The End is Nigh

The End is Nigh

Wittgenstein's Mistress

Part 4 of 5

Pages Read: 150-200

In this section–the penultimate for our purposes!–two things of philosophical importance happen. Well, two things that we will discuss, as doubtless loads happen, but we can’t examine each one of them for fear of exhausting the ever-dwindling attention span of the modern day reader (whose diet consists mostly of blog posts). Let’s jump right in, shall we?

“So let’s talk about these books,” Nemira says, referring to an episode that begins on page 160. In this anecdote, Kate goes downstairs into the basement and begins to rifle through a box of books, most of which are in languages other than English. “First, what basement is she in? Is this the space where she’s living now?”

“I thought she was in the basement of her house.”

Her house?” Nemira asks, accusatorily.

“Well… the house that she’s living in now. Whether or not that makes it ‘her’ house is a different question.”

“It’s actually clearly not her house,” Nemira says, reminding me that for most of the book, Kate has been often wondered aloud about the people whose house it really is/was.

So… in the basement of the house in which Kate is living is a box of books, “half empty” or “half filled,” as she tellingly repeats, and damp from spending time in the boggy underground. (Actually, there are exactly eleven boxes of books, but she only looks through one.) Some of the books contained therewith: The Trojan Women, which is the only book in English; The Way of All Flesh (in Spanish); a volume of poems by Sor Juana Ines de la Crux (in Spanish); seven books by Heidegger (all in German); Anna Karenina (in German); a biography of Lawrence of Arabia (not in English); and a few others which she doesn’t call by name. (“Then again, perhaps some of the writers whose books I took from the carton were not German writers after all.[1] Quite possibly there were just as many French writers whose names I did not recognize. Or Italian writers.”)

The first thing I noticed about these books was that a number of them come up in earlier pages, in passages when Kate’s head is jumping around, as it often does.

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. I no longer have any idea who she may have been to tell the truth. (page 18)

Meanwhile I have just been to the dunes again. For some reason while I was peeing I thought about Lawrence of Arabia. (page 23)

In either case I suspect there is something ironical in my being able to guess that something was said by Kierkegaard, or by Martin Heidegger, when I am convinced that I have never read a single word written by Kierkegaard or Martin Heidegger. (page 72)

And so on. To continue would be to risk driving myself insane, as DFW believes would surely be the end game of tracking all the references in the book. In the above examples, and in others, Kate seems genuinely bewildered as to why these names/people/facts are coming to mind, but I wonder: Is it possible that she was down in the basement some other day, and “amassed” this “baggage,” which continues to swirl around in her head, like the way little bits of your day come up in your dreams–“day residue,” as Freud (whom Wittgenstein actually kind of admired) put it?

Another thing that is interesting here is how fraught a simple action like looking through books can be for someone who is, like Wittgenstein, absolutely tortured by the desire to be precise in one’s language. You or I, looking at such books, might say, “So, this box contains book A, book B, book C. Done.” It’s a group of facts organized into a proposition that corresponds to a representation/picture in my head. But people like Kate and Wittgenstein can’t help but “bump up against the limits of language” (from Monk’s biography) like a psych patient bouncing off the padding of the walls. They want to poke at it to find its deficiencies, and it doesn’t take long before those myriad issues reveal themselves.

“Language is a representational system that aims to represent the world as it is or our thoughts and feelings about the world as they are,” says Nemira later on, when I email her in distress about the books and the problems they pose. “But when we start to look closely, we find that there are limitations to this system–either because it misleads us about the natures of the things it represents (e.g. the fact that two words are separable makes us think the concepts they represent are separable) or because there are aspects of reality which simply can’t be described by means of language (because these are the things of which we cannot speak).”

One instance in which language can deceive us is in the seemingly straightforward process of naming or labeling. What ends up happening is that “we tend to think of someone’s name as just their name–this fixed thing that picks them out in all possible situations,” says Nemira, whose name is Lithuanian. “But in fact, names are different in different alphabets and different languages, so that a single person might be associated with several different names.” When Kate happens upon the edition of Anna Karenina in the box, she knows what book it is despite the fact that it’s in German (for the German and English alphabet are similar). Funnily enough, if the book in the box were an original rather than a reproduction, she would not be able to recognize the title (Анна Каренина) because she does not speak Russian. How has language, therefore, helped us in our attempts to point out one object, one fact–the book Anna Karenina–and how has it rather muddied the waters?

You can see why Wittgenstein thought frequently during his life that he would go insane–and indeed, why Kate did. For the record, Wittgenstein seemed to not encourage people to think along his lines; mostly, throughout his life, he suggested his students at Cambridge abandon their studies and become either doctors or manual laborers.

“The sense I have is that the boxes of books are like a metaphor for her writing/thoughts,” Nemira says (again via email.) “There are all these separate volumes about specific people or by specific people, which might have nothing to do with one another (they are all ‘equidistant’ from one another) but which are all piled into a box together to create some kind of an artificial whole–the carton. That’s a bit like what she seems to be doing with all her factoids about people. Somehow the cohesion that’s created by putting books in a carton–an unsatisfying one but a whole nonetheless–mirrors her own unsatisfying attempts to group facts about famous figures together.”

The other philosophically meaty thing that happens is when she talks about how she is imagining building a fire at the garbage disposal area (page 152.)

Basically this is because it has just now come to mind that the fire I am perhaps going to build at the garbage disposal area, in order to watch it glisten on the broken bottles, is something else that exists only in my head.

Except in this case it is something that exists in my head even though I have not yet built the fire.

Moreover, what is really in my head is not the fire either, but that painting by Van Gogh of the fire.

Which is to say the painting by Van Gogh that one can see if one squints just a little. With all of those swirls, as in The Starry Night.

And with anxiety in it, even.

Even if a certain amount of the anxiety may be simply over the likelihood that the painting will not sell, of course.

Although as a matter of fact what has now suddenly happened is that I am not actually seeing the painting itself, but am seeing a reproduction of the painting.

In addition to which the reproduction even has a caption, which says the painting is called The Broken Bottles.

And is in the Uffizi.

Now obviously there is no painting by Van Gogh called The Broken Bottles in the Uffizi.

There is no painting by Van Gogh called The Broken Bottles anywhere, in fact including even in my head, since as I have said what is in my head is only a reproduction of the painting.

I suspect I am getting mixed up.

Think about this passage in terms of solipsism, which we’ve talked about before, and in terms of the goal of being precise with one’s language, above, and also now in terms of this:

“You remember that artists were banished from Plato’s Republic, right?” Nemira asks.

I did not.

Art, she says, is deceptive; it creates representations of things, which ultimately bring society further away from the Platonic ideal. There are three artists in nature, write Plato: “God, the maker of the bed and the painter [of the bed].” The painter is an “imitator,” and he is “third in descent from nature”; what he (or she) creates has an “inferior depth of truth.” Wittgenstein loved music (music is okay by Plato, as long as it’s not derivative) but wasn’t so into visual art, living, as he did, in achingly simple surroundings.

So what do we make of Kate’s being a painter? Do we feel that she somehow disapproves of her former vocation? Is the artist in her–which is to say her imagination, the one that exists in each individual–sucking her further and further away from pure reality? In the above extract, Nemira and I count seven layers of representation (in other words, the thing, the representation of the thing, the representation of the representation of the thing, and so on.) “This is very relevant in the light of Kate’s increasing fear and doubt about her own mind/sanity/reality,” Nemira says. “If it’s true what Plato said that the further something is removed from the pure form, the more pernicious and misleading it is, then Kate is really in trouble here. I think we can assume that she knows the Plato reference, and thus take her to be playing some kind of complex game here–both challenging his ominous warning (she is an artist after all) but maybe also fearing its truth…”

I know, I know: you were hoping she would delve a bit further into life before the Fall, right? You wanted to know about her son, her husband, her lovers? Me too, I admit. But the omission of a son might be as calculated as her constant references to her own menstrual cycle, or to her invoking the name of Artemisia Gentileschi, a female painter and genius who was “naturally” raped. As Wittgenstein wrote to a friend about a poem he approved of, “And this is how it is: if only you do not try to utter what is unutterable then nothing gets lost. But the unutterable will be–unutterably–contained in what has been uttered!” Think about it.

[1] Heidegger, one might be interested to hear, wrote work rife with the sort of “metaphysical nonsense” that the logical positivists, who mistakenly identified with the logic in the Tractatus, decried.

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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