Wallace once said that in writing Infinite Jest, he wanted to write something sad. There are lots of individual fragments of sadness throughout the book that I need not catalogue. As I got to the end of this week’s milestone, I was more or less knocked over by what turns out to be probably the central overarching sadness of the book. And I found it in, of all places, a Steeply/Marathe section. These sections have always felt during previous readings almost like filler, stuff to sort of loosely bind together a couple of the larger plots. I’ve found them a bit more compelling this time around, though still strange and disjunctive, removed somehow (geographically, of course, but also in mood) from the rest of the book.
In the section that struck me, Marathe is trying to coax Steeply through a dialog (in almost the Socratic sense) about desire and delayed gratification. Steeply says the usual platitudes about freedom and being responsible adults and how the social contract is what keeps us from bonking one another on the head, because in order to maximize our own pleasure, we have to make sure we’re not curtailing the pleasure of others. He has also says that, in the case of kids and candy, for example, “[i]t can’t be a Fascist matter of screaming at the kid or giving him electric shocks each time he overindulges in candy. You can’t induce a moral sensibility the same way you’d train a rat. The kid has got to learn by his own experience how to learn to balance the short-and long-term pursuit of what he wants” (429).
Just a page later, we go to Marathe:
‘You believe we are underestimating to see all you as selfish, decadent. But the question has been raised: are we cells of Canada alone in this view? Aren’t you afraid, you of your government and gendarmes? If not, your B.S.S., why work so hard to prevent dissemination? Why make a simple Entertainment, no matter how seducing its pleasures, a samizdat and forbidden in the first place, if you do not fear so many U.S.A.s cannot make the enlightened choices?’
This now was the closest large Steeply had come, to stand over Marathe to look down, looming. The rising astral body Venus lit his left side of the face to the color of pallid cheese. ‘Get real. The Entertainment isn’t candy or beer. Look at Boston just now. You can’t compare this kind of insidious enslaving process to your little cases of sugar and soup.’
Marathe smiled bleakly into the chiaroscuro flesh of this round and hairless U.S.A face. ‘Perhaps the facts are true, after the first watching: that then there seems to be no choice. But to decide to be this pleasurably entertained in the first place. This is still a choice, no? Sacred to the viewing self, and free? No? Yes?’
In the case of the attache in the context of whose viewing we’re first introduced to the Entertainment, of course he had no specific choice in the matter of being made catatonic by the film; he didn’t know what specifically he was in for. One could reasonably enough argue that he was so enslaved by the habit of passive entertainment that he may as well have made the choice to view the cartridge that would leave him slobbering and incontinent. Let’s put that aside for a moment, though, and grant that most people confronted with the choice to watch or not watch a movie that will assuredly prove fatal would choose not to. If we grant as much, then Steeply’s more or less right, and Marathe’s point doesn’t really hold.
But take Steeply’s own words: “Look at Boston just now.” Look at it. Hookers turning tricks with their dead babies still placentally attached. Fathers diddling their catatonic retarded rubber-masked daughters and driving their complicit adoptive daughters to become strippers. Withdrawal-racked transgendered prostitutes stealing hearts and later going into withdrawal-induced seizures on buses. Talented, smart, All-American-type girls going into friends’ bathrooms for what they plan to make their last dance with Too Much Fun. And so on and so forth, all to feed the Spider. Boston just now is full of people who know, in at least vague, Just-Say-No, ways that there can be severe consequences for engaging in certain behaviors known to be addictive. And yet they do them, many well beyond that healthy way in which, say, a Schacht occasionally indulges, and they do them, and they do them until they hit bottom, until they have to bonk others on the head for their fix: they’re kids eating candy all day until they throw up even though, in many cases, they knew better.
As Steeply says, “[y]ou can’t induce a moral sensibility the same way you’d train a rat.” And yet clearly the moral sensibility (or whatever sensibility it is — one of self-preservation, maybe?) isn’t self-generating, or at any rate is pretty easily put aside, for all of the people suffering the horrors of their addictions. How, then, do you fix the problem? You can’t force a fix, but people resist fixes from within. It’s another double-bind, its own sort of dark infinite jest. This is a bleak, bleak view.