DFW disproves fatalism

Fatalism is the idea that actions in the present aren’t decisive but are determined by the state of affairs in the future. It was given a serious formulation in 1962 by a philosopher named Richard Taylor. For the New York Times Magazine, James Ryerson looks up the undergraduate philosophy thesis of the novelist David Foster Wallace and discovers that Wallace refutes it.

Wallace proposed that there was a flaw in Taylor’s argument, a hidden defect. In essence, Taylor was treating two types of propositions as if they were the same, when in fact they needed to be distinguished and treated differently. Consider the sentences “It was the case that I couldn’t fire my handgun” and “It cannot be the case that I did fire my handgun.” At first they may sound similar, but Wallace argued that they involve quite different notions of impossibility. “It was the case that I couldn’t fire my handgun” refers to a past situation in which discharge is deemed impossible because (let’s say) my gun was broken. “It cannot be the case that I did fire my handgun” refers to a present situation in which discharge is deemed impossible because (let’s say) my gun is still cool to the touch. The first notion involves an earlier, physical constraint on firing (namely, the broken gun); the other involves the current absence of a necessary consequence of firing (namely, a hot barrel). An extremely sensitive observer of language, Wallace noted that there is a subtle indicator of this important distinction already at work in our language: the fine differentiation in meaning between “I couldn’t have done such and so” and “I can’t have done such and so.”

Armed with this small but powerful insight, Wallace was able to pick apart the machinery of Taylor’s argument.

All the gems of Samarkand

Why did Elif Batuman go to graduate school? Why did she go to Uzbekistan? Why did she go back to both places? Why did Pushkin go to Turkey? The answers are in Elif's terrifically funny memoir, part one of which is published in the latest n+1, and includes a lovely description of the sort of blackmail one may receive at the hands of academics, if one has made the tactical error of exposing the contingency of one's commitment:

"This doesn't look good," [the grants administrator] said. "You're backing out of your research proposal just because you aren't eligible for this particular job at Berkeley, this particular year?" She shook her head. "It doesn't look good. I like you, Elif, and I want you to succeed. That's why I'm telling you that, if you back out of your proposal now, the likelihood of this comittee ever awarding you a grant again will be very small."

Of all the circumstances that contributed to my ending up in Samarkand, this ultimatum was the most unexpected. Go to Uzbekistan now . . . or you will never get departmental funding ever again?

Literature as coerced testimony

Siddhartha Deb reviews three novels by the Lebanese writer Elias Khoury for The Nation. One of them, Yalo, is concerned with a Lebanese Christian rapist and thief who is being tortured while in prison.

The interrogators who question Yalo, sometimes singly, sometimes in pairs, possess no names and have few defining features. This is because one sees them from Yalo’s point of view. Starved, beaten, humiliated and subject to what the interrogators call “torture parties,” Yalo understands quickly enough that he must provide a story these men consider satisfactory. Of course, it becomes apparent that the investigators are not interested in verifying the truth of Yalo’s confessions as much as in extracting a version of truth that suits their needs and is presented in a suitably bureaucratic language.

But the novel of Khoury’s that Siddhartha likes most is Gate of the Sun, which he calls “a lyrical and haunting meditation on Palestinian history from the Nakba of 1948 to the early ’90s.”

“Like Christmas with bullets”

Paul Collins profiles the mail-order tycoon/cuisinier/fabulist George Leonard Herter for the New York Times Book Review:

Herter’s magnum opus, though, was “Bull Cook,” a wild mix of recipes, unsourced claims and unhinged philosophy that went through at least 15 editions between 1960 and 1970. Herter claimed one million copies sold; Brown guesses it was closer to 100,000. Either number is impressive, and the wild curveball of the book’s opening lines remains unmatchedin American literature: “I will start with meats, fish, eggs, soups and sauces, sandwiches, vegetables, the art of French frying, desserts, how to dress game, how to properly sharpen a knife, how to make wines and beer, how to make French soap and also what to do in case of hydrogen or cobalt bomb attack, keeping as much in alphabetical order as possible.”

Over at Weekend Stubble, Paul posts Herter’s plans for a fish-calling device.

How to write novels about history

In a long and astute essay in The New York Review of Books, not easy to excerpt because it makes its argument very gradually and carefully, Elaine Blair suggests that one half of Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project raises questions that the other half neglects (subscription required for link):

What is it that we’re looking for, the novel seems to ask, when we visit the sites of historical atrocities, or read about them in novels, or watch them reenacted in movies? What kind of feeling can a novelist writing about a fifty- or hundred-year-old war crime hope to elicit in his contemporary readers? Visceral disgust? Pornographic interest? Solemn indignation? Is the best he can hope for historical clarification, or a pointed analogy to current events?

The most immediate implication of these questions would seem to be for Brik’s Lazarus story itself, and it is the great disappointment of the novel that the subtle and provocative questions suggested in one half of it seem to go unheeded in the other. Hemon seems to be hedging his bets, raising doubts about the nature of the Lazarus project in the Brik chapters, while in the Lazarus chapters the narrator bustles along as if none of these questions existed, confidently peering into the characters’ souls, speaking in their voices, and, it turns out, exploiting historical catastrophes for emotional effect.