There are a number of Taoist elements in Infinite Jest.
The Chinese character Tao translates into 'way', 'path', or 'route', as well as 'doctrine' or 'principle', and is used philosophically to signify the non-dualist, fundamental nature of the world. The Tao precedes and encompasses the universe, and is completely ineffable; it cannot be expressed, but it can be known and followed.
The Tao Te Ching contains Wisdom in the form of myriad paradoxes (and acknowledges this nature with the line "True words seem paradoxical") not unlike Buddhist koans. Many passages map neatly onto Infinite Jest.
- The Tao is called the Great Mother: / empty yet inexhaustible, / it gives birth to infinite worlds (Tao Te Ching, chapter 6).
- The supreme good is like water, / which nourishes all things without trying to." This relates to the ocean that deposits Gately on the beach at the end of the novel.
- "When you are content to be simply yourself / and don't compare or compete, / everybody will respect you." Similarly, in AA meetings, those who Identity and "don't compare" are the most respected.
- For governing a country well / there is nothing better than moderation. / The mark of a moderate man / is freedom from his own ideas.
- The best athlete / wants his opponent at his best.
When James Incandenza's father discusses Marlon Brando's acting excellence, relating it to the tennis excellence he foresees (albeit incorrectly) for his son, he uses distinctly Taoist terms: "He knew what the Beats know and what the great tennis player knows, son: learn to do nothing, with your whole head and body, and everything will be done by what's around you. I know you don't understand... You will, Jim. I know what I know" (158). In taoism, finding a state of absolute quiescence allows things to just get done. It is paradoxical, which is why James' father cannot express it well; he can only know it, because it is the Tao and the first line from the Tao Te Ching says "the tao that can be told / is not the eternal tao."
On her radio show, Madame Psychosis plays with that first line, saying: "The Dow that can be told is not the eternal Dow" (183).
- Recommended: Mitchell, Stephen. Tao Te Ching, Harper Perennial; Compact edition (August 28, 1992)
- Online version of the Tao Te Ching http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/core9/phalsall/texts/taote-v3.html