Tag Archives: infinite jest

The Politeness Roulette

[I actually wrote this yesterday before our discussion about Avril in class, so some of it might overlap a tiny bit. I think it’s still pretty relevant, though.]

One character we have not focused much on during our Infinite Jest discussions is Avril Incandenza. There was a passage in the most recent reading that seems to sum up Avril perfectly: “Orin and Hal’s term for this routine is Politeness Roulette. This Moms-thing that makes you hate yourself for telling her the truth about any kind of problem because of what the consequences will be for her. It’s like to report any sort of need or problem is to mug her” (523).  Avril is a bit of a paradox to me: on one hand, as shown by this quotation, she seems like the perfect caring mother. The Politeness Roulette appears to highlight the selflessness of Avril-her willingness to give up her dinner so Hal can eat, for example. But there is another side of the Politeness Roulette that may be less obvious: “Orin believed she did it all on purpose, which was way too easy. He said she went around with her feelings out in front of her with an arm around the feelings’ windpipe and a Glock 9 mm. to the feelings’ temple like a terrorist with a hostage, daring you to shoot” (Ibid.). The comparison of Avril to a terrorist is clearly not a flattering one, particularly when articulated by her son.

Perhaps this is because a portion of my paper focused on Avril, but the more I read of her, the less I like her. The Politeness Roulette highlights the self-absorbed, rather two-faced nature of Avril: on the one hand, she seems to be perfectly caring, but on the other, it appears more and more to all be a narcissistic act. A lot of the characters in Infinite Jest are self-absorbed (actually, is there anyone other than Mario who isn’t?), but not to this degree. While what we see of Himself, for example, indicates that he is extremely withdrawn and self-absorbed, yet he does not give his sons the “special fantodish chill of feeling both complicit and obliged” (Ibid.) that Avril does. Maybe the part that most bothers me about Avril is not her actions or motives but her affect on other people. Hal, for example, “despised the way he always reacted, taking the apple, pretending to pretend his reluctance to eat her supper was a pretense” (Ibid.). Of course, people pretend all the time for polite reasons, but in the case of the Politeness Roulette, it seems affected-if a mother gives up her meal for her son, it should not have to be fraught with “pretending to pretend” and terrorist-hostage comparisons.

The phrase that seems to best fit Avril is that she is somehow forcefully passive aggressive. When Hal remarks that he doesn’t want to eat her apple because that’s all she’ll eat between 12 and 23 h, she says she’s “‘stuffed. Huge lunch with a set of parents not three hours ago. I’ve been staggering around since.’ Looking at the apple like she had no idea where it’d even come from. ‘I’ll probably pitch this out'” (Ibid.). Avril is not merely trying to give her son a snack, but she keeps pushing it on him through her polite yet passive aggressive comments, such as “I’ll probably pitch this out.” I know that this is something most mothers would do, but from Avril, given her narcissistic tendencies, it seems more plotted and self-benefiting somehow.  I feel like readers have yet to see a truly selfless or unmotivated act from Avril-it’s all self-promoting or helping. My personal favorite of her selfish moments is in the scene when Hal eats the mold and all she can do is run around in circles screaming that “‘my son ate this'” (11). I really cannot imagine a mother who wouldn’t do something in this situation-call 911, take Hal to the doctor, or at least make sure there’s no mold remaining in his mouth-besides running in circles screaming. I’m not really sure what to make of Avril’s self-absorption or its role in the novel, though.

What type of man is Orin Incandenza?

In this week’s section of Infinite Jest, Wallace explores some new characters in more depth than he had been able to previously.   With these new scenes, new themes and ideas surface for discussion.   We’ve talked about addiction, escape,and consumption at length, but now we can shift if we so choose into ideas of personal dysfunction and anxieties that are born within.   DFW reveals some deep-rooted intimacy problems in Orin Incandenza’s life, which are reminiscent of several of the conversations from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.

Pages 565-567 detail Orin’s encounter with a Swiss hand model, and we see his detachment from her, and need to refer to her as a “specimen” or more frequently a “Subject.”   Also, it is immediately clear that sex for Orin is all about Orin, not them both, as he says, “It feels to the punter to be about hope, an immense, wide-as-the-sky hope of finding a something in each Subject’s fluttering face, a something the same that will propriate hope, somehow, pay its tribute, the need to be assured that for a moment he has her, now has won her…” (Wallace 566).   Orin finds more satisfaction in achieving his own weird goals than anything else.   And forget about a connection, the sexual act brings him no closer to any of his Subjects than before.   The fact that each of his Subjects are nameless does not help either.   He desires to be the sole, all-encompassing object of desire for every woman he sleeps with, desires to be “the One.”   Wallace suggests, “This is why, maybe, one Subject is never enough…. For were there for him just one, now, special and only, the One would be not he or she but what was between them, the obliterating trinity of You and I and We. Orin felt this once and has never recovered, and will never again” (Wallace 566-567). Wallace here reveals some trauma in Orin’s past that causes his current dysfunction.   He also affords readers a lengthy and revealing interview with Orin in footnote 234, pages 1038-1043, which delves into Orin’s relationship with his parents and Hal’s episode with eating the mold.

The interview format from footnote 234 is identical to that of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.   The sexual problems are relevant as well, especially one interview from the beginning of the book, where one hideous man says, “The real fall-down of these wanna-be-Great type fellows is they think a lady is, when you come right down to it, dumb…. She wants to see herself as a Great Lover that can blow the top of a man’s head clean off in bed.   Let her… Then you truly got her” (Brief Interviews 33).   Orin clearly falls into the wanna-be-Great type, but are his problems deeper than that?   He may want more than just to please women; he seems to want to encompass their entire range of desire.   Does that mean he is still the fool spoken of in the interview, or does his exceptionally obsessive case make him, in fact, the hideous one?   I can’t make a definitive call on this right now, maybe in the later pages Wallace will reveal more aspects of Orin’s personality and dysfunction.  

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.  



Hal Incandenza’s Confused Identity

This response may be a bit scatterbrained and refer back to a passage from previous week’s readings but last week’s conversation spurred me to write this post. As a couple people may have mentioned, last week’s conversation regarding Infinite Jest understandably left out a fair amount of information considering the huge amount it covered. Previously we’ve discussed and witnessed the intersection of fiction/non-fiction in Wallace’s writings and this theme seems to keep popping up throughout Infinite Jest in the lives of Wallace’s characters. So I’d like to discuss the back-story of Hal Incandeza’s life in which this intersection seems apparent.

Around page 250 we are told of Mr. Incandenza’s horrific suicide and the manner in which Hal found his father dead at the age of “thirteen going on really old” (248). And so, we become aware of Hal’s tragic and potentially scarring past. This in combination with the family’s unique dynamic sets up Hal Incandenza as an intriguingly fictional character. To combat the tragedy of Mr. Incandenza’s suicide we learn that Hal’s mom begins sending him to a grief-counselor, the real reason being “so she wouldn’t have to feel guilty about practically sawing the hole in the microwave door herself” (252). As Hal begins seeing this grief counselor he describes him as “unsatisfiable and scary”(252). This counseling period is described as “brutal” and “nightmarish” because the entire time Hal finds himself face to face with a professional examining and probing at inner emotions that seem like Hal hasn’t even had time to understand (252). Hal appears to approach this with the same air of mischief that seems to be bred in kids at the Enfield Tennis Academy. He immediately tries to research and educate himself on how to seem depressed, angry, in denial, and depressed, without actually having the emotions to back it up. At first the grief therapist buys none of it. Later on Hal learns from Lyle how to put forward the allusion of despair without actually having it. He acquaints himself more with the “cutting-edge professional grief- and trauma-therapy section” at the library and educates himself so well that he succeeds to put on a show of virtuoso talent. He manages to “griev[e] to everybody’s satisfaction”, by “subtly inserting certain loaded professional-grief-therapy terms like validate, process, as a transitive verb, and toxic guilt. There were library derived” (255). All of this concentrated energy and drive is exploded upon the pleasantly surprised counselor and Hal leaves barely able to make it to the men’s room, he’s so full of laughter.

Hal’s experience with the grief-counselor has a huge amount of psychological complexities to it, but one thing seems clear to me- the relationship of fiction and non-fiction has a definitive role in his identification. Hal is forced into a situation in which a professional person is firing answers hoping that Hal will be able to construct an identity through his confused emotions, emotions that don’t really seem to really exist. On a more fundamental level, we are told that Hal is meeting with this counselor because of his mother’s underlying guilt. In this way, The Moms is forcing Hal into a false process of identification that seems to facilitate Hal’s confusion as manifested in his mischievous production of emotional outcry. Additionally, Hal becomes able to put on this production by depending on books written by authors that are either attempting to come to terms with their identity, or enable other’s to come to terms with their identity in a format whose very purpose is to achieve a solid sense of emotional and personal identity. Hal takes from these writings knowledge and is able to put up the façade of one who is extremely troubled in order to fulfill another’s expectations of identity. Hal’s explicit use of the word ‘fiction’ when describing his performance in front of the counselor also makes it seem like in some way Hal’s identity is defined by his demeanor and selfness as it is defined by the expectations that other’s push on him (252). So, in one way it seems like Hal creates an identity for himself, while on the other hand it seems as if the expectations overshadow his true identity and force him to make his reactions his identity.

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?

Infinite Jest Tour of Boston again!

In case it got lost in the bowels of the blog:

Infinite Jest Tour of Boston

The Abusable Escape: where to draw the line?

In this new section of Infinite Jest, Wallace puts a lot of attention directly on addiction, specifically the recovery process.   His story of Boston AA meetings, especially from Gately’s perspective, exposes some of the nuances and details of rehab.   Sections in particular that highlight this are on pages 200-205 and 343-367.  

Most notably the passage mentioned above reminds me of a concept Wallace suggested on page 202 and in footnote 70 called the “abusable escape.”     When recovering from addiction, DFW explains that patients cope with the emotional tension of withdrawal from whatever substance by finding a new pastime to fill the void.   He says on 202, “That sleeping can be a form of emotional escape and can with sustained effort be abused…. That purposeful sleep deprivation can also be an abusable escape.   That gambling can be an abusable escape, too, and work, shopping, and shoplifting, and sex, and abstention, and masturbation, and food, and exercise…” (Infinite Jest 202).   Now, what becomes immediately clear is that just about anything at all can become an abusable escape.   Anything.   DFW obviously selects opposing principles in his definition, likely to drive home this very point.   He also continues the idea in footnote 70, which I believe is another example of significant material being left out of the main text (like we briefly discussed in class on Monday the 23rd).

That footnote is significant in that DFW uses the long list of harmless pastimes (yoga, chewing gum, solitaire, cleaning) to show that to a recovering addict, just about anything (“ad darn near infinitum”) can replace the offending substance.   He even suggests that the addiction recovery process is an emotional, abusable escape from addiction, a notion that seems almost contradictory.   He says in footnote 70, “quiet tales sometimes go around the Boston AA community of certain incredibly advanced and hard-line recovering persons who have pared away potential escape after potential escape until finally, as the stories go, they end up sitting in a bare chair, nude, in an unfurnished room…until all that’s found in the empty chair is a very fine dusting off of white ashy stuff… (Infinite Jest 998).   Recovery from addiction here proves to be an addiction worse than what they had before.   Addiction to avoiding abusing emotional escape becomes avoiding emotional escape all together.            

So all this begs the question, where does emotional escape end and abuse of that escape start?   All the cited activities seem relatively painless and certainly not intrinsically or chemically addictive, so it becomes difficult to discern exactly when abuse starts.   The same is true of addictive substances, but usually you can tell when addiction’s starting because lives start getting messed up.   Recovering patients need activities to pass the time and keep their mind off of Substance, but how much is too much exactly?   This is where Don Gately’s section (343-367) comes in, especially when he begins to discuss Joelle.  He perhaps uses observation of others as an escape, but with Joelle Gately takes a markedly keen interest.   DFW says, “but this Joelle van Dyne, who Gately feels he has zero handle on yet as a person…” (Infinite Jest 364).     So is Joelle an example of Gately abusing his own emotional escape? Or does it not matter because observing people is harmless and seems to help keep his own substance addiction at bay? It’s worth thinking about, I think.

Also, why does DFW draw such a distinction between Boston AA meetings and other places?   Just a side note I guess.  

What is this madness?

In Infinite Jest, Wallace writes about Tony Krause in the process of Withdrawal: “He’d naively assumed that going mad meant you were not aware of going mad; he’d naively pictured madmen as forever laughing” (303).

The fact that Tony “naively pictured” and “naively assumed” suggests that going mad does not mean forever laughing and that going mad does not mean you are not aware of the process (of going mad). Then what does going mad mean?

Suppose that Tony is in fact going mad. Then for Tony, madness certainly entails an awareness of itself. The text, however, does not explicitly state that Tony is aware of his madness. Instead, the text defines madness by what it does not mean: madness does not mean laughing forever, does not mean being oblivious of one’s own madness. The text leaves the reader to infer what madness actually means. What does the text leave the reader?

The text leaves the reader with an absence or a void–in particular, one that results from an extraction (like a dentist extracting a tooth and leaving you with this hole where your tooth used to be). Immediately before discussing Tony’s naïve assumptions about going mad, Wallace discloses that “He [Tony] was haunted by the word Zuckung, a foreign and possibly Yiddish word he did not recall ever before hearing. The word kept echoing in quick-step cadence through his head without meaning anything” (303). In the first sentence, Wallace declares “Zuckung” as the word that haunts Poor Tony. In the second sentence, however, Wallace does not use the word Zuckung again. He does not say, “Zuckung kept echoing.” Instead, he simply writes: “The word kept echoing.” That way, the word becomes a void, emptied of its content, just as it becomes emptied of its meaning: “The word kept echoing in quick-step cadence through his head without meaning anything.” Incidentally, Wallace does not provide the reader with the meaning of Zuckung (according to the Internet, Zuckung means twitch, spasm, or convulsion in German).

Another effect of “The word kept echoing in quick-step cadence through his head without meaning anything” is that the vagueness and generality of “The word” gives the reader space to fill in another word, a different word–in which case, for me, the word would doubtlessly be “time.” Throughout the paragraph in which this sentence is embedded, “time” crops up repeatedly; the word “time” keeps echoing in quick-step cadence through the reader’s head and perhaps, “without meaning anything.”

With each repetition of “time,” time takes on another form; in the end, time ceases to mean anything at all. Wallace writes, “Time was being carried by a procession of ants….time itself seemed the corridor, lightless at either end. After more time time then ceased to move or be moved or be move-througable….time with a shape and an odor….time had become shit itself” (302-303). In the last mention of “time” in the paragraph, Wallace explains that “Poor Tony had become an hourglass: time moved through him now” (303). In this metaphor, Tony becomes an hourglass, a device that measures time, but time does not move through an hourglass; sand does. This warp draws attention to time’s absence. Here, Tony becomes a metaphor for an hourglass and time becomes a metaphor for sand, but nothing becomes a metaphor for time. Nothing can do that. By rendering time a metaphor for a cornucopia of different objects and not allowing time to be a reference for any other metaphor (does this make sense?), this paragraph strips time of its denotation. Time itself becomes empty and extracted.

Perhaps this is what it means to go mad: to be emptied and to be aware of it–the emptiness.

A bridge to Everything and More: Apparently, according to the dictionary, “to extract” and “to abstract” are synonymous. Check out this quote from Everything and More: “Thinking this way can be dangerous, weird. Thinking abstractly enough about anything…surely we’ve all had the experience of thinking about a word–‘pen,’ say–and of sort of saying the word over and over to ourselves until it ceases to denote” (12). Compare it with “The word kept echoing in quick-step cadence through his head without meaning anything.”

Belief vs. Understanding

As many posts have discussed, AA operates on cliches and mindless repetition.   Whether recovering addicts believe in these trite slogans is irrelevant as long as they, the addicts, keep coming, fighting the disease “one day at a time.”   Eventually, those recovering begin to realize that this seemingly mindless method actually works.   Understanding plays little to no part of the AA process, in the beginning.

I found it interesting that understanding almost seems in some way inferior to the faith that is required of a recovering addict.   The two (faith and understanding) are juxtaposed in the footnote 90 on p. 1000, the dialogue between Gately and Geoffrey Day.

Day, well-educated and articulate, makes a tenable argument against the fundmental beliefs of AA.   His skepticism is well justified, and his analysis for the most part logically sound.   Day questions the “obvious and idiotic fallacies and reductia ad absurdum” of the program in long sentences full of wit and sarcasm, and overall comes off as a pretty intellectual guy.   By contrast,   Gately speaks in sentences that are often under ten words long. He iterates cliches. Sometimes these short sentences are requests for clarification of Day’s part.   Other times, Gately is giving reassuring signs that he is listening, like “I hear you.”   In short, he does not come off as very bright.

Hence, it seems counter-intuitive to me that I somehow find Day’s cerebral breakdown of AA to be full of air, but Gately’s terse replies dense and full.   Day’s attempt to understand comes off as flailing and desperate, even though he makes valid points.   Yet there’s something moving about Gately’s humility and sincere attempt to keep up with Day.   The way Gately is trying to genuinely hear Day, and sympathize with him.   Gately’s reticence doesn’t come off dumb, but profound.

Did anyone else feel this way?