Of attachment in Infinite Jest

[The spoiler line is currently page 168.]

Scribbled down on the back of my Infinite Summer Bookmark:  “Our attachments are our temple, what we worship, no?  What we give ourselves to, what we invest with faith” (107).  These words are from a conversation between Marathe and Steeply. Marathe has been expressing his frustration with Steeply’s real or pretended ignorance about history–literary and otherwise–and etymology. Steeply, in turn, is amused that Marathe is about to launch into what must be one of his pet lecture topics. Despite Steeply’s derision, Marathe is insistant, “Make amusement all you wish.  But choose with care.  You are what you love.  No?” (107).  Marathe has, up the same page a bit, defined love as attachment.

When I read this passage, it resonated thematically with an earlier conversation between Mario and Schtitt (and, really, an unnamed narrator, who bursts in on page 82 and takes on the expository role that he finds Mario incapable of), where Schtitt, commenting on the modern idea of happiness as “The happy pleasure of the person alone, yes?” (83).  He continues “Without there is something bigger.  Nothing to contain and give the meaning.  Lonely.  Verstiegenheit” (83).

DFW glosses the foreign word, in note 36, as “Low-Bavarian for something like ‘wandering alone in a blasted disorienting territory beyond all charted limits and orienting markers,’ supposedly.”  The Walace Wiki glosses it as “litterally German for ‘eccentricity’.”

It’s clear enough from just the opening pages that subjectivity is going to be one of Wallace’s concerns in Infinite Jest.  And I’ve often heard that, along with it, loneliness is as well.  This makes sense, as “post-post-” modern life, despite all of the ubiquetious technologies we design to faciliate interaction, of which this post is part and parcel, can feel fairly isolated. I’m typing this and you’re reading it. We’ve likely never met and likely never will. Yet, on a certain lexical level, you and I might know more about one another than I and plenty of other people I’ve met in the “real wold” do.  Still, sitting on opposite ends of this node, the connection certainly feels a lot less real, doesn’t it? In fact it is not unlike the real-yet-not-real conversation authors and readers have had as long as there have been authors and readers, separated in time and space (essentially, since the birth of writing itself).

Marathe, a fanatic, a devotee of a cause larger than himself, is caught in a bind between the love of the cause he believes in, and his love of his sick wife. We don’t know, at this point in the novel, which one he will be willing to sacrafice for the other.

Schtitt and Marathe agree that individualism is a problem and attachment is the solution.  Marathe defines the thing deserving of such devotion as that for which one would die without a second though, or, in his sometimes pidgin English, “without, as you say, the thinking twice” (107). Schtitt seems more ambivalent about it. His concluding comment to Mario is “Any something.  The what:  this is more unimportant than that there is something” (83).  And, though the syntax of that line is certainly open to interpretation, I think the point is that having something larger than the self in which to believe is more important than the real existence of that chosen thing.

How this argument grows and shakes out will be interresting to see, as there are fairly obvious dangers both to Marathe’s fanaticism and Schtitt’s pragmatic nihilism. I’m just curious at this point; I’m not entirely sure where DFW will (or would) pitch his weight.

9 thoughts on “Of attachment in Infinite Jest

  1. pzosa July 6, 2009 / 5:41 pm

    I underlined that section on 107 as soon as I read it. I like where you are going with the theme…I agree that it will be interesting to see where DFW takes us

  2. infinitedetox July 7, 2009 / 11:31 am

    You’ve really touched on something important here, I think — I was also struck by the deep similarity of Schtitt’s and Marathe’s arguments (I’ve got a small blurb on it at my blog).

    What I’m not clear on yet is whether these two arguments are supposed to reinforce or undermine each other (probably a little of both?). For instance, Marathe’s critique is big on the concept of choice and the idea of giving the self away to something bigger. But I don’t see the idea of choice playing a big role in Schtitt’s spiel, and he seems to be talking less about giving away the self than about transcending it altogether.

  3. James Martin July 7, 2009 / 3:52 pm

    infinitedetox: Good points. I think what Hal (or the narrator) says about “giving oneself to something” (in this case, recreational drugs) probably chimes in here, too, possibly as a negative example. I’ll have to find the reference for that one.

    I like your distinction on the basis of choice. It’s of no concern to Schtitt that the love of State is pounded into the youth at a young age–so much the better for them, on his view, as they avoid the existential angst of not knowing what to do with themselves. For Marathe, choice is what makes us who we are–more a classical existentialist, really. What remains to be seen is how his choices play out. And I’m intrigued by that, partly because I like Marathe.

    I read your blog post about it. Good stuff. Is this your first time reading it? I’m new to it. And this is a theme I wouldn’t mind exploring for 1000 pages. So I hope it continues (but, if you know, don’t tell me one way or the other. I’m enjoying the unfolding of it).

  4. Daryl Houston July 7, 2009 / 4:40 pm

    You said: “I think the point is that having something larger than the self in which to believe is more important than the real existence of that chosen thing.” As we dig more into the AA stuff and the giving yourself into the hands of some unprescribed higher power, this’ll come up again and again.

    I think you’re right about the negative side of giving yourself to something (drugs, passive entertainment, even tennis) too. Wallace seems to want to give time to both sides, or at least to many facets (if we don’t want to be oppositional about it) of any issue (blue collar vs. white collar drug addiction, for example).

  5. Michael Namikas July 7, 2009 / 10:29 pm

    Could Schtitt mean that it’s more important that you believe in something, than what that thing is? I didn’t take him to mean that it didn’t matter whether that thing was real or imaginary, as the author of this post seems to suggest. Food for thought. Good post.

  6. wheat July 8, 2009 / 4:24 pm

    Michael. I’m still a little fuzzy on how to take that phrase. I think your gloss of it is very good. Mine is probably the reductio of Schtitt’s. So maybe we wind up in the same place.

    Schtitt certainly does believe that some things (the State, community in general) are more worthy of attachment/devotion than others (e.g. individualism). I don’t think he’s a total nihilist. I might have overstated my case (though he does say “any something”). I just think he’s more ambivalent about it. Belief, as you point out, is more important to him than the thing believed in.

  7. Michael Namikas July 9, 2009 / 10:28 am

    I take your point. I don’t dispute that what he meant may have included both the real and the imaginary, but I guess what you are suggesting and I am suggesting is a difference of emphasis.

  8. Zach July 10, 2009 / 2:37 pm

    Schtitt’s argument seems to reflect the general AA assumption about God as a higher power, which I know DFW touches on a bit in the “things you learn hanging out in halfway houses” portion of the text. After reading your post, and thinking about the idea of devotion in the novel, to art, to entertainment, to tennis, to Quebec, I wonder how much the other 11 tenets of the 12-step process are so thoroughly reflected in the text.

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