mark's Reviews > Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will

Fate, Time, and Language by David Foster Wallace
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Jun 21, 11

bookshelves: nonfiction
Read in June, 2011

This book is really two books, and the title is misleading. First, it is a philosophical inquiry into the concept/idea of Fatalism (an argument that what happens is all that can possibly happen. This argument subsumes Determinism and Predestination.) by Philosophy professors and then, the then student Wallace’s critique of their arguments in his unpublished senior thesis: “Richard Taylor’s ‘Fatalism’ and the Semantics of Physical Modality.” (1984-1985.) Second, it is an incomplete, biographical look into the life and mind and death of David Foster Wallace, 1962-2008.

I took Logic in college some 40+ years ago and, believe it or not, was able to follow the “Fatalist” discussion. On page 97 of the book I wrote in the margin “Idiots All.” I think that was Wallace’s position, too, but he was too nice a person to say that right out. AND, his father was a Philosophy professor and his mother an English Prof. I did get lost midway through Wallace’s paper when he got into “A FORMAL DEVICE FOE REPRESENTING AND EXPLAINING THE TAYLOR INEQUIVALENCE: FEATURES AND IMPLICATIONS OF THE INTENSIONAL-PHYSICAL-MODALITY SYSTEM J.” A device Wallace devised to question the professional Philosophy professors position’s. In his (DFW) paper he combines his parents’ two Fields, English & Philosophy, to pretty much prove the esteemed professors – fools. He shows how they bloviate to excess under the guise of learn-ed discourse and misuse words to try to show how smart they are (and justify their salaries, life’s, etc. and so on.) Ironically, something some readers and critics of his accuse him of, and a self-criticism he struggled with himself. I think he was mocking his professors. And maybe unconsciously, or not unconsciously, going after Mom and Dad. It seems his entire life, he suffered from being “too smart for his own good.” And couldn’t come to grips with how his super intellect set him apart from people, even people he wanted to hold in high esteem and/or be close to – parents, teachers, coaches, girlfriends (?) and then doctors and psychologists. His disdain for The Authority, as well as his discomfort with that, is evidenced in much of his writing. (Read his story “Good Old Neon,” for an example of what I’m speaking of.) He was not depressed. He was not depressed. He was not depressed. You can see this in his early writing, how he developed his unique writing style from the Fields of Philosophy and English. How he combined the formal language and style of Logic with that of English and came out and up with strange abbreviations, acronyms, invented words, repetition, and strong, potent modifiers – all jumbled up with irony, imagination, and black humor to become simply— a fantastic story teller of fiction and non-fiction. In The Pale King, the novel he was working on when he ended his life, or “eliminated his map”; he wrote that the secret to life was being able to be at peace and comfortable with boredom – to be able to quiet the mind and focus on just that which is right in front of you. A thing he could never do. His mind was expansive— so open, so creative.

I really can’t recommend this book for anyone other than Logic/Philosophy students, writers, and Wallace fans. But I’m not sure of that. Reading this book made me angry, and depresses me. In some ways, Wallace’s story can be an argument for fatalism—the decision to kill oneself based on a belief with no proof—that there are no choices—no way out. But then, I’m more of a determinist. I can’t stop myself from thinking– All it would have taken was one really competent therapist, or one really smart friend –and David Foster Wallace would still be alive.


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