Waiting for Nothing

Françoise Palleau-Papin

(from This is Not a Tragedy: the Works of David Markson, first published in France by ENS Editions ((Ceci n’est pas une tragédie: l’écriture de David Markson, 2007)), which will be published in English by Dalkey Archive in 2010.)

The novel goes back to the topic of a long wait without an object in the manner of Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, as if Kate’s knowing that no one will ever come to meet the protagonist is so unendurable that she prefers to imagine a fiction on the horizon of her expectation, no matter how modest it may be. Kate is waiting for a seagull in a world without animals. Her frustrated expectation is the fiction that keeps her alive. In that way, she avoids the suicide at the end of Chekhov’s play The Seagull. Kate’s seagull recalls other desperate characters who have trouble living their lives and invest faint hopes in the harsh-sounding cries of that sea bird which comes to symbolize liberty for them. Chekhov’s characters cannot preserve real life, as one of them kills the seagull and the other stuffs and keeps the dead bird. Kate mentions the philosopher Wittgenstein who, in his voluntary seclusion in a farm on Galway Bay, tames a seagull he feeds every day. So that the people hurt by life and history seem to be waiting for a free gull—even Kate, who knows there are no animals left—as if they did not want to let go of the thin thread that still connected them to life and the world. The seagull is the contact they yearn for, or it may even be us as readers if we feel free enough, if we let ourselves be tamed into contact with a fictive character. Wittgenstein’s seagull anecdote matters to David Markson, who draws attention to it in one of his letters about the novel: “Galway Bay—having been where Wittgenstein once used to feed a seagull.”[1] In a biographical sketch on the philosopher, Georg Henrik von Wright explains that Wittgenstein spent the winter of 1947-48 in Ireland, in the greatest seclusion:

            He wanted to devote all his remaining strength to his research. As so often before in his life, he went to live in seclusion. For the winter of 1948 he settled on a farm in the Irish countryside. After that he lived quite by himself in a hut beside the ocean, in Galway on the west coast of Ireland. His neighbours were primitive fishermen. It is said that Wittgenstein became a legend among his neighbours because he had tamed so many birds; they used to come every day to be fed by him.[2]

In his correspondence, the philosopher gives fewer details and simply mentions that he enjoys watching the sea birds: “The country around here is pretty wild & I enjoy walking in it though I don’t go for long walks. I like looking at the various sea birds.”[3]

Among the many biographical references to the philosopher, Markson chose to speak of a seagull rather than common country birds to open his character’s expectations up out to the sea. When asked about his choice, he answered:

            Hey, W’s M was written in about 1982 and / or ’83. That’s 20+ years ago. How can I remember about the seagull? I read 963, 842, 785 books by or about L. W. (Well, in truth, I have just this instant counted, and I possess 39—and, in my periodical weedings-out, have sold several others). The best of the biogs, by Ray Monk, which was published well after W’s M, sez he fed small domestic birds (like robins or finches) while in Ireland—but someone, someplace—in a biog. sketch, a reminiscence, whatever—that I read way back—did say seagulls. I’m sorry I can tell no more.[4]

Markson answers the question about the philosopher but, somewhat like his character Kate, he may be mixing in another reference with Wittgenstein’s. Malcolm Lowry also enjoyed feeding seagulls when he lived by the Pacific Ocean in a secluded cabin he had built with his wife, Margerie, in Dollarton, British Columbia, near Vancouver. In a letter to Markson, he explains that seagulls and life elude art, which never quite comes close to the actual pleasures he takes from life:

            P. S. Sunrise next morning, frost outside, tide high, just below widows. Seagulls having been fed. Coffee being made. Have you any advice for me re anything good to read? I agree Miss Lonelyhearts is an important book, and that Rimbaud had one leg, but where is the sunrise? Where is the frost? Where are my seagulls? Where is my coffee? Where is love? [5]

Malcolm Lowry kept feeding the gulls when he moved to an apartment in Vancouver—to the distress of his neighbors who did not appreciate their droppings or their noise. In a letter to Markson, he explains that the building’s board had sent him an injunction forbidding him to feed gulls and pigeons, to which he answered in a playful way, having the birds defend their cause by expressing themselves as fable animals. He concludes his letter to Markson with a change of tone, letting passion come through his banter:

            […] we should keep somewhere a nucleus of peace where the heart’s velleities are clean, its cormorants dry their heraldic wings, its seagulls, in sunlight, fly. They’ll drop something on your head, of course, but that’s where the sense of humor comes in.[6]

In his contact with the seagull, his ultimate search is directed toward purity of heart and the freedom to fly away. Lowry was so attached to the symbolic import he read in seagulls that he used to draw them in the margins of his letters, a habit Markson has taken up in his: “Malcolm Lowry used to fill the margins of his letters with those—and call them seagulls!”[7] .

Kate thus takes after Lowry when she mentions Wittgenstein and a seagull of his. According to her, when seeming deep in thought, Wittgenstein was not so much preoccupied with great philosophical issues, he was absorbed in contemplating his pet seagull:

            Still, all I am suggesting is that quite possibly the only thing that Wittgenstein himself had on his mind when people believed he was thinking so hard may very well have been a seagull.

            This would be the seagull which had come to his window each morning to be fed, that I am speaking about. One time when he lived near Galway Bay, in Ireland. (p. 174)

Rather than think of philosophy or issues having to do with language and with logic, Kate believes that Wittgenstein preferred to occupy his time with birds, in a speechless exchange with them. The philosopher is less anthropocentric than Robinson Crusoe, who tamed a parrot in hopes of hearing a substitute for the human voice. On the contrary, the contact with the gull is minimal and celebrates the irreducible otherness between the man and the wild bird.

Kate’s conception of Wittgenstein’s seclusion is similar to that of the character in the novel Reader’s Block: “Protagonist kept company by chipmunks? By field mice? By the gulls?” (Reader’s Block, p. 124). Kate, who cannot stand her solitude, envies the philosopher’s modest contact with a gull. Kate’s surroundings look more like what Nina, in Chekhov’s The Seagull, describes at the end of the play. She recites the following litany from memory, in a lamentation which could be Kate’s:

            Men, lions, eagles and partridges, the antlered deer, geese, spiders, silent fish that roam the deep, the starfish and all creatures unseen by the eye—in brief, all life, all living things, their mournful cycle ended, are extinct.[8]

Kate occasionally changes the subject from the seagull to a cat, then to ash, which she calls “pieces of residue,” to express her desire for a contact with otherness. The seagull is not there, there is no seagull, there is nothing, only the ash of what used to be. To accept that the seagull has turned to ash she must “stop looking” (p. 29) without any object, and stop waiting. Godot will never come:

            Doubtless there was no seagull either.

            It is the seagull which brought me to this beach, that I am speaking about now.

            High, high, against the clouds, little more than a speck, but then swooping in the direction of the sea.

            I will be truthful. In Rome, when I thought I saw the cat, I was undeniably mad. And so I thought I saw the cat.

            Here, when I thought I saw the seagull, I was not mad. So I knew I had not seen the seagull.

            Now and again, things burn. I do not mean only when I have set fire to them myself, but out of natural happenstance. And so bits and pieces of residue will sometimes be wafted great distances, or to astonishing heights.

            I had finally gotten accustomed to those.

            Still I would have vastly prefered to believe I had seen the seagull.

            As a matter of fact it was much more probably the thought of sunsets, which brought me to this beach.

            Well, or of the sound of the sea.

            After I had finally determined that I may as well stop looking, this is. (p. 29)

Her reasoning toward her presumed past madness in Rome and her presumed current sanity on Long Island follows parallel patterns: the first syllogism “In Rome, when I thought I saw the cat, I was undeniably mad. And so I thought I saw the cat” finds a direct echo in the next one: “Here, when I thought I saw the seagull, I was not mad. So I knew I had not seen the seagull.” However, her madness cannot be proven because nothing allows us to establish for a fact that an animal was there in either case. We lack a third term in her syllogisms to look at them from the outside and conclude on her madness or sanity. In such a context, the adverb “undeniably” is highly ironic, because as sole narrator, she is “undeniably” never contradicted.

She calls the ash a “residue” without wondering what it is the residue of, what has been burning. She does not draw a parallel to the townsfolk of German cities in the vicinity of extermination camps such as the people of Weimar, who smelled the smoke and the ash from the crematorium ovens of Buchenwald a few miles away without mentioning them, without saying what was being burned. The parallel is ours only, or comes from the later novels, which mention the Weimar situation or that of other camps (Reader’s Block, p. 58). By refusing to state what has been burned, by denying the issue, without being guilty of that particular destruction, Kate obliterates the source of her mourning. She says she has “determined that [she] may as well stop looking” (p. 29) for the object of her desire. This is the definition Freud gives of melancholy, or in André Green’s words, who is commenting on Freud, “the melancholic is not aware of what has been lost”[9] because “in mourning, the loss of the object not only forces the psyche to sacrifice part of the Ego to make up for the void left by that loss, it also sends back to a primary compulsion said to be canniballically oral, which takes one to an extreme form of regression” (p. 30-31).

What saves Kate from utter melancholic regression is writing. The texts of others, which she burns, and her own writings, which she composes intermittently. She mimicks the seagull, her decoy for aimless expectation, by burning the pages of a book and looking at them as, burning, they soar upward:

            Once, after doing that, I tore the pages out of a book and lighted those too, tossing each page into the breeze to see if the breeze might make it fly. (p. 37)

This parallelism between the pages and flying is not clear enough for her because two pages further down, she adds that she is trying to imitate a seagull, precisely:

            Presumably it was another book altogether, from which I tore the pages and set fire to them, in wishing to simulate a seagull. (p. 38)

Her gesture looks like an artistic happening and illustrates her relationship to text. Writing does not sublimate anything and one may easily destroy pages of text, because nothing will ever make up for the lack of an actual seagull; only the artistic gesture seems to matter to her, as an artist. To burn pages is to make a gesture that seems gratuitous, to celebrate the instant in a spectacle. In her writing as well, gesture takes an important place. She explains that she is typing, or not typing at times. Writing is a way for her to express her lacks, the lack of a seagull, the lack of desire, as she writes, on the verge of silence, as one may be on the verge of tears. Writing directs her to a fictitious castle as an impossible end, and the way is all.

After she mentions at length the seagulls, which are only ash, she takes up the topic of ash instead of a gull like an obsessive composition in the form of a fugue:

            The gull was your ordinary gull.

            Actually it was ash, carried astonishingly high and rocked by breezes. (p. 30)

As long as Kate expects something from the world, she can only be disappointed. The adverb “actually” is a lure, just as when we got lost in the syllogism of her madness and reason without a third term or a viewpoint other than hers. There is no reality to be referred to, and Wittgenstein’s Mistress is post-modern in its metaphor of how fiction works, in its metafictional implications. There is no referent in a work of fiction; language and the world may only meet by analogy, according to the second phase of Wittgenstein’s philosophy, in his Philosophical Investigations:

            By this I mean: expectation is unsatisfied, because it is the expectation of something; belief, opinion, is unsatisfied, because it is the opinion that something is the case, something real, something outside the process of believing.[10]

When Kate realizes that the seagull she imagines flying towards her is probably only ash carried by the wind, her expression shows that only words have meaning for her, and not things. The seagull, or ash, or nothing; there is nothing to expect from the world any longer, there are only words left to write about loss, Orphic words for an eternally lost Eurydice, and all her writing becomes an elegy, signaled in particular through her references to Walt Whitman. At this point, Kate writes two lines which scan in a remarkably recognizable manner: “the gull [iamb] / was your [iamb] / ordina- [dactyl] / -ry gull [iamb]”. This line is a tetrameter. The second line doubles the number of feet of the first one, it is an octometer: “Actually [dactyl] / it was ash [anapest] / carried [trochee] / asto- [iamb] /-nishingly [anapest] / high and [trochee] / rocked by [trochee] / breezes [trochee].” Such rhythmical writing underlines that the form is what matters, in this case the codified inscription in traditional meter. To quote one of Wittgenstein’s remarks: “§ 445. It is in language that an expectation and its fulfillment make contact.” (p. 131)

Kate remarks that she cannot name the seagulls, and we know she cannot because they are a generic lure, not an actual object of expectation: “One does not name a seagull.” (p. 38) The only thing she can do is give a shape to her desire in the form of an ostensibly poetic expression.

The seagull of Kate’s fantasy is a mirror image of herself: she came to live on the seashore because she was attracted to the sound of the sea, and wanted to scavenge on the beach. She would like to fly like a bird, and stages her own flying moment in an odd way; she explains that while on the stairway at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, she tried to carry a large canvas on a large stretcher, but a draft lifted the canvas into the air before she fell down the stairs:

            One moment I had been halfway up the stairs, and a moment after that I was making believe I was Icarus. […]

            Presumably it was a wind from below, in fact, since what the canvas seemed to do was to rise up in front of me. And then to rise up some more.

            Remarkably soon after that it was underneath me, however.

            The pain was excruciating. (p. 50)

Icarus knows how much it hurts to try to fly. By naming him, Kate underlines the despair at the source of her desultory gesture. She explains that the canvas seems to rise up; likewise, she sends pages of text upward when she burns a biography of Brahms page by page. The seagull is an impossible paradigm, the image of another self that cannot rise up from within her depression, because time has come to a standstill.


[1]            Letter to F. Palleau-Papin, Nov. 18, 2004.

[2]            G. H. von Wright, “Biographical Sketch” in Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, by Norman Malcolm, second edition with Wittgenstein’s Letters, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2001, p. 16.

[3]            Letter to Lee Malcolm, 5. 6. 1948; in Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: a Memoir, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001, p. 110.

[4]            Letter to F. Palleau-Papin, Dec. 14, 2004.

[5]            Letter from Malcolm Lowry to David Markson, November 1st, 1951. Selected Letters of Malcolm Lowry, Harvey Breit & Margerie Bonner Lowry, Philadelphia & New York, J.B. Lippincott, 1965, p. 269.

[6]            Letter from Malcolm Lowry to David Markson, post-marked Feb. 5, 1954. Ibid, p. 366.

[7]            Letter to F. Palleau-Papin, October 29, 2002.

[8]            A. Chekhov, The Seagull, translated by Stephen Mulrine, London, Nick Hern Books, Drama Classics, 1997, p. 69.

[9]            A. Green, Le temps éclaté, p. 30, my translation.

[10]            Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, translated by G.E. M. Anscombe, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1981, § 438, p. 129.