David Foster Wallace died last night. He was found at home by his wife — apparently he hanged himself. It’s a terrible tragedy for American literature.
Wallace’s big, famous book was of course Infinite Jest, but among his other words was a quirky history of the concept of infinity, Everything and More. Like everything he wrote, it was sprawling and inventive and chock full of discursive footnotes. One such footnote now seems especially poignant:
In modern medical terms, it’s fairly clear that G. F. L. P. Cantor suffered from manic-depressive illness at a time when nobody knew what this was, and that his polar cycles were aggravated by professional stresses and disappointments, of which Cantor had more than his share. Of course, this makes for less interesting flap copy than Genius Driven Mad By Attempts To Grapple With ∞. The truth, though, is that Cantor’s work and its context are so totally interesting and beautiful that there’s no need for breathless Prometheusizing of the poor guy’s life. The real irony is that the view of ∞ as some forbidden zone or road to insanity — which view was very old and powerful and haunted math for 2000+ years — is precisely what Cantor’s own work overturned. Saying that ∞ drove Cantor mad is sort of like mourning St. George’s loss to the dragon; it’s not only wrong but insulting.