“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.’.”
– 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.”
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. 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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.” 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.” 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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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?”
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.” 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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
 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”.
 Heidegger; an Introduction. Richard Polt, quoting Martin Heidegger’s History of the Concept of Time. 175-176.
 Being and Time. Martin Heidegger. 27; 7
 Introduction to Phenomenology. Dermot Moran. 238.
 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.
 Wittgenstein’s Mistress. David Markson. 228.
 Markson. 220.
 Markson. 225.
 The Empty Plenum: David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress. David Foster Wallace. 219.
 Wallace. 224.
 Markson. 227.
 On Time and Being. Heidegger. 79
 Markson. 171.
 Postmodernism; or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Fredric Jameson, quoting Heidegger. 8.
 Being and Time. Heidegger. § 2, 27; 7
 Wallace. 225.
 Markson. 154-155.
 Markson. 231.
 Markson. 237.
 Markson. 238.