Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

09 Aug 2013

(Novel) Wittgenstein's Mistress by: David Markson

(Reaction) Aristotle is Weeping by: Antonio Conejos

Markson's novel is a strange beast and a difficult read. There is no plot here in the classical sense, no sequence of linear events strung along to denote progression or development. In fact perhaps Wittgenstein's Mistress is almost an example of anti-plot, a story that does not go anywhere. However this cannot be described as a failing of the novel but rather as an accomplishment. The novel succeeds in what it sets out to do. On many levels Wittgenstein's Mistress is obsessed with the arrest of movement, the cessation of development. Simply put, the narrator goes nowhere, except in circles, for the entirety of the novel.

The novel is explicit in its ties to the philosophy of Wittgenstein. Moreover, my edition of the book has an excellent critical essay by David Foster Wallace which argues that the novel is an embodiment and exploration of Wittgenstein's thoughts on language. As I admit to being unfamiliar with Wittgenstein's philosophy, and Wallace's essay is so adriot in its discussion, I don't think I need to rehash (and inevitably mangle) his points here.

For my own two cents Wittgenstein's Mistress explores the inherent ambiguity of language as well as demonstrates how easily self referential the closeted world of culture (literature, music, art) really is.

On the fluidity of language there are shades here of Derrida's assertion that there is no, and cannot be, a transcendental signified. As such, while the novel's narrator may be Wittgenstein's mistress, she certainly has had a dalliance or two with Derrida. The narrator is constantly worried about the meaning of same chance word, this anxiety for meaning leads her to remember other words and events which trigger yet more anxiety.

This looseness between signifier and signified, the awriness of the character of representation, allows fiction to become real or at least multiply.

Unquestionably, where the young woman is asleep is in Delft, which is in Holland, and which is where Jan Vermeer painted... Nonetheless, what has now struck me is that there is undeniably a way in which the young woman is likewise asleep in the Metropolitan Museum after all...

As it is also a fact that in the painting by Rogier van der Weyden they are taking Jesus down from the cross at Calvary, but they are also taking him down on the top floor of the Prado, in Madrid.

Because representation cannot fully convey full meaning, just as language inherently contains seeds of ambiguity, Wittgenstein's Mistress is able to explore the suggestions which this failure brings about. What are the cracks in the words and sentences we utter? And in these cracks what meanings (nonsensical or otherwise) rush in to fill the void.

Apparent also in the novel is how ultimately fruitless is the world of high culture, literature, music and art. This is so because it cannot admit anything outside of itself, it is a closed system whose signifiers and representations are stultified.

Wittgenstein's mistress becomes so consumed by art, literature, music and culture that her language can admit no other reference but these. She is obsessed with these codified representation, their linkages, even though she admits that there are no links, no probable causal relations. Art is her only world, and thus the exclusion of everything else.

Nor does this closed system generate an absolute meaning as well. After shuttling forth between Helen of Troy and the return of Odysseus, after comparing the works of Rembrandt and Michelangelo and Picasso, after trying to piece together the life of Brahms; after all these forays into culture, the narrator is no wiser (or more at peace) than she was when she started the novel.

Ultimately the novel is a representation of arrested development, a circular language track which goes round and round but there is no one left to witness the ad infinitum laps around the track.


Tough read, I literally had to force myself to finish 10 pages a day to finish the darn thing. It's not that I'm unsympathetic to experimental fiction or even a novel about ideas. It's just that there is so little to hold on to here (cling to is more like it) in terms of plot or even imagery. The narrator is maddening and unsympathetic. Her concerns are so focused on her that the reader is left with the impression that she is a supreme narcissist. (Is it narcissim though to think about yourself if you're the only left in the world? After all you're not excluding anyone else, there's no one left to exclude.)

I thought I would discuss in the reaction if the narrator is truly alone (with no explanation how she survived when everyone else on the planet perished) or she is insane and thus just as equally trapped in a world of her own making. But as I was writing I realized that I just didn't give a damn how the narrator found herself in the boat that she is in.

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