self


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 http://www.brickjest.com.

Image from forbes.com.

Image from forbes.com.

Who am I? A pretty good indication of my sense of identity can be inferred from the things that I habitually do. In this season of the year, call it Advent, the Christmas Season, the end-of-the-year-holidays, or the Winter solstice, we are prone to return to whatever habits that shortened days, light displays, Christmas trees, and the like evoke in us (some places in the world don’t have strong associations with this season–I’m referring primarily to North America here). For some, the habits that float to the surface involve religious readings and rituals. Many have well-formed inclinations towards connecting with family and friends. Hearty sorts look forward to outdoor activities possible only under frigid conditions. Then there is shopping.

In his 2007 book Consuming Jesus, theologian Paul Louis Metzger suggests that, in twenty-first century North America, philosopher Rene Descartes famous statement “I think therefore I am” is a less apt description of contemporary attitudes than is the sentiment “I shop at Wal-Mart, therefore I am.” We identify most deeply, in other words, as consumers rather than as thinkers. What we have and use is more important to us than what we imagine and believe.

I’ve written before about the things we own being an important aspect of our identities. At the time I was thinking mostly about possessions in a static sense–the things that we’ve already accumulated and that now sit around our houses. What if, as Metzger seems to be suggesting, what most defines our identities is not what we already own but the process by which we acquire more? Then we would be most truly ourselves at Wal-Mart, or pursuing bargains at Target or Macy’s, or making our selections from the cornucopia that is Amazon.

What would it be like if we gave ourselves over entirely to the trend that Metzger identifies? Rather than seeing ourselves as homo sapiens, we would define ourselves as what Metzger, following Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, calls homo consumens. Correspondingly, we would view our worth in terms of our buying power–those who can purchase more are worth more since they both better support the economy and better exercise the ultimate human act of product selection. In this view of ourselves, our ultimate function would not be to worship God, be stewards of creation, gain knowledge, or exercise reason, but go to the store and buy more stuff, either to keep or to give to family and friends.

I want to be defined by worship, stewardship, curiosity, and reason rather than by consumption. At this time of year, though, I am constantly tempted–via catalogues, billboards, advertising circulars, social media, store displays–to define myself instead as a consumer. May I–may we–be given grace to resist the temptation.

Site of the Temples to Roman Gods, Caesarea Philippi.

Site of the Temples of Roman Gods, Caesarea Philippi.

One of the places I visited on my recent trip to Israel was Banias, site of the ancient town Caesarea Philippi, formerly called Paneus and dedicated to the worship of Pan. Philip the Tetrarch built Caesarea Philippi as an administrative center early in the first century and named it after Augustus Caesar, his patron.  In Jesus’ time there were large temples to Pan, Zeus, and Augustus. According to Tim, our guide, the Romans called it the “rock of the gods” but the Jews called it “the gates of hell.” It was here that Jesus asked his disciples who others said that he was, and who they said he was. The city was not near where most of Jesus’ ministry took place, and he probably went out of his way just so that he could ask these questions in a site associated with the gods of the empire. Peter of course replied “Thou art the Christ, the son of the living God”. (Matt. 16:16). The ‘living’ part contrasted to the Romans’ gods of stone.

Jesus went on to say that he would build his church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (v. 18). Presumably he was referring to the “gates of hell” designation that the Jews gave this place. Thus, he was saying that his followers would eventually prevail over the religious system of the empire, to which everyone in that world except a few holdouts in the backwaters of the Levant had given their allegiance. Who would make such an audacious claim?

And yet. Within 300 years Christianity was the religion of Rome. Tradition has it that Christians had come to Caesarea Philippi much earlier that this; there certainly was a flourishing Christian community there by the fourth century A.D.

This wasn’t the only place we visited that was formerly a pagan stronghold but eventually became Christian. There were Christians in Sythopolis, a city of the Decapolis, even before the persecution of believers by the Roman Empire stopped. One early martyr from there was Procopius, later venerated as a saint. The Sythopolian church was important until the conquest of the city by Muslims in 634 A.D. There was also an early church in Caesarea Maritima, a seaport built by Herod the Great that was later the regional Roman capital. According to Acts, Phillip brought Christianity there in the years after Christ’s death, and the Apostle Peter went there to baptize a Roman military officer, Cornelius the Centurion. A few centuries later, Origen, one of the church fathers, founded a school there.

Sythopolis

Sythopolis

I have probably had too much of a top-down view of early church history, giving too much credit to the conversion of the Emperor Constantine for the success of Christianity. Visiting these sites and others made me realize that the cause of Christ wouldn’t have spread without the countless believers who lived out their faith in relative obscurity, in some particular place, like as not some backwater. When, during our final night in Israel, we were all invited to talk about what had most impressed us during the trip, my son Elliot said that he was particularly struck the activity of countless Christians whose names are hidden in history but who made an impact during the first century and beyond. I had been impressed by this as well.

Paul wrote to the church at Colossae “your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” In his book Joyful Exiles, James Houston elaborates on this passage as follows:

“…the apostle urged believers to remember that they had died with Christ, that they must now seek a selfless way of living. This is what ‘hiding’ is all about–denying the world’s ways, making choices that are incomprehensible to anyone seeking self-fulfillment. Indeed, it is refusing to accept Satan’s cosmic suggestion that ‘you will be like God'” (p. 35)

That’s the temptation–to want to be something more than what we are. In our current media-obsessed culture, where branding and self-promotion is ubiquitous, I need to be reminded from time to time that being hidden with Christ is immeasurably more important than satisfying what Martin Luther King Jr. called the Drum Major Instinct. The Christians of Caesarea Philippi, Scythopolis, Caesarea Maritima, and hundreds of other places may be forgotten, but their lives are a reminder to remain content with a life that is anonymous except to a very few, a life whose significance doesn’t lie in who praises me now or who remembers me when I’m gone.

I’ve been writing recently about my recent trip to Israel. My last post had to do with experiences that helped me better understand the divine nature of Jesus. This post will have to do with his humanity.

Jesus was ” truly God and truly man,” said the Council of Chalcedon in response to heresies that denied one or the other of these aspects. The idea that Jesus was fully human didn’t fit with the Gnostic idea that matter is evil. In line with Gnosticism, the Docetists thought that he was pure spirit and his physical body was an illusion. The modern emphasis on spirit and spirituality can easily take on a neo-Gnostic tint, viewing the physical world as unimportant and, by extension, downplaying Christ’s physical nature in preference for his spiritual and divine aspects.

Going to the places where Jesus spent time helped me appreciate both the physical and psychological aspects of Christ’s humanity. We went to Capernaum, the home base for much of his ministry. Ruins of the town’s living quarters have been excavated. The foundations of the houses are nearly all identical, low stone walls demarcating one house from the next, each house essentially a single long room. Looking at the residential area, it occurred to me that Jesus in all likelihood lived in one of these houses. He wasn’t just an ethereal figure who spent his days on the mountaintop and floated into town now and then to dispense some wisdom. He lived right among the townspeople, sleeping and waking, eating and drinking, one of them. And he taught in their synagogues.

Synagogue in Capernaum

Synagogue in Capernaum

Capernaum has the remains of a fourth-century synagogue, probably on the site where the previous synagogue stood when Jesus spoke there. We visited the ruins of first-century synagogues in the nearby towns of Chorazin and Gamla. Since Jesus was essentially an itinerant preacher, going from town to town, he may have spoken in those places. I imagined a Sabbath long ago, the local community of Jews gathered for worship. Jesus and his disciples walked in, and Jesus started to teach (perhaps after reading from Scripture, as in Luke 4). Everyone was amazed. Not infrequently, though, his message evoked resistance, even rage–again, see Luke 4. Of course, he knew exactly what he was doing, slaughtering sacred cows in order to replace them with something more faithful to God.

Synagogue in Gamla

Synagogue in Gamla

I tried to imagine myself walking into a synagogue knowing that what I had to say would evoke a furor, and I immediately felt a visceral resistance. I couldn’t have done what he did! Is that because he was God and I am not? I  think instead it is because he was more truly human than I am. My humanity prompts me to seek approval from others, to fear offending anyone, and to lack confidence in myself, especially when doing something that is difficult or that provokes opposition. In reacting this way, I am living in only a portion of my humanity, the self-protective and cowardly part. I am being inhumane, since a humane response to others would be to have such compassion for them that I would have the courage to tell them what they least want to hear.

In Habitation of Dragons Keith Miller wrote of his temptation during speaking engagements to say only what gains approval: “I unconsciously tone down the unpleasant aspects of that which I am saying and accentuate those things which affirm the group’s existing beliefs and prejudices” (p. 172). He recognized where that led him: “So for that night I became what the Scriptures call a ‘false prophet,’ more interested in material approval than in speaking any creative, freeing truth God had given me” (p. 173). I admit that when it comes to speaking the truth I am more likely to behave like Keith Miller than like Jesus.

Another way of describing the difference between Jesus’ humanity and mine is to say that he is willing to fully be himself, and I’m not. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said that we are all in despair because we want to be a self, but don’t want to be the self we are. Maybe I could walk into a gathering and upset everyone with my message, but only if I was a better me, a me who had all my issues worked out, who was sure of himself. In contrast, Jesus was entirely confident in who he was. In becoming human, he not only took on flesh but was more comfortable in his skin than anyone who has ever lived.

So, in this and other ways (such as his relationship with his disciples and his relationship with God), Jesus showed us how to be human. I hope that I will continue to learn from his example.

On a recent lengthy car trip I decided to get caught up on current pop music trends. I listened to most of the Sirius XM Weekend Countdown and a little of the Billboard Adult Top 40. Yeah, I’m too old for this sort of music. I listen to it because I’m interested in the themes of pop songs–they reveal much about the dreams, fears, and preoccupations a sizable segment of our culture.

As usual, there were plenty of songs about romantic relationships, ranging from lust (Selena Gomez – Hands To Myself) to yearning (Tryon – Somebody To Love Me)  to lovemaking (Zayn Malik – Pillowtalk) to disgust (Selena Gomez – Same Old Love). Justin Bieber apologizes to one mate (Sorry) and walks away from another (Love Yourself). What really interested me, though, was not the relationship songs but the ones that portrayed how the artist perceived him- or herself. Our self-concepts are key to our identity, and culture provides templates for possible selves (my grandchildren can choose to be sullen rebels or competitive achievers, but identities like gentleman of leisure or devotee of the goddess of reason are no longer in the catalogue of potential selves). From this listening, I concluded that contemporary songs contain views of the self ranging all the way from grandiose self-sufficiency to anxious inadequacy.

Grandiose self-sufficiency is represented by  “Me, Myself, and I” By G-Eazy with Bebe Rexha. Here’s the chorus:

Oh, it’s just me, myself and I
Solo ride until I die
‘Cause I got me for life (yeah)
Oh I don’t need a hand to hold
Even when the night is cold
I got that fire in my soul

The video shows G-Eazy at a party surrounded by adoring fans but miserable about his lack of privacy. He raps about what he needs–privacy, space, to be alone–and what he wants:

A Stella Maxwell right beside of me
A Farrari I’m buyin’ three
A closet of Saint Laurent…

He thinks he is a self-made man, a trendsetter who is reaping the fruits of his efforts, “swimming in money, swimming in liquor.” Yet  success has brought too much attention. There’s a segment in the video when he’s divided into three images, two of which are telling the third that he shouldn’t complain: he wanted success and adulation of the masses comes with the territory. Then, near the end, there is this:

Yeah, lonely nights I laid awake
Pray to lord, my soul to take
My heart’s become too cold to break
Know I’m great but I’m broke as hell
Having dreams that I’m folding cake
All my life I’ve been told to wait
But I’ma get it now, yeah it’s no debate.

The grandiose self is shut off from others, “too cold to break.”  In splendid isolation it knows it’s great–I thought here of Satan isolated in Dante’s deepest level of hell–but, paradoxically, at the same time it’s broken (the “broke as hell” here seems to refer not to lack of money but some sort of inner impairment). Some identity-seekers perusing the catalogue of possible selves might find grandiosity appealing. Wittingly or not, G-Eazy shows that such a self-concept won’t make you happy.

An elevated sense of self is also in evidence in Demi Levato’s “Confident,”; in which she sings again and again (ad nauseum):

(Ah ha) What’s wrong with being, what’s wrong with being
What’s wrong with being confident? (Ah ha)

And being confident is pretty much all the song is about. She’s responding to criticism:

(Oh oh, oh) So you say I’m complicated
That I must be outta my mind
But you had me underrated
Rated, rated.

But, like her confidence, the criticism she’s received is amorphous, unlike the comments that Taylor Swift was shaking off a couple years ago. So, should you define yourself via your high level of confidence? Sure, if that confidence reflects particular abilities or knowledge or effort. Otherwise, maybe not.

Another song asserting a strong sense of self (“Take or leave who I am/cause this is me.”) is “Pride” by  American Authors. The self in question is, not surprisingly, defined by a sense of pride:

I ain’t never giving up, I ain’t never ever, I ain’t never ever giving up my pride
I ain’t never letting go, I ain’t never ever, I ain’t never ever gonna sell my soul
I-I-I-I got this feeling
I-I-I got this feeling
I ain’t never giving up, I ain’t never ever, I ain’t never ever giving up my pride.

Why such insistence on holding onto pride? Has the singer done something to be proud of? The lyrics don’t mention anything. Instead, they portray a diminished self, one for whom things aren’t going well:

My home don’t feel the same
Last year flew by; goodbye to the good vibes
What we thought were the best times
Nights out with the people I love
Now I’m lost in the neighborhood

Why has life turned sour? Maybe it’s the booze (“Another drink down the drain/Ten more before I get on the plane”). Maybe it’s rejection by family (“Pushed out of the family tree/Upside down”). Somewhere around the edges there is a suspicion that he’s responsible (“Maybe I’m the one who’s changed or the one to blame,” “wish I was good enough for anyone”). I wonder if holding onto pride of this sort–not justifiable good feelings about one’s accomplishments, but pride in the service of stubborn defiance–is a defense against becoming too aware of our role in our problems. It’s a way of adapting, but not a particularly good one. This sort of self-concept isn’t likely to foster healthy relationships or emotional well-being.

There are other interesting songs that have implications about how to view ourselves–I like Panic at the Disco’s “Victorious,” which seems to be a tongue-in-cheek take on the glories of winning, subtly suggesting that victors aren’t that grand after all. I’m most fascinated with Twenty-One Pilots’ “Stressed Out.” Whereas most song lyrics portray the singer expansively or even heroically, these lyrics are about a diminished self who can’t seem to get anything right:

I wish I found some better sounds no one’s ever heard,
I wish I had a better voice that sang some better words,
I wish I found some chords in an order that is new,
I wish I didn’t have to rhyme every time I sang.

What’s the problem? The singer has left childhood behind but hasn’t yet figured out how to handle what comes next. He’s become even more insecure than he was as a child:

I was told when I get older all my fears would shrink,
But now I’m insecure and I care what people think.

He’s left reminiscing about the joys of childhood play:

We used to play pretend, give each other different names,
We would build a rocket ship and then we’d fly it far away,
Used to dream of outer space but now they’re laughing at our face,
Saying, “Wake up, you need to make money.”

Returning to the womb of parental protection sounds pretty good:

Wish we could turn back time, to the good ol’ days,
When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out.

This is the opposite of G-Eazy’s grandiose self–a self diminished, not expanded, by growing up, a self plagued by insecurities and perceived inadequacies. The video shows the members of the group riding tricycles, suggesting they aren’t even mature enough to drive cars. In the catalogue of available selves, this is not a model that anyone would choose. We are in an age of limited prospects for all but a minority of high-achievers, though, and this is a self that many people will be saddled with.

Kelsey Hamilton, who blogs at Musings of a Mad Woman, recently wrote a post asking why society views bipolar disorder as a joke. As evidence of society’s view of bipolar disorder she alludes to media fascination with such  bipolar casualties as Amy Winehouse. Kelsey also mentions movies such as Silver Linings Playbook that provide a humorous take on characters with mood disorders. Elsewhere, there’s plenty of humor directed at bipolar disorder and other mental health conditions; consider this Pinterest page, for example.

Why is there a fascination with bipolar disorder, depression, OCD, ADHD, and other mental health conditions? There isn’t a similar fascination with physical disorders such as diabetes or arthritis. Kelsey mentions one possible explanation for this preoccupation, namely the suspicion that these conditions aren’t real disorders. Possibly that contributes, but there are probably other factors that also play a role. One such factor might be our fear that bipolar disorder represents something that is wrong (or might go wrong) with us.

We all have doubts about ourselves. Psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Marti Horowitz describes us as having desired self-schemas and feared self-schemas. Our desired self-schemas are who we want to be; our feared self-schemas are who we are afraid we are. Each of us have our own individual fears about who we might be–an incompetent bumbler, a greedy ingrate, an emotional cripple. I suspect that some feared selves are common to all of us because they relate to larger societal messages about what sort of people we are supposed to be. I wonder whether the two most serious forms of mental illness–schizophrenia and bipolar disorder–besides being actual disorders that afflict millions, are manifestations of fears that we are not the selves we ought to be.

Here’s a vast oversimplification: over the past four hundred years, the two most important intellectual developments affecting how we view ourselves were 1) the  Age of Reason beginning with modern science and culminating in the 18th century Enlightenment and 2) Romanticism, a reaction to the Age of Reason emphasizing emotion and nature. Each of these is, as philosopher Charles Taylor described in his dense and detailed book Sources of the Self, highly influential in shaping our identities, filtering down by means of popular culture even to those people who don’t read books and have never heard of the Enlightenment or Romanticism.

So, what sort of self did the Enlightenment encourage? An independent self capable of carefully observing the world as would a scientist. An eminently rational self that reasons dispassionately and is free of bias.

What would be the feared self of someone pursuing the enlightenment ideal? A self characterized by ignorance and superstition, incapable of careful observation. A self unable to think rationally or objectively because it is beset by massive biases.

What would an extreme version of this feared self look like? A person with schizophrenia, whose hallucinations prevent any sort of accurate observation and whose delusions so bias thinking that rational or objective thought is impossible. (Actually, most people with schizophrenia are rational most of the time; I’m speaking here of lay perceptions, not reality.)

The Romantic Self: Looking Deep Within. Portrait of Romantic Poet Adam Mickiewicz by Walenty Wankowicz

The Romantic Self: Looking Deep Within. Portrait of Romantic Poet Adam Mickiewicz by Walenty Wankowicz

And how about Romanticism, what is the desired self according to that system? A self that experiences and expresses strong emotions, and sees deeply into reality as a result. A self that benefits from relying on imagination and intuition. An artistic self that is authentic and true to one’s inner nature.

What would be the feared self of a Romantic? A self in which emotions, rather than being a sure guide to truth, mislead the person. A self whose internal gaze sees chaos and confusion rather than one’s authentic nature. A self in which imagination misfires and intuition misleads..

And what would be an extreme version of this feared self? A person with bipolar disorder, prone to episodes of extreme emotion–mania and depression–that distort rather than reveal the truth about oneself, conjuring up fantasies of grandiosity or nightmares of extreme inadequacy. (Again, this is the popular perception, not the lived everyday experience of most people with bipolar disorder.)

So, this may be what fascinates us about schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Perhaps they represent our feared selves, the flip side of the desired selves that the Enlightenment and Romanticism tell us we should be. I’ve noticed that over the past forty years or so we’ve become progressively less fascinated with schizophrenia and more fascinated with bipolar disorder. Maybe we are less concerned than we used to be with achieving the Enlightenment ideal, but more concerned with being good Romantics. That change may or may not be for the good, but it’s the world in which we find ourselves.

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

Eisenberg and Segel. Image by Jakob Ihre/AP

Eisenberg and Segel. Image by Jakob Ihre/AP

I recently saw “The End of the Tour,”  the movie about Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg) interviewing writer David Foster Wallace (Jason Segal) shortly after Wallace’s landmark novel Infinite Jest was published in 1996. Lipsky travels to Wallace’s modest rented home in Bloomington, Illinois, then accompanies him on a trip to Minneapolis for the last stop of the book tour. The movie is a long conversation between two intelligent men in their 30s, one probing, the other alternately spilling out his thoughts and lamenting the artificiality of their interaction. These seem to be two men struggling with despair, only one of whom realizes the struggle is occurring.

In alluding to despair, I’m thinking of the way that Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard used the term. In his Sickness Unto Death, he describes despair as a condition of the self. Here’s how I recently summarized the ways Kierkegaard thought we despair:

“We can despair in two ways, according to Kierkegaard. First, a person can wish to be rid of  him- or herself, that is, can be unwilling to be oneself, a condition that Kierkegaard calls “the despair of weakness.” Second, the person can despair to be a self, that is, can despair because one desires to be a self that one cannot be, a condition referred to as ‘the despair of defiance.’”

It doesn’t take much effort to see that David Foster Wallace (the Wallace of the film, that is, who might not have resembled the real man) was well acquainted with despair. He tells Lipsky that he is addicted to junk television (we see one TV-watching binge during the movie). Any addiction, TV included, can be considered either an attempt to escape from oneself or an attempt to be a self other than who one is (or both). Of the two possibilities, Wallace seems mainly to have been trying to get away from himself.

Wallace seems quite aware of his propensity towards despair. In 1988, eight years before Lipsky’s interview, he was hospitalized and put on suicide watch. He says to Lipsky (all quotes are my best attempts to transcribe the dialogue from the movie, but I can’t vouchsafe their accuracy), “I was a 28 year old who had exhausted a couple ways of living.” After describing the experience in the hospital, he added, “and when that happens you become unprecedentedly willing to explore some other avenues of how to live.” I haven’t read Infinite Jest, but I understand that it can be considered just such an exploration of ways to live. Wallace isn’t so sure his search has unearthed a workable solution. Looking back to the time he fell apart, He tells Lipsky, “I don’t think we change. I think I still have the same parts of me. I’m trying hard to find a way to just let them live.” He was well aware that despair still lurked within.

Wallace sees contemporary culture as making it particularly difficult for him (or anyone else, for that matter) to be a self capable of wholeness. That culture produced the endless flood of TV shows constantly available to soothe his angst. He foresees a time in which the internet and virtual reality become even more insiduous pathogens capable of infecting and  destroying the self. He says at one point that his writing is about “how easy it is to be seduced off your path because of the way the culture is.” He then mentions what he fears: “What if I become a parody of that?”

Wallace seems to have thought that a genuine connection with another human being would aid him in his struggles. He opens up to Lipsky with that end in mind. That effort proves fruitless, since Lipsky has no intention of being genuine. He would rather present a counterfit self in order to charm Wallace and thereby obtain material for his Rolling Stone article. Wallace at one point says that literary success has made him feel like a whore, but Lipsky is the real whore here, prostituting his humanity in an attempt to gain success.

Lipsky wishes to be a self he can’t be–he wishes to be an acclaimed author like Wallace–but, as portrayed by Eisenberg, anyway, doesn’t have the insight to realize that this striving is a form of despair. As Lipsky prepares to drive away after the interview is completed, Wallace leans into his car window and says, “I’m not so sure you want to be me.” Good words of warning for those times when we start thinking that we will be at peace if only we manage to be someone other than who we are.

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