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.

14 thoughts on “Sadness

  1. infinitetasks July 31, 2009 / 9:59 am

    What a beautiful post, Daryl! Your catalogue of Boston addictions is awesome, especially in the context of the “choice-problem” posed by the one-time-only Entertainment. Choice or not, as you say, there is still no self-generating Moral Sensibility.

    Yet, I am not suffused by the sadness, at least, not yet. Not until I am sure that there is No Way Out, No End to the Spider. What I am sure of, now, is that DFW is decidedly post-Liberal in his conception of the internal resources of the human being: that is, if Lberal means that identity = choice or will or freedom, then we are inherently compromised in our ability to become human such as understood by Steeply’s anti-Fascism.

    But I began reading this book with the a priori belief that DFW is not Delillo or Pynchon, that he does not think that System conquers Agency. Gately worries that we are rats in a maze (p. 443), a pretty good description of System, and the Dark Fear I have had ever since reading Gravity’s Rainbow, which simply destroyed me. We are in the thick of things, now, half-way through the book. My a priori belief is that DFW does not ultimately believe we are these rats (which is why I am so interested in Orin’s Dread and its capacity for resolution into some sort of authenticity over at my blog). And I hope he can convince me.

  2. Daryl Houston July 31, 2009 / 11:11 am

    Great comments. I hope Wallace provides something in the way of resolution, but I don’t remember (in spite of having read the book a few times before) whether or not he does. I guess I’ve been in too big a hurry to finish or have been too fatigued by the second half of prior readings to pay close enough attention. I probably also haven’t been as tuned in to the real sadness in the book, instead enjoying all the dark humor and stylistic tics. This time around, I feel almost like I have a personal stake in the resolution. Wallace has exposed a dark truth for which I hope he can provide at least something that points in the direction of an answer. If not, I suppose I always have “be careful” and “everything in moderation” to fall back on. Maybe Wallace would even approve of these (if Gately’s sobriety is any clue) or similar mantras as a way of getting by.

  3. infinitedetox August 2, 2009 / 3:20 pm

    “I probably also haven’t been as tuned in to the real sadness in the book, instead enjoying all the dark humor and stylistic tics.”

    This has been incredibly true for me as well, particularly the first couple times I read through the book. I think a lot of readers, judging by what you can read at #infsum and the Infinite Summer forums, are similarly keyed in to the humor and the brilliant writing at the expense of the sadness Wallace was trying to convey. Question: is this a bug of the book, or a feature? Did Wallace’s writerly virtuosity outshine and essentially undermine his chief message? Or is he doing something deliberate here to argue, subtly, that straight-up writerly joie de vivre can itself be an antidote to the many psychic Spider-bites out there?

  4. Daryl Houston August 2, 2009 / 8:36 pm

    I’m thinking maybe it’s actually a bug of the book, or perhaps that it points to a symptom of a problem of readership, specifically that people are so tuned into dark humor and the odd satisfaction of the sort of situational irony of double binds that we miss the underlying sadness. It’s a case of missing the forest for the trees. Maybe Wallace gave us too many trees. Or maybe we’re just so used to looking for trees that we miss the forest. I’m not sure which. I don’t think he’d try to do anything so clever as to make the sort of argument you suggest, though it’s a neat idea.

  5. Walt Pascoe August 2, 2009 / 10:26 pm

    I think you are really getting at something pretty important.
    I’m also one of those people who blew through the book the first time I read it, enjoying the humor and craftsmanship, and generally being in a big hurry to “figure out” what the hell was going on in the plot.
    But the second time through I am MUCH more struck by the pathos and tragedy; not only vis individual characters in the book, but in the philosophical implications of DFW’s P.O.V. in IJ. Namely that contemporary life seems like one long series of battles w/ any and every form of addiction imaginable. (The addiction-cage being a logical outcome of self-worship) And even more depressingly, that immersion in apparent “solutions” just becomes yet another form of addiction.The dialectic in the Marathe – Steeply dialogue runs through the whole book in various contexts, and always seems to leave the reader, like DFW I think, searching for a more nuanced third way.
    It’s kind of like he has really put the capital T Tragedy back into the tragi-comic form, and plays us all like a bunch of out-of-tune fiddles, making us laugh and cry at the same time (two things that can be remarkably similar in a weird way).
    Thanks for a thought provoking post Daryl. Really enjoy your blog, and the comments.

    • Walt Pascoe August 2, 2009 / 10:31 pm

      P.S. Meant to write “the” blog. It’s a terrific group of people gathered here !

    • Daryl Houston August 3, 2009 / 7:58 am

      Thanks for speaking up, Walt. The more who do so, the more interesting and fun this exercise becomes.

  6. Edwin Allen August 3, 2009 / 12:46 am

    First, Daryl, I think the point you make about choice is both really salient to the book and also to the world but more specifically to the US of A. Also, is the entertainment’s effect the same to those who aren’t part of the Interlace grid, as in they haven’t been inundated with the kinds of entertainment ‘choices’ that the development of these digital cartridges, the grid, and the death of broadcast implies? Are Canadians (or for that matter Bolivians or South Africans or whoever) susceptible to the entertainment? I don’t actually know as I’m right at the spoiler line of infinite summer, and I can’t actually remember if DFW’s mentioned whether or not Canada is a part of the grid. Is the choice to say no only a choice with the proper habituation?

    I think this element of ‘what is the choice in fighting corporate persuasion of cultural lifestyles?’ (my interpretation of the whole Interlace thing), although weirdly wrong about the details of what technology in the future would look like, is amazingly presentient of the world we now live in, what with the ridiculous amounts of digital entertainment choices. I have heard a story (it may and in fact probably is in the realm of the insurance claim interlude) about someone in South Korea dying because they didn’t stop playing some video game for multiple days. I heard it from a guy in a bar, so you know, but it is certainly true that people fry their brains on video games, TV, cable, youtube, hulu, netflix and everything that’s passively mentally ingested without consciously not filtering but processing. Magazines, the usual summer reading, drugs, alcohol (yes, technically a drug but also a legal one), whatever the choice.

    Quickly, infinitedetox, Wallace also said that the things he says about a work after the fact are just representations of a more organic, intuitive process of creation, which I think is just how art is, even writing which can be hugely analytic. So, although IJ is and probably was intended to be, on some level, sad, it was probably also intended to be amusing and, dare I say it, entertaining. The antidote is a vaccination kind of metaphor. I don’t actually know. I’m just guessing, as we all are as we were none of us in that brilliant and not doubt depressively inclined mind. But the idea that art can help us overcome our own personal demons or difficulties is a good one whether Wallace intended it or not. Certainly his art, this work of fiction, has that potential depending on the choice people make in how to process it and more widely how to live so that they can process it in the way that would, in fact, have this effect.

    Sorry, that wasn’t quick. I’ll leave off.

  7. Daryl Houston August 3, 2009 / 8:09 am

    Edwin, you ask a very neat question. Frankly, I don’t know that it’s ever addressed, but I can say that it hadn’t occurred to me to think that whether or not you’d be affected would depend upon whether or not you had exposure to the dissemination grid.

    What does seem apparent is that there are certain types of people (on the grid or off, I think) who would make the choice not to view an entertainment that they knew would make you go catatonic. I don’t think Schacht would, for example, though he has surely had access to InterLace. Hal I’m not sure about. If his interest in the DMZ in the face of the reports of how grim it is is any indication, I’d say maybe he would give it a shot. I’ll bet Orin would (see the part of the book in which he watches a film of himself over and over again — if clues earlier in the book about the content of the Entertainment are reliable, it’s certainly sort of a solipsistic or like Echo/Narcissus-type film). It seems clear that Marathe wouldn’t watch it. I think it ultimately is a matter more of personal strength and ability to look beyond your own blinders that inclines you to watch the Entertainment or have Too Much Fun or whatever. Still, it’s an interesting idea you bring up.

    I had heard the story about the Korean video gamer too, I believe from a real news source.

  8. stephanie August 10, 2009 / 12:43 pm

    I really liked this post. I’m having such a hard time figuring out the “answer” to the Steeply-Marathe discussion, esp keeping in mind this quote from an interview with DFW:

    “The guy who essentially runs the academy now is a fascist, and, whether it comes out or not, he’s really the only one there who to me is saying anything that’s even remotely non-horrifying, except it is horrifying because he’s a fascist.”

    I think of Marathe the same way, though I’m not sure that Marathe’s a fascist. I just agree with Marathe’s point of view, but then keep remembering that the AFR is a terrorist organization and does want to inflict pain on “innocent” people.

    I feel kind of inarticulate right now but I guess that, like Walt, I’m “searching for a more nuanced third way.”

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