This is the last in a series of posts about David Foster Wallace’s monumental novel Infinite Jest. Wallace details a variety of factors that make it difficult to live as an authentic self in twenty-first century America. I most recently posted about practices that characters in his book used to battle addictions and live more authentically. Much of what he said is similar to the approach taken by James K.A. Smith.

Smith, a philosopher from Calvin College, has written a series of books about the importance of our actions in shaping us. He refers often to DFW; Marathe’s comment that “You are what you love” is also the title of one of Smith’s books. Smith writes, “our most fundamental orientation to the world–the longings and desires that orient us to some version of the good life–are shaped and configured by imitation and practice.” (You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, p. 19) Like Wallace in his Kenyon College speech, Smith proposes that humans are creatures that worship–we can’t not worship. Our devotion is evident not only when we attend religious services but also when we engage in secular “liturgies” such as going to the mall. By our actions we are always giving ourselves away to something, and we are shaped thereby. Sometimes we give homage mindlessly, but we can also intentionally engage in liturgies in an effort to change. We can choose to engage in practices that with time will reshape our desires.

This same strategy for change–identify what activities will transform you and do those things repeatedly until they shape your desires and thoughts, not being overly concerned with how or why the change occurs–is an essential part of the program at E.T.A., the tennis academy that is one of the two main settings in Infinite Jest. Here is Jim Troeltsch, one of the older players, speaking to his Little Buddies:

“Boys, what it is is I’ll tell you it’s repetition. First last always. It’s hearing the same motivational stuff over and over till sheer repetitive weight makes it sink down into the gut. It’s making the same pivots and lunges and strokes over and over and over again, at you boy’s age it’s reps for their own sake, putting results on the back burner…” (p. 117)

Unlike the transformative practices at Ennet House and AA, which are also described at length in IJ, the practices at E.T.A. are mainly designed to make the students the best tennis players they can be. There’s also some attention given to preventing the successful players from self-destructing, but there’s no emphasis on shaping desires or becoming authentic selves. And, though the E.T.A. liturgies contain, as do those of AA, elements reminiscent of worship (I think that the human proclivity to worship is what DFW means when he talks about the impulse to give oneself away), this similarity isn’t discussed. This topic is probably one of those “real” matters that Mario, the novel’s ‘holy fool,’ has noticed embarrasses all but the younger players. When Mario visited the other main setting in the novel, the drug treatment facility at Ennet House, he liked it “because it’s very real; people are crying and making noise and getting less unhappy, and once he heard somebody say God with a straight face and nobody looked at them or looked down or smiled in any sort of way where you could tell they were worried inside.” [p. 591]

Mario’s brother Hal, one of the star players at E.T.A., has improved his tennis skills tremendously as a result of the practices taught at E.T.A., but these practices have done nothing to cure his inner emptiness. In contrast, over at Ennet House, Gately has followed the suggestions offered him by A.A. and his desires are changing. He’s also becoming a more complete self, one who cares about others and wants to do what is right. [The rest of this paragraph discusses the end of the book, so readers who don’t want spoilers should skip it.] Near the end of IJ, as Gately lies in his hospital bed, he reflects on his life while he was still actively using, especially his relationship with “Fackelmann,” with whom he committed crimes to support his habit. Fackelmann did something that put him in grave danger; rather than helping him, Gately took advantage of him. It’s not made clear why Gately relives this memory; my take is that by doing so he is mentally engaging in the liturgical practices of confession and repentance. As Christians have learned for centuries, these practices have tremendous power to shape us. Their power doesn’t stem from being embedded in a religious ceremony; they are effective even for those, like Gately, who practice them in the temple of the imagination. The book ends with symbolism that could be suggesting new birth; perhaps Gately receives forgiveness from the God he can’t sense and has trouble believing in.

Despite the hundreds of pages devoted to all manner of folly and failure, in the end IJ seemed to me to be a hopeful book. No matter how badly the characters behaved, no matter what trouble they got themselves into, redemption was possible. The route to wholeness is seen most clearly in the practices of AA, but the way of redemption is much more ancient than that, having been followed by pilgrims throughout the centuries. Recognize how far you’ve fallen, surrender your pride, and practice those things that will teach you humility, constancy, and patience. As the apostle Peter put it, the God of all grace will restore, establish, and strengthen you.


This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues.

I recently saw The Disaster Artist, the movie about the making of The Room, one of the worst movies of all time. James Franco both directs and portrays Tommy Wiseau, the main force behind The Room. James’ brother Dave plays Greg Sestero, Tommy’s friend and collaborator.

Among other things, the film is about friendship, about the making of movies, about art, and what it’s like to live without self-awareness. Tommy’s inability to view himself accurately or imagine how others see him were major factors in his conceit that he could write, direct, and star in a major motion picture. Early in the film, he and Greg move to Hollywood to pursue acting careers, but he receives a uniformly negative response. In one scene, he accosts a famous director (I didn’t catch who it was) in a restaurant, bombarding him with lines from Shakespeare. When Tommy persists despite a polite rebuff, the director is unstinting: never in a million years could you become an actor. Slowed only a bit by this onslaught, Tommy pleadingly asks, “But after that?”

Through the second half of the film I kept wondering how someone so singularly incompetent and unqualified actually succeeded at making a movie that opened in a first-run movie theater. Why didn’t reality stop him early in the process? I don’t have the answer to that question, and I haven’t seen The Room, which might provide some insight. Reflecting on The Disaster Artist, though, I came up with three factors that may have played a role.

First of all, because Tommy couldn’t see himself through other’s eyes, he didn’t feel shame or embarrassment. Thus he is undaunted when doing things that make others quiver. Early in the film he and Greg are eating in a packed restaurant. Tommy insists that they perform a scene from a play right there, which they proceed to do at full volume. Greg is clearly uneasy, but not Tommy. The stares of others, their negative comments and thinly veiled derision have no effect on him. When I feel shame, I’m quite uncomfortable, and at times I wish I wouldn’t feel that emotion as easily as I do. Watching Tommy, though, I was thankful for the capacity to feel shame; it does provide information that sometimes steers me away from doing things that I would later regret.

Part of Tommy’s defense against shame is that he sees himself as an artist whose vision isn’t appreciated by others. This second reason for Tommy’s imperviousness to feedback comes up over and over again on the set of the movie, whenever anyone suggests a change to a scene. “You don’t understand my vision,” Tommy laments. The narrative of the misunderstood artist comes from Romanticism, one of the cultural metanarratives that affect how we see ourselves and live our lives. Unfortunately, not all artistic visions are of equal value, and probably none of them provide the kind of unerring guide to goodness and truth that the Romantics thought they would. For Tommy, the idea of artistic vision is a convenient way to deflect criticism and legitimize incompetence.

None of these factors would have been enough for him to complete the film, though, if Tommy hadn’t also been rich. He bankrolled the entire project; it’s estimated that he spent six million dollars making The Room. After several days of filming, we see script supervisor Sandy (Seth Rogan) trying to cash a check from Tommy. He is apprehensive, doubtful that the check will clear. The banker reassures Sandy that there are vast sums in Tommy’s account. Having learned this, throughout the filming Sandy tolerates Tommy’s rants and indulges his whims. The rich are treated more leniently than the rest of us. At the same time, they become blind to how others view them. As summarized in The Atlantic, several research studies have found that the powerful have more difficulty than the powerless in understanding what others are feeling. Money is a form of power, and can be expected to produce similarly diminished awareness of the reactions of others. There’s a wrenching scene near the end of the movie when Tommy learns how others view his movie; he squirms with discomfort. It might have been better for him had he been able to feel some of this uneasiness before spending a fortune.

Reflecting on The Disaster Artist, then, I’m grateful that I can feel shame, unpleasant as it is at the time. I’m glad, too, that I don’t lay claim to an artistic vision that elevates me above others. As a middle class American, I have enough wealth that I don’t empathize with the poor as well as I might. Still, I’m not flush enough that people cater to me–not as far as I can tell, at least. As confident as Tommy appeared, it must have been difficult to be him. I may have a more modest ego, but at least I feel comparatively little pain when it’s deflated.

I’m nearing the end of my series of posts about David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. As I read the book I was most interested in what DFW had to say about the struggles we in present-day America have with living meaningful and genuine lives. The first four posts provide some thoughts about what I take to be Wallace’s portrayal of those struggles. This post and the next one will focus on what he offers that might provide help.

As I noted earlier, one place that Wallace thinks provides assistance is in recovery programs such as AA and NA. Wallace was himself an alcoholic and was quite familiar with the 12-Step model of treatment. As he describes the recovery program at Ennet House, a treatment facility, he both repeats some of AA’s standard dogma and offers his own observations about the nature of this approach to recovery and how it works to bring about change.

As discussed back in the first of my posts, IJ describes a world in which most people have strong desires that can gain control over their lives. Pursuit of these desires seems to promise a better life–not only a life of pleasure, but also escape from pain. Unfortunately, with time the pleasure fades and pain returns. One of the first things that must be done in treatment is to face the inevitability of pain:

“[T]hey tell you how it’ll all get better and better as you abstain and recover: they somehow omit to mention that the way it gets better and you get better is through pain…. At least this pain means you’re going somewhere, they say, instead of the repetitive gerbil-wheel of addictive pain.” (p. 446)

There will be pain associated with growth, but focusing on the pain to come is counterproductive. Instead, the emphasis is on living with the present moment’s pain. It’s the AA slogan “Take one day at a time” broken into even finer portions, as in Ennet House staff member Gately dealing with the pain of withdrawal from opioids:

“He had to build a wall around each second just to take it. The whole first two weeks of it are telescoped in his memory down to like one second–less: the space between two heartbeats.” (p. 860)

Accepting the pain and the need to participate in meetings and daily routines that are associated with recovery (though these are always offered as suggestions, not as requirements), the addict is encouraged not to look for the causes of his or her addiction, but simply to remember that they are indeed under the influence of that addiction:

“The Boston AA ‘In Here’ that protects against a return to ‘Out There’ is not about explaining what caused your disease. It’s about a goofily simple practical recipe for how to remember you’ve got the Disease day by day and how to treat the Disease day by day, how to keep the seductive ghost of a bliss long absconded from baiting you and hooking you and pulling you back Out and eating your heart raw and (if you’re lucky) eliminating your map for good. So no whys and wherefores allowed.” (p. 374)

Recovery–Keep Going to Meetings. Image from

The new residents often think the program is simplistic; they have trouble believing that it will work. The staff encourage them to put aside their doubts and simply do the things that the program recommends. One aspect of the program that many residents resist is turning  to God. The agnostics and atheists especially have trouble doing this. However, Wallace offers the following wry observation in the list of things that new Ennet House residents are likely to learn:

“That God might regard the issue of whether you believe there’s a God or not as fairly low on his/her/its list of things s/he/it’s interested in re you.” p. 205

Several months into his recovery, Gately has been praying every morning and evening–and has found it helps him maintain sobriety through the day. Nonetheless, speaking at an AA meeting, he admits he still has no sense of God:

“He says but when he tries to go beyond the very basic rote automatic get-me-through-this-day-please stuff, when he kneels at other times and prays or meditates or tries to achieve a Big-Picture spiritual understanding of a God as he can understand Him, he feels Nothing–not nothing but Nothing, an edgeless blankness that somehow feels worse than the sort of unconsidered atheism he Came In with.” p. 443

After the meeting, one of the attendees, a biker named Bob Death, tells him “the one about the fish.” Wallace told this story in his well-known 2005 Kenyon College commencement address. An old fish meets two young fish and greets them, “Morning boys, how’s the water?” As the two fish swim on, one turns to the other and asks, “What the f*** is water?” Gately listens,

“And his dreams late that night, after the Braintree/Bob Death Commitment, seem to set him under a sort of sea, at terrific depths, the water all around him silent and dim and the same temperature he is.” p. 449

For Wallace, God is like the sea, surrounding and supporting all of us, his/her very pervasiveness preventing us from recognizing his/her presence. Our growth towards wholeness doesn’t depend on believing in God so much as on acting as if we did. Practice matters, ideas mostly tend to trip us up rather than help.

So, then, some strategies that characters in IJ find helpful in living meaningful lives relatively free from addiction include accepting the pain, acquiring (but not analyzing) regular habits that interfere with unhealthy attachments, and putting trust in God, whether or not you believe his existence. I’ll reflect a bit more on the reasoning behind this approach to life in my final post on the book.

I don’t watch many movies, so over the past fifty years there have been quite a few highly influential films that I’ve never seen. Until recently, Pulp Fiction was on that list. The film’s elaborate, mobius-striplike narrative structure has been widely imitated, as has its hipness and the sort of characters that inhabit it–apparent stock figures who in fact have complex psyches. The dialogue is rich, and some scenes have achieved pop-culture fame. Recently, I broke down and saw the film for the first time. There are lots of fun scenes, such as hit man Vincent taking the boss’ wife out for a night on the town; his attempts to make it a low-key evening bereft of drama are thwarted at every turn. What struck me the most, though, was that characters who seem amoral at worst and morally compromised at best spend much of the film trying to deal with moral dilemmas.

Take Vincent, for example, happily employed as a thug. He has recently returned from Amsterdam, where he indulged in libidinous pleasures of various sorts. We see him visit his dealer to pick up some heroin prior to the dinner engagement with Mia Wallace, the boss’ wife; he apparently uses drugs frequently. He doesn’t plan on trying to bed Mia, but, as he originally explains it, that’s not because of any compunctions about shacking up with a woman he barely knows. Instead, he simply wants to not give offense to Marsellus Wallace, the sort of boss who has hit men on his payroll. In Kierkegaard’s characterization of three modes of life–the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious (see a brief summary of these here)–Vincent lives in the aesthetic mode, characterized by pursuit of pleasure, subjectivism, and lack of a framework of meaning. It’s not that he can’t engage in moral reasoning–he does so rather adeptly in arguing with fellow hit man Jules that giving a woman a foot massage is morally equivalent to having sex with her. He just doesn’t use such reasoning to fence in his own behavior in any way.

Mia and Vincent at Dinner

Or so it seems. We learn differently when he finds himself attracted to Mia. He excuses himself and goes to the bathroom in order to fortify his initial plan to resist temptation. Here’s the pep talk he gives himself:

“It’s a moral test of yourself, whether or not you can maintain loyalty. Because when people are loyal to each other, that’s very meaningful–So you’re gonna go out there, drink your drink, say ‘Good night, I’ve had a very lovely evening,’ go home and jack off. And that’s all you’re gonna do.”

So he’s not simply an aesthetic whose behavior is constrained only by self-interest. He’s ethical; he believes that he should live according to a standard, that of loyalty to Marsellus, who trusted him to behave honorably. Betrayal would not only be unwise, it would be wrong. His moral standards may be unconventional, but they are firmly held.

The second of the movie’s three subplots features another morally compromised character who seems to be living in the aesthetic mode. Butch is a boxer who is first seen accepting a bribe from Marsellus to take a dive in his next fight. Unlike Vincent, he doesn’t hesitate to betray; he not only fails to lose the fight, he boxes with such ferocity that he accidentally kills his opponent. An accomplice bet heavily on him, and Butch stands to profit handsomely from the double-cross. He anticipates that Marsellus will seek vengence and prepares to flee, but Butch and Marsellus unexpectedly encounter each other before he can get away. There’s an accident, Butch limps away, Marsellus pursues. Both end up in a pawn shop where they are captured by the proprietor, who, along with a buddy, plans to sodomize and possibly kill them. Marsellus is their first victim. Butch manages to free himself while their captors are distracted and is about to make his escape–but he stops at the door. It would be in his self-interest to leave.. But how could he leave Marsellus to the fate that he narrowly escaped? He turns back and, after considering and rejecting several possible weapons from the pawn shop’s inventory, he settles on a samurai sword. The choice is significant; the samurai were not only fierce warriors, but lived by a stringent code of honor. By rescuing Marsellus, Butch is not only making restitution for his previous betrayal; he’s also restoring his own honor.

Butch as Samurai

Vincent and Butch are seemingly immoral people who, when confronted with ethical dilemmas, prove that they do try to live according to a moral code. Jules, another hit man in Marsellus’ employ, seems equally lacking a moral compass. It’s true that he quotes from the Bible early on, but does so right before he and Vincent murder someone. We later learn that the passage he quotes–supposedly Ezekiel 25:17, though he doesn’t quote it accurately–is something he memorized because he thought it was a sufficiently coldblooded thing to say before offing somebody. Here’s a transcript:

“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who in the name of cherish and good will shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness for he is truly his keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.”

Almost immediately after the murder, an accomplice of the victim bursts out of the bathroom with a gun and shoots at Jules and Vincent from close range. Amazingly, they aren’t hit, and soon dispatch the gunman. Jules immediately decides that a miracle occurred and they survived only because of divine protection. Vincent argues with him, saying it was just something that happens in life. The disagreement crops up later, and Jules eventually appeals not to the improbability of the event but to how it affected him:

“Whether or not what we experienced was an According to Hoyle miracle is insignificant. What is significant is that I felt the touch of God. God got involved.”

Jules has made the transition to the third mode described by Kierkegaard: the religious. This involves a reorientation of one’s life in light of the divine, and Jules almost immediately begins such a transformation. He makes plans to leave his employment with Marsellus. Later that day, in the movie’s last scene, he and Vincent are in a diner that is robbed. Jules gets the better of one of the robbers and, while holding the man at gunpoint, says that normally he would kill him but that he’s going through a transitional period and wants to help him instead. He quotes the Biblical passage and says he has been thinking about what it means. Here’s what has come to him:

See, now I’m thinking: maybe it means you’re the evil man. And I’m the righteous man. And Mr. 9mm here… he’s the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could mean you’re the righteous man and I’m the shepherd and it’s the world that’s evil and selfish. And I’d like that. But that shit ain’t the truth. The truth is you’re the weak. And I’m the tyranny of evil men. But I’m tryin’, Ringo. I’m tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.

This is what Scripture does: it opens our eyes to who we are. And it teaches us how we should change–who we should strive to become. Jules isn’t the shepherd yet, but he’s trying. That’s all any of us can do.

Jules Explaining Scripture.

In a previous post, I wrote about one theme David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, namely the desire many characters have to escape themselves. Social realities in the U.S. intensify this desire. DFW seems particularly interested in exploring aspects of American culture that interfere with living a healthy and authentic life. In the book, the most detailed critique of American culture is offered by a character from a rather different culture, albeit still North American. Rémy Marathe is from Quebec; he is an agent  (he’s actually a quadruple agent, when you sort out who he is betraying and pretending to betray) of the Wheelchair Assassins, a violent separatist group that is seeking to acquire the lethal “entertainment” named Infinite Jest V to use as a terrorist weapon. He complains to his contact Hugh Steeply, agent for the North American government’s Office of Unspecified Services, about the failure of Americans to live for any purpose larger than themselves:

“You U.S.A.’s do not seem to believe you may each choose what to die for. Love of a woman, the sexual, it bends back in on the self, makes you narrow, maybe crazy. Chose with care. Love of your nation, your country and people, it enlarges the heart. Something bigger that the self.” (p. 107)

He thinks that Americans “choose nothing over themselves to love, each one.” (p. 318) As a result, they are particularly susceptible to the lure of the lethal entertainment. They will “die for this chance to be fed to the death of pleasure with spoons, in their warm homes, alone, unmoving.” Exclusive self-love prepares us for self-indulgence, nothing more. The effect of the lethal entertainment on its viewers seems just a more intensified version of what the American entertainment industry does to all of us every day. When DFW wrote IJ, we were entertained mainly through television, VCR tapes, CDs, and DVDs. Now packaged entertainment also infects our laptops and cell phones, enticing us everywhere we look. It deadens us, it tempts us to give our lives to it, one cat video at a time.

And it isolates us. Though the characters in IJ are often physically present with each other, they mostly fail to forge meaningful connections. The pioneering developmental psychologist Jean Piaget coined the term “collective monologue” to describe the way in which young children talk to each other: though they take turns talking, each is carrying on an independent stream of speech, not listening to or responding to what the other is saying. Many of the conversations in IJ come close to being collective monologues–Hal and Orin, for example, or the residents of Ennet House with each other. Hal asks his Little Buddies (the younger students at E.T.A. that he mentors) “Even if we all live and eat and shower and play together, how can we keep from being 136 deeply alone people all jammed together?” (p. 112) The question can be asked more broadly: how can we keep our way of living from isolating us, even if we are sitting in the same restaurants or offices or living rooms with others? Hal thinks connection is possible because the students are united by common hardship, but this hypothesis isn’t borne out in the rest of the book.

Isolation is an issue at Ennet House as well. One of the things that residents are said to learn early in their stay is “That loneliness is not a function of solitude.” As with the E.T.A. students, they aren’t alone very much–they room together, go to meetings together, and spend almost all their time in each other’s company. There is little solitude, but a lot of loneliness.

Marathe and Steeply. Image from

Marathe tells Steeply, “You are what you love.” Unlike what we desire, what we’re tempted by, or what intrudes into our lives, we have a choice about what we love. Marathe later tells Kate Gompart, a depressed Ennet House resident, what (or whom) he chose to love. As a young double amputee who belonged to a suppressed minority, he felt empty. Everything changed one day when he saw a woman about to be hit by a truck. He quickly rolled down the hill he was on, arriving just in time to sweep her out of the way.

“It was this frozen with the terror woman, she saved my life. For this saved my life. This moment broke my moribund chains, Katherine. In one instant and without thought I was allowed to choose something as more important than my thinking of my life. Her, she allowed this will without thinking. She with one blow broke the chains of the cage of pain at my half a body and nation.” p. 778

His betrayal of the Quebecois cause was for the sake of getting medical treatment for Gertraude, the woman he rescued who subsequently became his wife. He of course had told Steeply earlier that a nation was a sufficient cause to give oneself to, but a woman wasn’t. Thus he wasn’t living according to the ideals he espoused. Despite his own inconsistency, Marathe’s critique of the U.S. raises interesting questions that the rest of IJ explores in depth. Though Marathe’s views weren’t identical with those of DFW, I suspect that Wallace used Marathe to express concerns about American culture that he thought had some validity.

Most of us have felt at times that entertainment or social media is playing too big a role in our lives. Most of us have been halfhearted at best in our efforts to keep these forces in their proper place, though. St. Augustine talked about our disordered loves; for many of us, our love for our entertainments is disordered. Thus, it will never fully satisfy. Choose what you love, says Marathe. Then follow through and give your time only to that which is worthy of your love.

This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues.

I recently saw “The Hero,” starring Sam Elliott as aging actor Lee Hayden. Lee had success early in his career but has been marking time ever since then. As he tells Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a woman barely older than his 34-year-old daughter who becomes his love interest, as a young man he starred in a movie that he is proud of. Since then he’s kept busy but hasn’t accomplished much. The opening scene shows what he has been doing; he records take after take of a commercial for barbecue sauce, “The perfect partner for your chicken.”

Lee checks with his agent regularly, hoping to be offered a movie script. Unfortunately none is forthcoming. Still, he yearns for one more chance at success. In his dreams, he often finds himself back in the movie for he was famous (also named “The Hero”), though when he returns there he is an old man. He’s divorced and has a strained relationship with Lucy, his daughter. He’s bungled things with Lucy; he’s been absent and inattentive. He feels badly about where things stand with her, but apparently not badly enough to change. He devotes his time and energies not to others but to smoking pot, often with Jeremy (Nick Offerman), a former acting buddy who is now his dealer.

Lee is stuck. However, two things happen that have the potential to change his life. First, he is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Second, he and Charlotte begin seeing each other. It’s not that the attentions of a woman can solve his problems, but the woman in this case has a somewhat different take on life than he does, and that opens him to new possibilities. One interaction between them goes something like this:

Lee: It’s kind of weird to be remembered for one part forty years ago.
Charlotte: Yeah, but it’s as close to immortality as most of us will get.

You’ve done better than you think, Charlotte seems to be saying. Don’t worry so much about your legacy. Live in the present rather than in the past or the future.

Here’s a conversation they have about their relationship, but also apparently about living one’s life:

Charlotte: So what do you want?
Lee: (uncomfortably) I don’t know.
Charlotte: Don’t think so hard about it, man.

Charlotte may give too little thought to what she’s doing with her life, living impulsively, profligately. Still, she’s a good corrective for Lee, who is paralyzed by his thoughts.

Why is the film called “The Hero?” Mary McCarthy wrote “We all live in suspense, from day to day, from hour to hour; in other words, we are the hero of our own story,” Ironically, Lee, the man called “The Hero,” has for decades avoided being the hero in his own life. He has evaded self-knowledge and the commitment to others required to develop and sustain relationships. His cancer diagnosis and Charlotte’s provocations are invitations to the hero’s journey (I’m thinking of Joseph Campbell’s description of the mythological hero who is called to adventure, resists, accepts the call, enters an unfamiliar world, undergoes an ordeal, and returns home with a reward).

Besides coming from cancer and Charlotte, Lee’s invitation to the hero’s journey also comes from within himself. The dreamscape that he enters when asleep has two recurring scenes. In the first, he is a cowboy who encounters a man hanging from a tree. In the second, he stands on the ocean shore, looking out toward the horizon. I take the first of these to be an intimation of his mortality. One approach to dream interpretation is to see everything in the dream as representing a part of the dreamer; in this case, the lynched man would represent him. The second scene, with the vastness of the ocean and the force of its waves, might represent all that is greater than Lee–the infinite, the eternal, the divine. Like Lee, we are prone to live selfish, constricted lives until we are confronted either by suffering and death or by that immensity that makes us feel tiny by comparison. Will we try to hide from what we’ve seen, or will we accept the invitation to venture out into it?

Lee reacts poorly at first. He can’t even manage to tell anyone he has cancer, though he tries. He avoids setting an appointment with the oncologist, not wanting to face his dire medical condition. During the last third of the film, he makes some progress, though I won’t give details here. Suffice it to say that, having for decades avoided being the hero of his own life, there’s only so much he can accomplish in the few days covered in the film. Lee may have accepted the call to heroism, but he hasn’t progressed very far in the journey.

I’ll close by describing the final scene in the film; this is something of a spoiler, so don’t read on if you would rather not know how it ends. Remember that in the first scene Lee was in a studio recording the soundtrack for a commercial. In the final scene, he is back in the same sound studio, recording a follow-up commercial for a new version of the same product. It seems that he has gotten exactly nowhere during the film. But is that so? In the opening scene, he appeared a little irritated having to repeat the same phrase over and over, a little contemptuous of what he was doing to earn a living. I may be reading too much into the final scene, but the irritation appears to be gone and he seems at peace even while doing something so prosaic. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to do something ordinary or banal again and again, perhaps bemused that life had come to this but more than anything just glad to be alive? May we all achieve that measure of contentment.

I have been writing about themes that stood out to me when I read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Most recently, I discussed the importance and challenge of being genuine with oneself and others. Why do the characters in the book find it so difficult to be genuine? As I read IJ, it seemed to me that one reason for this difficulty was that characters were uncomfortable with being a self, at least a reflective, internally aware self. I wrote in the last post about Hal Incandenza’s lack of genuine inner experience. What causes him to shut himself off from his inner life to such an extent? Possibly because he recoils at what he sees within:

“One of the really American things about Hal, probably, is the way he despises what it is he’s really lonely for: this hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pules and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia.” p. 695

It’s tempting to skate on the surface, pretending we are just the image we project, with none of the struggles or shadows of the inner self. As Kierkegaard explained in The Sickness Unto Death, we want to be a self, but don’t want to be the self we are. As with Hal, to many of us that inner self seems hideous.

What makes Hal’s reaction “really American,” though? Kierkegaard was of course talking about a universal discomfort with the self, not an American one. DFW might agree that such discomfort crosses cultural lines, but he seems to think that aspects of American society make it particularly difficult to be a genuine self. Sometimes that connection to the American context is made explicit, as in the following discussion of American involvement with “recreational substances:”

“Like who isn’t, at some life-stage, in the U.S.A. and Interdependent regions, in these troubled times, for the most part. Though a decent percentage of E.T.A. students aren’t at all. I.e. involved. Some persons can give themselves away to an ambitious pursuit and have that be all the giving-themselves-away-to-something they need to do. Though sometimes this changes as the players get older and the pursuit more stress-fraught. American experience seems to suggest that people are virtually unlimited in their need to give themselves away, on various levels.” (p. 53)

Giving oneself away is probably not quite the same thing as trying to escape oneself, but there’s certainly overlap between the two. The “virtually unlimited” need to give oneself away is apparently a particularly American experience, associated with “troubled times” as well as with “stress-fraught” endeavors.

There are two types of giving oneself away alluded to here: via the pursuit of excellence and via substance abuse. DFW seems to see both of these avenues as endemic in the U.S. Regarding the first, an entertainment cartridge by Mario Incandenza (like his father, Mario was interested in making films) about the daily routines of E.T.A. students includes the following narration:

“Here is how to avoid thinking about any of this by practicing and playing until everything runs on autopilot and talent’s unconscious exercise becomes a way to escape yourself, a long waking dream of pure play.” (p. 173)

Turning oneself into a tennis playing robot is one way to get away from oneself. Viewing films or videos, often referred to as “entertainments,” is another. This viewing is done mostly at home, in private, via “pulses, storage cartridges, digital displays, domestic decor–an entertainment market of sofas and eyes.” (p. 620)  It is “A floating no-space world of personal spectation.” Immersion in this world is a way both of avoiding others and avoiding oneself. One of the book’s plots has to do with an entertainment cartridge so enticing that those who have viewed it will do nothing (even eat) except view it again and again. It is the next-to-the most-radical way of  escaping from oneself.

The ultimate escape from the self, both extreme and permanent, is suicide, referred to paradoxically as “that most self-involved of acts, self-cancelling.” James Incandenza killed himself, as did Eric Clipperton, a junior tennis player. As mentioned in an earlier post, Joelle Van Dyne attempted suicide to escape from her addiction to cocaine. Kate Gompart, another Ennis House resident who, like James I, is clinically depressed, has had three suicide attempts and continues to have suicidal thoughts.

Unless the person actually dies, it’s impossible to completely escape the self. For example, immersing oneself in competitive tennis may be a way of giving oneself away, but, from the perspective of Schtitt, the head coach, this exit will lead right back to what the player is running from:

“The true opponent, the enfolding boundary, is the player himself. Always and only the self out there, on court, to be met, fought, brought to the table to hammer out terms. The competing boy on the net’s other side: he is not the foe; he is more the partner in the dance. He is the what is the word excuse or occasion for meeting the self.” (p. 84)

Similarly, substance abuse only allows temporary escape. Eventually the user has to quit in order to stay alive, at which point the self intrudes more intensely than ever. One thing learned in recovery is that the addict will “find yourself beginning to pray to lose your mind, to be able to wrap your mind in an old newspaper or something and leave it in an alley to shift for itself, without you.” (p. 201) I think the mind here is pretty much the same thing as the self that the user has been trying to evade all along.

To sum up, then, there is a general tendency among Americans–represented in IJ by the residents of E.T.A. and Ennet House–to try to escape the self. DFW seems to be suggesting that this desire to escape is exacerbated in American culture, and that that culture provides a variety of strategies that seem to promise relief from one’s inner self. Ultimately, though none of these strategies deliver on that promise. I think Wallace’s cultural critique is as valid now as when he penned it. Does Wallace offer any hope for accepting oneself rather than being driven to escape from it? As I’ll discuss in a later post, I think he does.

Competitive tennis, a way of escaping oneself. Image from