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Posts Tagged ‘Wittgenstein’s Mistress’

 

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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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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I’m reading Wittgenstein’s Mistress right now on the beaches of Anguilla.

That line is actually a misnomer, since I’m sitting inside my hotel room typing these lines, but since my hotel room is on the beach, the location wasn’t false, just the act of reading Wittgenstein’s Mistress versus writing about it.

This actually isn’t the first time I’ve read it either, which is why I was so excited to read it on the beach, because I knew it would give me a closer feeling to the text, possibly bring me closer to Kate, maybe even her loneliness, something I overlooked the first time around because I was so astounded by the prose, and taken with the references.

I was so taken that I bought all the rest of Markson’s works and read most of them over the summer.

Reader’s Block being my favorite, though they’re all fantastic, some of the quotes even ended up on my wall.

It seemed as if Markson was toying with the idea that a novel didn’t require a body, meaning a protagonist, and he was leaving the idea of its creation up to the reader.

I even started wondering if Reader’s Block was a continuation of Wittgenstein’s Mistress.

He quotes himself a few times: “There’s somebody living on this beach.” It sent chills up my spine, and then I put the book down and thought heavily about death for a few moments.

Ryan’s been writing a chapter about Death and the Maiden, as well as Laura, but really Lauren, changing her name for the sake of protection, which I assume is legal protection more than her feelings.

Schubert composed 998 compositions before his untimely death at 31, meaning if he began at birth he composed a composition every 11.6 days.

One could easily compare him with Mozart.

I’m writing about that because Death and the Maiden has been playing on repeat, which I don’t mind at all, being that I’m very into Schubert these days, Schubert and Djuna Barnes.

I wanted to find a way to incorporate the quote: “Djuna Barnes wrote in bed. Wearing make-up and with her hair done,” into my presentation, but I couldn’t find a way to make it fit.

That quote being from This is Not a Novel, which certainly follows Reader’s Block, both being about death, specifically the facts surrounding famous artists’ deaths, but the latter focuses more on suicides, and Jews.

Also, Markson collapses the protagonist into the author in This is Not a Novel, telling us about writer’s aches and pains, but this in turn makes us aware that he is the one relaying all these facts to us, that he has experienced reading this information somewhere.

Although I said I was reading Wittgenstein’s Mistress on the beach, I’ve been experiencing many aches this vacation and spending very little time on the beach actually.

My head seems to be giving me a lot of trouble because of the flight and the humidity, and every event we attend for the wedding includes very loud steel drumming renditions of classical rock, which is torturous in and of itself, but the sheer volume of the music, and the intense sea breezes, have kept me mostly in my hotel room.

This, alone with the book’s themes, may have been what has enabled me to feel Kate’s loneliness more acutely.

But I cannot figure out if her sense of loss is heightened or softened by creating an Other simply by creating a book. In writing, a reader is automatically created, therefore a writer can never be alone, but in Reader’s Block, the author asks the reader questions that will forever be unanswered.

Well, they may be answered individually, by each reader, but Markson may never see the results, and one can’t imagine him retyping another version with the decision to place the protagonist at the cemetery as opposed to the beach.

The unanswered questions haunt the text, lengthen the gap between reader and writer, maybe to an infinite degree.

This would undoubtedly increase Kate’s loneliness.

But is she alone if she has her thoughts?

Wittgenstein supposes that a thinker can never be apart from their thoughts, and I think he was also the first to announce that the word “pipe” is most certainly not a pipe.

Persons, bodies and minds inhabit language, they play games with it, but are never separated from it, ever.

This might be one of the reasons Kate is thought to be mad, since her words are merely words, and not to be taken literally, as she herself often points out the mistakes within her own precision.

But I don’t think it’s very fun just to think that the death of her son caused her to fantasize about the rapture, or some kind of apocalypse, killing everyone, everything, except herself, and plants- I’d rather willingly suspend disbelief.

If she is mad, then we cannot take her at her word, and if we cannot take her at her word, our entire web of language fails at its primary function, which is to communicate to an Other.

Another reason to suppose she is mad, and therefore pretending she is the only person on the planet, is that she is writing this for herself, and then has no need to communicate with anyone, and could say whatever she likes, but then why desperately try to write with such precision?

The kind of precision that reminds one of Beckett.

Being here is starting to depress me, here as in Anguilla.

Or maybe it was the thought of Beckett.

The entire Caribbean reminds me of places people go to save their marriages, even if I’ve only been to Aruba and Anguilla, and both were for weddings.

Meaning I visited these islands to attend weddings.

And it’s not like I mind missing the wedding’s festivities, but I do mind that my body is slowing me down.

I often feel like my body is working against me, which is why I liked the bodyless aspect of Markson’s later works.

By working against me, I mean not in conjunction with my mood, or my goals, that is my body often wrecks my mood and impedes the completion of my goals.

Certainly I don’t mean that I am beside myself, although I am quite angry at the thought of nursing a headache when I could be reading on the beach, as I said I was doing.

I’ve decided to open the curtains, photophobia be damned, because at least then I can see the ocean, even if I can’t stand the noise.

Though it’s not the noise of the ocean that bothers me at all, that would be quite lovely, it’s the steel drums, and my hyperacusis is too much to bear.

Hyperacusis has an alternate spelling, hyperacousis, though neither seem to be in my Mac’s dictionary.

Is Wittgenstein’s Mistress a window or a mirror?

That seems to relate to whether she’s writing this book for herself or to create an Other.

Her book, is very similar to her canvas, both being a box, both extend outwards, meaning neither has a frame, or boundaries. All the frames are burned, the canvas is burned. Does this mean everything is what it is not?

A crazy woman living on a mountaintop once told me that no matter what era you live in, you’ll always have to chop wood and carry water.

Reading this book here really made me lament that I had to wear clothing down to the beach.

The text of Wittgenstein’s Mistress is formatted like the sea, every sentence is like a wave, and with each being a different length they visually remind me of the ebb and flow of the tides.

If I erase this last sentence does it continue to exist?

When Kate’s mother dies does Kate continue to exist?

Does she become nameless?

Since no one is around to recognize her, is this book her validation?

Or because of solipsism, would an Other make not the slightest of difference?

Wittgenstein seemed to understand the concept of solipsism, thought there was a germ of truth in it.

Kate is the world, but she is also its limits, but it is impossible for her to draw a boundary around herself.

She cannot be outside of her thoughts, meaning she has no outside ego that can confer and think about what she sees and thinks.

Kate reminds us that in the mirror she only sees her reflection, not herself, and certainly not her “I” .

There is a language of thought, and “I” is the formal point of reference for it.

I couldn’t help but want to make a Hyperlink out of Markson’s later books, as they invariably reach outside of themselves.

One could click on Prokofiev’s name highlighted in blue and find out all about him, and his music, and his relations.

Not unlike Wikipedia.

But unlike Wikipedia, there will be a narrative base, the optional hyperlinks would take one to the factual reference pages, just as one could surf through them, but the artistic foundation would be the narrative and its patterns laid out within Markson’s text.

Incidentally, I have not seen a single surfer during my stay here.

Wittgenstein’s favorite composers were Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann, and he also thought thinking, since it was done in the head, could cause a headache.

He knows, rather, he thought up the hypothesis that humans cannot isolate a thought from what it accompanies, meaning there are no pure thought processes. It is not an inner process which we communicate by means of language.

What I think is no more in my head than the facts that make it true are in the world.

It is pleasing to think about Wittgenstein listening to Death and the Maiden while thinking these thoughts, just as I am listening to Death and the Maiden, thinking his thoughts.

Well, certainly not thinking his thoughts, but a translation of his thoughts, an understanding of his thoughts, because if they were his thoughts then that would presuppose that he lost his and I stole them.

But I don’t want to steal Wittgenstein’s thoughts, even if I have thought about stealing his heart.

I mean, I wouldn’t mind being his mistress, even if that word has gone out of fashion. Though I don’t think it has. I just loath that there’s no masculine equivalent, so usually people just go with the unbiased “lover.”

I wouldn’t have minded being Wittgenstein’s lover.

He was apparently a deeply serious man, and put his soul into everything he did.

That probably means he was good in bed.

Achilles probably was too, but I bet more selfish than Wittgenstein.

But probably still not as selfish as Michelangelo, nor as smelly.

All this has given me a strong desire to reread the Odyssey, and a small desire to read the Iliad.

And has caused me to order Maria Callas singing Cherubini’s Medea off of Amazon.

I laughed loudly when Markson compared Germaine Greer to Medea.

And I loved the image of all those tennis balls rolling down the Spanish Steps.

It’s stuff like that that makes me recommend this book to many, many people.

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