Monday, May 25, 2015

David Markson on his Index Card Method

David Markson's books are an acquired taste. In fact, I have not acquired a taste for them. Some time ago, I read Wittgenstein's Mistress, published in 1988. It's celebrated as a great piece of post-modern writing. It seems to consist "entirely of the discrete, random thoughts of a woman who believes she’s the last person on earth," though "thoughts" is probably not the right word. It actually consists of a long list of short sentences without any apparent connection. After you have read the book and look over it again, you may however note some common themes. Some people argue that "what seems a random, slightly demented collection of observations and aphorisms and factoids and descriptions coalesces into something more solid but also more enigmatic." I don't dispute that this happens to some people. It did not happen to me, but then acupuncture does not work for me either. Perhaps I am just too skeptical.

Markson's best-known book came to my attention again because I recently bought and read David Foster Wallace's Both Flesh and Not which contains a long review of Markson's book, called "The Empty Plenum: David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress. I read it with great interest, but remain just as unconvinced of Markson's genius as I was before. He finds it is, "in a weird way, the colorization of a very old film" (77). Yes? Perhaps so. But I don't like colorizations of back and white movies either. Its "prose and monotone are hauntingly pedestrian" (77). Yes, they are pedestrian. But I don't see why they are hauntingly so? I don't know what the difference between merely pedestrian and hauntingly pedestrian is--and I understand that is my shortcoming. It is "structured half-way between shaggy-dog joke and deadly serious allegory" (79). Is there really a half-way house between those two or are they different sides of the same coin? The technique is "Deep Nonsense"--like that of Lewis Carroll, I suppose. Except it isn't.

Wallace also thinks that the book is "an imaginative portrait of what it would be like to actually live in the sort of world the logic and metaphysics of Wittgenstein's Tractatus posit" (86). That's interesting but misleading. Wittgenstein does not posit a different world from the one we all inhabit--or at least he does not mean to do that. So, Markson is criticizing Wittgenstein for getting the "logic and metaphysics" of the world wrong? Right! But is the criticism well-taken? Do "the discrete, random thoughts of a woman who believes she’s the last person on earth" really mirror Wittgenstein's world? Perhaps they do, and perhaps all of this also has to do with the impossibility of a private language (though I doubt it). But even if this characterization is true, Wittgenstein's Mistress remains colorless, monotone and pedestrian--at least it does so for me (which, I am sure, is a negative reflection on me). I might be like the child who claimed that the emperor had no clothes, but I may also be like the farmer who, looking at a Paul Klee, claimed his daughter could "do" that, too.

All of this led me to Markson's method which he described in an interview as follows:
I use index cards. I store them in the tops of a couple of shoes boxes. If I made a stack of them, they’d probably be about two feet tall. I’m constantly shuffling. This goes on for a couple of years. I might have a few quotations about Joyce, and I figure out which one goes where. I try to make sure I don’t overbalance. I know in the end that there’s going to be more literature, but I try to make sure I have as much about art and music, too. There’s always a certain amount of the classics and philosophy. With the historical stuff, it just depends upon its significance or irony. Then, somewhere along the line, I make notes about Author or whoever it is and figure out where they go. (…) When Reader’s Block came out, Kurt Vonnegut called me, two-thirds of the way through, and said, “David, what kind of computer did you use to juggle this stuff?” I told him what I’d done, and he called me when he finished it and said, “David, I’m worried about your mental condition.”
I tend have the same reaction as Kurt Vonnegut.

I gave my copy of Wittgenstein's Mistress to a graduate student last month. But I have just ordered Vanishing Point which I found described as follows:
it is a series of little snippets, from one word to a maximum of five or six lines. The narrative voice is presented as "Author" - never "the author" and not otherwise described. Author is writing on a 40-plus-year-old portable typewriter. The bits are presented as notes taken on 3-by-5-inch index cards that fill two shoeboxes. There's an early declaration that "Author is pretty sure that most of them are basically in the sequence he wants."
I am a sucker; and hope springs eternal.

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