(Original Review, 1990)
I think the point—or premise?—of “Wittgenstein's Mistress” is that the monologue of the only person on Earth—necessarily, in the physical sense of "only", a "monologue"—is not actually a monologue. Language itself—emerging or disclosed in and through the concrete words and usage of Kate's 'monologue'—is already communal, social, cultural, historical — even if there's only one person left. Every word and usage that Kate turns to—or that leaps upon her as thought—preexists her usage of it, even as, in dialectical turn, those meanings and values are transformed by her usages. Even a neologism emerges in a preexisting linguistic context, and even a grunt or shriek of emotion comes to be understood linguistically. Not an argument against solipsism, exactly: the premise of the book is that there's no other living person than 'me'! But definitely an argument against linguistic solipsism—against the sense that one can be alone in language. I'd locate Markson's response to Wittgenstein (through this novel) not in either TL-P or PI, but rather in the movement from one to the other: a movement (however broken or gradual) from thinking of language as directly containing and transmitting cargo to thinking of language as constitutive. And maybe, along with the ubiquity of other persons in language—even for the "only" person on Earth—, the ubiquity of loneliness in language—regardless of other persons in language or embodied—.
David Foster Wallace, meanwhile, in his 1990 essay “The Empty Plenum”, is much more emphatic, describing “Wittgenstein's Mistress” as “a kind of philosophical SF, i.e., it’s an imaginative portrait of what it would be like actually to live in the sort of world the logic and metaphysics of Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus posit”. Certainly there are enough connections, lying deeply enough, to make reading the two alongside one another rewarding. Anyone opening the Tractatus to its first page alone would concede that statements like, “The world is the totality of facts, not of things”, “The facts in logical space are the world”, and “The world divides into facts”, speak directly to Markson’s book. So too, lying deeper in Wittgenstein’s text, do “All propositions are of equal value”, “The world of the happy is quite another than that of the unhappy”, and—undeniably—the blunt, “I am my world”.
Markson is an artist. He wasn't interested - thank god - in writing a book of philosophy, but a novel. He takes what interests him from Wittgenstein and leaves what doesn't. I think Wallace's essay, although fascinating and well argued, overdoes the tightness of the links between the novel and Wittgenstein's thought. Wittgenstein’s Mistress is a novel, not a book of philosophy; it isn’t an argument about its subject but an embodiment of it.
Bottom-line: The simultaneous worlds of (a kind of) privacy and (a kind of) community.
SF = Speculative Fiction.