This is one of those times when I’m convinced that the reading Gods (as I understand them) a) must exist and b) have lined things up for a pretty delightful confluence of ideas in the things I’ve read/watched this evening. I’ll spare everyone the details of all non-DFW items – which include Bill Maher and Cynthia Ozick, among others – but I think there’s something worth comparing between the AA section of Infinite Jest and some of the ideas put forth in Everything and More. Please, bear with me for a minute.
Firstly, it’s worth noting that the AA section of Infinite Jest is stunning and impressive and – I have it on good authority – one of the best existing descriptions of what it’s like to be in AA/NA. And one of the big themes of this section is that skepticism about praying “to a ‘God’ you believe only morons believe in”(350) goes out the window somewhere along the way. The most interesting part is that this point does not seem to be when people are deepest in their respective foxholes – everyone is still a skeletal cynic when they Come In. It is instead a slow realization that correlates with the slow decrease in moments of crippling desire for your Substance. As Gately discovers with shock that days have gone by without the Substance even occurring to him, he surrenders for a second time. The first surrender was to the substance, the second surrender is to the simple theoryless fact that AA works. After hitting rock bottom, faith in AA comes not from a strong underlying theoretical framework, but from simple and obvious pragmatism. AA works. Accept it. The reasons it works are almost totally irrelevant; only the effects matter. Use it because it works, not because it’s true.
And this is where I think there’s a narrow but notable connection to Everything and More. Wallace talks about the 17th century’s increasing abstractness and the way in which this lead to the Golden age of mathematics. Math turned away from its earlier grounding in the concrete and the empirical, and these new abstractions paradoxically turned out “to work incredibly well in real-world applications”(Everything and More 107). Calculus is a great example of this growing use of math in science. Calculus is also a great example of the way in which math came to depend on science and real-world applications “to justify its own procedures.” It is this last part that I see as weirdly analogous to AA. Well before the philosophical and theoretical groundwork for calculus was rigorized by mathematicians generations later, calculus was accepted and used for no reason other than its pragmatic usefulness. “In brief, all sorts of formerly dubious quantities and procedures are now admitted to math on account of the practical efficacy”(108). Like AA, calculus was accepted because it worked.
This is not to say that the two are in any way related, but they do strike me as too similar to just pass over. The notable thing is not that people give up theoretical rigor for pragmatism in everyday life; what is notable is that even the most abstract and theoretical of disciplines is willing to do this, too.
(In case anyone is wondering, the tie to Bill Maher is this idea of pragmatic faith as it relates to religion/atheism. Maher is seriously anti-religion, but he makes his arguments mostly on the causal side of the issue. Maher’s strongest argument says that religion is bad because it’s false and symptomatic of human weakness. It seems, however, that a good counter-argument can be made for non-fanatical religion under the umbrella of practicality: religion is the best way to instill societally important values in a population. Similarly, the argument against religion should really be that, practically speaking, religion does more harm than good, that religion doesn’t work. This is how Christopher Hitchens makes his antitheist argument, to much better effect, I think.
Also, note that I’m not trying to endorse one side of the issue or another. I just wanted to point out effect-side faith in an explicit faith-skepticism context.)