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Wittgenstein's Mistress - David Markson, Steven Moore

Kate is the only person living in the world.


Well, what I should have said is the only creature living.


On my honor, there is nobody else. There are no dogs or cats or seagulls or scorpions.


Quite possibly there are no fish either.


I did not verify that for certain about the fish, however.


A part I always liked is when she was living at the Louvre and used the frames to make a fire. She nailed the paintings back into place.


Actually that was at the Tate where she did that.


Helen, being the name of the person this happened to.

The narrator of Wittgenstein’s Mistress is engaging, witty, and completely unreliable. Her existence is as solitary as it is possible to be, but she anchors her reality by connecting fact after fact in a corkscrewing collection of allusions to artists, musicians, philosophers, and classical Greek works. She is living in a world governed by the logic of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, a world that is “the totality of facts, not of things.”


Her allusions, expressed with a curious precision, move in spirals, sometimes accelerating to a dizzying pace and other times slowing to a more contemplative speed. She takes an anecdote and applies it to one person after another. At times the fact is correct, but the person isn’t (or the person is correct, but the fact isn’t?) With nothing linking her to anyone else, since there is no one else, she looks for other connections, testing them quickly one by one then moving on to the next.


Kate tells us she is an artist, and she does have a knack for invoking powerful but surreal images (hundreds of tennis balls rolling down the Spanish steps, an arm full of wristwatches thrown away one by one as the alarms go off, cat food set out at the Colosseum) in a kind of performance art. Yet she balks at the opportunity presented by a blank canvas and only obliquely refers to her own paintings. Despite her carefully maintained detachment, she seems almost too self-conscious to paint anything, just as she is self-conscious in the language she chooses, even though there is no one around to look.


Occasionally there are intrusions into Kate’s strangely hushed world, causing interactions with objects (a car without a driver, a boat without a sailor) that aren’t quite consistent with her inanimate environment. These brushes with a bygone outside world can be dangerous. Whether the danger is physical or metaphorical is harder to discern.


The reader is left to determine whether Kate’s tragedy is global, personal, or philosophical, though in the end it may make little difference. She is caught in a surreality where facts and their reflections have changed places so often that truth itself is questionable. In discussing a painting, Kate says:


"So in other words what I am ultimately seeing is not only a painting which is not a real painting but is only a reproduction, but which is also a painting of a fire which is not a real fire but is only a reflection."


"On top of which the reproduction is hardly a real reproduction itself, being only in my head, just as the reflection is not a real reflection for the same reason." (WM 153-154)


In this hall of mirrors, the only certainties are ambiguity and inconsequential perplexity.