Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Wittgenstein's Mistress

I'm sorry for not posting much of late, fighting a familiar case of the late winter, pre-birthday blues. Sorry of course not because of guilt over failing to be a good hyper-cyberactive, but because the 'community' 'here' is one I value greatly. A different, beautifully demanding relationship, no car, and three barely rewarding jobs being the easiest-to-identify bullshit excuses. While wondering what could possibly be said about David Markson that hasn't been said already (there is actually a good deal, I think, given his grossly underappreciated status, and maybe I am trying too hard to calibrate in advance an exact emotional or theoretical response), I've been re-reading some essays on Heidegger. For instance, this letter:

Monday, December 30, 1929 (at Schlick's)

I can readily think what Heidegger means by Being and Dread. Man has the impulse to run up against the limits of language. Think, for example, of the astonishment that anything exists. This astonishment cannot be expressed in the form of a question, and there is also no answer to it. Everything which we feel like saying can, a priori, only be nonsense. Nevertheless, we do run up against the limits of language. This running-up against Kierkegaard also recognized and even designated it in a quite similar way (as running-up against Paradox). This running-up against the limits of language is Ethics. I hold that it is truly important that one put an end to all the idle talk about Ethics--whether there be knowledge, whether there be values, whether the Good can be defined, etc. In Ethics one is always making the attempt to say something that does not concern the essence of the matter and never can concern it. It is a priori certain that whatever one might offer as a definition of the Good, it is always simply a misunderstanding to think that it corresponds in expression to the authentic matter one actually means (Moore). Yet the tendency represented by the running-up against points to something. St. Augustine already knew this when he said: What, you wretch, so you want to avoid talking nonsense? Talk some nonsense, it makes no difference!

-Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Heidegger on Being and Dread, in Heidegger and Modern Philosophy, Ed. Michael Murray, 1978

As much as I enjoyed reading it (even laughing out loud, and getting tight-throated at moments), to say that Wittgenstein's Mistress represents a running up against death would be saying too much, I think. That being said, all options are still on the table. There is running up, to be sure. A perpetual running up, seductive, charming, suggestive and genuinely moving running up. Talk about intertextuality! His prose style is absolutely contagious. But against death? Or is it more a running in place, maybe?

For something of real substance on David Markson I'd recommend this interview and this article. MadInkBeard also has a nice introduction.

Markson's scenario of a solitary, "philosophical garbage lady" may be especially potent for a very specific, structural reason, detached cultural echoes of iconoclasm or genre. Namely: he did in fact already write the initial traumatic period of her history, back when she discovers herself the last woman on earth. In a brillaint move, these 125 pages from the beginning of the novel were subsequently dropped. Why brilliant? I don't know, maybe because it's charming to know that the earlier events Kate refers to actually did take place in Kate's world? (The reader's identification with her, or sympathy for her at least, seems crucial somehow). Or because it's daring and allows for new unforeseen possibilities (like a Borges story) and layers of ambiguity? Or maybe it's just comforting to know the novel was actually work, although Markson admits to writing quickly, without revising until the very end? (It reads so damn effortlessly, but without the repetitions of phrase becoming trite or tiresome). Actually maybe they do become a little tiresome. Doubtless this is part of the point, you will say.
The part pertaining to philosophies of language, no doubt.
Or maybe I am just rather tired now, and unable to be dishonest about that.
This may be irresponsible in some important sense, I will effortlessly admit.
It did get 54 rejection notices, Markson's book, after all.
People thought it wouldn't sell.
Why on earth wouldn't a book composed of no paragraphs longer than two sentences sell these days?
Well not exactly these days, but in 1988.
This is a brutal way to touch a book, risking cheap parody. I will probably regret it in the morning. Does it matter? Why would one write a book in which nothing seemed to matter?

Well, because it works indirectly. In talking around the thing itself, the thing appears, or begins to appear, in its proper light. The novel works subtly, cumulatively, and leaves us with frozen...skirts. A dream of fame. We are not fools. We know some real person is behind this book. We are left to infer, and the soil cleared for inference, with regard to pain, and with regard to what it means to speak, to write, is rich indeed. Perhaps I did not put that very well.

The cynic returns. Well Joseph Tabbi would prefer to read Wittgenstein's Mistress as more suggestive for cognitive science than for deconstruction...I don't know, maybe he is on to something.

As wonderful as much contemporary hypertext can be--and I enjoy a great deal of it, particularly for its probing, often daring sense of chance and whimsy, for risking to make 'literature' itself tremble anew--there is also a tendency toward surface-level fixation or facile deferral that remains in some important sense--if not even categorically--opposed to the kind of sustained meditative thinking that leads to a sincere 'perhaps', to genuine fragments (that doesn't have to sound impossibly pretentious, I don't think). There are certainly identifiable motives--whether conscious or not--for such tendencies. But in any case I find much hypertext somewhat uniformly, predictably disappointing in its seeming compulsion toward tendencies that encourage us to stop thinking.

No, there's really no polite way to put it. Markson is not Wittgenstein. And neither is Kate.

After all, Wittgenstein lived in a world full of other people. Perhaps history does end when there is no 'other.' Perhaps the drawing of distinctions is more valuable, in the now, than the endless drawing of connections, where the same risks being taken for the same. "The same is not the same as the same," says Blanchot. Can a world with only one inhabitant still be a world at all? "The world is what we share with others," says Heidegger. How can a solitary being be said to die?

Kate menstruates in the novel, and often updates us about her stainings. This is brave and liberating, for a novel, especially since Markson is not a woman, and has never menstruated. There is a kind of cuteness that is quite touching, maybe. Disappointing and touching. They do go together, after all. Returning to the text, and quoting at length here is perhaps the only possibility...

Before I came back to the typewriter I went upstairs and took the framed snapshot out of the drawer in the table beside my bed, for just a moment.
I did not put it back on the table itself, however.
There was no book by Marco Antonio Montes de Oca in the carton either, if I happen to have given that impression.
On the other hand there were no less than seven books by Martin Heidegger.
I have no way of indicating the titles of any of these, of course, short of returning to the basement and copying out the German, which it would certainly seem pointless to trouble myself with.
When I say it would seem pointless, naturally what I meant is that I would still not understand one word of the German in any event.
A word that certainly did catch my attention was the word Dasein, however, since it seemed to appear on practically every page I opened to.
Martin Heidegger himself remaining somebody I know no more about than I know about Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, on the other hand.
Except for now knowing that he was certainly partial to the word Dasein, obviously.
Then again as I believe I have said one is frequently apt to come upon a name such as Martin Heidegger's in one's reading, even if one is scarcely apt to be reading any books by Martin Heidegger himself.
At least this would presumably remain the case if one happened to ever do any reading, which as I have also said I have stopped doing.
In fact I cannot remember the last book I read, even if it may on occasion have appeared to have been a life of Brahms.
All things considered I still do not believe it has ever been verified that I did read a life of Brahms, however.
As a matter of fact it has only at this moment struck me that every solitary thing I know about Brahms could have been learned by reading the backs of the jackets on phonograph records.
Possibly I have not mentioned reading the backs of the jackets on phonograph records before.
It is a thing one does, however.
Well, or did, in any event, since it can now also be fairly definitively stated that I have not read the back of the jacket on a phonograph record for basically as many years as I have not read a book.
In fact there are no phonograph records in this house.
Well, there is no phonograph either, when one comes down to that.
Actually, this may have surprised me when I first came to the house, although it is not something to which I have given any thought since I perhaps first gave it some thought.
Well, as I have furthermore said, I have not played any music since having gotten rid of my baggage in any case, said baggage having naturally included such things as generators for operating such things as phonographs.
None of this is counting whatever music I hear in my head, conversely.
Well, or even in certain vehicles when I have turned on the ignition and it has happened that the tape deck has been set to the on position.
Hearing Kathleen Ferrier singing Vincenzo Bellini under either of those circumstances being hardly the same thing as making a deliberate decision to hear Kathleen Ferrier singing Vincenzo Bellini, obviously.
Although what I am now suddenly forced to wonder is if certain things I do know about Brahms would have appeared on the backs of the jackets on phonograph records after all.
Such as about his affairs with Jane Avril or with Katherine Hepburn, for instance.
Or for that matter how do I know that Beethoven would sometimes write music all over the walls of his house when he could not get his hands on any staff paper quickly enough?
Or that George Frederick Handel once threatened to throw a soprano out of a window because she refused to sing an aria the way he had written it?
Or that the first time Tchaikovsky ever conducted an orchestra he was positive that his head was going to fall off, and held on to his head with one hand through the entire performance?
Well, or on another level altogether, would anybody writing the information for any of such jackets have actually troubled to put down that Brahms was known for carrying candy in his pocket to give to children when he visited people who had children?
Certainly nobody writing such information would have put that one of the children to whom Brahms now and again gave some candy might very well have been Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Perhaps I have not mentioned that one of the children to whom Brahms now and again gave some of that candy might very well have been Ludwig Wittgenstein.
On my honor, however, Brahms frequently visited the home of the Wittgenstein family, in Vienna, when Ludwig Wittgenstein was a child.
So if it is a fact that Brahms was known for carrying candy in his pocket to give to children when he visited people who had children, then surely it is likely that Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of the children he gave candy to.
Very possibly this was what was in Wittgenstein's own mind all of those years later, in fact, when he said that you do not need a lot of money to give a nice present, but you do need a lot of time.
By which I mean that if the person Wittgenstein had wished to give a present to had been a child, he could have naturally taken care of the problem exactly the way Brahms generally did.
Doubtless one does not stroll about Cambridge carrying candy in one's pocket to give to Bertrand Russell or to Alfred North Whitehead, however.
Although what one might now wish one's self is that Wittgenstein had been in the basement with me yesterday, so as to have given me some help with that Dasein.
Well, or perhaps even with that other word, bricolage, that I woke up with in my head, that morning.
Or likewise with the whole sentence that I also must have said to myself a hundred times, a little later on, about the world being everything that is the case.
Surely if Wittgenstein was as intelligent as one was generally led to believe he ought to have been able to tell me if that had meant anything, either.
Then again, something else I once read about Wittgenstein was that he used to think so hard that you could actually see him doing it.
And certainly I would have had no desire to put the man to that sort of trouble.
Although what this for some reason now reminds me of is that I do know one thing about Martin Heidegger after all.
I have no idea how I know it, to tell the truth, although doubtless it is from another one of those footnotes. What I know is that Martin Heidegger once owned a pair of boots that had actually belonged to Vincent Van Gogh, and used to put them on when he went for walks in the woods.
I have no doubt that this is a fact either, incidentally. Especially since it may have been Martin Heidegger who made the very statement I mentioned a long while ago, about anxiety being the fundamental mood of existence.
So that what he surely would have admired about Van Gogh to begin with would have been the way Van Gogh could make even a pair of boots seem to have anxiety in them.
Even if there was only the smallest likelihood that a pair of boots Van Gogh used to wear were the same pair he also once painted a painting of, obviously.
Unless of course he had painted with only his socks on, that day.

- David Markson, Wittgenstein's Mistress, 167-171

A morning thought: All games and instruments aside, what might it mean to read Markson's novel as itself a reading of the Tractatus as burdened precisely with a knowledge of the later Wittgenstein (he who more directly abandoned the proposition that logical structure must also be the essence of the world, refusing to make the leap from the nature of language to the nature of the world)? A reading of a novel, then, already haunted in advance not only by what came before (Kate's trauma) but by what came after (everything has happened already). Hence the inadequacy of Kate's descriptions to reflect anything but her own experience. That she expresses ambivalence toward Heidegger and Dasein is therefore important. Significantly perhaps, Kate's mood never veers into the experience of Angst, shame (homo sacer?), or radical boredom; she remains on the plane of the everyday. In short, Markson does not grant her any ontical confirmation of Heidegger's ontology. Perhaps Wittgenstein's Mistress, unlike Sein und Zeit, remains hesitating on a certain threshold before saying, "we."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for clarifying.