Tag Archives: Marathe

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.

Are we free to choose?

I found that in our current section of reading, Marathe and Steeply (but mostly Marathe) have some interesting things to say about choice and freedom. At the start of their current segment of conversation, the two are discussing the film cartridge that has caused a growing group of individuals to watch on repeat basically until they die. Marathe says passionately (as ever), ” ‘[N]ow is what has happened when a people choose nothing over themselves to love, each one. A U.S.A. that would die–and let its children die, each one–for the so-called Entertainment, this film” (318). Marathe considers Americans’ inability to choose what they love, and therefore really only loving themselves, the reason everyone who sees this certain cartridge so far is unable to break away. Craving entertainment is an obvious form of self-love, and this craving coupled with what appears to be the ultimate Entertainment results in the lack of desire (and even inability) to pay attention to anything but that which provides the pleasure. Marathe continues: ” ‘The appetite to choose death by pleasure if it is available to choose–this appetite of your people unable to choose appetites, this is the death. What you call the death, the collapsing: this will be the formality only’ ” (319). In other words, the actual ceasing of bodily functions that the film cartridge prompts through catatonia is just the physical representation of what has already happened in the minds of all Americans. Once again this comes from their inability to choose what to love, and so only love themselves. In constantly craving pleasure, then, it is no wonder they would choose death by pleasure over any other cause of death–but it is in that non-choice that Marathe believes they have already died because they cease to live in any meaningful way. They do not live for others, they do not love something greater than themselves. He is arguing first that the Entertainment does not kill them because they are already dead, and if you want to play semantics and say that it does in fact kill them physically, then that is their own fault. The cartridge would not kill someone who was not already dead in the mind, obsessed with pleasure, because it would not affect them the same way. A person who could choose what to love would be able to walk away from viewing the ultimate Entertainment.

In light of the argument about choice, the argument about freedom is rather interesting. Steeply argues that it is the temptation in a free society that leads to things like watching the film cartridge. Marathe, however, views freedom differently, pointing out that it is not even well-defined. ” ‘Your freedom is the freedom-
from: no one tells your precious individual U.S.A. selves what they must do. It is this meaning only, this freedom from constraint and forced duress. . . . What of the freedom-to. How for the person to freely choose? How to choose any but a child’s greedy choices if there is no loving-filled father to guide, inform, teach the person how to choose?’ ” (320). Steeply would see Marathe’s “loving-filled father” as someone who forces, who applies that constraint that Americans like to be free from; but to Marathe, there is no way to be free unless one is taught how to choose. If a person is not taught, she will of course choose “a child’s greedy choices”–i.e. those things that demonstrate her self-love, because she does not know how to love something else, because she has not been taught how to choose what she loves.

I personally disagree with Marathe’s view here (quite possibly because I am American and therefore too immersed in my own culture to see it for what it is): I do not see us only as a freedom-from society, I think we are very much a freedom-to place as well. (Concrete example: there have been arguments surrounding the freedom of religion clause about whether atheism is a legitimate choice, because using its wording some argue that it says one is free to choose one’s religion, but not free
from choosing a religion; therefore abstaining altogether (being an atheist) is not protected in this clause.) It may be that most of the time our choices are selfish, but I don’t think that is uniquely American; evolutionarily, considering myself the center of the universe is called self-preservation for promotion of the species. I don’t know whether we’re capable of choosing what to love, but once again I don’t find that an American problem, I find it a human issue.

Counter arguments? Corroboration?

Here is how to

Passage that we read in class last Wednesday:

Marathe: “Choose your attachments carefully. Choose your temple of fanaticism with great care. What you wish to sing of as tragic love is an attachment not carefully chosen” (107).

Steeply: “But you assume it’s always choice, conscious, decision…You sit down with your little accountant’s ledger and soberly decide what to love? Always?” (108).

About 60 pages later, in the Year of the Yushityu, Hal narrates TENNIS AND THE FERAL PRODIGY, which “according to the entry form” (172), is written by Mario. The script of this “11.5-minute digital entertainment cartridge” (172) champions Marathe’s argument that there is always a choice. Moreover, the script conveys that one can always be in control–of anything and everything.

The script is structured like a lesson, with nearly each paragraph beginning with “here is how.” Therefore, the script assumes that abilities from “how to hold a stick” (172) to “how to sweat” (174) can be learned, and hence, can also be controlled and regulated, as if a product of choice.

In particular, the speaker instructs, “Here is how to handle being a feral prodigy” (174). In here lies a contradiction–because feral denotes untamed, natural, wild, and incapable of being “handled” (174). To handle, on the other hand, signifies to control, to manage, and to dominate. The script thus insists that it is possible to conquer even the unconquerable, to control even the uncontrollable. In fact, this possibility can be shown, taught and learned by what seems to be a simple lesson–a lesson that tames the self.

In here lies another contradiction–the freedom, or ability, to take control of the self in turn limits and subjugates the self. The cartridge does not instruct “how to handle a feral prodigy.” It instructs “how to handle being a feral prodigy” (174). Thus, the cartridge instructs not how to tame an external feral prodigy that has come to invade the body, but rather how to control a self or a being who has come to be defined by his feral prodigy. In a way, by stating, “Here is how to handle being a feral prodigy,” the text evokes a giving away of the self, a surrendering of the self. The complete “being” or existence of the self has become replaced by only being a feral prodigy, an alternate, reduced existence.

Handling “being a feral prodigy” (174) ultimately effaces the being, reducing it to zip. The paragraph is poetic. It creates a contrived, controlled, regulated, unnatural–not feral–effect. Using words such as “signifying” and “composed of” renders the sentence–”Here is how to handle being seeded at tournaments, signifying that seeding committees composed of old big-armed men publicly expect you to reach a certain round” (174)–literary and formal and also, forced and unnatural. Furthermore, the lesson–”By repeating this term over and over, perhaps in the same rhythm at which you squeeze a ball, you can reduce it to an empty series of phonemes, just formants and fricatives, trochaically stressed, signifying zip” (174)–carries a poetic rhythm per se. This rhythm reverberates throughout the script. The repetition of “Here is how to” and the choppy syntax create their own rhythm. The use of the words “trochaically stressed,” “signifying,” “phonemes,” “formants,” and “fricatives” produces the effect of a poetry explication. Moreover, “phonemes,” “formants,” and “fricatives” generate an alliteration, furthering the poetic style. Ultimately, however, the poetic style of these sentences in synchronization with the result of handling being a feral prodigy amount to nothing, “signifying zip” (174). This paragraph delineates a process of reduction: reducing terms to “an empty series of phonemes”–which are irreducibles, and reducing a being into a feral prodigy, and then that feral prodigy into, presumably, a tamed prodigy. In this way, this paragraph, along with the lesson embedded in this paragraph, exerts control–a control that is perhaps tragically and inescapably self-limiting and self-effacing.

So then looking back at Marathe’s words, he claims that the lack of choice renders a person “a fanatic of desire…a citizen of nothing” (108), but the contrary–that is, the option to choose, the ability of control–can lead to the same result: nothingness.