Kate believes she is the last living person on the planet and decides to spend her days in different museums. The Metropolitan in New York, the Louvre in Paris, the National Gallery in London. She has also left her mark in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, or in the Uffizi in Florence. In more than one gallery she stamped her signature on the bathroom mirror.
Kate reproduces her life in circles and that is why the narrative does not move forward; it only adds layers of the past that complete her biography in madness. For her, nature and culture, beach and city, are rooms in her mental labyrinth that coexist, on equal terms, with Van Gogh’s paintings, Pascal’s Pensées, Bertrand Russell’s authority on Wittgenstein. Sometimes, she tends to think that nature and culture are like baseball: they were better when the “grass was real.”
Kate is the main character of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a novel by David Markson in which one feels the inspiration of Margarite Yourcenar. This novel had an impact on later novels by David Foster Wallace, Donna Tartt or Carlos Fonseca. Always mode and never fashion, use and not abuse, for Markson art, more than a theme, is the thread that sews the history, the geography and the very meaning of this adventure.
Contrary to what is customary in the narrative about art, Markson does not give the main role to artists, gallery owners, collectors or directors, but to a spectator. A woman unhinged by consuming the pieces of those museums where she whiles away the Apocalypse, taking to the ultimate consequences the rupture of the frontier between art and its public. While she burns the frames of the paintings to cook or to warm herself, Kate discovers that the museum is not only a container of works, but also a lunatic asylum and a refuge. The island capable of taking in the definitive shipwreck of humanity and the propitious theater to stage the last monologue about life on Earth.
Reluctant to accept the widespread superstition about the healing power of art, Markson describes its disturbing influence. Specifically, its corrosive impact on this woman who “occupies” her famous palaces, making them available to her whims or subjecting them to her most basic needs.
Through her long and vengeful soliloquy, Kate leads us through culture as Virgil leads us through hell. And she goes mad looking at paintings like Don Quixote goes mad reading novels of chivalry. Only hers is a cloistered epic, while Cervantes’ character rides under the open sky, facing windmills that, for Wittgenstein’s lover, are nothing more than the smoking pyres of a culture about to be extinguished.
In the long poem that is also this book, all the history of humanity rushes into the present; all the spaces into the museum; all previous art into the madness of its heroine. And so we turn, in the infinite wheel of a monologue with Homeric timbres, in which the evocations of Helen of Troy or the meditations on the place of women in the Iliad stand out. A dazzling litany on a par with James Joyce or Thomas Bernhard, from Brahms to Velázquez, from Homer to Rilke, from Euripides to Gertrude Stein, from María Callas to Medea.
These milestones become cardinal points in the unfathomable cartography of this woman who has been trapped at the end of the world, overwhelmed by an art that is no longer connected to life, but to survival.
That the final delirium of humanity takes place in a museum offers us some clues about the fate of culture in that warehouse of compassion that Kate distinguishes as a mausoleum full of poor devils. Whether we are talking about Sappho jumping into the Aegean, A. E. Housman preventing philosophers from using his bathrooms, children throwing snowballs in Brueghel’s paintings, Sor Juana Inés de Cruz infected by a pandemic, or John Ruskin seeing snakes everywhere. For Kate, they are childish creatures that, as soon as we remove from them their artistic abilities or their mythology, fall with a crash into ridicule or worse.
In this life without witnesses, the protagonist may interpret a non-existent Van Gogh painting, or dwell on the coincidence that Vivaldi and Odysseus had red hair, or persist in reading a novel about baseball, or go “for a number two,” or return appalled, again and again, to the death of a son.
Kate seeks solace in music and fantasizes about a cultural tradition that can keep you company, but not save you; it can drive you mad, but not redeem you.
Wittgenstein’s Mistress is a fundamental text on the place of art in the novel that sets the bar very high for the cataract of subsequent books that have addressed, often in an epidermal manner, this issue. It can also be read as a compendium of Markson’s obsessions, which could have used as a subtitle the names of other works of his: This Is Not a Novel, Reader’s Block, Vanishing Point. It is also a canon of the so-called universal culture densely populated, quite naturally, by women.
A book about people who go to museums, and about what they might get to do in them if they had Kate’s freedom or were there as alone as she is. In that tension between her loneliness and her freedom, Markson present us with this brilliant parable about a culture willing to burn and make its temples burn.
Originally published in El País, Babelia, August 19, 2022.