Infinite Jest

Saturday, September 26th, 2009

unendlicher humor

Today, pondering the very odd choice of the word Spass in the title of the recently released German translation of Infinite Jest, I googled the background, and found several disconcerting things. The first being a review in a German liberal newspaper, the Frankfurter Rundschau, that was almost as cluelessly stumbling through the cultural and philosophical themes of the book as it was blatantly ruining the reader’s experience by providing most of the major plot points. This, I imagine, was meant to reassure the paper’s audience that the reviewer indeed has read the work under discussion, but considering that the interplay of narrative, suspense and resolution, or lack thereof, is a defining feature and an integral part of what the book is about, this is more knuckleheadedness than I would expect from a national paper. Though I realize that this may be only because I’ve been away from the country for such a long time.

I also found that indeed Unendlicher Spass is not the classical German translation of Hamlet’s lament. That would have been “unendlicher Humor” from August Wilhelm Schlegel’s translation, which to my ear is infinitely more pleasing. Spass corresponds roughly to Fun in english, and carries completely inappropriate connotations of recent pop culture. To my surprise, and slight shock, I also came upon a post by the translator himself explaining his choice of Spass over Humor, pointing to the evocation of Spassgesellschaft as a positive. The word Spassgesellschaft to me represents a critique of entertainment’s pervasiveness on the level of a book by Neil Postman dumbed down to a soundbite and a headline phrase, and the whole complex of ideas represented by it is diametrically opposed to what Wallace was after in Infinite Jest. The book is brimming with reflective discourse and encyclopedic distractions that want to avoid easy questions or answers, and the word Spass with all its connotations to me undermines the whole enterprise.

Of course I’m also riled up because this touches on my pet peeve, the German obsession with dubbing every bit of foreign entertainment, and the devastation it wreaks on the art it mangles – just try watching a dubbed episode of the Sopranos without putting your own feet in concrete and jumping off the Palisades, I dare you. This has always infuriated me, from the moment when I saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and realized with a jolt I was watching a movie very different from Ritter der Kokosnuss (Knights of the Coconut), and not simply because there was no Eukalyptusbonbon am Stiel in Arthurian legend.

Also, of course, this tangles quite a bit with the very mixed nuts kind of feelings I have about contemplating leaving the US to return to this Germany place. Macadamia or low grade peanut? You tell me.

All of which is of course, completely incidental to the translation under discussion and quite unfair. For what it’s worth, here’s my reply sent to the German translation’s website:

Oje. Ich befinde mich in der Sonderposition, Infinite Jest parallel zum Erscheinen seiner Übersetzung in Deutschland gelesen zu haben, und deren Rezeption parallel zu meinem eigenen Entdecken des Werks zu verfolgen, die Übersetzung selbst aber leider gar nicht zu kennen. Von Anfang an habe ich mich über die Titelwahl gewundert, und dieser Kommentar macht es mir leider auch nicht verständlicher. Infinite Jest hat doch im Englischen auch einen altertümlichen und biederen Klang und ist zudem ein Verweis auf einen literarischen Klassiker. Das Übersetzerproblem, den verwendeten Ausdruck kontextualisieren können zu müssen, ist zwar nachvollziehbar, aber Unendlicher Humorist wäre gegangen, wenn auch zugegeben ganz nicht so schön wie der Spassmacher, und am Unendlichen Jim führt ja ohnehin kein Weg vorbei.

Das Hauptargument gegen den Spass ist für mich aber nicht, dass es eine bessere Wahl gegeben hätte, sondern eben just der Anklang an die Nullvokabel Spassgesellschaft, den Sie mir unverständlicherweise loben. “Spassgesellschaft” ist, was misanthropische Kulturkritiker aus dem Sack holen, wenn ihnen sonst nichts einfallen mag, und dieser Anklang holt meines Erachtens den komplexen Zielpunkt des Romans auf ein Reflektionsniveau, das Wallace selbst sorgfältig vermieden hatte, und nicht nur aus stilistischen, sondern vor allem aus werkimmanenten Gründen.

Ausserdem, um mit einem anderen Klassiker zu reden: Jeder Versuch, die Biederkeit zu vermeiden, indem ihr Anschein vermieden wird, führt nur um so tiefer in die Biederkeit. Will sagen, dass mir der Spass unendlich viel biederer klingt als Schlegels Humor, oder, wenn schon weg von Schlegel, warum nicht “Unendliche Komik”, mit einem endlosen Komiker?

Jetzt hab ich ein bisschen ein schlechtes Gewissen, weil ich von der Übersetzung buchstäblich nur den Titel kenne, und hier rummaule, ich hoffe, Sie nehmens mir nicht krumm. Die Übersetzung ist in jedem Fall ein unfasslicher Verdienst. My hat’s off to you.

Saturday, September 19th, 2009

inkling of jest

More evidence is accumulating, and so to dispose some of the anxiety of soon having to leave the dear world of tennis, addiction and myths of feral babies, I take some time off the story and its footnoted branches, and instead review some new occurrences of numeral confusion, and a possible explanation, to boot.

In the odd insert of Himself’s fond look back upon his younger years, the event of a sheared off doorknob leads him into his future work in annulation, or at least is presented as a foundation for this future work. The description of the rotation of the circle on a stalk on the hard floor is faultless, and the mathematical discussion of the cycloid that ensues, is quite flawless until this bit of information intrudes: “But since here, on the bedroom’s floor, a circle was rolling around what was itself the circumference of a circle, the cycloid’s standard parametric equations were no longer apposite, those equations’ trigonometric expressions here becoming themselves first-order differential equations.”

So we have a parametric description of the curve a point on a ring will go through as the ring rolls in a straight line. This is the cycloid. And since here a ring is really rolling in a circle itself, being restricted by the attached stalk, something is different. All of this is true. But why would the same parametric equations not be applicable along the circular path of the doorknob? As far as I can see, they would, and Himself telling us this story should be well aware of that.

The second new piece of evidence comes from one of the end notes, where Pemulis briefs Hal on how to obtain derivatives. x to the power of n derives to, he claims, nx+x^(n-1), which is finally absurd enough to turn suspicion into certainty: this is not noise, it is signal. This signal, however, not carrying simple narrative, because once again the person speaking both clearly knows the correct answer and also has no reason to deceive, or to expect a deception to be undetected, derivation of a polynomial being your pretty basic analytical bread and butter for high school kids.

And then, a few notes down, we witness Pemulis say this to a snivelling Possalthwaite: “Todd, trust math. As in Matics. Math E. First order predicate logic. Never fail you. […] The vital statistics of God or equivalent. When all else fails […] You can fall back and regroup around math.” This is followed by some lemma on line integrals that is indeed (and somewhat confusingly) true.

So if math is considered the one unwavering basal truth, yet is bent out of shape almost every time it comes up in the fabric of the novel, along with the laws of optics in the case of the shadows in the desert, which please recall is also a field of expertise of Himself, as is annulation, the weirdly absurd process of waste negating waste, it all seems to point to the fact that James Incandenza maybe found a way to infect everything he touched with some sort of existential rot, eroding the foundations of truth itself, just like any good father will.

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009


I hate to bitch. Okay, that’s a lie, I love to bitch, sorry. But at least I can spare you my prefacing this newest bitchfest with the qualifier that the book I’m bitching about is great otherwise. We’ve been over that already, it’s scorched earth. There, spared you. Considerate me.

What is going on with the Wallacester and the math? I’m now about halfway through Infinite Jest (what’s half of infinity? Am I done, then?), and as of yet there is nought in terms of indication that his shortcomings in the land of numbers are a jester’s crown worn for some – however obscure – purpose of Jest, finite or otherwise.

The newest item from DFW’s confoundry: Eschaton’s rules are only touched upon tangentially in the main novel’s text, vague hints at complexities of being hit, influenced by weather and all sorts of other variables, which is fine. But then we are taken into lengthy details in an endnote about how the First Mean Value Theorem of Integration allows Lord to get by without calculating complicated integrals for setting up the game. In some rather unspecified way the initial allocation of resources to players for a game’s new round depends on the average value of some equally underspecified ratio, and so Lord needs to calculate the integrals of this variable over previous game time. Except that apparently he doesn’t, because this magical Theorem allows him to use a shortcut right out of the convolved space of higher math into a paradise of simplicity. Which sounds quite nice. And is quite untrue.

The average value of a variable over an interval of time will be it’s integral over said interval divided by the interval’s length. Now, the First Mean Value Theorem indeed guarantees that the integral comes to the same as the intervals length multiplied with the value of the function at a point within the interval, and so that the average itself is identical to the value of the function at this point within the interval. The logic of this is nicely developed in the lengthy endnote’s lively interchange between Incandenza and Pemulis. But nohow does this integral theorem allow you to infer which point within said interval you’d have to choose, and thus for all practical purposes of setting up tennis socks and buckets of bald nuclear balls, this little piece of abstract mathematical wisdom, rather than being the prized insight allowing young kids to cheat the forces of nature Pemulis wants to sell it to us as, is utterly useless. Plus also, in the sloppy plot nicely labeled Halsadick, the supposed average value doesn’t even look like the actual average value, for crying out loudly in complicated semantic structures.

A bit later we read that computer discs squeeze whole high definition movies into 4.8 MB of binary space, which claimed figure must have been ludicrously and unrealistically low in the B.S. 90s already. Such a disc wouldn’t hold two single uncompressed HD images of finely rendered water (assuming 24 bits of liquid color shades). A typo, one hopes. The DVD was introduced in 1995, by the way.

They still are a puzzle, these oddly shaped holes in the otherwise beautiful fabric of this tome, and I’ll keep on logging them. It amuses me.

Tuesday, September 1st, 2009

unlikely likelihoods

Maybe it’s because I’m cranky today, maybe it is because the represenation, or lack thereof, of mathematics in popular and high culture is a constant annoyance to me. Or maybe it is because it is deeply mystifying to me how someone as learned as David Foster Wallace can screw up so badly with numbers; anywho.

I’ve advanced to page 259 of Infinite Jest now, the book gets better and better, but then this: “a 54 match conclusion [of a 108 match tournament] is extremely unlikely – odds being 1 in 227“. Whoa, hold on. Really?

So Wallace gets the binomial distribution wrong, big deal, you might say – the correct probability for a draw is about 0.0766 or 1 in 13, by the way – but that’s not what irks me. How could a number so wildly implausible sail unchecked past both his and his editor’s critical skills? In a tournament with 108 matches, there is 109 possible outcomes (from team A loses all, to team A wins all). The average probability of each outcome then is 1/109. Now if the two teams are equally matched, a draw is the most likely of all these outcomes, making their average (1/109) a lower limit on the actual probability. For this kind of reasoning you need no binomial, no probability distribution, just a little bit of mathematical common sense. Which, for some odd reason, seems to be a rather rare commodity.

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

finite complaint

I am reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and I need to complain. If you haven’t read it, and plan to, don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for you. If you hate nitpicking, on the other hand, maybe do worry a bit, because I will pick nits. Three of them.

Overall, the book is fabulous so far (page 100), and I love the combination of low brow comments with language so erudite it often borders on the pretentious. This is a great stylistic game to play, and it is enhanced by esoteric factoids, partly made up, partly accurate. But for it to work it needs to stay on the light side of the pretentiousness boundary, and the author needs to be in control of the pieces of knowledge he’s throwing around. Now lets pick some nits.

Nit the first. In a discussion of the philosophical aspects of tennis, Hal’s father is cited, obliquely, as telling people about how a tennis move affords n responses, and how there then are 2^n responses to that move, soon spiraling into “a Cantorian continuum of infinities”. Now, firstly, the correct formula for this is n^2. Wallace might have done this on purpose – somewhat suggestive is the fact that the date of Cantor’s diagonal argument is given in the endnote as 1905 (Einstein’s two seminal papers came out that year) instead of the actual 1891. This is probably a purposeful mixup put into the mouth of the fictitious narrator to highlight the distant past-ness of it all – but if so, I fail to see the point of giving the wrong formula. On top of that, however, talking about a continuum of infinities is not quite accurate. The number of replies approaches the number of elements in the continuum only for games with countably infinite many moves, and any transfinity beyond that (the actual family of infinities Cantor discovered and Wallace alludes to) is unreachable by any tennis match. Overall, the passage sounds like a bit of finitely hot air to me, unlikely to come out of the mouth of an MIT educated polymath with an actual interest in Cantor.

Nit the second. When we first meet the assassin Marathe on the mountainside, he watches his shadow wander out in the setting sun toward the city of Tucson and, as the sun gets low enough, eventually reach it across the plains. This can not happen. A circular object of 20 cm diameter (a human head, say), has the same angular size as the sun (about half a degree) at a distance of roughly 22 meters (or yards). At distances greater than that, the object can no longer fully block the sun and casts no total shadow, or umbra. Moreover, the darkest point of the penumbra actually cast rapidly loses contrast and definition. At 44 meters, the darkest point will have 75% of the luminance of the surround, at 88 it’s up to close to 94%. A shadow of a human or anything smaller, cast by the sun and reaching out visibly for kilometers, is a physical impossibility.

Nit the third. Again concerning shadows, in that same scene: when the sun finally sets, Marathe sees his shadow return to him up the incline. This would happen with a rising sun, not a setting, and of course he’d have to face west, not east. If the sun were a point, the shadow cast out by a sunset would retain definition across large distances and grow longer and longer until it hits the advancing terminator and fuses with it. It would not shorten back toward the object casting it.

Is it sloppy writing and editing? Or a deliberate ruse to tick off obsessive compulsive physicists like me? It doesn’t really matter, because the book is still great, and these are tiny complaints.

Later Addition: The term Bröckengespenst Wallace uses for his fictional shadow is a) inappropriate, since a Brockengespenst is actually a shadow cast into fog or clouds, and b) has false diacritical marks on the o. This German spelling SNÄFÜ is in tune however with his german character later on calling his students “mein kinder”, which sports the wrong numerus of the possessive. “Meine Kinder” would have been correct. I’m leaning toward the sloppy writing hypothesis.