BEHIND THE CURTAIN: Con men of the world, unite!

FRIDAY, APRIL 28, 2017

Interlude—Enduring deep grief through Fermat:
In 2012, Jim Holt published Why Does the World Exist? An Existentialist Detective Story.

Almost surely, it's one of the most fraudulent books ever published. Inevitably, the New York Times selected it as one of the ten best books of the year.

Why do we say "inevitably?" Consider the embarrassing flow of the past five years.

When Holt's ridiculous book about "the mystery of existence" appeared, it was reviewed in the Times' Sunday Book Review by Sarah Bakewell, "an author of non-fiction" who "currently lives in London."

Bakewell gave the book the mandated, standard respectful review, describing Holt as "an elegant and witty writer comfortably at home in the problem’s weird interzone between philosophy and scientific cosmology."

Things spiraled downward from there, leading to the book's selection as one of the year's ten best. Four years later, inevitably, it happened all over again!

In 2016, Bakewell came along with her own ridiculous book, At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails [sic]. It's one of the most ridiculous books we've ever read. Inevitably, the New York Times selected it as one of the year's ten best.

Con men of the world, unite! To publish a book which will be judged by the Times as among the year's ten best, you need only follow these simple rules:

Trick up a book about existentialism with the good solid fun of "apricot cocktails," or with the time-honored allure of a "detective story." Your spectacular intellectual incompetence will be completely overlooked. Gotham savants will declare your book among the year's ten best!

To what extent is Holt's ridiculous book tricked up with silly externalia? Consider the part of the book which he has declared to be the best—the part of the book where he describes the death of his pet dachshund, Renzo.

(Yes, there is such a part of the book. It's the "Interlude" following Chapter 8, a mini-chapter entitled "Nausea.")

How silly do the endless, self-referential parts of this silly book really get? At the start of "Nausea," Holt has jetted to Austin to meet with physicist Steven Weinberg, part of his quest to determine "why the world exists."

(He's searching for three or four Einsteins.)

According to Holt, he emerged from the plane in his linen suit, "elegantly rumpled as always." Before asking "the concierge at my hotel for advice on where to dine," Holt wanders about among the crowd at an outdoor music festival.

No, he doesn't run into Terry Malick; if only he had! Instead, Holt tells us what follows. We didn't make this up:
HOLT (page 149): Making my way through the cacophonous crowd under the hot sun, I pretended that I was Roquentin, the existential hero of Sartre's novel Nausea. I tried to summon up the disgust that he would feel at the surfeit of Being that overflowed the streets of Austin—at its sticky thickness, its grossness, its absurd contingency. Whence did it all spring? How did the ignoble mess around me triumph over pristine Nothingness?
Holt's musings become more puerile from there. As readers, we are apparently asked to believe that this foolishness really occurred—which is possible, of course, in the sense that everything is.

Con men of the world, unite! To the people who ponder books at our nation's most elite newspaper, nonsense like this propels a book to the top of the annual pile.

Not only do the savants believe that this nonsense really occurred. They seem to believe that the behavior and thinking Holt describes is profound in some way. It's all part of the quest!

Such judgments afford us a horrible look behind a cultural curtain. They help explain how we've reached the point where Donald J. Trump is now president, with our culture lying in ruins.

Behind that curtain, within a bubble, nonsense like this is seen as a form of deep thought. We offer mild words of dissent:

Holt was perhaps 58 years of age when he jetted to Austin. Why in the world would a man of that age engage in such ludicrous piddle? Alternately, why in the world would he type this up and claim that it actually happened?

Why on earth would a grown man pretend that he wandered the streets of Austin that way? Perhaps that gentleman knows the shape of a winning literary con! Just consider what Holt said a bit later in this ridiculous chapter.

After dining in Austin that night, Holt learns that Renzo has had a medical event in New York. The next day, he cancels his appointment with Weinberg. He flies home, holds Renzo in his arms for ten days, then agrees that Renzo must be euthanized.

Many pet owners have had such experiences. The good con man must distinguish himself from all these regular folk.

What makes Holt stand out from the crowd with all its sticky thickness? Amazingly but undeniably, Holt goes on to say this:
HOLT (page 152): The vet in charge of all this looked like a young Goldie Hawn. She and her assistant took turns with me stroking Renzo during the preparations. I did not want to break down sobbing in front of them.

Fortunately, I have a good trick for maintaining my outward composure in such situations. It involves a beautiful little theorem about prime numbers, originally due to Fermat...
Mercifully, we never learn who or what the vet's assistant looked like. Instead, we're subjected to an excruciating account of the good trick Holt allegedly uses to maintain his outward composure in such situations.

Holt goes on, at considerable length, explaining the "good trick" involving the "beautiful little theorem" he tracks to Fermat, who is name-dropped for the first time way back on page 37.

Out of respect for the mortality of our own last few brain cells, we aren't going to describe the trick in which Holt allegedly engaged while Renzo was being euthanized. Let's leave it at this:

As he ran through all the prime numbers, performing a mathematical test, Holt "made it past 193 and was still dry-eyed at the moment the vet gave Renzo the final injection."

We won't describe Holt's wonderful trick to the extent that he does. We will describe the role such episodes play in this fraudulent book.

Duh! The con men who author books of this type must start by convincing you, the mark, that they are more lofty than you are. Holt runs this con all through his book, nowhere in a sillier fashion than in this mini-chapter.

In the passage posted above, Holt describes one part of his personal behavior—behavior which, as you can see, is remarkably fey and outre. Such episodes will convince the trusting reader that the con man who wrote this book is truly a man set apart.

More commonly, Holt works the con throughout the book by name-dropping every famous thinker who ever existed, along with the names of quite a few thinkers who aren't famous. More potently, he litters his book with mathematical and "philosophical" sophistry and cant.

These droppings lie beyond the intellectual experience of the typical college graduate. Such a person is thereby left with no obvious way to challenge or doubt the manifest bullshit she is being handed.

We say "she" for a reason. In Part 1 of this report, we discussed the way a young journalist, one year out of Princeton, reacted to Holt's book.

She'd been assigned to discuss a book she couldn't possibly hope to critique. Making things worse, the New York journalistic elite was widely vouching for the status of the book's ridiculous author.

All through Holt's ridiculous book, that young woman encountered flimflams of a "philosophical" bent. Like the vast bulk of Holt's potential readers, this young woman wasn't equipped to challenge these shameless cons.

In our next report, we'll look at some of the mathematical nonsense this young woman encountered in the earlier parts of Holt's book. We'll also look at the way Holt buries a remarkable lede in Chapter 10 of his book—a remarkable lede about the "philosophical" beliefs of the majority of the world's mathematicians.

(How crazy are mathematicians' beliefs? Get ready to think Ben Carson!)

For today, let's restrict ourselves to the best part of Holt's book—the part where he walks around pretending to be the nausea-infested Roquentin, then turns to Fermat for help when he and his Goldie Hawn look-alike are comforting his dying dog.

Apparently, the New York Times believed the things this fellow said about this ridiculous episode. To Holt's credit, he worked the con all the way through this mini-chapter.

Holt is a shameless self-fantasizer. Here's the way the mini-chapter about Renzo and nausea ends:
HOLT (page 153): The vet and her assistant left me alone in the room so I could sit for a while with Renzo's lifeless body. I opened his mouth and looked at his teeth, something he would never let me do when he was alive. I tried to close his eyes. After a few more minutes, I left the room and paid the bill, which included a "communal cremation" with other dogs that had been put down. Then, carrying only Renzo's blanket, I walked home.

The next day, I called Steven Weinberg at his home in Austin to ask him about why the world exists.
Con men of the world, take note! Melodrama gives way to heroism as Holt pushes on with his quest.

Con men of the world of books are willing to play these games. So are the con men of cable TV, a group we'll return to next week.

At the New York Times, the nation's journalistic elite thinks this is good solid deep stuff. We're peeking behind the curtain this week, observing an intellectual breakdown which has our self-impressed liberal tribe on the canvas, back-flat, looking up.

Tomorrow: That Princeton kid encounters a set of mathematical and "philosophical" cons


  1. Somerby thinks Holt is being inauthentic, even in his grieving over the loss of his dog. Somerby presumes to prescribe how someone must cope with death -- Sheryl Sandberg's way, including a set of rules. He is touched by her way but put off by Holt's adoption of Roquentin's stance at his dog's death bed. Many people considered Sartre's depiction of Roquentin just as phony (or at least unachievable) as Holt's. Just as nausea-inducing.

    There is no evidence the New York Times considers this book anything more than good solid entertainment for readers. Philosophers would need to review it in philosophy journals in order for it to be considered relevant to their field. I would bet good money that they didn't bother. A book with this conceit of interviewing geniuses has nothing to contribute to deeper fields. It is entertainment. No one is so self-impressed as to believe they are doing anything "deep" by reading it. They would have to read Sartre for that.

    1. "Philosophers would need to review it in philosophy journals in order for it to be considered relevant to their field."

      Was Sartre published in philosophy journals?

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. I said reviewed, not published. Sartre was reviewed and discussed. So, yes.

    4. It's hardly what Somerby thinks of Holt that's of interest here, but as thick-headed as you are, there is actually a glimpse of your understanding that point:

      "No one is so self-impressed as to believe they are doing anything "deep" by reading it."


      And yet, you must reckon with the fact that the Times does indeed present this piffle quite as if something deep is indeed being discussed. It's a problem not in the first place with Holt but with the New York Times.

      Unable to cope with Somerby's actual thesis -- out of your depth, perhaps -- you pretend you've stumbled on something else. It's all about adhering to rules of mourning. Sure.

    5. There is no field of philosophy. There are people who try to make their opinions about unprovable problems known. There are people who know about other people who made their opinions known, who are hired to teach this history. Everyone with an opinion is in the field of philosophy.

  2. I would like to know which of Fermat's theorems Holt discussed, but I don't want to buy the book. Hmm. Maybe I'll try the library.

  3. Bob, for what it's worth, I think you're too quick to ascribe dishonesty and hucksterism to Mr. Holt. I concur that those excerpts were ridiculously melodramatic and, as you would put it, self-regarding. However, in my own life, I have known many people who star in their own ridiculous melodramas, and they lack the self-awareness to know what many can see plainly. I suppose that they could be accused of being dishonest with themselves, but this is not the same thing. I believe that you have made similar issue of what many have said of the president's words.