Addiction in Infinite Jest
The culture of irony in the novel breeds a culture of addiction. Though each addiction is different, the desired affect of each addiction is grounded in a foundational need for happiness, which in turn demands an escape from reality and from self-consciousness. As Boswell explains, the characters in the novel “seek to assuage the dread of being, of self-responsibility” (137). The prorectors at E.T.A turn to drugs when “they’re morose and low on morale, and feel bad about themselves” (Wallace 54), while all of the AA members “Identify” with turning to drugs in order to have “fun with the Substance” (Wallace 345). The mere fact of the capitalization of “Substance” signifies that the characters place substantial value and power in their Substances, for their drugs are a necessary crutch, as or more important to them as any person (or proper noun) is. They use the Substances as a way to escape reality, for reality is not happy, is not fun. Therefore, drugs are needed to induce a flight into an anti-reality, into a lack of awareness where one no longer feels one’s own pain. As Mary Holland explains, addiction is fed by “the desire to escape this endless escalation of unfulfillable desire” (233) that characterizes reality. LaMont Chu at E.T.A. is sucked into addiction for this very reason. LaMont desires the happiness that he assumes accompanies tennis fame and so he becomes addicted to the idea of being famous (Wallace 388). But Lyle assures him that even “fame is not the exit from any cage [of addiction]” (Wallace 388), for once you garner fame, you will become addicted to worrying about losing it. Each desire calls for the need of another addiction. The only way to escape the “escalation of unfulfillable desire” is to succumb to an addiction that allows you to create a false reality and a false consciousness that thus tricks you into believing you have momentarily satisfied any desire you might have.
Given that Infinite Jest not only portrays a society trapped in irony, but also a society trying to escape reality through addiction, it is logical to conclude that the irony and the addiction are, in fact, deeply related. The irony of the novel creates a society where all truth is hidden behind a veil of sarcasm—a society made up of facades. Living in such an illusory world is the very thing that leads Wallace’s characters to addiction. Each character feels the need to conflate the false exterior world created by irony to their own interior world; they want to flee from the reality within themselves so as to match the non-reality outside of them. And addictions offer a way to escape even the reality within one’s own head, for as Gately explains, “the Disease [of addiction] makes its command headquarters in the head” (Wallace 272). Boswell writes that “drugs are a particularly alluring means of escape from self,” and that “self-consciousness and irony also provide an illusion of escape and self-erasure” (138). Being trapped in irony places the characters in a culture where illusion, not reality, is sought, and so drugs are the answer to create a false consciousness.
Boswell also contends that “behind that ironic sophistication, however, lurks despair, the sort of despair that leads, say to drug addiction” (139). What Boswell is referring to is the fact that rather than tending to the root of their despair, the society in the novel has hidden their pain and hurt behind irony. Katherine Gompert, for example, is a suicidal depressive whose psychiatrist explains that “jokes and sarcasm were here [in the psych-ward] usually too pregnant and fertile with clinical significance not to be taken seriously: sarcasm and jokes were often the bottle in which clinical depressive sent out their most plangent screams for someone to care and help them” (Wallace 71). Kate, like other depressive patients, tries to hide her pain behind a mask of irony as a way to cover the hurt. Her despair gives rise to her irony (which in turn eventually gives rise to her addiction to marijuana). What causes addiction is the fact that irony creates a culture in which despair, hurt, and emotion are superficially concealed with artificial happiness instead of actually tended to and diagnosed. Catherine Nichols argues that Wallace “exposes the potential of the postmodern canivalequse to become a sort of literary Prozac that alters perception rather than attends to the alienation, despair, and isolation that the unmediated perceive” (“Dialogizing Postmodern Carnival: David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest” 6). Just as irony hides and covers the hurt that arises from true emotion, feeling, and sentiment, addiction in the novel serves the same purpose, working as an artificial solution to a much deeper problem. The characters face addiction because they live in a society in which reality is not valued, but is veiled and hidden from view. For as Gately realizes: “a drug addict was at root a craven and pathetic creature: a thing that basically hides” (932). In such a society where truth and reality are both avoided and rejected, the characters’ only successful mode of existence in the world is one in which they, too, shield themselves from reality, both the reality of the world and the reality of themselves. And addiction becomes the characters’ means with which to transcend reality and escape from self-awareness.
Hal makes the point that “the original sense of addiction involved being bound over, dedicated, either legally or spiritually. To devote one’s life, plunge in”. A person’s addiction is simply “a subject or pursuit” they “care deeply” about: “God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately – the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly.” There always has to be something. Hal describes the purpose of the addiction as “a flight-from in the form of plunging into” (Wallace 900). The addiction serves as a distraction, as a way to pass the time until the monotony of life ("these rooms blandly filled with excrement and meat") is over.
Hal could be seen as kicking the addiction to tennis. In the novel’s beginning (which is the “end” for Hal, chronologically speaking), the DMZ Hal ingests renders him unable to communicate with the Administrative staff. He cannot defend the “incongruity” in grades (6). As a result, Hal may not be accepted. But this seems to be Hal’s goal. He sabotages himself with the DMZ in order to escape his fate of constant tennis. The protest against continual use of the ‘abusable escape’ is also seen in Joelle and Ken Erdedy. The feeling occurs when the previous fun thing loses its enjoyment/entertainment.
We have seen the building of Hal’s discontent. Hal tells Ken Blott that he observes the other players, the way that they hurt, the way that he hurts, and says, “for what for a chance at a pro career that I’m starting to get this dready feeling a career in the Show means even more suffering” (107). Hal struggles with the idea of purpose, observing that hard work means little more than more hard work.
Furthermore, Hal feels doomed to a life of repetition: “I reexperienced…then the number of times I would have to repeat the same processes, day after day, in all kinds of light…then began the same exhausting process of exit and return in some dormitory at some tennis-power university somewhere” (897). Thinking of everything at once (the opposite of AA’s ‘one day at a time’ strategy) overwhelms him. The desire to actually injure himself in order to set himself free from this cycle illustrates his desperation. (One is reminded of suicide).
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 is another example of significant material being left out of the main text.
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.
In the section of the text that illuminates the lessons of the halfway facility, the reader learns about mental functioning: “That most Substance-addicted people are also addicted to thinking, meaning they have a compulsive and unhealthy relationship with their own thinking” (203). Thus, the presence of certain thoughts may warrant the desire for escape.
Tennis is an ever-present example of escape. At E.T.A. they are taught: “Here is how to avoid thinking about any of this by practicing and playing until everything runs on auto pilot and talent’s unconscious exercise becomes a way to escape yourself, a long waking dream of pure play” (173). Here, minimizing thought simplifies functioning.