The Pursuit of Happiness in Infinite Jest
The back cover of Infinite Jest touts the novel as “a gargantuan, mind-altering comedy about the pursuit of happiness in America.” Indeed, the majority of the characters in Infinite Jest are motivated by a desire for happiness, or at the very least, pleasure.
Breaking Out of the Cage
LaMont Chu of E.T.A., for example, is a character debilitated by his pursuit of happiness. LaMont goes to the guru Lyle explaining that he has a “crippling obsession with tennis fame” and “wants to get to the Show so bad it feels like it’s eating him alive” (388). He is convinced that the famous tennis stars must be intensely happy and must “derive immense meaning” (388) from their fame, and LaMont wants to experience that same happiness.
But, Lyle immediately explains that the happiness obtained from fame is extremely transitory and, in the tennis stars’ case, lasts only for one’s first photograph in a magazine. After that, all happiness immediately turns into fear: “fear that their photographs will cease to appear in magazines” (389), fear that the fame will go away. Though LaMont feels trapped in the cage of envy, the actual attainment of fame is no “exit from any cage” (389). Fame doesn’t end in happiness, but in fear of losing what once caused happiness. This is the root of most of the characters’ problems in the novel: the fact that you either endlessly pursue happiness, or you attain it fleetingly, until it immediately gets turned into fear of losing that happiness. Everyone is stuck in this cage wherein any choice made in pursuit of happiness is one that will eventually lead to unhappiness.
The cage and the cycle of happiness and fear are exactly what drive every AA member’s drug and alcohol addiction as well. The desire for drugs is a desire to be in a state of utter happiness, but as Gately and all the other AA members remind us, the happiness and enjoyment that comes from the drugs is temporary. Once the happiness wears off, all that is left is the addiction and the fear that you won’t be able to get more tomorrow.
Lyle offers two possible exits to the cage: one is that “the truth will set you free” and the second is that “escape from a cage must surely require, foremost, awareness of the fact of the cage (389). These solutions are reminiscent of the structure of AA, wherein clichés are made to be truthful and awareness of the addiction leads you to sobriety. Yet, it seems as though once the addicts loose their addiction to substances, they simply become addicted to something else, though less harmful. This ultimately leads to the question of whether we can ever be released from the pursuit of happiness or if it is built into the very fact of our humanness.
Marathe and Steeply continue the discussion of the pursuit of happiness and pleasure as a reason behind our susceptibility to addiction. In the novel, Steeply considers a Canadian experiment in which the test subjects are given the opportunity to experience pure physical and emotional ecstasy (470). Wallace uses this scene to expose and open up for evaluation some characteristics of basic human nature, and to expound upon the concept of “the cage.”
Steeply describes to Marathe the procedure through which electrodes are planted in the “p-terminals” of the brain, which cause the feelings of elation when activated. The test animals all become obsessed with the lever, even ignoring their own bodily needs and dying for one more electric pulse of pleasure. This makes sense for lab animals, but Wallace then explains that “somehow word of the p-terminal discovery had gotten out up in Manitoba… And suddenly the neuro-team at Brandon pull in to work one day and find human volunteers lining up literally around the block outside the place” (472). Even knowing the potentially lethal side effects, tons of people are willing to abandon their lives in pursuit of that pleasure--to finally leave that cycle of unhappiness, “the cage” as it has been previously named.
While LaMont was concerned with breaking out of the cage, Steeply is concerned about the possibility of getting rid of the cage altogether. If the cage idea means any choice made in pursuit of happiness necessarily causes unhappiness, why not leave the cage behind and get the electrode planted in your p-terminal and experience constant euphoric pleasure? Why wouldn’t everyone rather feel this way? Of what concern is thinking freely if you’re experiencing “the purest, most refined pleasure imaginable…thousands of times an hour, at will” (473). After all, these aren’t crazy people lining up outside the clinic: “all of these people willing to trample one another to undergo invasive brain surgery and foreign-object implantation… [were] fascinatingly, chillingly average, normal… nonabnormal along every axis they could see” (472-473).
So normal young people would prefer strange, complex, controversial surgery of incredible risk to break from the cage, probably because they see it as the only option for doing so. Previously, DFW had not offered too much in terms of a solution to this cycle of unhappiness, but this new experiment is not very appealing either. Perhaps the idea is that most of human choice and rationality will necessarily include some level of unhappiness, and that in order to experience true elation as we conceive it we must give up something that makes us critically human: that freedom of the mind.
- This notion is discussed in detail as well on Rémy Marathe's character page.