wholeness


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 brickjest.com

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.

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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 http://www.brickjest.com.

I recently read Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance. The hillbillies referenced in the title are white, working class Americans of Scots-Irish descent whose ancestors settled in Appalachia. Though raised in Appalachian culture, Vance didn’t grow up in Appalachia proper; a few decades before he was born his grandparents had migrated from Jackson, Kentucky to Middletown, Ohio, attracted by the good-paying jobs at the steel plant there.

As with many other rust belt cities, the Middletown factory has been in decline for decades. The conventional explanation for the crisis among poor working class whites is economic: there aren’t enough good-paying jobs available. Vance, however, thinks that “this story of economic insecurity is, at best, incomplete.” (p. 13; all page numbers are from the large-print edition) He draws on the example of a summer job he had at a tile distribution center in Middleville. Though the work was stable and the pay was decent, the managers couldn’t find minimally reliable workers to fill open positions. Why the lack of decent workers in an economically depressed community? Vance wrote his book in order to explore “what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.” (p. 16)

In what follows, I’m not going to summarize Vance’s memoir; for those looking for such a summary, consider reading the review in the Washington Post. I’m more interested in exploring one aspect of the crisis, namely the difficulty those from working class Appalachia seem to have in finding a suitable master narrative.

The term ‘master narrative’ comes from narrative psychology (which is described well in this article), a branch of psychology which holds that our identities consist largely of the life stories we construct. Master narratives are like blueprints or templates we follow in constructing our life stories (and thus, in constructing our lives). Cultures typically provide one or more master narratives that a young member of that culture can use to structure her self-concept and guide her choices. In my case, I followed the master narrative that I had seen demonstrated by my father and grandfather: diligent at school, then a hard worker; family oriented; my meaning and purpose found in the Christian faith. Though the broad strokes of our enacted narratives were similar, there were differences in the details: unlike them, my story didn’t include service to my country as a citizen-soldier but did include a commitment to the intellect and life of the mind that wasn’t important to them. Neither they nor I authored the template we used for thinking about ourselves or living our lives; all the elements were drawn from our cultural setting.

So how have the working class poor lost a master narrative? Vance’s story includes numerous ways in which the master narrative that once held sway lost its relevance. For example, he tells of his grandmother (“Memaw”) and her brothers reacting violently towards anyone who threatened family possessions or honor–Memaw at twelve shooting a man who stole the family’s cow, for example, or Uncle Teabury making a man who insulted his sister eat her underpants. Vance reflects, “…these were classic good and evil stories, and my people were on the right side. My people were extreme, but extreme in the service of something–defending a sister’s honor or ensuring that a criminal paid for his crimes.” (p. 30) Defending personal and family honor was a component of their master narrative.

But what happens when you work in a factory and are expected to let minor slights to your honor go by rather than disrupt the workplace? Even worse, what happens if what threatens your honor is not some jerk talking about your sister but elites who look at you with contempt or corporations that cut your pay to the point that your family needs to rely on food stamps? You lose the ability to defend your honor and that aspect of the master narrative is no longer available to you.

Here’s another example. Vance’s grandparents both believed fervently in hard work and personal responsibility. Papaw labored at the steel plant every day, proud that he earned much more than did the relatives back in Kentucky. Mamaw told J.D. “Never be like those f*cking losers who think the deck is stacked against them. You can be anything you want to.” (p. 56,7)

But what happens if you grow up and the steel mill has stopped hiring? And you’re told that you should go to college, but no one in your family ever has and you have no idea of how to get there? Then, you’re likely to lose hard work and personal responsibility as part of the master narrative; you may give lip service to them, but you no longer live according to them.

Besides losing elements of their master narrative pertaining to honor, responsibility, and the value of hard work, the working class whites described by Vance have lost their master narrative regarding who or what they adulate or worship. Vance notes that “As a culture, we had no heroes.” p. 273) This is significant, for heroes are exemplars–people whose lives are worth imitating. Those without heroes are likely to drift through life with little sense of direction.

Regarding worship, Vance makes this striking assertion:

“Mamaw always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew.” p. 275

I suspect this is an overstatement. A good portion of Appalachia is in the Bible Belt, and even casual Bible readers learn that the God of the Bible forbids his followers from worshiping anything besides him. Thus, at least the more devout in the culture would be motivated to avoid the idolatry of in elevating the nation to the point where it is a source of ultimate meaning. Even so, Vance has identified a real problem here: the master narrative of national pride has been lost. He notes that ” much of my family’s, my neighborhood’s, and my community’s identity derives from our love of country.” (p. 234) The country that they so loved let them down:

“Nothing united us with the core fabric of American society. We felt trapped in two seemingly unwinnable wars, in which a disproportionate share of the fighters came from our neighborhood, and in an economy that failed to deliver the most basic promise of the American Dream–a steady wage.” (p.. 273,4)

The master narrative associated with love of nation and with the American Dream no longer seems viable, and no other story has come along to take its place. Vance’s book has been seen by many as providing insight into the Trump voter. If this is so, perhaps it would be fair to see the Trump voter as someone desperate to reclaim a master narrative by which to live his or her life. Success at this project won’t be accomplished by deporting immigrants, repealing Obamacare, or enacting protectionist legislation. Ultimately it’s about restoring honor and making it possible for those who were disillusioned to have heroes again. It’s about lower class working whites being able to stitch together lives they are proud of.

I recently began a series of posts reflecting on David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. As I noted in the first post, I’m particularly interested in Wallace’s perspective on the difficulty modern-day Americans have in living meaningful and genuine lives. The first post looked at the tendency of many of IJ‘s characters to be driven by powerful desires that can’t be adequately satisfied. This post is about another feature common to many of the characters, namely that they live inauthentic lives. One of the few characters who is open and authentic, Mario Incandenza, notices how difficult it is for others at the Enfield Tennis Academy (one of the two main settings in the novel) to be real with each other:

“The older Mario gets, the more confused he gets about the fact that everyone at E.T.A. over the age of about Kent Blott finds stuff that’s really real uncomfortable and they get embarrassed. It’s like there’s some rule that real stuff can only get mentioned if everybody rolls their eyes or laughs in a way that isn’t happy.” (p. 592)

Mario, who is developmentally disabled, disfigured, and quite unsophisticated, experiences life richly. His honesty and straightforwardness contrasts dramatically with his brothers. [I should note that some of what I write here could be a spoiler for those who are reading IJ and prefer not to know what happens.] Orin, the oldest, devotes most of his efforts to seducing women. He has developed a wide variety of facades that he thinks the “Subject” of his efforts will find convincing. He’s successful at getting women into bed, but, since he hasn’t been honest or vulnerable with them, there’s no prospect of intimacy. Thus, the aftereffects are disappointing at best:

“Rarely a feeling of outright unalloyed sadness as such, afterward–just an abrupt loss of hope. Plus there is the contempt he belies so well with gentleness and caring during the post-coital period of small sounds and adjustments.” p. 596

Mario’s younger brother, Hal, one of E.T.A.’s top tennis players, is highly intelligent and is literally a walking encyclopedia, having read and memorized the Oxford English Dictionary. Yet his inner self is impoverished:

“Hal himself hasn’t had a bona fide intensity-of-interior-life-type emotion since he was tiny; he finds terms like joie and value to be like so many variables in rarified equations, and he can manipulate them well enough to satisfy everyone but himself that he’s in there, inside his own hull, as a human being–but in fact he’s far more robotic than John Wayne [a tennis player who is mechanically efficient]…. [I]nside Hal there’s pretty much nothing at all, he knows.” (p. 694)

Hal has progressively more difficulty functioning as the novel progresses, to the point that, when he attempts to speak in what is chronologically the last scene (but is placed at the beginning of the novel), all that others can hear are shrieks. What has happened to him? The DFW Wiki reports readers have theorized that Hal is suffering the delayed effects of mold he ate as a child or had a hallucinogenic drug put on his toothbrush. I’m inclined to a more psychological interpretation: Hal is a hollow shell, someone who has avoided having an interior life for so long that has lost touch with himself. His humanity is attenuated, and his speech is correspondingly compromised.

Gately and the Wraith. From http://www.brickjest.com, a site that retells Infinite Jest in Legos.

Don Gately, a staff member at drug rehab facility Ennet House, is visited by a “wraith” who is apparently the ghost of James Incandenza, Hal’s father. The wraith describes actors in TV shows like Cheers who fill out the bar’s crowd. These characters, called “figurants,” sit at tables with each other, their lips moving but “always having utterly silent conversations.” Only the stars could speak audibly. The wraith laments that he, “when alive in the world of animate men, had seen his own personal youngest offspring, a son, the one most like him, the one most marvelous and frightening to him, becoming a figurant, toward the end.” (p. 837)  So years earlier, when he was alive, James Incandenza had already seen Hal, his youngest child, as a peripheral figure, appearing to interact like other humans but really a figurant, someone without a voice. It’s no surprise that Hal’s lack of an authentic voice eventually became evident to those around him.

Over at Ennet House, there is a corresponding lack of authenticity. Residents enter claiming that they will do whatever it takes to get better, but usually act contrary to this professed goal, all the while denying the inconsistency. For example, here’s new resident Geoffrey Day:

“Day is scanning the room for somebody else to engage and piss off so he can prove to himself he doesn’t fit in there and stay separated off isolated inside himself and maybe get them so pissed off there’s a beef and he gets bounced out, Day, and it won’t be his fault. You can almost hear his Disease chewing away inside his head, feeding.” (p. 275)

Residents regularly lie to one another or to staff. They also are quick to make excuses. They often see themselves as victims, blaming others for their substance use and terrible life choices rather than taking responsibility. In contrast, authenticity requires radical honesty, as with a speaker at one of the AA meetings who tells her story of  freebasing cocaine throughout her pregnancy, having a stillborn infant, then denying the child was dead and carrying around the rotting corpse as if it were a living baby:

“When she concludes by asking them to pray for her it almost doesn’t sound corny. Gately tries not to think. Here is no Cause or Excuse. It is simply what happened. This final speaker is truly new, ready: all defenses have been burned away.”  (p. 378)

Persons attaining such total honesty have achieved authenticity. This is where healing can start. But so few of the characters either at Ennet House or E.T.A. reach this place of vulnerability and openness, and thus they remain captive to their desires. They, like Hal, are figurants, people hollowed out by their persistent avoidance of their true natures. Their mouths may move, but nothing real comes out.

I recently finished reading Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace’s mammoth novel about the near future. It took me nearly four months, and would have taken longer if I had not had extra time on my hands as I recovered from surgery. Reading the middle third of the book was like wandering through a wilderness; I kept going out of sheer determination, but it seemed like I was getting nowhere. There’s some satisfaction at having persevered to the end, but mainly there’s relief.

One of the reasons I initially decided to read the book was that I had seen the DFW interview movie The End of the Tour (2015) when it was first released, and that movie (which I discussed here) had made me curious about DFW’s analysis of the struggles those of us living in modern (or postmodern) USA have with living meaningful and genuine lives. As I read IJ, I paid attention to anything that shed light on this issue. There is of course much more to the novel than this, and I don’t want to suggest that DFW wrote primarily to offer advice about how to live with American entertainment, excess, and irony. I do want to focus on that issue in giving my thoughts about the book, though.

Just a couple of caveats before I begin. I have no particular expertise at literary analysis and only limited knowledge of DFW’s life and works, so readers are likely to find more astute information about IJ elsewhere. I’m merely sharing some of the thoughts the novel prompted in me. Also, I haven’t taken especial care to avoid spoilers, so if you’re reading IJ and don’t want to know what happens, it may be best to wait until you’re ready for such information before you read what I have to say.

To start, then, this post will focus on one feature that stood out as I read, namely that IJ portrays a world in which human desire is prevalent and problematic. Pretty much everyone is pursuing something they yearn for, usually something they hope will make them whole, or at least better. These desires aren’t a sufficient guide for life, though. In fact, they are likely to make life worse. In one of the two main settings for the novel, the Enfield Tennis Academy, the pre-adolescent and adolescent students all begin with a desire to make “The Show,” the professional tennis circuit. Not reaching this goal is problematic, but achieving it is even more fraught with danger:

“It’s possible that the only jr. tennis players who can win their way to the top and stay there without going bats are the ones who are already bats, or else who seem to be just grim machines….” (p. 437-8)

Thus Schtitt, the head coach of the academy, is as interested in helping his charges avoid the perils of success as he is in helping them succeed. As one of the staff explains,

“The point here for the best kids is to inculcate their sense that it’s never about being seen. It’s never. If they can get that inculcated, the Show won’t fuck them up, Schtitt thinks.” (p. 680)

In the other main setting, Ennet House–a halfway house for recovering drug addicts–the residents had desired what they thought drugs could provide, be that pleasure or escape or peace, but eventually they were always disappointed. More than this, they became trapped. For example, one of the residents, Joelle van Dyne, attempted to kill herself by overdose just because she had been imprisoned by her addiction. Here’s where she found herself:

“It is the cage that has entered her somehow. The ingenuity of the whole thing is beyond her. The Fun has long since dropped off the Too Much. She’s lost the ability to lie to herself about being able to quit, or even about enjoying it, still. It no longer delimits and fills the hole. It no longer delimits the hole.” (p. 222)

Desire is dangerous; it’s likely to become our master. DFW sounds almost as pessimistic as philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer here, sharing with him the idea that what motivates human beings is primitive, illogical desires that can never be satisfied. Many of the characters in the book are caged in some way; typically this is the result of having pursued desires that seemed to offer bliss but end up causing harm.

Schopenhauer thought all we could do to mitigate the force of desire was to lead very constricted lives; fortunately, Wallace is more hopeful. I’ll discuss where he finds hope in a later post; let me close here by noting that for him at least one path to release could be found in addiction recovery organizations such as AA or NA. That this approach works is a surprise even for those in recovery. At one point, Don Gately, a staff member at Ennet House, reflects:

“Substances start out being so magically great, so much the interior jigsaw’s missing piece, that at the start you just know, deep in your gut, that they’ll never let you down; you just know it. But they do. And then this goofy, slapdash anarchic system of low-rent gatherings and corny slogans and saccharin grins and hideous coffee is so lame you just know there’s no way it could ever possibly work except for the utterest morons…and then Gately seems to find out AA turns out to be the very loyal friend he thought he’s had and then lost, when you Came In.”  (p. 350)

We all could use a little help; the trick is to figure out what will genuinely provide assistance and what promises to do so but ends up harming us instead.

 

Paul Peterson, a co-leader on the trip to Israel that I’ve been blogging about recently, talked about his father’s reaction upon returning from Israel several years ago. “I get it,” he told Paul. “Old stones. Lots of really old stones.”

What’s impressive, of course, isn’t the stones themselves but how they got to where they are. Thousands of years ago somebody stacked them atop one another to make walls, houses, temples, and the like. I’ve been reflecting on all those ruins. What lessons do they have for us?

I’ve seen “old stones” before this trip–at the acropolis in Athens, the forum in Rome, and the excavations in Ephesus, to name three places that come to mind. The Levant contains ruins that are much older than those sites, though. Jericho is one of the oldest cities in the world, first settled about 11,000 years ago. When we went there we didn’t visit the site of the ancient settlements, but we did see very old ruins in other locations. For example, at Tel Arad there are ruins of a Bronze Age Canaanite city that is about 5,000 years old. The site was abandoned for about 1,500 years before the Israelites settled nearby in the 11th century B.C.

Canaanite ruins, Tel Arad

Canaanite ruins, Tel Arad

This pattern of successive settlements at the same site made an impression on me. We saw numerous tels–hills consisting of layer upon layer of settlement, each abandoned, then built upon by the next occupants. At the first site we visited, Tel Gezer, we sat near the city gates in the 13th level; 12 more settlements had been built atop those ruins. This level is thought to have been the city built by Solomon mentioned in I Kings 9, so it dated to about the 10th century B.C. There are more levels beneath this one; no one knows how many.

At the city gate, Tel Gezer

At the city gate, Tel Gezer

Tels confound our simplistic historical schemes that divide all of human existence into just a few categories such as ancient, medieval, and modern. Even if we look at single tel, it’s quickly apparent that many different people groups once lived there and these residents were often separated from each other in time and probably in customs as much as we are separated from figures like Julius Caesar or Clovis. That way of looking at human existence challenges our tendency to privilege living in the present, in modern times. We moderns are just putting down one layer. With the passage of enough time, if anyone remembers the USA they will probably be hard-pressed to say how it differed from the Holy Roman Empire or the Hapsburg monarchy. That’s humbling.

For the most part, the ruins we saw were walled cities or fortresses. They were probably constructed out of stone because its sturdiness provided advantages when a neighboring king decided to invade. We learned something about what made for good fortifications. For example, the city gate was the most vulnerable point so a double wall was often built there, with a chamber between the walls to hold soldiers ready to fight anyone who breached the outer gate. Of course, even the most sturdy defenses could be surmounted. At Tel Lachish and again at Masada we saw massive siege ramps built by attacking armies (the Assyrians and Romans, respectively). At both sites the attackers were ultimately successful.

Looking up the siege ramp towards Masada

Looking up the siege ramp towards Masada

Ancient Canaanites and Jews lived in a world much different from ours, but we can understand their impulse to protect themselves. Though we no longer literally wall in our cities, modern nations use munitions, firewalls, and border fences to protect against threats. On an individual level, we lock our doors and turn on our security alarms; some of us have guns to defend ourselves. We accumulate savings to protect our retirement, buy insurance to protect against loss, and limit our openness with others to protect our emotions.

City walls were for the most part a good thing, as are our modern forms of protection. Once we have such fortifications, though, we are tempted to rely entirely on them. Jeremiah prophesied to the people of Judea:

“Cursed is the one who trusts in man,
who draws strength from mere flesh” (Jer. 17:5).

A couple verses later, he draws this contrast:

“But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
whose confidence is in him” (v. 7).

Trust God. Do lock your door at night, though. None of the Old Testament prophets advised God’s people to dismantle the walls around their cities so that they would have to rely on God alone. There are a couple New Testament passages in which Jesus told his followers to dispense with ordinary precautions (e.g. Luke 10:4), but these instructions don’t seem to have been intended for everyone.

How do we insure that we depend primarily on God rather than turning to other sources of security? Jesus told stories about birds and flowers to help us with this (see Matthew 6:25ff). Birds and flowers don’t erect walls, but they’re doing fine. All the fortifications I saw on the trip are a good reminder that I, too, am prone to rely too much on my defenses. It’s important to remember that God is my source of security and only by trusting in him can I live in freedom, not in fear.

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