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.