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‘Wittgenstein’s mistress’, alone in the museum

Kate believes that she is the last living being on the planet and decides to spend this time in different museums. The Metropolitan in New York, the Louvre in Paris, the National Gallery in London. She has also left traces of her in the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, or in the Uffizi in Florence. In more than one gallery she stamped her signature on the bathroom mirror.

Kate plays her life in circles and that’s why the narrative doesn’t move forward; she just 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, Thoughts of Pascal, Bertrand Russell’s authority on Wittgenstein. Sometimes, he tends to think that nature and culture are the same as baseball: they were better when the “grass was real.”

Kate is the protagonist of Wittgenstein’s mistress, David Markson’s novel in which Marguerite Yourcenar’s breath is felt. Novel that impacts subsequent narrations 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 history, geography and the very meaning of this adventure.

Contrary to what is usually customary in art narrative, Markson does not give prominence to artists, gallery owners, collectors or directors, but to a female spectator. A woman insane for consuming the pieces of those museums in which the apocalypse passes, taking to the last consequences the rupture of the border between art and its public. While she burns the picture frames to cook or keep warm, Kate discovers that the museum is not only a container of works, but also a madhouse and a refuge. The island capable of hosting the definitive shipwreck of humanity and the propitious theater to stage the last monologue about life on Earth.

Reluctant to the widespread superstition about the healing power of art, the author describes its disturbing influence

Against the widespread superstition about the healing power of art, Markson describes its disturbing influence. Specifically, her corrosive impact on this woman who “occupies” her distinguished palaces, making them available to her whims or subjecting them to her most basic needs.

Through her long, vengeful soliloquy, Kate leads us through culture like Virgil leads us through hell. And she goes crazy looking at paintings like Don Quixote goes crazy reading chivalric novels. Except that his is a cloistered epic, while Cervantes’s character rides in the open, facing windmills that, for Wittgenstein’s lover, are nothing more than the smoking pyres of a culture about to go out.

In the long poem that is also this book, the entire history of humanity rushes into the present; all the spaces above the museum; all previous art about the madness of its heroine. And so we turn on the infinite Ferris wheel of a monologue with Homeric timbres, in which the evocations of Helen of Troy or the meditations on the place of women in society stand out. Iliad. A dazzling litany at the level of James Joyce or Thomas Bernhard, and in which we go from Brahms to Velazquez, from Homer to Rilke, from Euripides to Gertrude Stein, from Maria Callas to Medea.

These milestones become cardinal points in the boundless 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 the human being 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. It doesn’t matter if we talk about Sappho jumping into the Aegean, AE Housman preventing philosophers from using her bathroom, children throwing snowballs at Brueghel’s paintings, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz infected by a pandemic or John Ruskin seeing snakes everywhere. To Kate, they are childlike creatures who, the minute we take them out of their artistic skills or their mythology, crash down to ridicule or worse.

In this life without witnesses, the protagonist can interpret a non-existent painting by Van Gogh, or stop at the coincidence that Vivaldi and Odysseus were redheaded, or stubbornly with a novel about baseball, or take “a break to have a bowel movement”, or return scared, again and again, to the death of a child.

Kate seeks solace in music and fantasizes about a cultural tradition that can keep you company, but not save you; she can drive you crazy, but not redeem you.

Wittgenstein’s mistress It is a fundamental text on the place of art in the novel that sets the bar very high for the cataract of later books that have dealt, often in an epidermal way, with this matter. It can also be read as a compendium of Markson’s obsessions, which could have been subtitled with the names of other of his works: This is not a novelThe loneliness of the reader, Vanishing point. It is also a canon of the universal cultural call densely populated, naturally, by women.

A book about people who go to museums, and what they might do in them if they had Kate’s freedom or were there as alone as Kate. In that tension between her solitude and her freedom, this brilliant parable is served about a culture willing to burn and burn its temples.

Author: David Markson.

Translation: Mariano Peyrou.

Editorial: Sixth Floor, 2022.

Format: soft cover (262 pages, 21.90 euros).

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Source: EL PAIS



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