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'Plain old untrendy troubles and emotions' (2008) (theguardian.com)
40 points by Tomte 9 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 31 comments

While it's not as well-known or popular at large as, say Infinite Jest, I think that the readership here might enjoy "Everything and more" by David Foster Wallace. It's a history of mathematics around late 1800s and early 1900s surrounding George Cantor and the discovery of uncountable sets, foundations of mathematics, etc. It's both informative and entertaining.

I'm normally a fan of DFW. But in this case I know nothing about the book. So I'll highlight this note from the Wikipedia page:

> Reviewers, including Rudy Rucker,[1] A.W. Moore[2] and Michael Harris,[3] have criticized its style and mathematical content.

Style is, of course, subjective. But I'd look into the content criticism before investing time in this


I find no way to phrase it and it's always taken as an attack or troll, so I wonder if anyone knows a proper framework for this argument (whether you agree with it or not): "If you know someone committed suicide, it seems ill-advised to read their thinking. Whether or not it's "advice" and whether or not you read with detachment, what we take in, comes from someone's psyche, echoes and transforms and embeds in our own unconscious. And so we are, however subtly, taking on some part of a psyche - the logic, beliefs etc., that leads to seeing life as not worth living, regardless of how enlightening it seems on the face of it." Something to do with epistemological...something?

People are not static, nor are their lives linear and moving along rails to a predetermined destination. If someone kills themselves one year, that doesn't mean that everything they did or thought in the previous year is an action or belief that causes people to kill themselves. It could be related, unrelated, maybe it was an effort that was moving them away from suicide but something else happened that pushed them the other way, who knows. It seems pretty naive to assume that every single thought and event in someone's life is directly related to the outcome.

I don't think there's a "proper framework" for that because it's not valid reasoning.

This viewpoint disregards the flux of the brain in favor of a vague, static "psyche". The brain is plastic, vulnerable, and swimming in a hormonal soup that it's also responsible for regulating. It can fall into feedback loops because of this.

E.g.: stress damages the hippocampus, the hippocampus loses some capacity to mitigate stress, leading to more stress that damages the hippocampus further.

In that hippocampus example, we know that SSRI drugs can reverse this damage. On the other hand, they can also lead some patients to experience increased thoughts of suicide. An anxious/depressed mind can become a suicidal mind or a healthy mind in reaction to the same stimulus. Things can happen to healthy minds that send it to those corners as well. We can't just assume that someone who died of suicide was on a fixed track to get there or that their advice from a healthy mind lead to an unhealthy mind.

Not a framework, but here's an extreme "counterexample": the Ford-Fulkerson algorithm is useful. But Fulkerson eventually committed suicide.

I think we can safely say that the Ford-Fulkerson algorithm is not some cursed object that we should not learn about. So clearly there's some spectrum of creations and the imprints left on them by their creators, and at one end of it, there's pretty much no imprint at all.

Garbage In, Garbage Out?

I don't think it is dangerous in itself to read his thinking, because everyone is coming at it from a different experience than DFW. But it would be dangerous to hold his thoughts up as some ideal to strive for, as opposed to hold his thoughts up as evidence that incredibly talented people can also be incredibly broken.

If someone killed themselves then they most likely experienced negative emotions very strongly. Not everyone does. The insight that can be gained about existence from someone with such an extreme phenomenological experience (i.e, someone who feels like everything is a kind of soulless torture, as he makes clear in the essay) might be useful for people on a more even keel. He talks about having to constantly remind himself that his negative outlook is only one way of looking at things. It didn’t seem to be enough for him, but it might still be helpful for me to think about. I highly doubt that many people have read his essays and were driven to suicide. I do think many people have read his essays and learned something about their own nature.

Other animals commit suicide too, in a state of despair. Scorpions sting themselves when you place them in a ring of embers. The prerequisite is not being able to see a way out of ones situation.

Depression tends to warp perception, not letting positive thoughs through or immediately shooting them down. Abraham Lincoln was depressed too, so much that the people surrounding him removed everything he could hurt himself with from his surroundings.

I think individuals with a sunny disposition or a well functioning, supportive social circle/family are unlikely to be dragged down by writings of depressed individuals.

I think this is related to the contagion heuristic:


Although I've read this before, its nice to re-read this now that I have started to pay a bit more attention to theory of mind. I don't have much to offer here except some resources for further exploration. Currently I am reading "Thinking Fast and Slow" which explores related ideas to what Wallace is getting at here but with the rigour of psychology (for all the caveats that come with that).

You could also try Sam Harris' "waking up" app which claims to achieve what is talked about in Wallace's essay through meditation. From my dabbling with it, it is somewhat true if not entirely true.

Finally you could explore broader works on the mind. I have been listening to audiobooks on animal intelligence ("Other Minds" and "The Genius of Birds") and have made a start on a history of psychology/psychiatry - "The Mind Fixers", which is a bit dry but also filled with wonderful anecdotes and stories.

Instead of silently downvoting me, could someone explain why they don't like my comment. Maybe I could learn something from your disagreement instead of just being pointlessly silenced.

truly talented writer, not really the kind of guy who should be held up as a moral teacher. had a long-term pattern of sleeping with his students. committed serious domestic violence against one of his partners.

this wasn't well-known at the time this speech was given, or after he killed himself and the speech became hugely popular. It seems like it still isn't.

I think there's some kind of minimum bar where you shouldn't take spiritual and moral advice from somebody.

People can have flaws and do things wrong and still be right about some things. Indeed, everyone has flaws and does things wrong, so if you're looking for someone who doesn't before you consider any advice, you're unlikely to ever be able to learn anything.

If someone failed out of school and tells you to study hard, are you going to discount their advice because they failed to live up to it?

>truly talented writer, not really the kind of guy who should be held up as a moral teacher. had a long-term pattern of sleeping with his students

So? Unless the students where kids (as opposed to 18 and above), that's a moralist, religious-derived, US-centric concern (not that such moralism hasn't made its way and infected other parts of the world)...

People that call out adults for sleeping with whoever adult they like are worse than people that sleep with their adult students...

> that's a moralist, religious-derived, US-centric concern

It's a conflict of interest, like an employee sleeping with their boss. It's hard to trust somebody to fairly assess somebody they're sleeping with.

>It's a conflict of interest, like an employee sleeping with their boss

It's only bad if it's part of blackmail or exchange (e.g. for grades, etc). Else, if it's a consentual relation, it's fine just like any other.

Lots of employees have had great relationships and marriages and kids with their bosses and vice versa. And even more students and professors had affairs (this will include someone like French President Macron). Humans are humans they don't easily compartmentalize their attraction or sexuality just because some bureaucratic rules say so.

>Humans are humans they don't easily compartmentalize their attraction or sexuality just because some bureaucratic rules say so

This is exactly my point. Even if the professor and student don't intend it to be a grades-for-sex exchange, it would be hard for the professor to be completely objective, and not unfairly grade that student higher than other students with whom the professor didn't have such a close relationship.

I don't think the fact that it sometimes works out well means that it's generally a good idea. Relationships probably end in breakup as often as not, and then you're left in the awkward position of still needing to go to class (or to work) with your ex as your "superior."

>I don't think the fact that it sometimes works out well means that it's generally a good idea.

That it's not generally a good idea is inherent in the "sometime it doesn't work out well" (the complamentary to "it sometimes works out well"). But that's also true for most affairs/relationships, and according to statistics, marriages (if we consider a divorce as "the marriage not working out well"). And it can be awkward, like those.

But my point was, it's human, and not some moral issue to condemn a person or a writer's writing for.

Typically, older teachers who sleep with a lot of students do abuse their position and authority in order to be able to do it. Whether by giving favorable/unfavorable grades, by visibly preferring some students or by more direct threats.

> moralist, religious-derived, US-centric concern

Then again, if teacher touches you inappropriately in US or is trying to manipulate you into that, you can actually complain. It is not easy and you may not be believed, but you are is still in better compared to less moralist places.

It is not exactly US-centric concern to think that any of above happen. The same happen everywhere. It is that complaining about it in US is not a taboo.

>It is not exactly US-centric concern to think that any of above happen. The same happen everywhere. It is that complaining about it in US is not a taboo.

I think it's more that sexuality in the US is a taboo, and everything is seen in the prism of violation and litigation.

There is such a thing as violation. There is such a thing as teacher or boss abusing his authority to get sex where he has upper hand. In US, that topic is not taboo. If where you are such option is not accepted as possibility, then it is not US who has taboo.

Non american women do get touched inappropriately and they do not like it. And they do complain about it, if you know them close enough.

Also, would there not be value in the words from someone who had experience with moral corruption? If I wanted to hear what the world was like outside the city walls, I'd expect that person to have gone outside the city walls before.

i see what you’re saying in the broader case — i can imagine it would be worth listening to someone who had reckoned with the evil they did — but that’s not how people sold DFW.

The pitch was “here’s a book of good advice from a man who was brilliant, morally decent, and struggled with depression”.

Some of the greatest geniuses in history were incredibly troubled people. The fact that they were terrible messes does not change the fact that we are still standing upon their shoulders.

What if the advice that would really help someone just happens to be from people who are all below this person's purity test bar?

I don't know if it's a purity test. We've all failed. We've all had bad behaviour patterns. None of those things are disqualifications. In some cases it's overcoming these things that make someone worth listening to.

But if the person failed to do so perhaps something about their world view needed to change? Perhaps listening to them could lead you down the same path?

If the ghost of Hitler tells you not to hit your sister and take her toys, it's still good advice.

I think if you erased the name of the author, and prefaced the post with "Here's some life advice from a man who committed suicide 3 years after giving it" - few people would give this a second glance. I'm more inclined to do the exact opposite of what he says, because clearly it didn't work for him.

DFW - a great author, and a profoundly sad human. Enjoy his works but don't look to him for anything more than entertainment.

I'm willing to bet there's a not insignificant fraction of society who are profoundly interested in the lives and writing of people who have done harm to themselves and / or others.

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