the air conditioning in one of the cars when a tape of Kirsten Flagstad singing Four Last Songs comes on.

I have often been perplexed as to why they were called the Four Last Songs, by the way.

Well, doubtless they were called the Four Last Songs because that was what they were.

Still, one can scarcely visualize a composer sitting down and saying, now I am going to write my four last songs.

Well, see, that’s precisely what Markson did: titled his last novel The Last Novel. Did you hit upon the idea when invoking Strauss in this book? Had he planned for years in advance the tumble-down trajectory into increasingly “nonlinear” and “collage-like” (that’s from Reader’s Block) prose?

“One might say there is even a system to Markson’s books,” Nemira says, smirking. “Even though they are distinct, there are connections between them. It’s very meta. We’re engaged in the same sort of thing Kate’s engaged in. What are the connections? Or is this just something that sounds familiar to me, like ‘strange calligraphy?’” (Both Nemira and I feel this is a quote from something else, like “fill up with snow,” but we can’t find it.)

“Or maybe he’s fucking with us deliberately.”

“Possible,” I reply. “He’s got me right where he wants me.”

[1] Nemira says there is certainly nothing “philosophically ‘wrong’” with how I lay out this concept, but suggests a different wording, which I’m including here so I can continue to pretend like I’m as entitled to use footnotes as DFW: “You might say: when you see a goat, you are aware of it as a goat. But you also recognize it as an animal. What is it to recognize the goat as an animal? It involves the recognition of the goat as belonging to a wider class of things––including, like, dogs and pigs and hens and chickens. Even if you can’t actually see these other types of animal, the idea is that they must be (in some very indirect and abstract way) present––in a way that forks and chickens are not––for us to explain how you have an awareness of the goat as a member of this larger category, animal, and not merely as a goat.”

[2] I did NOT write that, just for the record.

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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