Re-Reading David Markson’s “Wittgenstein’s Mistress”

This piece by Philip Coleman first appeared in CONTEXT #23. To celebrate the recent release of Wittgenstein’s Mistress as part of the Dalkey Archive Essentials series, it seems like the perfect time to revisit this re-reading of David Markson’s classic novel about language, memory, grief, and possibly the end of the world. 

First published in 1988—after fifty-four rejections, famously—and described by David Foster Wallace, in 1999, as one of the five most “direly underappreciated US novels >1960”—David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress has, for all that, had a remarkable first quarter-century in print. Indeed, when Wallace made his claim regarding the book’s apparent lack of an appreciative audience it had already been reprinted at least seven times. Its initial publication in May 1988 was followed by a second printing two months later, and the first paperback edition of 1990 was printed three times before a second paperback edition, with an afterword by Steven Moore, appeared in 1995. That edition was itself reprinted six times in the subsequent half-decade. Now reissued with a “new” afterword by Wallace—the piece was originally published in a 1990 issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction that included an interview with Markson together with an essay on his work by Joseph Tabbi—Wittgenstein’s Mistress must stand as one of the most widely read works of “experimental fiction” ever published in the United States or anywhere else, though of course there’s no telling how many purchased books of any kind are ever actually read.

Markson would have appreciated the point. While he bemoans the fact that his works have “sold so little” in the Tabbi interview, Wittgenstein’s Mistress troubles the idea of reading on every level—in historical/cultural and intellectual/cognitive terms, most urgently, but also with regard to the fundamental physical/material place of books in our lives. Twenty-one pages into WM (Wallace’s abbreviation), the book’s protagonist Kate comments on “[t]he queer selection” of books she had read in a certain period of her life. Markson’s own interviews are fascinating for what they reveal about his reading habits—habits that are also the subject of a blog entitled Reading Markson Reading, where annotated pages of books from the author’s personal library are scanned and made available for anyone with an Internet connection to view, free of charge. However, the bibliophilic/bibliographical compulsions of the author himself and his most adoring readers are less interesting, ultimately, than the profound meditations on what might be termed the phenomenology of the Book towards which WM moves in at least one strand of its complex and at times confusing narrative development. Kate—described by Wallace as “the monadic narrator” of the novel—admits early on that she “frequently” makes up her own“fanciful private improvisations” of the works she has read. This interior (creative) rearrangement of books is mirrored, however, in her sense of the physical environment within which she dwells, her very living space:

I have more than once wondered why the books in the basement are not upstairs with the others, actually.

There is space. Many of the shelves up here are half empty.

Although doubtless when I say they are half empty I should really be saying half filled, since presumably they were totally empty before somebody half filled them.

Then again it is not impossible that they were once filled completely, becoming half empty only when somebody removed half of the books to the basement.

I find this second possibility less likely than the first, although it is not utterly beyond consideration.

In either event the present state of the shelves is an explanation for why so many of the books in the house are tilted, or standing askew. And thus have become permanently misshapen.

In this passage Markson urges the reader to consider not just the ways that books inform the minds of those who read them, but how they form a permanently movable part of the material world within which we exist. In the same way, then, that Markson’s bequest of his own library to the open shelves of the Strand Bookstore in New York City in 2010 represented a curious kind of challenge to the conventional idea of the literary archive and the process of bibliographically ordering and storing an author’s books after her/his death, so WM might be read as a text that seeks to interrogate the phenomenon of theBook in human history in terms of its manifold meanings and uses. The use of books, indeed, and the question concerning not just their utility but their possible futility is bound up with Markson’s interrogation of art more generally in WM, and whatMoore, in his afterword, describes as the novel’s simultaneously “funny” but “profound” unsettling of “traditional notions of influence and the transmission of culture . . .”

First published in the year when Barbara Kingsolver and Jonathan Franzen published their debut novels—the year also of The Satanic Verses, Libra, and The Silence of the Lambs—Markson’s seventh novel marked what Wallace called “pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country.” This was quite a claim, given the various and varied experiments in narrative published in the same year. As he later explained in great analytical and critical detail, however, WM is a novel that serves:

the vital & vanishing function of reminding us of fiction’s limitless possibilities for reach & grasp, for making heads throb heartlike, & for sanctifying the marriages of cerebration & emotion, abstraction & lived life, transcendent truth-seeking & daily schlepping, marriages that in our happy epoch of technical occlusion & entertainment-marketing seem increasingly consummatable only in the imagination.

It is wonderful to have the full text of Wallace’s essay “The Empty Plenum: David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress” available alongside WM itself, but it is important to note too , the ways in which Wallace’s essay signals interests and concerns that were as important to his own development as they were to his sense of Markson’s achievement. Moreover, it should be acknowledged that, while it is certainly a work of extremely well-informed and passionate advocacy, “The Empty Plenum” does much more than praise Markson’s novel. Wallace’s description of the “Wittgensteinian” parallels in WM are indispensable, but his essay also expresses some unease about what he calls “[q]uestions of voice, over-allusion, & ‘explanation.’”

Minor imperfections aside—and Wallace goes so far as to describe WM as “an imperfect book”—he nonetheless insists that it is important because of its “terrific emotional & political/fictional & theoretical achievement: it evokes a truth a whole lot of books & essays before it have fumbled around.” Wallace’s sense of the originality and value of WM was of course based on close engagement and comparison with a vast array of other novels, from James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) to Rebecca Goldstein’s (“really terrible”) The Mind-Body Problem (1983). Most importantly, from the point of view of Wallace’s development, WM appeared the year after he published his own first novel, The Broom of the System (1987). It must have struck the younger author (then 25, just out of the University of Arizona’s Creative Writing Program with an MFA, for what it was worth), as a profound, and uncanny, coincidence. Wittgenstein haunts both texts, formally and thematically, and in an interview also published in the Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1993, Wallace described Broom as:

the sensitive tale of a sensitive young WASP who’s just had this mid-life crisis that’s moved him from coldly cerebral analytic math to a coldly cerebral take on fiction and Austin-Wittgenstein-Derridean literary theory, which also shifted his existential dread from a fear that he was just a 98.6 calculating machine to a fear that he was nothing but a linguistic construct.

It is intriguing that neither Markson nor Wittgenstein’s Mistress are mentioned in the interview, as if Wallace had completely repressed the older author’s influence on his work, even if he could not have read WM at the time of Broom’s composition(unless he was friendly with one of the fifty-four editors who rejected it, which is unlikely).

Reading “The Empty Plenum,” however, one finds echoes of Wallace’s own work everywhere in his description of Markson’s text, and not just in the ways that The Broom of the System and Wittgenstein’s Mistress engage with the ideas of the Austrian philosopher. Consider, for example, his description (in footnote 18) of the “continual reference to bunches of tennis balls bouncing all over the place,” which, he says, “made me realize tennis balls are about the best macroscopic symbol there is for the flux of atomistic fact . . .”—a note that is of profound importance in relation to Infinite Jest (1996). Or the fact that “The Empty Plenum” begins with a quotation from Stanley Cavell that refers to “looking philosophically as it were beneath our feet rather than over our heads” which might be said to echo the opening image of Broom (“Most really pretty girls have pretty ugly feet . . .”).

All of this is to say that in “The Empty Plenum,” Wallace provides a number of clues that are useful to understanding his own work’s development, both at the time that the essay was written and in his later fictions. His extended discussion of Markson’s constructions of gender, for example, are valuable in relation to Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999), while his closing insistence that WM is “really about the plenitude of emptiness” resonates with almost all of the work produced by Wallace throughout his tragically curtailed career. Wallace’s work, of course, was also known by Markson, and a reference to James O. Incandenza towards the end of Reader’s Block—first published in the same year as Infinite Jest—is just as intriguing as Wallace’s allusions and cross-references.

Rereading Wittgenstein’s Mistress in this new edition is then an experience that challenges one to engage not just with the genius of David Markson but with perhaps one of his most astute acolytes and advocates, David Foster Wallace. While Wallace says at one point that he had “never heard of this guy Markson, before, in ’88,” one cannot ignore the profound affinities between the two authors. In his piece “Reading David Markson,” published in the first issue of CONTEXT, Joseph Tabbi (taking his cue from Wallace) insisted that WM “appears not as an illustration of a set of philosophical ideas or even a novelization of the philosopher’s life and thought, but as an original reading of Wittgenstein.” Readers interested in this interpretation of the novel should chase up Tabbi’s piece, but new readers and re-readers of WM in this edition might also do well to explore some of the many other sources and allusions that inform the text. Markson himself suggests as much in his interview with Tabbi in his description of important engagements with a wide range of other artists and thinkers—philosophers and writers: RolandBarthes and Claude Levi Strauss but also Herman Melville, John Barth, J. P. Donleavy, Raymond Chandler, among others.They may not all have “influenced” the writing of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, but in the same way that it would be wrong to describe Kate solely in terms of a relationship she may or may not have had with Wittgenstein, it is misleading to suggest thatWM’s sole preoccupation is with the nature or function of the linguistic turn in twentieth-century philosophy.

In the same interview Markson says that the “central concept” of the book was in fact “the idea of aloneness,” and it is probably true to say that it was this, even more than its ostensible engagements with linguistic theory, that attracted Wallace to Wittgenstein’s Mistress. Wallace describes WM at one point in his essay as “an immediate study of depression & loneliness [that] is far too moving to be the object of either exercise or exorcism.” This, he says, means that for him the book “transcends [. . .] its review-enforced status of ‘intellectual tour de force’ or ‘experimental achievement.’” It is easy to lose sight of these crucially important clarifications, not just in relation to Wallace’s sense of the book but of WM’s own primary motivations, as far as Markson himself saw them. Indeed it is important too to recognize the roles played by many other figures in the formation of Markson’s aesthetic, and especially poets such as Dylan Thomas and T. S. Eliot, both of whom Markson recognized as important influences. (He actually hung out with Thomas towards the end of the poet’s life, as he also explains in his interview with Tabbi.) Markson’s own poems, it has to be said, are generally awful, but if the opening sentence of Wittgenstein’s Mistress calls the Book of Genesis to mind (as Wallace acknowledges), it might also allude to the opening of Eliot’s “East Coker” (“In my beginning is my end”) or to Thomas’s early poem “In the beginning,” which includes the following verse:

In the beginning was the word, the word

That from the solid bases of the light

Abstracted all the letters of the void;

And from the cloudy bases of the breath

The word flowed up, translating to the heart

First characters of birth and death.

Wittgenstein’s Mistress challenges our sense of what the novel can be today as much as it did when it was first published in 1988. The poet John Berryman, who also knew Thomas when Markson knew him, claimed in an essay first published in 1940 that the Welsh poet’s work “extended the language and to a lesser degree the methods of lyric poetry.” The same might be said of Markson, especially in Wittgenstein’s Mistress and in the works that followed it. WM is also a book in which words are presented in such a way that one is left, in Thomas’s phrase, “translating to the heart / First characters of birth and death.” In this lies the true character of Markson’s genius as well as the significance of his inheritance for those who come after him.

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