Wittgenstein's Mistress

by David Markson

Published 1988 248 pages

I came across Wittgenstein's Mistress years & years ago when I was Very Into David Foster Wallace (whom I secretly continue to be Kind Of Into, even if that makes me a meme). DFW was, himself, Very Into this book specifically, and couldn't understand why it wasn't more widely read. So, seeking to join the hallowed ranks of the discerning reader, I added it to my Goodreads To Read list. I couldn't find a copy for the life of me, however, so a library of other books came and went, and Wittgenstein's Mistress sort of evolved an elusive, mythical stature.

The nominal idea of the book is that it's a meandering stream of consciousness diary written from the perspective of the last person on Earth; all of other people, and all of the other animals, are gone (though from what cause it's never explained). The diary is made up of short declarative statements, usually only a sentence or two long:

On second though I will not look back. If there was something I was typing that had contributed to my feeling this way, doubtless it would contribute to it all over again.
I do not fill this way often, as a matter of fact.
Generally I feel quite well, considering.
Still, this other can happen.
It will pass. In the meantime there is little that one can do about it.

Over the course of the novel, however, the reader comes to understand that the narrator might not actually be the last person on earth, but only thinks she is, owing to a traumatic event in her past. Throughout, the narrator weaves a complex web of allusions to figures from literary, artistic, and musical history, connecting characters from different time periods and disciplines through events that occurred to them. One of the big hints that the narrator might not be privy to the Whole Story is that she tends to get these allusions more and more mixed up as time goes on.

Criticism of the book tends to frame it as a person living in the world as formulated in Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which is something I haven't read and something I'm not super interested in reading. And maybe for that reason, I don't think that I picked up what Markson was putting down. Like, I think I get the basic gist: that the world is an accumulation of facts, and facts are all that makes up the world—and that the book is written as a series of declarative statements of fact (much like the Tractatus).

But that message could have been got across in a 5000-word short story. Wittgenstein's Mistress isn't long by any stretch of the imagination but it could have been cut down to the last 50 pages or so without a significant loss of resolution, I feel like. I must have been missing something (even if what I was missing is a passion for Wittgenstein).

This is one of those books that leaves you feeling like you're not smart enough—and I think that's just a shame. Sure, there's a smug satisfaction in grasping a "hard" book. JR was a "hard" book, but it was also very funny, relatively easy to follow the action, and never difficult to understand what the book was trying to make you feel, and in fact it wasn't actually very hard at all. Infinite Jest is similar: it's not just an interpretation of a worldview—although it is that—it's entertaining.

Wittgenstein's Mistress, however, wasn't entertaining. It's one of those books that I can't call bad, because lots of smart folks think that it's really quite good, and they've written long, dense essays about why it's good, and far be it from me to say that they're wrong. But it's a difficult book, difficult in a way that doesn't feel rewarding in the end if you're missing some vital context. Maybe that's what makes it good. Maybe that's part of what makes it what it is?

Further reading


Sea of Tranquility


Gettin handy

Feeling very productive.