Wittgenstein

Book Review: The Broom Of The System by David Foster Wallace


“You can trust me,’ R.V. said, watching her hand. ‘I’m a man of my'”

– Final, incomplete sentence of The Broom Of The System, by David Foster Wallace

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Dang.

I was really eager to like this book…

As someone who has only ever read maybe 50 pages of Infinite Jest and an essay or two, my perspective wasn’t one of comparison on this read. But with all the hype surrounding someone as intelligent and well-received as David Foster Wallace, you feel like a real loser for not wholly enjoying his work. He reputation is openly built on pretense by his fans, bringing with it an aire or fear of intelligentsia snobbishness. Alas, while tuning the risk of being accused of “not getting it,” I still can’t help but admit disappointment with the way this one ended.

The characters Wallace employees are amusing and he does a fantastic job of fleshing them out. Just about every character is shown to be somehow complex and altogether shallow. It’s a striking and honest indictment of innate human hypocrisy and disconnection. The absurdity of the names and language all hark back to Wittgenstein and language games and I really enjoyed these elements as well. Most of the crazy circumstances throughout the plot are also really enjoyable. Overall, the plot and elements were dense and dripping with possibilities to make deeper connections and bring about some sort of fully developed concepts, but ultimately the only satisfying elements seemed to be the character studies.

I suppose, as I think about it, that most of my dissatisfaction with this novel comes from its post-modernness. It sets up about a thousand hilarious elements and characters. It contains about as small of a world as one could dream up, as every character ends up with previous connections among the cast. It rolls along on a ridiculous, often sidetracked plot, but as connections are made, nothing comes of them. In the end, the book goes nowhere. People’s fragile realities are crushed, they lean further into their insecurities and psychological issues, and then it just ends.

I enjoyed the book enough to keep plowing through, eagerly hoping for a grand, inspired finale somewhere between Flann O’Brien and John Kennedy Toole. I really expected an impressive and equally absurd resolution to come together, perhaps like A Confederacy Of Dunces. I expected to be dazzled. But there was no point. That was the point.

The last sentence of the novel is poignant in itself, but it would make more sense if followed by a trailing pen line. . .it feels completely unfinished. I suppose the only point is that there is none. When you search for answers from Wittgenstein in the midst of deep relational distrust and psychological breakdown, your story rightly ends by dismantling itself. Makes complete sense, but it’s not every satisfying.

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David Foster Wallace On Empathy

Bill Watterson On The Importance Of Playtime

J.R.R. Tolkien On Creativity And Death

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Wittgenstein And Philosophy As Fiction


“I say that it will form an important part of the training, because it is so with human beings; not because it could not be imagined otherwise.”

– Ludwig Wittgenstein, from Philosophical Investigations. Written in the context of exploring the nature of how humans learn basic language and communication.

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After so many references to Wittgenstein’s monumental contributions to religion, language study, and philosophy from the venerable J.R. Benjamin at The Bully Pulpit, I began to feel at a loss without knowing more of the man first hand. More recent explorations of poets like Charles Bernstein led me back to Wittgenstein’s monumental philosophical contributions on linguistics, and I decided to buckle down and prioritize at least a cursory look at his work. After only a few pages each from Wittgenstein’s Lectures and Philosophical Investigations, I am realizing that the emphasis on logic in language and communication which I have long annoyed other with is something I have in common and more to learn about at Wittgenstein’s feet.

This little quote above impressed me so because I made an immediate link to the value of speculative fiction. Much of Wittgenstein’s genius and discernment comes from his distinct ability to hone in on what can be logically validated and what is not verifiable by a human in the given universe. He often illustrates his lofty and meticulous conclusions with practical analogies and, although he rarely indulges in distinguishing the possibilities, a major and intrinsic component in his process is understanding and exemplifying what does not fall within our sphere of possible knowledge and what would change with alternative reality.

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All of this brings to mind the transcript of a conversation between Kingsley Amis, Brian Aldiss, and C.S. Lewis on the value of science fiction as a format for exploring the state of the world as we can perceive it. They speak of their personal favorite concepts among alternate reality and space exploration stories and the ideas they’ve found in science fiction which have most drastically affected the way they perceive the world around them. Their discussion frequently returns to science fiction’s place in literature.

 

“Lewis: Oh, yes, do, I beg your pardon. . .But probably the great work in science-fiction is still to come. Futile books about the next world came before Dante, Fanny Burney came before Jane Austen, Marlowe came before Shakespeare.

Amis: We’re getting the prolegomena.

Lewis: If only the modern highbrow critics could be induced to take it seriously. . .

Amis: Do you think they ever can?

Lewis: No, the whole present dynasty has got to die and rot before anything can be done at all.

Aldiss: Splendid!

Amis: What’s holding them up, do you think?

Lewis: Matthew Arnold made the horrible prophecy that literature would increasingly replace religion. It has, and it’s taken on all the features of bitter persecution, great intolerance, and traffic in relics.”

Of course, Lewis is right and we see that, by and large, culture and even academia have begun to embrace or at least tolerate speculative fiction, although the attitudes toward all forms of fiction have drastically changed as well.

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Finn The Human, as genius in repose

Obviously, most philosophers would scoff with a genius Finn The Human “What Quaint Notions!” at the idea of finding value in a science fiction paperback. Many Star Wars geeks would roll their eyes and begin to feign snoring if you attempted to start a linguistics conversation that wasn’t on Elvish or Klingon. The point is not that one equals the other, or that most will find them mutually fascinating. The wonder is simply that such externally different interests can and usually do actually come to the point of overlapping. Most great writers of speculative fiction address very real psychology in human struggles and moral and social concepts. Philosophers like Wittgenstein are constantly creating small fictions to both illustrate the real and the impossible. And then there are those of us who are equally fascinated by each in turn, constantly seeking to learn and to create. This makes sense, according to Wittgenstein, for living life is simply “an intellectual problem and a moral duty.”

 

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Further Reading

 

 Rod Serling On Speculative Fiction And Censorship

Non-Fiction Should Change You For The Better

C.S. Lewis On Writing For Children