Pillars #7: Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson

Borrowing from William H. Gass’s essay “50 Literary Pillars” (found in A Temple of Texts), I’m writing about books and authors that have been pillars for my aesthetic as a reader and a writer. Although these items are numbered, these are listed in no particular order. See more Pillars here.

One measure of a book’s influence—perhaps the best measure—is the degree to which that book determines the shape of your thoughts and your sentences. And by this measure, David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress is undoubtedly a huge personal influence. When I fist read it in 2005, its form was unlike the form of any book I had ever previously read. Though perhaps now there are other books I’ve read that somewhat resemble it, Wittgenstein’s Mistress still stands out to me as an original.

So what exactly is Wittgenstein’s Mistress? It mostly consists of single-sentence paragraphs of just a dozen or two dozen words. (It kind of looks like a big old archive of text messages.) As we read the book, it becomes clear these sentences are being typed down by a person who believes herself to be the last human being alive on Earth. Basically, this book just follows the flow of her thoughts as she recounts what she does as the last person on Earth, as well as any number of random musings she see fit to delve through. I picture the narrator of this book, whoever she is, as striking down a few thoughts on a typewriter, going about her day, striking a few more, falling asleep and waking and striking down a few more, just collecting lines after lines. This is just what this book is.

And the thing about this book, what began to occur to me as I read it, was that, yes, indeed, this is how people think. It captures the feeling of thought very, very well (at least our thoughts that come to us in the form of language). The particular length of each thought, the way that they form little clusters as several thoughts cumulate upon one another, and the way that they digress and wander, eventually interrupted by the eruption of a sudden memory or idea.

So here’s something I’ve wrestles with in the aftermath of reading Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a kind of chicken and the egg” question: perhaps Markson got the drift and punch of thought just right, so that I often think in the manner in which this book thinks because this is just how we think. Or, perhaps I think in the manner in which this book thinks because Markson played some major role in teaching me how to think. I’m not quite sure. Regardless, to this day, a decade after I first read Wittgenstein’s Mistress, I will find an apposite sentence forming in my head, and I will know, this is a Markson sentence. Or, even more often, I will compose a tweet on Twitter, or send off a triad of text messages, or leave a Facebook comment, and I will know, these were written in the mold of Markson.

This is already a huge influence.

The other thing that stayed with me from this book is how, regardless of what exactly the “plot” of this book is, or who it’s narrated by and what her life circumstances are, this book’s true subject is the human mind—that is, consciousness, experience, structural linguistics. At that point in my writing life I couldn’t put it to you the way I’m putting it now. I didn’t know there were authors who focused on things like experience and consciousness, who wanted to understand how language contained our possibilities as sentient beings, and I certainly didn’t understand the philosophical and historical antecedents to these authors. (Nor am I sure I do now, although my grasp of such things is certain much firmer these days.) I had so many authors to discover in this school of writing. Back then, I only knew the sorts of books that would absorb my attention and fire up certain parts of my readerly brain. And this was one of them!

Now, with the benefits of hindsight, I can see how many books I’ve adored in the past decade take as their primary concern human experience, which is to say the workings of the human mind. I can see that this is indeed the central element in my life as a reader and a writer. In other words, to put a slightly fine point on it, phenomenology. I can also see how, over that same span, I’ve more and more come over to the belief that the world as our mind understands it is bounded by language. That is, structural linguistics.

And I would say these two things—phenomenology and structural linguistics—are pretty much what Wittgenstein’s Mistress is about. You’ve got the pure experience of a human mind—processed into these little orations the narrator types into her typewriter—and you’ve got this subtext where Markson is doing everything he can to get you to look at the way this book is mediated by language (more on that in a moment). Essentially, it was as though someone had written an experimental novel that was exactly designed to push all the buttons I was developing as a reader.

As to the linguistics: Markson gets half of his title from the famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, which is a huge tip-off that this is going to be a book about language. When I first read Wittgenstein’s Mistress, I knew a little bit about Wittgenstein. I understood that he had proposed a new approach to philosophy that many would say was one of the first genuinely new things in the two millennia following Plato’s writings based on Socrates’ dialogues. I understood that this approach was based on the idea that philosophical problems were basically problems of language, and his early work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, somehow fixed that. And I knew that he had famously begun the work in which he explains this thesis with the declaration “the world is everything that is the case,” and that it is composed of many, many such short, enigmatic declarations.

So I could see that Markson’s book was obviously patterned on Wittgnstein’s form and ideas to a degree. What must have appealed to me so much about this was the way in which Markson continually reminds a reader of the fraught relationship between the words on his page and whatever objective reality is supposed to exist in conjunction with those words. (To that one might also add the fraught relationships between the words in one’s head to the objective world beyond the skull.) He’ll do this by troubling over things like the spelling of “Cassandra” (or is it “Kassandra”?), or asking if Anna Karenina would still be called Anna Karenina if no more copies of it existed. Or, in one of my favorite examples, by having the narrator state that one of her favorite ways of ignoring the rain is by walking through it. By continually posing questions like this, he keeps putting a reader in mind of the many ways that language constantly fails us when we try to put certain ideas into words. (Another nice thing about Markson is the pithy tone he gives his narrator when she keeps making all of these asides; Wittgenstein’s Mistress would be a very different book if she didn’t have such a succinct, compelling way of putting things.) I knew that these sorts of linguistic games were playing at things that went very deep into the conundrum of what goes on between the mind, the page, and the world, the way the all keep pushing one another along to create the possibilities that we experience as conscious life. I knew that this was striking upon something very exciting to me.


There is one more strange way that this book has always stuck in my mind. At the time I read it, I was just beginning to make my way as a writer, and I was finding that being an infant writer was a very demoralizing thing. At some point in my reading of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, I came upon the now very familiar story about how Markson was forced to submit this title to something like 80 publishers before at last he found one to take it on—and, then, that publisher was the Dalkey Archive Press, which at the time had only been around for four and was obscure, tiny, and fond of books that would quickly be dismissed elsewhere as not being fit for the market because they were too “cerebral.” So in others words, at once a press that was probably Markson’s ideal publisher, and also a press that was barely one step up from self-publication. And, indeed, this book might have languished and have been completely forgotten had not David Foster Wallace championed in the heady days after Infinite Jest, when he himself had become a sensation.

The truths that hid behind the conception of this book and its existence as a material object were lessons that any writer must absorb—hopefully early on—and finding out about them at this point in my life as a serious writer was a thing of priceless value.

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