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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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.