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.