Monday, January 12, 2015

Infinite Mess (Part One)

Uh-oh. That's it. I'm going to do it. I am going to criticize a very well-beloved author, an author that touched the hearts of millions of people, one of the most influential and innovative writers of the last 20 years, according to the Los Angeles Times, also one that met a tragic and untimely end, and therefore untouchable.

The reactions of literary fans are known to be sober

I'm not going to be only critical, I am going to destroy one of his works (well, at least some lines). I am talking about David Foster Wallace, the brilliant mind behind Infinite Jest, an encyclopedic, metamodernist, hysterical realist novel that almost single-handedly put him in the curriculum of English literature courses. He's edgy, irreverent, inventive and also sweet, how can I possibly go against him (especially since he cannot defend himself)? Not only that, but I'll even claim that I am better than him in explaining some stuff! Oh my, some little blogger really went over his head, now.

I will use his words to defend myself:

The Mentally Ill Mathematician seems now in some ways to be what the Knight Errant, Mortified Saint, Tortured Artist, and Mad Scientist have been for other eras: sort of our Prometheus, the one who goes to forbidden places and returns with gifts we can all use but he alone pays for. 

Well, here I am; as a Prometheus (and maybe Mentally Ill Mathematician, as this blog seems to attest) I can be forgiven if I bash a literary genius, as I am also bringing gifts for everybody, guys! They come from forbidden places!

Unfortunately, it seems that Foster Wallace didn't go where I've been. In 2003 he wrote a booklet, Everything and More, about the history of infinity, and especially the work of our good old Cantor. Great, right? Finally some popular recognition to our hero! So, is it any good?

Disclaimer: I haven't read it. What I read are the critical reviews of Rudy Rucker and Michael Harris, the second one being really interesting as it is more forgiving to the author, and some other snippet caught here and there in some preview, It was enough to bum me. There is always a misunderstanding when writers try to explain mathematical concepts: the literary way of dealing with concepts is through vagueness.  The beauty of a poem is that the words carry with them many, many meanings, and elicit in our mind different responses, therefore being able with this overlap to create sensations that would be impossible to explain in plain words. Mathematics is the opposite: its beauty is in the perfection of its concepts. It's a huge mechanism full of cogs and wheels, and yet everything works perfectly, every minimal part is on time. It's like juggling, or rock balancing: the slightest error can ruin everything.

Literature vs Mathematics
(Left: (c) Frank Grisdale)

You can see, then, how treating mathematical concepts with literary tools just doesn't work. It's even worse in this case: DFW is aggressively post-modern, and one of the staples of aggressive post-modernism is the unreliability of the narrator. And he admits that in this book! So, what's the point of reading a mathematical book where the writer always tries to trick you? Not only that, but he's trying to invent a new style, called "pop technical writing", that uses tons of footnotes (of course) and abbreviations that no one ever used. A complete mess.

Well, then, that is how it is written. But what about the content? Surely there is a lot to learn reading this book, right?


Unfortunately, there are many, many errors. There are websites that list all of them. There is enough material to publish one post per day, for a year. Now I cannot do that, I have already very few readers without actively alienate them with DFW marathons, so I'll choose just one. But it's a big one. Imagine: you spent hours and hours trudging through this book, through all the ridiculous fake notations, through hundreds of pages on convergent series, when finally you are realizing that the book had a direction, that all of this was to reach a particular point, You turn the page ready to read it, no, to experience it...

and it is wrong.

The musical equivalent

What? You don't expect me to explain the climax now, do you? Just go here to read about this crime against infinity.

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