Selfish Charity

The one part of last week’s Infinite Jest reading that I thought was particularly interesting was in the long footnote of Marlon Bain answering Steeply’s questions–particularly when Bain begins a discussion about charity in regards to Avril and Orin. kk wrote a really nice post last week about Avril and ‘Politeness Roulette’ that explained a lot of Avril’s self-absorption, and I feel like we learned even more about Avril and Orin this week that is worth looking at.

First off, we get an interesting description of Orin and his tendencies with women: “Orin can only give, not receive, pleasure, and this makes a contemptible number of them think he is a wonderful lover, almost a dream-type lover…” (596). This is something we’ve seen before, both with Avril (in the Politeness Roulette), and in “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” and “Good Old Neon”: the idea that what seems like a selfless endeavor is actually quite the opposite. Neal only gave to charity and worked at the church because he selfishly wanted to be seen as “good” in the eyes of those around them. He gained pleasure from being seen this way. Similarly, “it gave [Orin] real pleasure to give the impression of care and intimacy” (596). Essentially, “the subject’s pleasure in him has become his food” (596). Wallace seems very concerned with people who not only seek pleasure, but whose highest forms of pleasure somehow involve them giving some form of pleasure.

In the footnote, Bain clearly explains this phenomenon: there is a

sort of philanthropist who seems humanly repellent not in spite of his charity but because of it: on some level you can tell that he views the recipients of his charity not as persons so much as pieces of exercise equipment on which he can develop and demonstrate his own virtue. What’s creepy and repellent is that this sort of philanthropist clearly needs privation and suffering to continue, since it is his own virtue he prizes, instead of the ends to which the virtue is ostensibly directed. (1052)

Wallace here brings up a very essential and human question–in regards to defining charity, do one’s actions or one’s motives count?

Yes, Orin gives his Subjects pleasure, but doing so isn’t for the sake of the Subject, but instead for himself. In the same way, Avril is completely selfless for the sake of her children, but the motive for her selflessness comes from a place of selfishness. But which one matters: action or motives? On which do we make a judgment? This question seems even more complicated to me in so far as we came across it in class in regards to Lenz. If I remember correctly, some people were arguing that Lenz is bad because of his actions: he is a bad person because he kills dogs. No matter what Lenz is feeling inside, the fact that he kills dogs defines him as a despicable character. But others were saying that Lenz’s motives don’t necessarily come from an evil place and so, though his actions don’t coincide, he is redeemable.

But what about Orin and Avril? After this passage, I realized how similar the two characters are. I am tempted to look at them both with disgust for their seemingly charitable, yet selfish actions. What I wonder, though, is how this similarity affected any incestuous relationship they might have had. If both characters only get pleasure through giving pleasure to others, how might such a relationship have worked? Maybe this is why they don’t get along. Just something to think about…

Ultimately, it seems as though Wallace comes down pretty strongly on the side of the importance of motives in actions. In the end, both Orin and Avril’s selfish charity seem to hurt rather then help those around them. But, then again, this issue gets complicated by the fact that AA is a strong proponent of the action mattering more than the reason or motive behind it (it doesn’t matter why you do it, but thank the ceiling every morning and night). So I guess I’m not sure what to think. Any ideas?

P.S. Just thinking about the wiki and themes, I think this whole concept could be engulfed by the larger theme of appearance vs. reality or inner reality vs. outer reality. We’ve seen so many characters who think very differently than they act or look…

Comments are closed.