Infinite Jest, Week 5 (317-380)

This week's reading is neatly divided into three parts: more Marathe and Steeply on a hill, Eschaton, and a White Flag Boston AA meeting. 

This part of the Marathe Steeply conversation is so great. It is one of those things you read once and never forget. Marathe claims that the real root of the threat is not from Canada but from the American people themselves, because the samizdat is only dangerous because the American people do not know how to choose and willingly watch a tape that will kill them for pleasure.

Someone taught that temples are for fanatics only and took away the temples and promised there was no need for temples. And now there is no shelter. And no map for finding the shelter of a temple. And you all stumble about in the dark, this confusion of permissions. The without-end pursuit of a happiness of which someone let you forget the old things which made happiness possible.

America is obsessed with freedom, but Marathe makes a key distinction between freedom from and freedom to. The freedom described by Steeply is the freedom from constraints and forced duress, not the freedom for people to freely choose and to be guided to make the correct choice. This conversation reminds me a lot of DFW's commencement speech This is Water, where he argues that the purpose of a liberal arts education is to learn what to focus on, what to care about, and how to choose what is obviously and simply good but difficult to persistently do. We care a lot that we are free to make choices, but who teaches us what the right things to focus on are?

‘Always with you this freedom! For your walled-up country, always to shout “Freedom! Freedom!” as if it were obvious to all people what it wants to mean, this word. But look: it is not so simple as that. Your freedom is the freedom-from: no one tells your precious individual U.S.A. selves what they must do. It is this meaning only, this freedom from constraint and forced duress.’ Marathe over Steeply’s shoulder suddenly could realize why the skies above the coruscating city were themselves erased of stars: it was the fumes from the exhaust’s wastes of the moving autos’ pretty lights that rose and hid stars from the city and made the city Tucson’s lume nacreous in the dome’s blankness of it. ‘But what of the freedom-to? Not just free-from. Not all compulsion comes from without. You pretend you do not see this. What of freedom-to. How for the person to freely choose? How to choose any but a child’s greedy choices if there is no loving-filled father to guide, inform, teach the person how to choose? How is there freedom to choose if one does not learn how to choose?’

Steeply does bring up a good counterpoint though. If we are children that need to be taught how to choose, how do we guarantee that the adults who teach us are good?

Then we get into Eschaton (which appropriately means the end of the world). It's a super DFW chapter, because there are so many elements of his style present. The 5 pages of acronyms, the obscure but weirdly specific story setting (teenagers playing out an end of the world scenario with semi accurate politics where nuclear arsenals are deployed through tennis lobs), and the gruesome detail shared in a weirdly detached way are all hallmarks of his story telling that make his writing so instantly recognizable. 

I'm still not really sure what the point of that chapter was though, besides the greatest description of map versus territory ever:

Players themselves can’t be valid targets. Players aren’t inside the goddamn game. Players are part of the apparatus of the game. They’re part of the map. It’s snowing on the players but not on the territory. They’re part of the map, not the clusterfucking territory. You can only launch against the territory. Not against the map. It’s like the one ground-rule boundary that keeps Eschaton from degenerating into chaos. Eschaton gentlemen is about logic and axiom and mathematical probity and discipline and verity and order. You do not get points for hitting anybody real. Only the gear that maps what’s real. Pemulis keeps looking back over his shoulder to the pavilion and screaming ‘Jaysus!’

The meat of this week's reading though is the AA meeting. In an interview DFW explained that he wrote about AA in IJ because he went to some meetings and he was really struck by their earnestness. There is something especially human about that combination of desperation and disbelief with no other option but to believe, and something especially mysterious about how what seems senseless at one point just starts to work. 

And then the palsied newcomers who totter in desperate and miserable enough to Hang In and keep coming and start feebly to scratch beneath the unlikely insipid surface of the thing, Don Gately’s found, then get united by a second common experience. The shocking discovery that the thing actually does seem to work. Does keep you Substance-free. It’s improbable and shocking.

You ask the scary old guys How AA Works and they smile their chilly smiles and say Just Fine. It just works, is all; end of story. The newcomers who abandon common sense and resolve to Hang In and keep coming and then find their cages all of a sudden open, mysteriously, after a while, share this sense of deep shock and possible trap; about newer Boston AAs with like six months clean you can see this look of glazed suspicion instead of beatific glee, an expression like that of bug-eyed natives confronted suddenly with a Zippo lighter. And so this unites them, nervously, this tentative assemblage of possible glimmers of something like hope, this grudging move toward maybe acknowledging that this unromantic, unhip, clichéd AA thing—so unlikely and unpromising, so much the inverse of what they’d come too much to love—might really be able to keep the lover’s toothy maw at bay.

The process is the neat reverse of what brought you down and In here: 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’d had and then lost, when you Came In.

Most people's lives are not quite so bad as the stories told in that AA meeting, but what you choose is very similar. Your temple is your addiction, what you would die twice over for is your substance, so say whatever you want, just Sit Down, Listen, Share, and Keep Coming.

I also want to mention how lovely the phrase "it was good to hear you" is, especially if you connect it with one of the first things Hal said in the very first chapter of IJ, "I am in here." There's no condescension, no presumption of comprehension, no empathy or sympathy, just a simple, reassuring, "it was good to hear you." I really really like that. 

Some other great parts of that chapter include:

  • On why things get trite:
    How do trite things get to be trite? Why is the truth usually not just un- but anti- interesting? Because every one of the seminal little mini-epiphanies you have in early AA is always polyesterishly banal, Gately admits to residents.
  • On giving and receiving:
    The term’s derived from an epigrammatic description of recovery in Boston AA: ‘You give it up to get it back to give it away.’
  • On the rock bottom of addiction:
    You are, as they say, Finished. You cannot get drunk and you cannot get sober; you cannot get high and you cannot get straight. You are behind bars; you are in a cage and can see only bars in every direction. You are in the kind of a hell of a mess that either ends lives or turns them around. You are at a fork in the road that Boston AA calls your Bottom, though the term is misleading, because everybody here agrees it’s more like someplace very high and unsupported: you’re on the edge of something tall and leaning way out forward….
  • On honesty and sincerity:
    The thing is it has to be the truth to really go over, here. It can’t be a calculated crowd-pleaser, and it has to be the truth unslanted, unfortified. And maximally unironic. An ironist in a Boston AA meeting is a witch in church. Irony-free zone. Same with sly disingenuous manipulative pseudo-sincerity. Sincerity with an ulterior motive is something these tough ravaged people know and fear, all of them trained to remember the coyly sincere, ironic, self-presenting fortifications they’d had to construct in order to carry on Out There, under the ceaseless neon bottle.
  • On the difficulty of being honest:
    Gately’s most marked progress in turning his life around in sobriety, besides the fact that he no longer drives off into the night with other people’s merchandise, is that he tries to be just about as verbally honest as possible at almost all times, now, without too much calculation about how a listener’s going to feel about what he says. This is harder than it sounds.
  • On the dangers of irony:
    So but also know that causal attribution, like irony, is death, speaking-on-Commitments-wise.