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“Women must write through their bodies, they must invent the impregnable language that will wreck partitions, classes, and rhetorics, regulations and codes, they must submerge, cut through, get beyond the ultimate reserve-discourse, including the one that laughs at the very idea of pronouncing the word ‘silence,’ the one that, aiming at the impossible, stops short before the word ‘impossible’ and writes it as ‘the end.’ ” (Cixous 2049)

“May I write words more naked than flesh, stronger than bone, more resilient than sinew, sensitive than nerve.” Attributed to Sappho, written by Cha[i], who then later writes, she is “exchangeable with any other heroine in the story.” (30)… Sybil. Demeter. Persephone. Gertrud. Princess Pari. Queen Min. Yu Guan Soon. Joan of Arc. St. Therese of Lisieux. Laura Claxton’s sister. Clio. Calliope. Urania. Melpomene. Erato. Elitere. Thalia. Terpsichore. Polymnia. Mnemosyne. Hyung Soon Huo. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Daughter. Mother. Unnamable Women.

 

Dictee is a nonlinear, multilayered, fragmented, cyclical text written in white ink,[ii] an act of giving blood. The life force transfers from one body to another. The self dissolves into, with, because of, the transmutability of selves.

 

Before we recognize the fluidity of selves and language, there must be a brief paragraph given to the “Word,” the “One.” This Signifier[iii], this One, has been all pervasive, has dominated social structures, linguistic structures, and narrative structures. Everything was (arguably still is) in a hierarchy. The binary structure of opposition. In short, there is a cage match.

 

In the red corner: Man! With his… speech, immediacy, presence, light, truth, logos, oneness, his God and his penis.

 

And.

 

In the blue corner: Woman! With her… deferral, difference, absence, darkness, lack, lawlessness, multiplicity, her heterogeneity, and her vagina, that terror.

 

But. The blue corner never wins.[iv] She’s been doomed, damned, cunt-shunted. So she’s kept quiet, silent, living in veils and shadows, wrapping herself in shawls and enigmas. This is where Cixous asks women to break through, start an aphonic revolt, leave not a single space untouched within language that is man’s alone. She wants us to “dislocate this annihilating within….explode it…impregnate it!” (Cixous 2049) Cha does exactly this.[v]

 

She writes in a borrowed tongue, in her allotted English language, and several others, but asks the reader to translate (part of) the text into French. This is not written solely for a bilingual audience; she wants the reader to experience the “in between.” Her side-by-side prose of English and French[vi] requires something to be lost in the (impossibly) direct translation. French to English, and vice versa, will never be, it cannot be exact. Her words, no matter the language, are then veiled as well, exposed as being cloaked in mystery, proving that that the invisible is complicated, but not unexplorable.

 

Silence, Mnemosyne[vii], memories, passivity, waiting, they’re all part of the invisible. Cha describes the pain of waiting inside a pause, waiting inside herself, as unbearable. “The wait from pain to say,” (4) she says, the mute diseuse, who secretly waits within their structure, multiplying, wrapping every word in tinfoil or black lace. She lives inside the void, inside the terrifying in-between structure, the space where the she makes her voice, gets the strength to speak. Just to speak.

From: ‘Dictee’ Takes the Stage. Author: Julie Ha

This is not a matter of castration, of control, of winning, but rather the point is to “dash through and to fly.”[viii] (Cixous 2050) Woman’s subversiveness is her own anonymity. Cixous claims women are givers, they can merge without annihilating themselves, flow from one woman to the next. “Her language does not contain, it carries.” (Cixous 2052) Words blend from one word to the next. Women, like words, are alive because they transform. They are always becoming.

 

“The woman arriving over and over again does not stand still; she’s everywhere, she exchanges.” (Cixous 2056) In other words, she is a metamorphosing collage of multiple voices. Cha’s (re)writing history, embodying the Muses, giving them voices, freeing them from their original patriarchal shackles, and this includes not making them speak only through men, in their male language, with their phallologocentric stories of beginnings, middles, and ends, their epic poems.

 

All Cha’s figures, all her narratives, begin in the middle; they always relate to another story: the Mother.

 

Dictee is not a traditional epic poem. It is not about man’s rise to glory, the glory of the gods, or a best or first of anything.[ix] Helene P. Foley argues “that the female version of the heroic quest is defined by issues relating to marriage and fertility and ends with a cyclical reunion and separation that also mitigates death.”[x] Dictee’s Muses no longer conceal their sorrow. They illustrate that there is something inherently traumatic in the female position.

 

Cha speaks of a series of concentric circles, which can be translated to a series of returns and departures, a code of trauma, meaning both the traumatic event is cyclical, perpetually returning to haunt the survivor contemplating the impossibility of their own death, and also that one’s own trauma is tied up with the trauma of another. Trauma has a mute repetition of suffering,[xi] a festering silence, a wound. “Trauma seems to be much more than a pathology, or the simple illness of a wounded psyche: it is always the story of a wound that cries out, that addresses us in the attempt to tell us of a reality or truth that is not otherwise available. This truth, in its delayed appearance and its belated address, cannot be linked only to what is known, but also to what remains to be unknown in our very actions and our language.” (Caruth 4)

 

The wound is another, an Other, a foreign object inside the body[xii], a divided self. “It festers inside. The wound, liquid, dust. Must break. Must void.” (3) The Koreans, and women, do not own their imagery. They must dictate what is spoken to them using the oppressor’s language. They swallow the wound. It weeps.

 

Dictee is the wound crying out. And because it’s not fully understood, because it’s related to the suppression, to a mini-death, the speech comes out broken, in fragment – without the attempt at sewing them together. To create links is to manipulate; to do as the oppressors do. According to écriture feminine,this is a masculine trait of dominance, and consumption.[xiii] The one creating the links is the one that controls the image-repertoire. Cha, like Cixous, is requesting a new mode of reading, a new mode of listening, not a new language.

 

This is further explored with Cha’s use of curtailed images of suppressed history. Anne Anlin Cheng suggests that “redeeming these images has frequently only served to re-violate them.” (Cheng 121) The repressed no longer own the images of themselves. These images become images of the action, belonging to the oppressors. Cheng follows with both the urgency and the impossibility of rerecording history, echoing the mindset of Caruth: History arises within the impossibility of understanding.

 

Cha is (re)presenting the trauma of an entire nation and the female gender. Both language and image are insufficient to accurately describing the horror, the subjugation, the effacement. “Unfathomable the words, the terminology: enemy, atrocities, conquest, betrayal, invasion, destruction.” (32) These words are the opposite of Cha’s epitaph, they do not recognize the irony of their own stability as words. The act of seeing these images reappropriated into Japanese history, or hearing the empty signifier, erases the reality of any event. Cha is preventing that from happening again; she’s preventing the reoccurrence of removal by not attempting to explain, to master. The image, like trauma, cannot be mastered. This is an embrace of the cyclical quality of trauma, its arrivals and departures, the series of concentric circles.

 

Through her analysis of Hiroshima Mon Amour, Cathy Caruth discusses a similar situation about both Korea’s oppressors. “The knowledge of Hiroshima, for the French, understood not as the incomprehensible occurrence of the nuclear bombing of the Japanese but as the knowledge they call ‘the end,’ effaces the event of a Japanese past and inscribes it, as a referent, into the narrative of French History.” (Caruth 29) Cha understands that this is a nationwide, corrosive occurrence. The postmodern subject has a difficult time grounding herself within the constructs of the image and the reappropriations of words, languages, and texts. The abstract enemy, the relationship between self and enemy, becomes larger because of what’s at stake: total consumption. In the language of binary opposition, the enemy is all that the self is not, and therefore, runs, and fears the constant risk of its own “ontological security.”[xiv]

 

The self recognizes itself as a being in the world, inextricably dependent on that world, and not the other way around.[xv] People exist as beings defined by Others who carry models of us in their heads, just as we carry models of them in our heads. Laing explains that a schizophrenic turns herself into a “thing”[xvi] to reduce herself from being in the world. When one’s identity is constantly being threatened, and because the being relates to the world through her body, she disembodies herself to transcend the world and be safe.

 

If Dictee’s subject(s): Woman qua silence, qua subservient, Other, separated from Mother, from Motherland, experiences a double separation, double subservience, then what is lost turns into loss. The reader is asked to empathize, particularly during Calliope’s segment where the text is written in second person, but Cha refuses to let the reader get grounded in a particular protagonist, a particular subject. Cha seeks to break down the representation of trauma as liminality. Both Dictee and trauma deny any sort of mapping within the ontological framework; R.D. Laing would consider this kind of division schizophrenic.

 

I would argue this “divided self” represents yesterday’s woman,[xvii] the woman that turns herself into an object, that defines her sexuality only through the male gaze, through the masochistic desire to be looked at; this is the woman that completely identifies with the androcentric stagnation of masculine “Truth.”

 

The Freudian system of sexuality is based on looking because it privileges the penis,[xviii] thus privileging the visible. This masochism is forced upon the woman, meaning pleasure does not reside in her, but refers back on male sexuality.

 

Luce Irigaray reminds us that the very nature of woman’s self, her sexuality, is auto-erotic, in that the woman is constantly touching herself[xix] since her vagina is composed of two embracing lips. She says that with herself, woman is already two, and not divisible into one, and she translates this feminine auto-eroticism into feminine discourse or writing. “This ‘style’ does not privilege sight; instead it takes each figure back to its source, which is among other things tactile. It comes back into touch with itself in that origin without ever constituting in it, constituting itself in it, as some sort of unity… It is always fluid, without neglecting the characteristics of fluids that are difficult to idealize: those rubbing between two infinitely near neighbors that create a dynamics.” (Irigaray 79)

 

According to Irigaray, the feminine “style” of writing is filled with ebb and flow, multiple beginnings, and multiple paths. And this is what Cha emphasizes with the nonlinear narrative of her female heroines, all of which transcend the patriarchy, all of which ebb and flow into one another.[xx] This nonlinear approach interferes with historical practice, which is most ironically portrayed by Clio. Not only does Cha connect historical events with fragments of Guan Soon’s biography, she also literally rewrites history in order to voice a history from a woman’s perspective.[xxi]

 

Every character loops around and connects to every other female character through the omnipresent trope of the mother-daughter relationship. And she mythologizes her “real life characters” in order to make the personal public, thus furthering the subversion of the epic poem.

 

Each woman is connected through various mothers as well as their refusals to yield to the oppressive patriarchal forces of imperialism. The Elysian Fields, to which Cha alludes to, are not just a place of heavenly female experience, but a place of real heartache as well. Cha promotes the experience of woman by trickling one woman into the next in such a way as to disrupt all linear assumptions by deleting the bridges history deems necessary to create.

 

The nonlinear is deeply connected with the unnamable in that there is no determinable beginning or end, and without the abrupt packages the masculine “style” creates, all “Truth,” in its phallologocentric forms, is unraveled and taken away from its inherent morbidity. Men have thought that the only two unrepresentable things are death and the female sex,[xxii] but Cha shows that the female sex is not unrepresentable, it was just unrepresentable within the oppressive confines of the masculine system of referents. But now the ironclad chain linking the signifier and signified is broken.

 

Again, this breaking is not a violent castration, but a delicate process of veiling and unveiling. As a woman’s body may become “full” with child, language, words become full with double meanings. The Freudian binary system of sexuality explodes with this addition of multiplicity. And by the very definition of multiplicity the penis is not excluded, just no longer privileged. Cha is refusing to call herself, which at this point includes all women, a lack, a nothing: “transform this nothingness into fire.” (111) She wants love to lower itself to nothingness, to the realm of the woman, for a true and total union. Echoing the words: “I do desire the other for the other, whole and entire, male or female; because living means that everything lives, and wanting it to be alive.” (Cixous 2054)

 

And in this transition, death cannot, and will not be privileged over life. A mother lifts her child up to the window. The daughter witnesses the pulleys, the machine, the language of her mother’s time; she wants to see, to become a part of it: “Lift me to the window to the picture image unleash the ropes tied to weights of stones first the ropes then its scraping on wood to break stillness as the bells fall peal follow the sound of ropes holding weight scraping on wood to break stillness bells fall a peal to the sky.” (179) Break the stillness. Break the silence. Perpetual motion. Perpetually becoming. Peal away the layers. Appeler: to name. A peal. A name. Peal a name back, reveal more than one, render the thing, the itness of it, and all that entails, indescribable, unnamable.


Bibliography

DICTEE. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. University of California Press. 2001.

UNCLAIMED EXPERIENCE; TRAUMA, NARRATIVE, AND HISTORY. Cathy Caruth. The John Hopkins University Press. 1996.

THE LAUGH OF THE MEDUSA. Hélène Cixous. THE NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF THEORY AND CRITICISM. W.W. Norton & Company. 2001.

THE SEX WHICH IS NOT ONE. Luce Irigaray. Cornell University Press. 1985.

THE DIVIDED SELF. R.D. Laing. Pelican Books. 1965.

REWRITING HESIOD, REVISIONING KOREA: THERESA HAK KYUNG CHA’S DICTEE AS A SUBVERSIVE HESIODIC CATALOGUE OF WOMEN. Kun Jong Lee. COLLEGE LITERATURE 33.3. Summer 2006. Pg. 77

MEMORY AND ANTI-DOCUMENTARY DESIRE IN THERESA HAK KYUNG CHA’S DICTEE. Anne Anlin Cheng. MELUS 23.4. Winter 1998. Pg. 119


End Notes

1 “One of the first female writers who put women into the text, world, and history was Sappho… Cha [also] manifests her feminist position by identifying with Sappho: she writes the epigraph herself and attributes it to the Greek poet.” (Lee 78)

[ii] Not an obscure, angry, flat, and unreadable feminist text.

[iii] Penis.

[iv] In reality, given the Master/Slave dialectic, neither ever wins.

[v] “She begins the search the words of equivalence to that of her feeling. Or the absence of it. Synonym, simile, metaphor, byword, byname, ghostword, phantomnation. In documenting the map of her journey.” (140) The double-meanings, the nonwords, the semantics game.

[vi] Dare I say two lips?

[vii] In the Theogony, Mnemosyne disappears after giving birth to the nine muses.

[viii] Voler: to fly and to steal. The double meaning was originally implied.

[ix] M.M. Bakhtin: “The world of the epic is… a world of bests and firsts.” (Lee 87)

[x] As explained by Kun Jong Lee on pg. 92.

[xi] In contrast to the language of pain: the scream, cavewoman utterances.

[xii] A Migraine.

[xiii] Whoever controls the present controls the past…

[xiv] Phrase coined by Dr. R.D. Laing describing people that feel persecuted by reality itself.

[xv] Unless you’re a solipsist.

[xvi] He gives various examples from patients, such as a piece of wood floating in a pond.

[xvii] Cixous’s woman of yesterday: the woman silently dwelling.

[xviii] Hence, penis envy.

[xix] As Dictee illustrates in Erato’s Love Poetry section.

[xx] All of which transcend the limitations of their bodily identities.

[xxi] Guan Soon did not organize the March 1st riots in Seoul, but in her hometown Aunae, nor were the March 1st riots started after the assassination of Queen Min, who was murdered 24 years earlier. Cha specifically manipulates these details because she truly “regards the Queen as the symbol of Korea colonized by Japan and situates her at the origin Korea’s nationalist struggle against Japanese colonialism.” (Lee 87) And Guan Soon was popularly called the Joan of Arc of Korea; Cha wanted to “situate Guan Soon at the origin of the March First Movement, to portray the ‘woman soldier’ as an active agent of history; and to recenter the feminine voice from the margins of Korean nationalism.” (Lee 87)

[xxii] Which to men, Cixous points out, is equal to death.

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1. Epigraphs.

 

“I wonder at the existence of the world. And I am then inclined to use such phrases as ‘how extraordinary that anything should exist’ or ‘how extraordinary that the world should exist.’.”[1]

         – Ludwig Wittgenstein       (A Lecture on Ethics)

“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy . Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds, many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea, fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.”

         – Homer             (The Odyssey: Book 1, Lines 1-6)

“Language is the house of Being. In its home human beings dwell.”

         – Martin Heidegger            (Letter on Humanism)

“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 all that Dasein.

Well, or perhaps with that other word, bricolage, that I woke up with in my head, that morning.”

          – Kate                (Wittgenstein’s Mistress)

 

 

2. Keeper of the Ghosts.

 

Wittgenstein can well understand why children love sand.

Kate writes messages in the sand, including the last line: “Somebody is living on this beach,” with her stick that she never loses. Messages that will be erased by the tide. Keeper of the Ghosts was David Markson’s working title. As his protagonist is the last living being on earth, Kate is responsible for all the ghosts of the past. They exist as traces in her mind of what once was. They exist only in the shape of language. Kate is also the keeper of language. The sands of English, the last living language, barely alive on a respirator, awaiting the tides. All other languages are dead.

As dead, those languages are no longer subject to any changes in meaning, “whereas in any ‘living’ language contexts of meaning change with changes in the interpretation of historical Dasein at the time.”[2]

Dasein is translated as Being- making sure to always capitalize the B- but the literal translation from German is “the to-be”, though it has also been referred to as Da-sein, which could read as there-to-be, or being there. It was once thought that to-be, one either had to exist as an object present in space and time, or as a subject capable of self-consciousness and self-presence.  Heidegger adds the element of historicity to the “presence” of the subject, saying that humans are Beings whose past and future collaborate in order for them to deal with all the other beings they encounter.

Our world is essential to who we are. Being always means Being-in-the-World.

Kate’s mode of being in Wittgenstein’s Mistress is much like that of a rosy-fingered dawn. Of course, not in content, but in style, and by style I do not mean the symbolism of roses, fingers, or even the dawn. What I intend to say, to write, is that Kate exists metaphorically, as a constructed work of art, a poetic figure. And further nested within that work of art, she exists as an artist.

Kate is both the art and the artist.

Being as Art, she can transcend the limitations of mortal flesh. She is lucid and authentic, a thing. As art she functions both allegorically and symbolically, meaning she brings together both the thing and something else: her unconcealed presence as truth. As artist she is often thrown back into the inauthentic state of everydayness, struggling with depression and madness, attached to her body, just another derivative. 

As a work of art, Kate is perpetually present.

According to Heidegger, if we identify Being with presence, it is easy to become obsessed with getting Beings to present themselves to us perfectly and in a definitive way, obsessed with re-presenting Beings accurately and effectively. Accurate representation is what Kate tries to accomplish in her language, her only medium of existence. When she refers to subjects in the past, she is re-creating them as present, giving them an irreal quality, while wondering herself what is their mode of existence in her mind.

Objects and Beings in the mind are not nothing, they are something. Sartre defines the matter in the mind as analogons, but he splits from Heidegger, saying that consciousness, instead of being an opening within the world, is an empty parasite on it, merely reflecting our subjective experience. This is what he argues in Nausea, claiming that once this inner nothingness is realized the feeling manifests in a need to vomit.

Markson does not take the Sartrean route of existentialism, but instead sticks to a more optimistic Heideggerian model, representing his protagonist’s ongoing monologue in very raw phenomenological form.

It’s as if Kate’s Dasein is naked.

“Thus, to work out the question of Being adequately, we must make an entity- the inquirer- transparent in his own Being.”[3]

 

3. Kate, the nucleus of a blinding gessoed Cingulum.

 

As the only Being, Kate is the center of the circle from which all things are equidistant. The ultimate solipsist. The loneliest cynosure.

All Beings inherit a past tradition and are thrust into a future. It is our own temporality that makes us sensitive to Being. As we pursue future possibilities that define us as an individual, the world opens up for us, pulsates and expands, and Beings get understood. In these moments Heidegger says, the Being is authentic, conscious, anxious of its mode as Being-towards-death, but it’s unpleasant to think about our temporality so we slip back into our routines, our everydayness, into moments of inauthenticity: the creamy fillings that make up life. (This is the stuff Kate mentions when speaking of other great artists.)

We do this because Being is an issue for Dasein.

Dasein “specifically picks out our individual possession of our existence and the fact that it is a question for us, a question which concerns the nature of Being as such.”[4]

This is where Kate’s identity begins to unravel. There are no other Beings off of whom Kate can bounce her identity anymore. She can no longer anticipate the kind of unpredictable future that an Other could bring. She is stuck in the present, only able to refer to the past.[5]

She now has the responsibility of keeping two kinds of past. The first relates to her subjective experience; these are her personal memories, which belong to her alone. The second is the cultural sphere of memory, which includes art and history, and once belonged to everyone. While Kate could a have direct experience considering a work of art, authentically being in a mode of interpretation, her subjective experience of history lies only within archival sources. She did not witness Rembrandt mistaking a painted coin for a real one, nor could she have seen Tchaikovsky holding onto his head while conducting his first orchestra.

Kate wishes to eradicate herself from the first kind of past. She says she normally does not allow herself to indulge in thinking about it, but when she does, and of course it’s inevitable, depression washes over her.

“In fact when I finally did solve why I had been feeling depressed what I told myself was that if necessary I would simply never again allow myself to put down any of such things at all.”[6]

This bout of depression is the first of many instances when she takes long sabbaticals from writing. Only a superficial reading assumes loneliness as the cause of her temporary vacation from typing.

“Wittgenstein was never married, by the way. Well, or never had a mistress either, having been a homosexual.

Although in the meantime when I just said in the meantime I truly did mean in the meantime.

It now being almost an entire week since I additionally said I would doubtless think of my cat’s name in a day or two.”[7]

According to Kate, what caused her sojourn was forgetting then remembering the memory of her son’s serious responsibility of naming a cat and how it paralleled her own plight. But by a deeper investigation of the text, in conjunction with the title, the sojourn followed her realization of her own undoing: Wittgenstein never had a mistress.

There are no chapter breaks, no breaks of any kind, so when Kate tells us that she has taken leave, it is a signal for the reader to pause and digest. A “mistress” has two connotations, the first being analogous to “master”, meaning Kate would be the master of Wittgenstein, and the second being Wittgenstein’s paramour, complete with all the trappings of loneliness due to Wittgenstein being unable to identity Kate as the loved being, the object of his affection. Either way, as mistress she is the perennial Other to Wittgenstein. Her Being is dependent, and in realizing, or stating that Wittgenstein did not have a mistress, she is suffering an existential crisis, a lapse of ontological insecurity.

Fingers outstretched with hope, Kate consistently reaches outside of herself into the collective past. She very well may be like the rosy-fingered dawn. In the beginning her search for somebody, anybody is surely a sign of optimism, and the haunting last words may still signify hope, albeit a futile one as the tides are ineluctable, but still she has not committed suicide, which is more that a lot of us would do. She is more comfortable in the shared realm of historicity, and Kate’s preferred subjects of historicity are classical representations which mirror her situation and the artists that created them. For Kate, these mirrored images are much easier to reflect on than the geography of her own Dasein.

As a protagonist, a work of art, as a masterpiece she will live forever, but as an staining artist with aches and pains, forgetting and confusing facts, she too will cease to be.

“Even if life does go on, of course.

Although when I say does go on, I should really be saying did go, naturally.

Having let any number of similar mistakes in tenses slip by before this, it now strikes me.”[8]

Life does did goes on. Kate is further undoing herself. She sees little point of a future, or rather, she cannot imagine one outside of the predictable routine she is living. This fictitious world is blank, like her 45 square footed canvas. And like her canvas, which is like a mirror, she wishes to set fire to it. She wants to live her life in a past that isn’t wholly her own. She wants to be able to reach out, be at the heart of the circular world, because without the collective past there is only herself, no one else whom she can be equidistant from.

So she retreats into facts, contemplating the men dying at the Dardenelles, the Hellespont, then a different set of men dying 3000 years later on the same soil during the Great War. She finds comfort in that “extraordinary” coincidence. Kate unites herself with others through history, and this gives her a sense of unity, the only union that she can muster given her circumstances.

 

4. Palimpsest, or all the Dasein downstairs.

 

Like Joyce’s Ulysses, where the title is given as a guide to read the text’s structure like an Odyssean map, Wittgenstein’s Mistress renders “the very bleak mathematical world Wittgenstein’s Tractatus [Logico-Philosophicus] revolutionized philosophy by summoning via abstract argument.”[9] Kate is living in an imaginary portrait- the kind of world the logic and metaphysics that Wittgenstein’s Tractatus posits.

The Tractatus philosophy sees “language, like math, as logic-based: and [Wittgenstein] viewed the paradigmatic function of language as mirroring or ‘picturing’ the world. From this latter belief, everything in the Tractatus follows, just as Kate’s own fetish for paintings, mirrors, & the status of mental representations like memories & associations & perceptions forms the canvas on which her memoir must be sketched.”[10] According to Wittgenstein, or as some differentiate, early Wittgenstein, the world is nothing but a massive compilation of data, logically circumspect facts, that have no intrinsic relationship to one another.

And language is the world’s mirror, created by man to reflect, communicate these facts with other Beings.

Language can never merely be a tool because we owe our Being to language. It plays a part in the rudimentary revelation of the world; it is part of what enables us to be someone and notice things in the first place. Like the first time we look into a mirror, for instance.

And here is where ontological security breaks down. Words do not have  “unambiguous” or “literal” meanings. Sure, there are assumptions within language, otherwise simple communication would be impossible, but these meanings are only seemingly obvious. Once the word is deconstructed, it becomes muddled and a case of philosophical inquiry in and of itself.

Heidegger began elevating poetry in his later works, saying that poetry recaptures the illuminating power that secretly resides in our ordinary words, allowing us to see the world as if for the first time. As Dasein is primarily disclosed, he thinks our most authentic relationship to language is poetic because it displays an act of “unconcealment.” And according to Heidegger, ordinary prose is just poetry that has lost its disclosure force.

What Heidegger is forgetting, or dismissing, is all the narrative devices tilling within a work of fiction. Leaving aside prose poetry, or even lyrical prose, the metaphors, synecdoches, tropes, metonymns, ironies, etc. of the novel also unveil Dasein’s existential predicament, its generally evaded Being-towards-death.

“But then what is there that is not in my head?

So that it is like a bloody museum, sometimes.

Or as if I have been appointed curator of all the world.

Well, as I was, as in a manner of speaking I undeniably am.”[11]

Kate’s job is to display, organize, structure, and oversee the ghostly world, which is a synecdoche for the mind of a solipsist. The passage above, in conjunction with Markson’s novel as a whole, reveal, unconceal, a “truth” in Dasein, but in a way that requires hermeneutical interpretation.

“What occurs for the phenomenology of the acts of consciousness as the self-manifestion of phenomena is thought more originally by Aristotle and in all Greek thinking and existence as aletheia, as the unconcealedness of what is present, its being revealed, its showing itself.”[12]

Because Heidegger gives careful analysis to the different senses of appearing and strongly emphasizes that cases where things show themselves as what they are not- dissemblance, appearance, semblance, and illusion- are all secondary senses dependent on the primary meaning of “phenomenon” as that which shows itself in itself.

Can Kate, as both art and artist, truly show herself in herself?

And as Wittgenstein’s Mistress can be seen as “translation” of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, one that has Kate living alone in a mathematically factual hell, Heidegger would think her Dasein doomed from the start.

Heidegger fears thinking has become a kind of technical information processing. For him, this is the greatest threat to human existence because it leads to a fundamental homelessness, or rootlessness. When he said that language is the house of Being, he meant poetic language. Thinking philosophically, living as an artist, or rather creating art, are ways of guarding the essential nature of the human relation with Being.

Kate is stuck in oscillation, swaying back and forth not just between authenticity and inauthenticity, but also between the data filled isolation of the Tractatus and a constant attempt to set Dasein free.

 

5. Nonlinear, discontinuous, collage-like, an assemblage.

 

Homer’s Odyssey takes place over the same amount of time that Kate has been isolated. The twists and turns that drive Ulysses off course can stand as metaphors for Kate’s prose, but that would be assuming that Wittgenstein’s Mistress has a purpose, an end to the journey.

Wittgenstein’s Mistress is a canonical expression of the great modernist thematics of alienation, solitude, social fragmentation, and isolation, an approximately programmatic emblem of what used to be called the Age of Anxiety, in other words, the epoch of Heidegger.

All the while having been created in the postmodern era.

“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.”[13]

Again, for Heidegger, the work of art emerges within the gap between the temporality of the body and nature and the meaning bestowed on history and the social. He gives a hermeneutical interpretation of Van Gogh’s painting , discussing how these luminous peasant shoes, these inert objects, immediately re-create the peasant’s life, somehow illuminating the shoes’ memories. “In them,” says Heidegger, “there vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quiet gift of ripening corn and its enigmatic self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field.”[14]

It is a cliché within postmodern works of art that there is no space for the viewer, no room for hermeneutical interpretation. And yet Wittgenstein’s Mistress, considered a postmodern novel, almost seems to be written specifically for the viewer, and furthermore, screams for interpretation.

Just as Kate is screaming at us to validate her Dasein.

This brings me to the hermeneutical circle.

All questioning carries certain presumptions that oversee the inquiry and even predetermine to a certain extent what can be discovered. We are then unveiling the answer in the light of what we already know. “If we must first define an entity in its Being, and if we want to formulate the question of Being only on this basis, what is this but going in a circle?”[15]

But the circle is neither heartless nor closed, it just entails a certain relatedness backward or forward. This means our awareness grows or decays depending on the kind of lives we lead or the kind of social, or cultural, situations we dwell in.

This seems rather bleak for someone dwelling entirely within language. 

Kate’s prose clearly mirrors the Tractatus, but does more than epitomize Wittgenstein’s philosophy. Her epigrams also speak with the lyricism and precision of Beckett, and the faintly mad Lockean associations are reminiscent of Lawrence Sterne.

She does seem to go in circles, or spirals, or loops, but there is method to her madness. “Kate’s textual obsession is simply to find connections between things, any strands that bind the historical facts & empirical data that are all her world comprises.”[16] If the content should dictate form, and the content is Kate’s mind, then the structure must follow the logical jumps her mind makes and the (seemingly) irrational moods from which she views the world, and record with absolute, mathematical precision the directions in which they both take.

“In fact Paris himself has gone to Mount Ida to die by then, as well, because of still another arrow.

Even if one is forced to read books by people with names like Dictys of Crete, or Dares the Phrygian, or Quintus from Smyrna, to learn such things, since the Iliad does not go that far.

I dropped the pages from those books into the fire after reading the reverse sides of each too, as I recall.

In the Louvre, this would have been, which is perhaps three bridges away from the Pont Neuf.

Once , that same winter, I signed a mirror. In one of the women’s rooms, with a lipstick.”[17]

Not only do these sentences link one after the other, the images communicate, look back at one another, sprout other metaphors. Through two sentences’ distension there is a quiet copulation, a seductive dance that can override logic. In this kind of manipulation, facts can appear funny, or sad, or full of anxiety. But more importantly, facts are fallible. Kate as keeper of ghosts and data is subject to her own ego and consciousness. She may have control over what she writes, as to avoid typing Magritte, but she has no control over the tortuous nature of how a mind thinks, or even her need to write, whether it is to communicate or record. It’s the need to prove her existence that drives the narrative forward.

That and it’s the nature of Dasein: even if she couldn’t go on, she must.  

Much like Tchaikovski, she seems to be making art with one hand and holding onto her head for dear life with the other.

Despite the lack of other characters, there is a dramatic tension, there is a kind of suspense. And despite this nonlinear format, there is a plot. Things happen.

As Kate is perpetually present, the novel must move forward, even as it’s moving inwards, and upwards, and twirling, twirling.

When she signs the mirror she signs her own image, but then she signs another name: Jeanne Hébuterne, and immediately after that line she tells us that she is staining, staining her own image, staining the name of Jeanne Hébuterne, staining the mirror.

One’s sense of self is contingent on how others see us from the outside. There is no need for an identity when you’re the last Being on the planet. The future possibilities that define one as an individual would be moot, as there is only one individual. No need to distinguish, no negative to reflect off of.

Therefore our identity is authored by other people.

Kate begins to wonder if she exists, or in other words, if she is nothing.

 

6. To be or not to be?

 

When thinking about writing an autobiographical novel, a very meta thought, Kate says,

“Except that what one senses even this readily is that there would very likely be almost no way for such a novel to end.

Especially once the heroine had finally become convinced that she may as well stop looking after all, and so could also stop being mad again.”[18]

Earlier she tells us that madness is the only way to maintain sanity. She then burns a few houses to the ground. As Kate sets fire to her past, she becomes more and more vague. She, as in her body, and even the accuracy of her facts, not because she is lying, but it seems as if she too, like The Last Supper, is already beginning to decay.

“In fact I believe there is a representation of a person lurking at the window of my very bedroom in it, even, although one had never been able to be positive about that.

Well, because of the brushwork being fairly abstract at that point, basically.”[19]

Twelve paragraphs later she follows in that specific line of thinking:

“And even if I am still at a total loss in regards to that painting.

Which I may or may not have painted myself, incidentally, if I have not said.”[20]

At first the person in the painting made her feel as if she were not alone, that the image of the mysterious person in her bedroom were actually upstairs in her bedroom. In this instance, art makes her feel among others.

But as her mind begins to deteriorate, she reveals that the person in the painting may well be an image of her, recalling the past question: do things, people, Willem de Kooning, continue to exist after they are erased? Or is it more likely that Kate never existed, and only in the end began to realize that? And as the realization slowly began to take effect it was as if the Hemlock began coursing through her veins, or rather, the turpentine, and that thought opened her eyes to an existence that was already illusory in the first place. 


[1] It has been pointed out by David Foster Wallace that “extraordinary” in Danish is accusative as opposed to nominative, meaning “extraordinary” has also been translated as “terrible” and “fearful”.

[2] Heidegger; an Introduction. Richard Polt, quoting Martin Heidegger’s History of the Concept of Time. 175-176.

[3] Being and Time. Martin Heidegger. 27; 7

[4] Introduction to Phenomenology. Dermot Moran. 238.

[5] We are only given her dull, predictable existence, therefore assuming it will continue in this manner unto death, but there is a glimmer of possible dread or even anticipation of an unforeseen natural (supernatural?) catastrophe.

[6] Wittgenstein’s Mistress. David Markson. 228.

[7] Markson. 220.

[8] Markson. 225.

[9] The Empty Plenum: David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress. David Foster Wallace. 219.

[10] Wallace. 224.

[11] Markson. 227.

[12] On Time and Being. Heidegger. 79

[13] Markson. 171.

[14] Postmodernism; or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Fredric Jameson, quoting Heidegger. 8.

[15] Being and Time. Heidegger. § 2, 27; 7

[16] Wallace. 225.

[17] Markson. 154-155.

[18] Markson. 231.

[19] Markson. 237.

[20] Markson. 238.

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I have been on sabbatical. Clearly. With good reason. I gave birth to both a novel and a child. Both are currently soundly sleeping beside me, and, looking at the two of them, each bound and swaddled, my heart bursts at its borders. I am wildly in love, and it’s the best fucking feeling in the world.

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Ms. Aria Josephine Block was not planned. I was on the pill. My partner and I had just moved from Minnesota to Chicago. One of our two extremely beloved cats had just passed away and we had had four thousand dollars, our entire nest egg, snatched from our future. We were unemployed and homeless, squatting in a house whose owner, an old family friend, was dying inside a nursing home. It was our job to pack up her things and bring them to Goodwill. We were sad and deflated. The stereo was often playing a requiem and once again I had a cigarette in my hand.

Surrounded, overwhelmed, choking on self-imposed meaninglessness, I longed for something different, an unforeseen lightening bolt of unfamiliar. Then, in May, I noticed I hadn’t had a headache in five days, which for me is both a record and a signal. I had read that migraines are supposed to improve with pregnancy. Suddenly, ubiquitously, all I could feel was my uterus expanding. So we bought a pregnancy test.

We weren’t concerned about every crushing horrible thing that had happened to us; at this point the bulk of it had surpassed embarrassment and transcended to the level of comedy. And with this flash of potential good news we reflected on how awesome and amazing our relationship truly is. We had met in grad school. In class I had compared something, love probably (we were reading Ovid’s METAMORPHOSIS), to being hit with a refrigerator door. “Did you just quote Elaine Scarry?” He said. I immediately was in love. To get him to ask me out I followed him down the stairs to the bathroom. I was wearing a mini skirt with royal blue tights underneath. I thought if I waited on the stairs and started ascending as he emerged from the bathroom he would look up my skirt and fall into a frenzy of lust and ask me out. It completely worked. Our first date was thirty-six hours long and within a week we were practically living together, combining our cats and naming our potential children. Boys names were invariably harder but we knew we wanted an Aria.

And now, saying goodbye to Joy Division really made us realize how much we wanted a family. We were emotionally ready, all we needed was financial security, and that would happen. It had to. If I was pregnant we were going to make this work one way or another. We had no choice.

As we waited for that torturous plastic stick to reveal our destiny, we held hands, giggled, and were astonished at the irresponsibility of our blatant desire to see two pink lines appear. When they did we cried.

That was maybe the highlight of my pregnancy.

Not that I had a high-risk pregnancy, or even a bad one, I just didn’t so much enjoy being pregnant.

There were other moments of bliss and happiness, particularly our wedding, which was such a simple affair we did it in our living room in slippers. I did wear a white dress just because I loved the symbolism of wearing white while eight months pregnant. I also really wanted the dress Beatrix Kiddo sported in the opening scene of KILL BILL. I scoured etsy for days, and just my luck a hand sewn, close-enough replica arrived on my doorway first class from Argentina.

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At that point Aria was on my sciatic nerve, I was waddling, my throat was raw from reflux, and I still could only barely stomach my dinner. Truth be told, and no one warned me, pregnancy blows. There are a thousand things that could go wrong, but even when it goes right it’s still dangerous, uncomfortable, and damaging. But it’s all worth it, friends would say. Obviously! If it wasn’t I would’ve had an abortion. Sure, it was nice to feel her kick inside, and I did enjoy watching my belly expand and that feeling of a higher purpose, but that’s all merely a consolation prize.

I was sick. The entire time. The nausea I felt in my first trimester was unlike any nausea I had ever experienced. I could taste the human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) hormone coursing through my body. Though it was powerful and relentless, I never vomited, mainly because I’ve developed emetophobia from the migraines, but I was constantly wishing I would, or could, even though there was something about the nausea that told you you could puke until it was down to bile and still you wouldn’t get a shred of relief. It wasn’t like being hung over. It wasn’t like food poisoning. It was like a super nausea gnawing away at your will.

My body was revolting against the creature taking possession of it. Every cell wanted this foreign usurper out of me. I spent three months rolling on the floor eating nothing but apple sauce.

I am only kidding slightly. I lost twenty pounds and developed an intense anger toward men.

Not Ryan. Men. The patriarchy.

Simone de Beauvoir writes,

When two human categories find themselves face to face, each one wants to impose its sovereignty on the other; if both hold this claim equally, a reciprocal relationship is created, either hostile or friendly, but always tense. If one of the two has an advantage over the other that one prevails and works to maintain the relationship by oppression.

Pregnancy, a sickness really, left me weak and vulnerable. In other words, I was at a disadvantage, and though I knew that this state has been what had kept women oppressed since the dawn of people, I never quite felt it so acutely until now. And I was pissed. I began devouring narratives, particularly those of crappy television, and becoming more and more irate with each innocently misogynistic joke or the turgid bulk of reminders beaming our objectification. We are rarely protagonists, and when we are it’s still in the vein of chick lit, something to do either with love or motherhood. Though shockingly all of the pregnancy movies I watched were about men coping with the impending change, as though it were their show. Women are still written as passive, or obversely, as males masquerading as “strong females,” à la Starbuck or Lisbeth Salander.

Also, my hatred of organized religion started rising to a level of an obsession as a I tallied all the truly awful headlines shouting at me from around the world, particularly in the east. It didn’t help that A SUBURB OF MONOGAMY, my novel, deals with a Catholic mistress struggling to admit that she’s an atheist, that she never believed, that her god had marked her a second class citizen.

Ultimately all this, and that I was getting so much mail sent to a Mrs. Ryan Block, made me finally decide not to take Ryan’s name. (We also decided not to hyphenate because Block-Borders sounds too anti-immigration.)

Women didn’t escape my ire either. So many of them happily signing themselves up for this, not caring, or worse, wanting to be enslaved. So many of them following a book that refers to them as property, that calls for their own limitations, and advises brutal beatings and killings for those who step out of line. And yet so many of them stupidly tout that feminism is a dirty word, that whine about the death of chivalry, that say they enjoy being the fairer sex, all in the name of vanity, lust, and a fear of rejection. Yes, I hate a lot of women too.

And I felt all this hate growing inside of me as though it were Aria’s sinister twin.

This festered and manifested in physical discomfort.

I was unable to concentrate on much anything other than what was happening, and what would happen to me. I was becoming a mother, and I could not wrap my head around that.

I never felt “one” with Aria. She was always separate, her own person, an alien occupying my uterus.

My body was no longer my own. In a sense I was giving up my individuality for the benefit of my baby, for the benefit of the species that demands this abdication in order to ensure its future. I was a servant, and yet, I felt empowered. I became a waddling contradiction. All at once I was alienated from myself and completely consumed with myself. Growing a baby was greater than my ego but also incredibly narcissistic. I was creating someone I hope outlives me. I was creating someone I would die for. In a sense, I was preparing myself for my inevitable death, but also, deeper in my subconscious, I was in denial, thinking that I was cloning myself, that through my child I would live forever, that what was happening was not mitosis, more like I was asexual, splitting myself, undergoing meiosis. 

Another thing I wasn’t prepared for was how exhausted and stupid I had become. I could sleep thirteen hours and still be tired. I developed the memory of a goldfish. My analytical skills evaporated. I’d miss obvious connections and insights. I’d reread old books and instead of making new connections I was impressed at what I had already written in the margins. So I took a break.

And now I have a baby. A fiercely independent, adorably curious, dangerously intrepid baby who’s eager as hell, often impatient, and sometimes lazy. She has her father’s eyes and my nose. When I look at her I am so unbelievably inspired to make this world better for her, for all little girls. In her room I had framed a poster of a little girl in knight’s armor, wielding a sword and riding a stallion. Underneath her it reads, i can save myself. And I want to teach her that, Yes, Aria, you can save yourself.

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All of this is the basis for my next novel, a young adult fantasy with more than “a strong female lead,” with a real person filled with contradicting and dynamic thoughts and feelings. A human being in search of values, dealing, coping with her own temporality and authentic self. Because women have existential crises too.

She has changed both me and my work forever. Not to say I’ll stop running my literary erotica journal, Omnia Vanitas Review, whose next issue is due out in a month or two. I’m just so full of love and joy. I’m beyond ecstatic and grateful for this baby who’s now strapped to my chest (Moms, if you don’t have a Moby Wrap, get one!), sleeping, but facing me with the most adorable, wonderful little face. And though pregnancy does totally suck, cuddling with your baby may be the greatest thing ever. Even now, as I type this, I know I will miss it forever once it’s gone.

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Someday maybe I’ll write about our protracted, hellish labor and delivery, but that is an entirely separate affair.

This all has been one utterly amazing experience. One that has been oppressively time consuming and often very painful, but one that has made me feel so alive! And I wouldn’t give any of it up for anything.

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I should’ve posted this soooner…

Tuesday is Omnia Vanitas Review‘s “deadline” for our second issue: Operatic Veils.

And as we know the chicanery surrounding the Ides of March, we understand if some people are too superstitious to submit on such an ominous date. Therefore, let it be known that our supposed deadline is merely a suggestive approximation. We will consider any and all late submissions as long as they are not grossly late, but in that case, there’s always next issue! We’ll post on the website when we’re officially closed for Operatic Veils submissions.

So, without further ado:

Omnia Vanitas Review is now accepting submissions for their upcoming second issue: “Operatic Veils.”

This can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways, however, only the ways that suit us best will be considered for publication. We are interested in defining, defiling, and defending barriers. We are interested in operas, mechanical operations, and operational machinations. We like layers upon layers of everything and words richer than cream. An…d we love literature that skirts the edges of what language can do.

Please take a look at our past journal, “The Invisible Corset,” to get an idea of what we’re looking for.

http://omniavanitasreview.com/invisiblecorset.html

We will be considering poetry, fiction, creative-nonfiction, essays, as well as both visual and video art, though some of the latter pieces may only be featured on the website (for obvious reasons).

Please send all submissions to Omnia.Vanitas.Review@gmail.com

Please include the word “submission” in the subject line.

Multiple submissions are okay, but send each submission as an individual Microsoft Word document (.docx okay) or PDF email attachment.

“Deadline” to be included in our “Operatic Veils” Issue: The Ides of March, 2011.

As we are an aspiring literary journal, we regretfully are unable to pay our authors, but what we lack in cash we make up for in love.

We look forward to hearing from you!

Sincerely,
Catherine Borders, Oleander Underhill, and Lily Robert-Foley

Any other questions any of you may have please refer to our website: http://omniavanitasreview.com/

And, of course, if you wish to “like” us or “friend” us on Facebook we would love to have you!

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In 2004 Shelley Jackson launched her project SKIN, a story published in tattoos on 2095 volunteers. One of those volunteers is one of Omnia Vanitas Review‘s very own lovely editors, Ms. Lily Robert-Foley.

This is part of that story as told through those voices and read on their marked bodies with their own stories.

What’s so fascinating is how each word, already inscribed on a text, moves through texts, bonding to and inserting itself within other texts, exists outside of both their own text and Jackson’s texts, creating a third text of immeasurable size and weight, leaving the reader of the word, the wearer of the word, aware of the inevitability of natural erosion. Rebutting the claim that “writing is words that stay,” this story moves, it breathes, it hurts, it loves, and, eventually, it dies.

From this time on, participants will be known as “words”. They are not understood as carriers or agents of the texts they bear, but as its embodiments. As a result, injuries to the printed texts, such as dermabrasion, laser surgery, tattoo cover work or the loss of body parts, will not be considered to alter the work. Only the death of words effaces them from the text. As words die the story will change; when the last word dies the story will also have died. The author will make every effort to attend the funerals of her words.

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According to poet and dictionary writer, Dr. Robert Beard, these are the 100 most beautiful words in the English language, and though I haven’t created a list of my own, I am rather fond of his (which he has turned into a book of short essays).

Ailurophile A cat-lover.
Assemblage A gathering.
Becoming Attractive.
Beleaguer To exhaust with attacks.
Brood To think alone.
Bucolic In a lovely rural setting.
Bungalow A small, cozy cottage.
Chatoyant Like a cat’s eye.
Comely Attractive.
Conflate To blend together.
Cynosure A focal point of admiration.
Dalliance A brief love affair.
Demesne Dominion, territory.
Demure Shy and reserved.
Denouement The resolution of a mystery.
Desuetude Disuse.
Desultory Slow, sluggish.
Diaphanous Filmy.
Dissemble Deceive.
Dulcet Sweet, sugary.
Ebullience Bubbling enthusiasm.
Effervescent Bubbly.
Efflorescence Flowering, blooming.
Elision Dropping a sound or syllable in a word.
Elixir A good potion.
Eloquence Beauty and persuasion in speech.
Embrocation Rubbing on a lotion.
Emollient A softener.
Ephemeral Short-lived.
Epiphany A sudden revelation.
Erstwhile At one time, for a time.
Ethereal Gaseous, invisible but detectable.
Evanescent Vanishing quickly, lasting a very short time.
Evocative Suggestive.
Fetching Pretty.
Felicity Pleasantness.
Forbearance Withholding response to provocation.
Fugacious Fleeting.
Furtive Shifty, sneaky.
Gambol To skip or leap about joyfully.
Glamour Beauty.
Gossamer The finest piece of thread, a spider’s silk
Halcyon Happy, sunny, care-free.
Harbinger Messenger with news of the future.
Imbrication Overlapping and forming a regular pattern.
Imbroglio An altercation or complicated situation.
Imbue To infuse, instill.
Incipient Beginning, in an early stage.
Ineffable Unutterable, inexpressible.
Ingénue A naïve young woman.
Inglenook A cozy nook by the hearth.
Insouciance Blithe nonchalance.
Inure To become jaded.
Labyrinthine Twisting and turning.
Lagniappe A special kind of gift.
Lagoon A small gulf or inlet.
Languor Listlessness, inactivity.
Lassitude Weariness, listlessness.
Leisure Free time.
Lilt To move musically or lively.
Lissome Slender and graceful.
Lithe Slender and flexible.
Love Deep affection.
Mellifluous Sweet sounding.
Moiety One of two equal parts.
Mondegreen A slip of the ear.
Murmurous Murmuring.
Nemesis An unconquerable archenemy.
Offing The sea between the horizon and the offshore.
Onomatopoeia A word that sounds like its meaning.
Opulent Lush, luxuriant.
Palimpsest A manuscript written over earlier ones.
Panacea A solution for all problems
Panoply A complete set.
Pastiche An art work combining materials from various sources.
Penumbra A half-shadow.
Petrichor The smell of earth after rain.
Plethora A large quantity.
Propinquity An inclination.
Pyrrhic Successful with heavy losses.
Quintessential Most essential.
Ratatouille A spicy French stew.
Ravel To knit or unknit.
Redolent Fragrant.
Riparian By the bank of a stream.
Ripple A very small wave.
Scintilla A spark or very small thing.
Sempiternal Eternal.
Seraglio Rich, luxurious oriental palace or harem.
Serendipity Finding something nice while looking for something else.
Summery Light, delicate or warm and sunny.
Sumptuous Lush, luxurious.
Surreptitious Secretive, sneaky.
Susquehanna A river in Pennsylvania.
Susurrous Whispering, hissing.
Talisman A good luck charm.
Tintinnabulation Tinkling.
Umbrella Protection from sun or rain.
Untoward Unseemly, inappropriate.
Vestigial In trace amounts.
Wafture Waving.
Wherewithal The means.
Woebegone Sorrowful, downcast.

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As seen circulating around the blogosphere, Ten Most Influential Books. In no hierarchic order. These are the books I hold nearest and dearest. These are the books that shaped me as a writer, and as a person.

1. Henry and June by Anaïs Nin.

Ms. Nin came to me at a liminal time when I was deciding whether or not I would write. Up until this point I had only written journals, diaries, or really terrible, sincere poetry. Writing was something secretive, something I did in shame. Ms. Nin taught me that the subjective experience is beautiful, universal, important. She unapologetically writes like a woman, with such abundance and honesty. She is a creator, a mother, a goddess. Her insights on the terrible joys of her own disintegration inspired me for decades to record and observe everything that mattered to me.

I want to be a strong poet, as strong as Henry and John are in their realism. I want to combat them, to invade and annihilate them. What baffles me about Henry and what attracts me are the flashes of insight, and the flashes of dreams. Fugitive. And the depths. Rub off the German realist, the man who “stands for shit,” as Wambly Bald says to him, and you get a lusty imagist. At moments he can say the most delicate or profound things. But his softness is dangerous, because when he writes he does not write with love, he writes to caricature, against something. Anger incites him. I am always for something. Anger poisons me. I love, I love, I love.

2. Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson.

Wittgenstein’s Mistress is a canonical expression, a postmodern acceleration of the great modernist thematics of alienation, solitude, social fragmentation, and isolation. “In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street,” the first line reads, says, because one does get the sense that Kate is speaking to you, that she needs you. She is the last person ­­­– the only living being – on earth. There are no other Beings off of whom Kate can bounce her identity anymore. She can no longer anticipate the kind of unpredictable future that an Other could bring. She is stuck in the present, only able to refer to the past (particularly, the literary past). She is the soul keeper of all of humanity, responsible for the cultural sphere of memory, which includes art and history, subjects which once belonged to everyone. She types up all that she can remember, as it relates to her conscious thoughts. Trying to relate all of this, every fact she can remember, Kate types, to herself, to no one, for herself, for humanity, one fragment at a time, with such precision that she begins to lose the thread. Wittgenstein’s Mistress taught me about allegory, about the boundaries of the novel, and about the slippery nature of language. This is the best representation, I can think of, of the human mind, how it remembers and how it communicates.

Wittgenstein was never married, by the way. Well, or never had a mistress either, having been a homosexual.

Although in the meantime when I just said in the meantime I truly did mean in the meantime.

It now being almost an entire week since I additionally said I would doubtless think of my cat’s name in a day or two.

3. The Melancholy of Anatomy by Shelley Jackson.

Melancholy of Anatomy is a collection of short stories that turn the body inside-out. Each organ or bodily abjection she depicts becomes conscious, dangerous, symbolic of our bodies as a mélange, as fragmented, as fragile. She creates a fantasy world where giant ovum suddenly appear outside, sperm fly through the air like insects, and menstrual blood gushes through pipes. When I was assigned this back in college, I had yet come across a wedding of Écriture feminine and fantasy, most of the contemporary feminine writing I had seen was essay about writing, I couldn’t recall any fiction. In Melancholy of Anatomy, every line delivers a new idea, playing off of the last, enriching, filling her stories to the brim with equally gorgeous and uncomfortable squishy goodness. Her prose is tense, both academic and playful, and though the rest of the class complained she was pretentious, I couldn’t have fallen more in love with Jackson’s rich text, her courageous style and subject matter, and her endlessly sharp mind. Later, when I studied under her, I was just as in awe.

There are hearts bigger than planets: black hearts that absorb all light, hope, and dust particles, that eat comets and space probes.

4. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being opens with Nietzsche’s concept of eternal return, that maybe, possibly, every moment in our agonizingly detailed life will be repeated again and again in the exact same manner forever. Sometimes, that thought is too much, too heavy. But then again, if we do only live once, then it may as well never happen. This was my first flirtation with nihilism, with death and meaninglessness, all concepts that seem incredibly grim, but I also found them inspiring. I wanted to live my life like an art project. For years I told people that this was my favorite book, I thought it made the world a better place simply by existing. I related to every character: Tomas and his omnipotence, his hubris; Tereza and her physical insecurity, her ontological insecurity; Franz and his passion, his quixotries; but mostly, I identified with Sabina, because I used to consider myself a mistress, and an artist. She was everything I wanted to be: unencumbered, powerful, sincere, authentic. It was such a pleasure to pretend that for the longest time she was my primary role model.

When they looked at each other in the mirror that time, all she saw for the first few seconds was a comic situation. But suddenly the comic became veiled by excitement: the bowler no longer signified a joke; it signified violence: violence against Sabina, against her dignity as a woman. She saw her bare legs and thins panties with her pubic triangle showing through. The lingerie enhanced the charm of her femininity, while the hard masculine hat denied it, violated and ridiculed it. The fact that Tomas stood beside her fully dressed meant that the essence of what they both saw was far from good clean fun (if it had been fun he was after, he, too, would have had to strip and don a bowler hat); it was humiliation. But instead of spurning it, she proudly, provocatively played it for all it was worth, as if submitting of her own will to public rape; and suddenly, unable to wait any longer, she pulled Tomas down to the floor. The bowler hat rolled under the table, and they began thrashing about on the rug at the foot of the mirror.

5. Nightwood by Djuna Barnes.

It was a toss up for me, deciding between Nightwood and Ryder, but in the end I came down on Nightwood. It’s perfect. The kind of perfect that’s almost discouraging. Christopher Hitchens says this about Nabokov. Djuna Barnes says this about Joyce. I’m saying this about her. She takes the high modernist style and appropriates it into her own. Jeanette Winterson writes that “reading [Nightwood] is like drinking wine with a pearl dissolving in the glass.” Queer and blasphemous. Gothic and lyrical. Rich and dazzling. Plotless and wise. Barnes’ prose renders me speechless. She was unapologetically opinionated, boner-shrinkingly powerful, and always in a tremendous amount of pain. Nightwood is essentially a roman à clef about Barnes’ devastating relationship with Thelma Wood, who is only thinly disguised as Robin Vote.

Sleeping in a bed, surrounded by plants and exotic flowers, heavy and disheveled, we first meet Robin, who is described with such beauty, such longing, such ache. This woman can love.

The perfume that her body exhaled was of the quality of that earth-flesh, fungi, which smells of captured dampness and yet is so dry, overcast with the odour of oil of amber, which is an inner malady of the sea, making her seen as if she had invaded a sleep incautious and entire. Her flesh was the texture of plant life, and beneath it one sensed a frame, broad, porous and sleep-worn, as if sleep were a decay fishing her beneath the visible surface. Above her head there was an effulgence as of phosphorus glowing about the circumference of a body of water–as if her life lay through her in ungainly luminous deterioration–the troubling structure of the born somnambule, who lives in two worlds–meet of child and desperado.

Like a painting by the douanier Rousseau, she seemed to lie in a jungle trapped in a drawing room (in the apprehension of which the walls have made their escape), thrown in among the carnivorous flowers as their ration; the set, the property of an unseen dompteur, half lord, half promoter, over which one expects to hear the strains of an orchestra of wood-winds render a serenade which will popularize the wilderness.

Nora, my protagonist in A Suburb of Monogamy, is an homage to Ms. Barnes.

6. Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha.

Dictee is a nonlinear, multilayered, fragmented, cyclical text written in white ink. Like the painful, beautiful act of giving blood, the novel’s life force transfers from one body to another. One heroine to another. Always becoming. The self dissolves into, with, because of, the transmutability of selves. Dictee opened up new worlds of structure for me. It redefined the novel, yet again, but in ways beyond Markson, beyond House of Leaves, beyond language. Dictee is a work of art, an experience. Everything Hélène Cixous had ever taught me I was now seeing in Dictee. Cha, as a displaced Korean woman, writes in a borrowed tongue, mainly in her allotted English language, but also several others, because she has no language of her own, and because she wants her readers to experience the “in between.” Something is always lost in even the most direct (impossible!) translation, even in the translation of thought to language. Cha effectively illustrates that all women’s words are veiled, exposed as being cloaked in mystery, but still, it’s better to speak, even under a veil.

Cixous asks women to break through Phallogocentrism; start an aphonic revolt; leave not a single space untouched within language that is man’s alone. She wants us to “dislocate this annihilating within….explode it…impregnate it!” Cha does exactly this. Each one of her images, her allegories, all begat another, then another; her words open up like flowers, each carrying a precious seedling, and ready, at any moment, to spread their love.

Lift me to the window to the picture image unleash the ropes tied to weights of stones first the ropes then its scraping on wood to break stillness as the bells fall peal follow the sound of ropes holding weight scraping on wood to break stillness bells fall a peal to the sky.

7. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman.

I finished each of these three books the same way: on the sixteenth hour, pacing back and forth across my living room floor, laughing, gasping, crying, keeping myself awake, just to finish, because I couldn’t stop, because I didn’t want them to end.

Both Pullman and his novels are renowned atheists. He took the questions of God, consciousness, and the beginning of life, and he answered them. As a child, I was raised Catholic. Catholic school and everything. At a young age I began to question my faith. Then I began to fear death, which I began to think of as non-existence, pure blackness, meaninglessness. And this terrified me. Heaven wasn’t reassuring because I didn’t believe in heaven. I could’ve used His Dark Materials to help answer some of those torments. He masterfully illustrates that for some, simply returning to the earth is preferable to what could quite possible turn out to be a celestial North Korea. Pullman’s God character is not God but the first being to become conscious of himself. A tyrannical regime that splits children from their souls has been erected in his honor, and it’s up to a little girl, her daemon (which is an animal manifestation of her soul or psyche), and some friends to help save all the creatures in all the worlds that are conscious of themselves. This takes guts. His Dark Materials is a magical, thoughtful, and perspicacious book, and what I really like, is that Pullman shows that morality does not solely lie within the church, that it is an inherent quality to intelligence and love.

As Mary said that, Lyra felt something strange happen to her body. She found a stirring at the roots of her hair: she found herself breathing faster. She had never been on a roller-coaster, or anything like one, but if she had, she would have recognized the sensations in her breast: they were exciting and frightening at the same time, and she had not the slightest idea why. The sensation continued, and deepened, and changed, as more parts of her body found themselves affected too. She felt as if she had been handed the key to a great house she hadn’t known was there, a house that was somehow inside her, and as she turned the key, deep in the darkness of the building she felt other doors opening too, and lights coming on. She sat trembling, hugging her knees, hardly daring to breathe, as Mary went on:

Note: If you’re going to buy His Dark Materials make sure you get a British edition as all American presses censored The Amber Spyglass. Above is the censored paragraph.

8. Introduction to Phenomenology by Dermot Moran.

Opening this book for the first time meant discovering Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Levinas, Gadamer, Arendt, Merleau-Ponty, and Derrida within five minutes. It was almost too much. I remember shutting the book, smoking a bowl, then beginning again. In a reductive nutshell, Phenomenology is the study of things in their manner of appearing to consciousness. The mode of givenness is best approached when assumptions about the world are put out of mind, bracketed off. This is a study that gets back to the building blocks of existence. One must now think of objects as existing exactly in the manner in which they are given in the view from nowhere. Meaning, all objects are encountered perspectivally and “inside” each and all objects there are an infinite number of perspectives. For instance, my cat and I see a rubberband very differently, as does my boyfriend, and my mother. Though we all have an idea of rubberbandness, we each have memories of specific rubberbands we’ve encountered that go into play each time we look at a new rubberband, or remember a rubberband. This study is also put to other beings, Others, as well as the self. Phenomenology is a kind of science; it must be attentive to describing the mode of being as accurately as it can, while at the same time aware that it can only know its own subjective experience. Husserl sought pure description, which led to Heidegger’s historicity and temporality, which then of course led to Derrida’s Deconstruction, which, for all intensive purposes collapsed phenomenology as a method. Derrida attacked the assumption of the possibility of the “full presence” of any meaning in an intentional act, which then emphasized the displacement of meaning, the constant deferring of meaning, therefore eliminating any possibility of pure meaning.

Each and every idea in this book was mind-blowing for me and led to such an exploration of so many concepts. I initially wanted to include Sartre’s The Imaginary on this list, then I thought I needed Derrida, and I couldn’t decide on any specific text, but really, I should pay homage to the very book–even though it’s an introduction–that started it all. The Introduction to Phenomenology made me a better thinker and a better writer and I know of no other academic book that has had such a profound impact on me.

It is frequently argued that the main contribution of phenomenology has been the manner in which it has steadfastly protected the subjective view of experience as a necessary part of any full understanding of the nature of knowledge.

9. Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll.

This is the only book I’m including from my childhood. Though SO MANY books shaped me and inspired me, Alice never stopped amazing me. I loved that the protagonist is a little girl, and that she’s on a genderless journey, I laughed at how rude everyone is; then later I loved the drug references, then analyzing the Freudian implications of Carroll keeping Alice locked outside of the garden, her sexuality, so at least textually, he could keep her as a little girl forever. Then, I became obsessed with the linguistic games–how mathematical he made language–then how many of the metaphors and scenes relate to Carroll’s migraines, a disease both he and I share. However, the more I love this book the more I lament how often it’s been represented in the lesser medium of film. To reproduce Alice is almost a sign of being washed up. *Ahem*Tim Burton*Ahem* Alice is a book that’s meant to be read. Its riddles are meant to confuse a child, and the implications of those riddles are meant to confuse an adult. Though the latter’s confusion is to be much more pernicious and therefore much more liberating. All this, all the scholarly supplemental reading, and all the flights of fantasy I took on its behalf are why Alice must make the list.

Must a name mean something?” Alice asked doubtfully.

“Of course it must,” Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh: “my name means the shape I am–and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost.”

10. Hamlet by William Shakespeare.

Duh.

To be, or not to be: that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;

No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;

To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause: there’s the respect

That makes calamity of so long life;

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,

The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,

The insolence of office and the spurns

That patient merit of the unworthy takes,

When he himself might his quietus make

With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death,

The undiscover’d country from whose bourn

No traveller returns, puzzles the will

And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we know not of?

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,

And enterprises of great pith and moment

With this regard their currents turn awry,

And lose the name of action.–Soft you now!

The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons

Be all my sins remember’d.

Hélène Cixous also deserves an honorary mention. The mother of Écriture feminine, a more emboldened strain of feminism, Cixous has encouraged women to inscribe their bodies, and their difference, into language and text. Many have shown me the importance of writing, but she has shown me the importance of writing as a woman, a feminist, and an othered member of society. She is in a different category, on a different plane of existence. Everything I have read of hers has changed my writing, has inspirited and incentivized me. She is my most beloved artist.

Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time. Write yourself. Your body must be heard.

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