The Way It Gets Better and You Get Better is Through Pain

I’ve lifted my title from page 446, in a passage in which Gately has just publicly expressed frustration with his still not understanding the Higher Power thing at all. He’s just been told a joke that runs as follows:

This wise old whiskery fish swims up to three young fish and goes, ‘Morning boys, how’s the water?’ and swims away; and the three young fish watch him swim away and look at each other and go, ‘What the fuck is water?’ and swim away.

It was with basically this parable that Wallace opened his famous Kenyon commencement address, recently distributed in book form as This is Water. As this is the first time I’ve read to this point in Infinite Jest since he delivered that address, I had long since forgotten it, and so I did sort of a double-take and said a holy shit and scribbled a big wide bar of scribbles in the margin of my book to highlight it. In the address, after telling the parable, Wallace goes on as follows:

The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.

Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?

Infinite Detox said in a comment to my post on sadness that, like me, he had tended in past readings to overlook the profound sadness of the book, tuning in to the stylistic tics and the dark humor instead. He went on to suggest (or rather to question whether or not) this common oversight by readers was a bug of the book or a feature (ie, book experience as antidote to addiction — I hope I haven’t mischaracterized the suggestion in too grossly wrong a fashion). I dismissed the idea that it was a feature, at least in any clever book-structure-as-mimesis-of-life kind of way, but as I consider it more, and especially in light of this excerpt from This is Water, I think maybe there’s something to Detox’s idea after all. For the real sadness has surely been buried; it’s been one of the big important realities that has been hardest for me (at least) to see and talk about. So maybe Wallace did kind of bury it and submerge us in all of these dark clever things to make us really work to separate the comic from the tragic.

But back to my title. Gately is ruminating on desperation on the way home after hearing the fish parable and has the following insight:

Something they seem to omit to mention in Boston AA when you’re new and out of your skull with desperation and ready to eliminate your map and they tell you how it’ll all get better and better as you abstain and recover: they somehow omit to mention that the way it gets better and you get better is through pain. Not around pain, or in spite of it. They leave this out, talking instead about Gratitude and Release from Compulsion. There’s serious pain in being sober, though, you find out, after time. Then now that you’re clean… [they tell] you that at least this sober pain now has a purpose. At least this pain means you’re going somewhere, they say, instead of the repetitive gerbil-wheel of addictive pain.

And just a moment later:

You’ll start to feel why it was you got dependent on what was, when you get right down to it, an anesthetic.

Fast forward to page 460, in the utterly different context of dawn drills:

Schtitt shrugs, half-turning away from them to look off somewhere. ‘Or else leave here into large external world where is cold and pain without purpose or tool…’

And so again, I find myself thinking (and kind of shuddering at how cutesy stupid a thought it is) that maybe Wallace is what some call antagonistic to the reader with all the footnotes and characters and narrative shifts and elided plot lines in order to make it kind of painful to get through the book and to get at that message of sadness and hopefully, eventually, to a message of redemption or recovery. Anybody who’s spent any time at all around a high school sports team will be familiar with the saying “no pain, no gain.”

Changing gears now.

As I read Gately’s recollections of his childhood and his mother, I noticed an interplay between images of fire and water. He says that his mother tried to ward off her lover’s blows “as if she were beating out flames.” Later he describes her weeping and “beating at herself as if on fire.” Young Gately would drink his mother’s vodka with diet Coke “until it lost its fire.” The narrator describes Gately’s memories as having sunk without bubbles and then having bubbled back up in sobriety. As we learn about Gately’s mistaking “cirrhosis of the liver” for “Sir Osis of Thuliver,” we also learn that he would tell the neighborhood kids he was one of Arthur’s “vessels” (for vassals). And then:

And [Gately’s] dreams late that night, after the Braintree/Bob Death Commitment, seem to set him under a sort of sea, at terrific depths, the water all around him silent and dim and the same temperature as he is.

With these things in mind, I started looking for that other elemental pairing, earth and wind. These are a little harder to find, and a bit more of a stretch. But there is a reference to “Herman the Ceiling that Breathed.” Then all the mention of wind sprints and other drills that take your breath away, with ATHSCME fans in the background and references made to the Lung. Finding earth in this week’s sections is a little tougher. That Schtitt is elevated above the ground is kind of a tenuous reference to earth, I suppose. And there’s the notion, hearkening back to Eschaton (which is referred to herein), of the courts as map as territory (as earth) (or not).

I don’t mean to say that I think Wallace is intentionally trying to highlight the four elements (though the fire/water contrast seems pretty clear), but this week’s milestone did make me begin to pay attention to the motif as a possible thing to watch for going forward.

11 thoughts on “The Way It Gets Better and You Get Better is Through Pain

  1. infinitedetox August 2, 2009 / 10:36 pm

    Good stuff. You got the general gist of what I was trying to say, although on the “feature” side of the ledger I was thinking something more along the lines of the writing itself as the antidote (and I’m certain any communication problems on this account are due to me not explaining myself properly).

    What I mean is that if you give any credence to the idea that our experience of the world is mediated through the language we use to describe it, in other words that language is somehow constitutive of reality (and I think there’s evidence out there that Wallace sort of dug this idea, although I can’t point to any specifics without researching it a bit), then you might be able to make the argument that creative, playful, brilliant use of language (such as what’s on display in IJ) could in itself be something of an antidote to the real-world pain and sorrow running through the book. I don’t know. This all sounds first-year gradschoolish, I know, so I’ll probably try and flesh it out in a separate post.

    Re: your thoughts on Wallace’s potential antagonism toward the reader, I always got the sense that he was deeply concerned with making himself clear. Check out what he says about IJ in this Salon interview, for example:

    “I don’t feel like I’m hitting the reader with a mallet, you know, ‘Hey, here’s this really hard impossibly smart thing. Fuck you. See if you can read it.’ I know books like that and they piss me off. ”

    That being said, IJ has gotten a reputation as a “difficult” book, and I think that growth-via-pain readership process you posit is an interesting idea.

  2. infinitetasks August 2, 2009 / 11:27 pm

    If I/we commented on every bit of brilliant dark humor in this book, our Tasks would be more Infinite than the Summer allows! So yes, there’s plenty of that, but I’ve been looking more to kind of themes that you guys are also after – recurring images, psycho-cultural analysis, evocation of feelings, some attempt to read through the text to the author-figure, such at it is (and there’s a difference between wondering about ‘the author’ and analyzing DFW himself – the latter is groundless, but we can indeed pursue questions about ‘DFW’).

    What strikes me reading your post is the polyvalence of IJ. I posted this morning on “Sir Osis of Thuliver Gets in Touch With His Feelings,” and quoted or referenced many of the same passages as above. (Hope you check it out, by the way.) Yet my thoughts trail in a somewhat different direction. Both directions seem (to me, anyway, imho) appropriate and revealing. (And btw, I’ve got one working on Schtitt, too!)

    So, there is indeed a combination of humor and sadness; addiction and loss and death but also achievement and recovery; concrete social & political analysis but also bizarre flights of fancy; serpentine self-referential games but also narrative set pieces that are clear to any pulse-bearing biped – these are the polyvalent jumble through which our age speaks to itself, and which we are working to give voice, as well.

  3. Daryl Houston August 3, 2009 / 5:20 am

    InfiniteDetox, the cutesy clever stuff re writing as antidote that I was reacting against is a bit tangential to what you’re talking about here, I think. It may even be a little hard to connect the dots, but I’ll try. What flashed through my mind was a couple of lines from Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Criticism”:

    “When Ajax strives some rock’s vast weight to throw,
    The line too labors, and the words move slow.”

    The idea is that the form mirrors the action. I think (back when I was a student of poetry) that I used to sort of like this sort of thing and think it awfully clever, but now it strikes me as too cute and in a way self-indulgent and a little silly. So even though I don’t think this is quite the sort of thing you’re saying Wallace was up to, it’s the sort of thing I had in mind when I wrote my comment over at your blog, which of course I sort of back-pedaled from in my own post. How much of a kinship there is between the phenomenon I’ve described here and the idea of Wallace’s sort of burying the sadness to make it a little work to get at it I’m not sure.

    I think you’re absolutely right that Wallace wanted (mostly) to make himself clear. There are of course certain questions in the book about which there’s a dazzling lack of clarity in the end, but on a micro-level, I agree. Yet there are things like the drug name end notes that go beyond clarity (they actually in a way disrupt clarity in a way, I think) and seem to be doing something else. In some interview, I believe Wallace said that part of his aim with IJ was also just to give the reader a whole lot of stuff to store in his head, and I think this is part of what the end notes are about. And that fullness, I figure, may be partially about making the book a little harder to engage with, in order to avoid passive, slack-jawed-entertainment style reading. Of course, I don’t find this stuff antagonistic, but I realize that many do.

    InfiniteTasks, I actually started writing my post with yours open in another tab, but then sort of went off in another direction. (I simultaneously love and hate it when somebody else pulls the same quotes and hits on some of the same issues I’ve come up with, for it is both validating and makes me feel like a plagiarist, even if I developed my ideas independently.) So I think you’re right about the polyvalence. 🙂

  4. dioramaorama August 3, 2009 / 2:36 pm

    Very interesting! I sometimes have the opposite experience of what you’ve described here when I read IJ. The sadness of the book can eclipse the humor – for instance, I didn’t think the story about It and the Raquel Welch mask was at all funny but it seems like a lot of people did. But then sometimes the scenes that I thought were heartbreaking the first time around are hilarious the second time through. And vice versa.

    I think Wallace was interested in playing with mimesis – the first example that comes to mind is the way the long, digressive footnotes in “The Depressed Person” enact the recursive thought patterns of an actual depressed person. I don’t know if reading IJ was meant to be a painful experience, but I do think it was meant to be difficult, or at least to appear difficult. Part of the pleasure of reading IJ (for me at least) has been watching all the disparate elements of the novel coalesce in my mind into something cohesive and meaningful. I do think that finishing the book can maybe instill you with the hope that if you just Keep Showing Up you’ll be able to make sense of this crazy modern American experience too. Of course I say this without having finished the book.

    And the elements thing – I was rereading the opening chapter the other day and caught this, right when Hal starts ‘talking’: “From the yellow Dean’s expression there’s a brutal wind blowing from my direction.” (12)

    Also, interestingly enough the Dean of Admissions is described as “a lean yellowish man whose fixed smile nevertheless has the impermanent quality of something stamped into uncooperative material,” which immediately reminded me of the recurring smiley-face iamge that I think InfiniteDetox posted about recently.

  5. Daryl Houston August 3, 2009 / 3:00 pm

    Dioramaorama (that’s hard to type!), I agree that the situation described in the It/Raquel scene isn’t funny, but there are certain things that I think do add a sort of dark humor to it. The mask, for one thing. It’s so unbelievable and so caricaturish and weird that it’s kind of funny. Also, it just now occurs to me that the piling on of detail in kind of an off-hand way reads almost like an instance of the old dirty joke/story about The Aristocrats, of which not the circumstance but the way the details are piled up is what’s funny.

    Another example of a slightly different kind of black comedy is when Poor Tony steals the poor woman’s heart. It’s tragic and awful in every way (both the circumstances that led up to PT’s needing to steal and the death of the woman), but it’s funny because it takes a cliche sort of literally and makes the fact of the cliche the very thing that prevents the woman from getting any help.

    So there are many many instances of sadness in the book, but they tend to be just instances, and rather scattershot ones at that. It was during this read that I first noticed what (in another post entitled “Sadness”) I figured must be the sort of underlying diagnosis of the book.

  6. dioramaorama August 3, 2009 / 3:36 pm

    Oh absolutely. I think the humor and the absurd elements just make the sad stuff that more wrenching. Maybe the best example is “Something smells delicious!” I laughed out loud but then just kind of sat there with my mouth hanging open because jeez, as that whole conversation between Hal and Orin adds up it gets really disturbing. DFW is plucking all these different emotional strings at the same time – it’s like hearing a chord vs hearing a note.

  7. Daryl Houston August 3, 2009 / 4:21 pm

    Well and the funny thing about the “something smells delicious” thing is that I’m not sure we can actually trust that it’s a true accounting of what happened. If not, then it’s funny but also horrifying that Hal came up with such a thing (and horrifying that Wallace did); if so, then it’s still both funny and horrifying.

  8. Dan Summers August 6, 2009 / 3:01 pm

    I have always found “Infinite Jest” incredibly sad, as well as incredibly smart and incredibly funny and incredibly insightful and incredibly true. I think the prevailing sadness of the novel is part (probably the biggest part, in fact) of what it’s trying to say about life, and what it is to be happy. True happiness is terribly ephemeral and hard and rare.

    It makes it all the more poignant and heart-breaking in those rare moments when a character is observed to be truly happy.

  9. steven August 7, 2009 / 10:00 pm

    Interesting, I’d never read that quote from Alexander Pope before.

    On the subject of tennis in the novel. Geoff MacDonald is a really cool guy who coaches tennis at Vanderbilt, blogs for the NY Times, and is very well read. He posted the following blog about David Wallace’s tennis writing on the Straight Sets blog:

    I added my two cents in the comments section about what I see as some similarities between the clichés of recovery (Gately says on p. 270: “So then at forty-six years of age I came here to learn to live by clichés. To turn my will and life over to the care of clichés. One day at a time. Easy does it. First things first. Courage is fear that has said its prayers….”) and the clichés of the sports world (and I quoted the great collegiate miler and track & field analyst Larry Rawson, who, during every Boston Marathon broadcast it seems, always came up with an inspirational phrase worth writing down, like “Experience is a name we give our mistakes” and “Growth is the only evidence of improvement in our lives”).

    I know this will sound really trite, but what they have in common is that both are about improvement and may be about faith, but not necessarily a “higher power” in the sense of a deity.

    Here’s a simple point about the sprints and other running drills described in the book. I know I’m old, but like the E.T.A. players, I get up at dawn (mostly because I’m living in a tropical climate where it’s coolest in the early morning) and I run, but currently it’s not about “jogging” because I do speed work: intervals, mile repeats, etc. I’m trying to get a little faster, which requires pushing myself past the comfort zone (or, as you say, “no pain, no gain”). But I have no illusions that I’ll ever win a race nor will I ever be the fastest in my age group because I’ve been competing for years against many of the same runners and I know they’re just more talented, physiologically better runners than I am in ways that are quantifiable: VO2 MAX, lactic acid threshold, fast twitch/slow twitch muscle fiber, biomechanics (pronation/supination), whether they started in high school, had coaching, smoked/drank or didn’t, etc.

    It’s not quite the same situation for the talented young tennis players who enter elite Enfield Tennis Academy without really knowing how they stack up against other talented players their own age. As in the performing arts, there is a kind of “faith” involved in study and acquiring skills, but there’s also kind of “sadness” in the discovery that very few are good enough to make it to the “show.” There’s a kind of hierarchy that develops, maybe it’s a way of coping. We’re told on p. 269 or 270, for example, that Schacht has stopped dreaming about the show. Wayne is definitely show-worthy, but not Orin, although when the B.U. tennis coach took a look at his large left arm and his Moms in a tight black skirt, “about fell back over sideways the other way.”

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