Freedom/Choosing in Infinite Jest
At the start of the segment of conversation that begins on page 318 of Infinite Jest, Marathe and Steeply are discussing the film cartridge (The Entertainment) that has caused a growing group of individuals to watch on repeat until they die from things such as starvation as a result of doing literally nothing but watch the cartridge. Marathe says passionately, “ ‘[N]ow is what has happened when a people choose nothing over themselves to love, each one. A U.S.A. that would die—and let its children die, each one—for the so-called Entertainment, this film” (318). Marathe considers Americans’ inability to choose what they love, and therefore really only loving themselves, the reason everyone who sees this certain cartridge is unable to break away. Craving entertainment is an obvious form of self-love, and this craving coupled with what appears to be the ultimate entertainment results in the lack of desire (and even an inability) to pay attention to anything but that which provides the pleasure. Marathe continues: “ ‘The appetite to choose death by pleasure if it is available to choose—this appetite of your people unable to choose appetites, this is the death. What you call the death, the collapsing: this will be the formality only’ ” (319). In other words, the actual ceasing of bodily functions that the film cartridge prompts through catatonia is just the physical representation of what has already happened in the minds of all Americans. Once again this comes from their inability to choose what to love, and so only love themselves. In constantly craving pleasure, then, it is no wonder they would choose death by pleasure over any other cause of death--but it is in that non-choice that Marathe believes they have already died because they cease to live in any meaningful way. They do not live for others, they do not love something greater than themselves. He is arguing first that the Entertainment does not kill them because they are already dead, and if you want to play semantics and say that it does in fact kill them physically, then that is their own fault. The cartridge would not kill someone who was not already dead in the mind, obsessed with pleasure, because it would not affect them the same way. A person who could choose what to love would be able to walk away from viewing the ultimate Entertainment.
In light of the argument about choice, the argument about freedom is rather interesting. Steeply argues that it is the temptation in a free society that leads to things like watching the film cartridge. Marathe, however, views freedom differently, pointing out that it is not even well-defined. “ ‘Your freedom is the freedom-from: no one tells your precious individual U.S.A. selves what they must do. It is this meaning only, this freedom from constraint and forced duress. . . . What of the freedom-to. How for the person to freely choose? How to choose any but a child’s greedy choices if there is no loving-filled father to guide, inform, teach the person how to choose?’ ” (320). Steeply would see Marathe’s “loving-filled father” as someone who forces, who applies that constraint that Americans like to be free from; but to Marathe, there is no way to be free unless one is taught how to choose. If a person is not taught, she will of course choose “a child’s greedy choices”--i.e. those things that demonstrate her self-love, because she does not know how to love something else, because she has not been taught how to choose what she loves.
It is not difficult to disagree with Marathe’s view here: America is not purely a freedom-from society, it also includes freedom-to. (Concrete example: there have been arguments surrounding the freedom of religion clause about whether atheism is a legitimate choice, because using its wording some argue that it says one is free to choose one’s religion, but not free from choosing a religion; therefore abstaining altogether (being an atheist) is not protected in this clause.) It may be that most of the time Americans' choices are selfish, but it is certainly not uniquely American; evolutionarily, a being considering itself the center of the universe is called self-preservation for promotion of the species. Are people capable of choosing what to love? It is not clear, but once again it is not a purely American problem, it is a human issue.
- This issue is also examined on Rémy Marathe's character page.