Math Games

Junior David Dunning explores mathematic themes in the works of author David Foster Wallace.
December 16, 2010

Tennis ball trajectories are not often charted using parabolas—unless it's a David Foster Wallace novel. It's this exact combination of mathematics and literature that has always fascinated junior David Dunning, who aptly enough, is a double major in the two subjects, as well as a minor in philosophy. Dunning was recently accepted as an undergraduate fellow to the Penn Humanities Forum (PHF), a program designed to advance discourse on a range of topics through the collaboration of a diverse group of academics and artists, as well as the public. The theme for the 2010-2011 Forum is virtuality, a topic the Forum describes as the exploration of "alternate worlds, simulated realities, and the 'as if' of imagination."

Dunning joins 14 other undergraduates on the Forum. For his presentation, he is focusing on Wallace's works, Infinite Jest in particular, in order to highlight the ways in which the blending of the two subjects affects reality and perception. Undergraduates involved in PHF meet regularly for seminar-like meetings where they share progress and brainstorm. By spring they will have assembled into smaller panels to present and discuss the work together.

Infinite Jest is set around both a halfway house containing various addicts and an academy of high-school age tennis prodigies competing at a very success-oriented venue. Ironically, half of the academy students are also drug addicts, entertainment addicts, and success addicts. These notions of addiction are portrayed as circular, Dunning says, and often characterized by obsession and solipsism.

"The characters are trapped in vicious cycles, and it's often difficult to see a way out. But when Wallace turns to math, he is less skeptical. In one of the more bizarre scenes, two kids are getting high and fumbling through a calculus proof, going into way too much detail for their activity to be incidental. Wallace engages with math in his fiction to an extent that suggests it's more than just an aesthetic flourish."

The central trope in the novel revolves around a film—"Infinite Jest "—that is supposedly fatally addictive, a notion Dunning says is "obviously absurd," but also the "ultimate example of entertainment supplanting reality." This same theme of recreational activity trumping the real appears many times throughout the novel and is a central part of Forum discussion: how commercial and social activities in the virtual realm are impacting daily routines.

"Another strange scene involves the younger kids dividing the tennis courts into a territorial map so they can reenact nuclear war. They're acting almost hyper-adult, obsessed with the statistics of battle and whether snow in the novel's 'real world' affects the fallout radius of one of their tennis ball warheads in the game. The older students look on, having their own debate about what they're seeing. It's the abstract versus the real; if you can recognize the patterns, you might be able to overcome solipsism and addiction."

"The characters are trapped in vicious cycles, and it's often difficult to see a way out. But when Wallace turns to math, he is less skeptical."
– David Dunning

Another work by Wallace, entitled Everything and More, a sort of pop-technical book as the author describes it, is a more literal dissection of math's influence on the real, a notion that goes hand-in-hand with the Forum's curiosity about the blurring of perception. It deals with set theory and transfinite arithmetic, theories established by Georg Cantor in the late 19th century that deal with the idea of infinity.

"Aristotle, as Wallace presents him, rejects the notion of infinity. Many mathematicians before Cantor followed Aristotle and refused to incorporate the infinite in mathematics. Over time though, this kind of paralyzing argument led to innovation, not stagnation, and Wallace considers this progression in thought admirable, even hopeful."

Dunning says Wallace isn't the only literary giant who had a stake in both mathematics and literature.

"Pynchon is undeniably a huge influence on Wallace. But I think Everything and More is a singular text. In it we see a fiction writer developing his very idiosyncratic thought by meditating on the history of mathematics. It's fascinating in its own right, and it also adds weight to the moments in Infinite Jest that point toward Wallace's interest in math and infinity."