Tag Archives: happiness

An at least marginally workable definition of Happiness

Here goes nothing, Happiness or unhappiness is the product of either of these processes: 1. You look at yourself, treat yourself as other or object, and make a judgement about yourself (this judgement could be moral, aesthetic, whatever), 2. You look at everything but yourself, the outside world, and make a judgement about it. You’re happy when these judgements are positive judgements, unhappy when they’re negative. If happiness is what you want, than you can adjust the process in a few ways to get it.  

One way is to alter the quality of your perception, say through drugs. Some recreational drugs change how we see ourselves, they can make us forget, they can make us feel (read ‘see ourselves as’ if you’ve lost the perception angle) wittier, smarter. Other drugs change how we see the world. On drugs the world can just feel better to move through, look prettier, more forgiving and fun. recreational drugs in general can make us see the same object which we were ambivalent about or even judged negatively while we were sober in a different way, they’re rose colored glasses.  

Another way to effect happiness is to positively alter the object of your perception: yourself, or the world around you. This is the traditional method of achieving happiness. Selfwise, you work out so you can judge yourself beautiful, you go to school so that you can judge yourself learned, you act morally so that you can evaluate yourself as a moral person. Worldwise, you get a wife and kids and an job doing work that’s meaningful to you, or you sorround yourself with luxury (although this can be a drug-like perception alterer more than a world alterer perhaps), you go into politics and try and effect positive change, you join AA and kick your addictions. At any rate, so long as you keep the same rubric of judgement, this method will get you way happier for way longer than drugs.  

Which brings us to another way you can effect happiness within this process, by changing your rubric of judgement. You can look at your object (whether the looking is reflexive or the object external), and rather than changing how you see the object or changing the object itself, you can change your understanding what would constitute good and bad, beautiful and ugly, moral and amoral; you can change your method of arriving at a positive or negative judgement. Asceticism represents this kind of transvaluation, so does Nihilism (because true nihilists aren’t all torn up about the abyss like we are).  

The final way you can effect happiness is by The Entertainment, which fits into none of these categories. The Entertainment gets rid of (or at least completely distract us from) the whole self/world object entirely, and puts instead a wholly positive thing before our eyes. It eliminates dissatisfaction with self and world by diverting our attention from them, and in so doing it eliminates consciousness but not perception.  



Marathe, Steeply, and artificial pleasure (happiness?)

Once again in this section of Infinite Jest we are treated to the musings of Marathe and Steeply, a conversation that has become increasingly bizarre but provides new perspective on themes addressed in other threads of the plot.   We have discussed at length the nature of addiction and rehabilitation from that addiction in class.   In this case, however, Marathe and Steeply discuss a potential reason behind our susceptibility to addiction, which is the pursuit of pleasure.   From 470-475, Steeply considers a Canadian experiment in which the test subjects were given the opportunity to experience pure physical and emotional ecstasy.   DFW uses this scene to expose and open for evaluation some characteristics of basic human nature, and expound upon his idea of “the cage,” which he first brought up a little earlier with Lyle and LaMont.

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 DFW 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.

lrose provided a lot of insight into the “breaking out of the cage” idea developed with Lyle and LaMont a little earlier in the novel, but here the point seems to shift a bit.   Now 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.   Or maybe not, I guess we’ll see.

The Pursuit of Happiness

After our conversation in class about the role of happiness in the novel, I went back to the conversation between LaMont Chu (the boy who wants tennis fame) and Lyle. Lyle’s sagely words to LaMont very clearly explicate the over-arching problem with the pursuit of happiness in the novel. Yet, even Lyle isn’t able to offer any true solution to the problem.

LaMont goes to 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.

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, to me, is pretty much 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 we’ve heard from Gately and all the other AA members, 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.

So now what? LaMont asks this of Lyle and I’m left wondering the same thing. Lyle offers two suggestions: 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). Through AA, the addicts seem to be able to break out of the cage of drug/alcohol addiction using truth and an awareness of their problem. But, as we decided in class, their addictions just get transferred to another object, though one less dangerous. So, even Lyle’s suggestions don’t truly allow for a break out of the cage.

So what can we do to truly break out? Or is anyone really able to? From what we’ve read so far of the novel, I’m really inclined to say that Infinite Jest is a testament to the fact that we are, in fact, trapped in the pursuit of happiness and that there is no way out. Most of the characters in the novel are caged, one way or another. It seems as though the only way to get rid of the problem would be to not desire happiness. But our desire and pursuit of happiness appears to be built into the fact of our humanness. Is there any way to begin to not desire/pursue happiness?