Kara Miller


Both Flesh and Not, David Foster Wallace’s posthumous essay collection from last year, is haunted by Wittgenstein. The book’s centerpiece is “The Empty Plenum,” a massive essay on David Markson’s novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress. Markson’s narrator, Kate, lives in a dramatization of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s skepticism, his fragmented I in a world of fragmented information, his conception of the world as “everything that is the case.” She is isolated, solipsistic, surrounded only by her words and the nothing-signifying information of her senses, writing letters in the sand and on the street and typing and typing and typing to prove her existence. Using the instrument of another author’s protagonist, herself a manifestation of another writer’s philosophies, Wallace manages a spectacular exorcism of many of the anxieties that have looped through his essays and fiction for decades.

Among Wallace’s fixations is the need for anyone who engages with abstract ideas, with philosophy, with theory, to seriously live with the results of those theories. Wittgenstein’s fundamental skepticism is not just an intellectual game; it has serious consequences for any sort of construction of connection, comfort, belonging, and any number of other basic human needs. The accomplishment of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, for Wallace, is the profundity of its living with these consequences. Kate’s world really is a series of small pictures that gesture at (but do not, in any real way, indicate) the presence of a real thing behind the world. Her writing is an attempt to make words real. It’s not difficult to see how this results in an unstoppable telescoping away from any sort of real contact between language and meaning—the word as object requires another word as representation, and so on.

Atomization and the loneliness of language are not new topics for Wallace. They are probably most clearly and cruelly explored in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, particularly in the titular interviews, where the interview subjects head off the interviewer’s questions, justify themselves in horrifying logical spirals, anticipate objections, backtrack and leap and loop into tiny gaps in meaning, all in the absence of any actual interlocutor. It’s also the story of Hal Incandenza of Infinite Jest, who goes from hyperverbal and dead inside to engaged, thinking and feeling, but communicating in otherwordly shrieks. There’s some tension here. On the one hand, Wallace obviously takes deep pleasure in the intellectual puzzle presented by Wittgenstein through Markson (or by Markson through Wittgenstein)—he repeatedly evokes Kate at her typewriter, Kate writing messages on the beach, language becoming thing and splitting off from the thing that makes it language. This division and mirroring has often been a source of beauty for Wallace; think of the section of Infinite Jest in which Don Gately, hallucinating from pain, starts to think in “ghostwords” that seem to come from outside of him—ESOTERIC, LISLE, REVENANT—and think of the terror for Gately and the pure pleasure for the reader, all of that language piling up blindly and unparsably from both interior and exterior. On the other hand, this world of facts is a genuinely frightening and melancholy place. The idea that language can only imitate the thing it refers to, can never actually touch the reality of that thing, renders the subject horrifyingly subjective, stranded in a game whose only object is to link signs with other signs in her own head. Part of Wallace’s mission seems to be: to avoid being too smart—and to force his readers to avoid being too smart—to feel seriously broken and sad when beholding this.

The essay makes some intriguing, and intriguingly flawed, forays into questions of gender and power. Wallace claims that Markson objectifies Kate by psychoanalyzing her, by giving her a personal history that explains her alienation and her desperate need to prove or disprove the reality of things. For Wallace, this threatens to make Wittgenstein’s Mistress “just another madwoman monologue in the Ophelia-Rhys tradition.” He prefers Kate as a sort of reinterpretation of Helen of Troy. She is passively responsible for everything in her story, not by virtue of her beauty, but by virtue of the fact that nothing else verifiably exists. Radical skepticism or solipsism is a state of both profound passivity and profound responsibility; Kate is inescapably at fault for all the things that don’t exist except insofar as they affect her consciousness. She’s an object mired in subjectivity. Wallace finds this compelling and rich and sad—which it is—and preferable to a psychological explication of Kate’s state—which it might be, but there’s a strange assumption that Kate’s epistemic loneliness can’t coexist with a genuine personal history. It’s interesting to note that Wallace, in his fiction, writes a lot of women whose beauty is a weapon they can’t direct. The obvious example is Infinite Jest‘s Joelle Van Dyne, the Prettiest Girl of All Time, who wears a veil either because her perfect face has been disfigured by acid or because “I’m so beautiful I drive anyone with a nervous system out of their fucking mind.” Infinite Jest also features the destructively beautiful Avril and “malevolent but allegedly irresistible” Luria P—-. These women are deeply culpable, but strangely static, and their agency consists mostly in their effect on the men around them. They are postmodern Helens not dissimilar to Wallace’s reading of Kate.

Like a lot of male authors, Wallace tends to make female beauty quantifiable, precise, and hierarchical. At one point in The Broom of the System, one woman regards another and meditates on what she might have been “had she not had the ever so slightest bit of an overbite, and had she had perhaps ten more judiciously distributed pounds, and eyes more like wings, and had she been rich per se.” There is certainly some use to this sort of writing, where interiority is mostly a series of surfaces reflecting one another; a deeply objectified subjectivity is directly relevant to the reader—mirroring as it does his flattened perception of the character in her perception of herself—and invitingly postmodern. But prioritizing it to the absolute exclusion of any sort of individual psychology seems lazy, as well as sort of a dodge on the metaphysics of the argument. If Kate’s alienation does reflect the fundamental problems of language and solipsism, does her failure to act as a perfect cipher to the audience really reduce that?

Wallace is often at his worst when dealing with questions of gender and sex. The book’s absolute low point is “Back in New Fire,” which makes a deeply trite, deeply callous argument about the power of AIDS to salvage the thrill and transgression of sexuality. Wallace cites the traditional impediments to sexuality— “millions who’ve died of syphilis, incompetent abortions, and ‘crimes of passion,’ … their lives wrecked by ‘falling,’ ‘fornication,’ ‘sinning,’ having ‘illegitimate’ children, or getting trapped by inane religious codes in loveless and abusive marriages”—as evidence that human sexuality is most vital when thwarted and forced into risky, secretive channels. Given that the overwhelming majority of these consequences fall on women, this seems more like mean-spirited fantasy than any genuine engagement with the eroticism of risk. It’s particularly disappointing that a writer like Wallace, who spends so much of his fiction anxiously, tenderly circling the problem of establishing real human empathy, can so easily abandon his empathy for half the human race.

Besides, this argument engages in the sort of simplistic mind-body teleology—the sharpened sensation of the mind when facing risk must necessarily translate into sharpened eroticism in the body—that Wallace calls into question so well elsewhere. A pair of essays about professional tennis, “Federer Both Flesh and Not” and “Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open,” show Wallace handling questions of the body in a far more delicate and incisive manner. In “Federer,” Wallace darts back and forth between the fumbling intimacy of close-quarter athleticism—“smoothing and fussing with the bits of hair that fall over the hankie is the main Federer tic TV viewers get to see; likewise Nadal’s obsessive retreat to the ballboy’s towel between points”—and the transcendent—“great athletes seem to catalyze our awareness of how glorious it is to touch and perceive, move through space, interact with matter”—without giving in to the temptation to posit the beauty of athletics as any sort of cure for the sometimes-horror of having a body. In “Democracy and Commerce,” Wallace writes of Pete Sampras’s chaotic, perceptive style of play: “his real job seems to be figuring out what his will exactly is.” Sampras’s body “flickers” in response to his will, but the will has to seek out the body. There is no constant connection between mind and body, no clear cause and effect. Connections are instantaneous, fleeting, and deeply felt.

If you are looking for an escape from Wittgenstein’s bleak “world of facts,” these flashes of connection might offer you one possibility. A key part of Wallace’s reading of Wittgenstein’s Mistress is Wittgenstein himself’s contention that the world “falls apart into facts”—that facts are not inherently connected to one another, that even the sensory evidence of a thing might have no relevance to the thing itself. The beauty of athleticism—the near-religious experience of kinetic, fluid unity—might be Wallace’s best counter-argument to radical skepticism. Elsewhere, in a critical essay on a biography of Borges, Wallace examines the writer’s propensity to “collapse reader and writer into a new kind of aesthetic agent, one who makes stories out of stories, one for whom reading is essentially—consciously—a creative act.” This is another way out of Wittgenstein’s language-as-mimesis, the lonely world of pictures that never touch their referents. If language must be endlessly recursive, it can at least be collaboratively recursive, providing a point of contact for the mutual solipsism of writer and reader. Of course, it would be disingenuous to read a unifying argument into a collection of posthumously published essays spanning several decades. Nor do stand-alone book reviews like “Rhetoric and the Math Melodrama” require any particular thematic resonance with the rest of the book—they’re just excellent reads. The essay “Twenty-Four Word Notes” is classic Wallace word-fetishism, both snobby and genuinely inquisitive about slippage and shift within language. Inhabiting the mind of Wallace-as-reader is a tactile pleasure; he often seems to tease words out of a sentence to reveal the shapes under them. In a book so concerned with the bare possibility of touch, it’s comforting to be able to feel these impressions.

GestureKara Miller