One of the things I really like about Infinite Jest is how wonderfully sticky a lot of the ideas in the book are, and this week had a few of my favorite ones.
Day, on the horrors of depression and anxiety
It is easy for most people to imagine and understand why lots of physical things are scary, like spiders or roller coasters or horror movies, but I've always had trouble first understanding and then explaining why depression is scary and what those feelings feel like, which is why I really like how Day describes his experience with horror. When he was a kid, he played the violin in his basement, and the particular vibration from the violin plus the vibrations from a fan caused this large horrible billowing shape to emerge from some backwater of his psyche. Horrified but curious, Day goes back, plays the specific combination of sound again, but this time awakens it and brings it back, now permanently. After that experience, Day lives with the fear of it for the rest of his life and the guilt for bringing it upon himself:
‘Some boy I hardly knew in the room below mine heard me staggering around whimpering at the top of my lungs. He came up and sat up with me until it went away. It took most of the night. We didn’t converse; he didn’t try to comfort me. He spoke very little, just sat up with me. We didn’t become friends. By graduation I’d forgotten his name and major. But on that night he seemed to be the piece of string by which I hung suspended over hell itself.’
‘ I understood the term hell as of that summer day and that night in the sophomore dormitory. I understood what people meant by hell. They did not mean the black sail. They meant the associated feelings.’ ‘Or the corner it came up out of, inside, if they mean a place.’
‘From that day, whether I could articulate it satisfactorily or not,’ Day says, holding the knee of the leg just crossed, ‘I understood on an intuitive level why people killed themselves. If I had to go for any length of time with that feeling I’d surely kill myself.’
Although not really explicitly laid out, I think DFW uses this sail as a metaphor for the type of depression and anxiety that is viscerally painful and scary, and I can Identify, because when I'm very nervous or anxious about something, that's exactly how I feel- like something big and incomprehensible is sailing overhead towards me, but also somehow simultaneously rising out of me. It is a terrible and terrifying feeling that I've been unable to properly describe or find a good metaphor for until Day's.
DeLint, on self transcendence through pain, and the immense danger of being seen
During Hal and Stice's show match, Steeply gets into ETA disguised as Helen and speaks with DeLint about the philosophy of ETA. DeLint explicates the philosophical underpinnings of ETA that Schtitt laid out early on in the book with Mario, specifically focusing on transcendence and attention. Schtitt's original spiel is that tennis, like life, is about destroying the limits of yourself, the very thing that makes the game possible.
‘Get Tavis in the right corner and he’ll tell you about seeing and being seen. These kids, the best of them are here to learn to see. Schtitt’s thing is self-transcendence through pain. These kids—’ gesturing at Stice running madly up for a drop-volley that stopped rolling well inside the service line; mild applause—‘they’re here to get lost in something bigger than them. To have it stay the way it was when they started, the game as something bigger, at first. Then they show talent, start winning, become big fish in their ponds out there in their hometowns, stop being able to get lost inside the game and see. Fucks with a junior’s head, talent. They pay top dollar to come here and go back to being little fish and to get savaged and feel small and see and develop. To forget themselves as objects of attention for a few years and see what they can do when the eyes are off them. They didn’t come here to get read about as some soft-news item or background. Babe.’ (660)
The villain of Schtitt's philosophy that DeLint describes is sight & attention.
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. If they can forget everything but the game when all of you out there outside the fence see only them and want only them and the game’s incidental to you, for you it’s about entertainment and personality, it’s about the statue, but if they can get inculcated right they’ll never be slaves to the statue, they’ll never blow their brains out after winning an event when they win, or dive out a third-story window when they start to stop getting poked at or profiled, when their blossom starts to fade. Whether or not you mean to, babe, you chew them up, it’s what you do.’ (661)
To be good and be able to endure being seen, you must learn to hold onto something greater than yourself and not care about being seen, "to map out some path between needing the success and mockery-making of the success. (681)"
Bain, on sincerity and abuse
DFW gets more and more troll about the footnotes as the book goes on, and now puts full on important plot points in the footnotes. Bain's letters about Orin to Steeply shed a lot of light on the relationship between Orin and Moms, and near the beginning he explains Orin's pathological and kind of disingenuous sincerity.
I am not sure I would stand and point at Orin as an example of a classic pathological liar, but you have only to watch him in certain kinds of action to see that there can be such a thing as sincerity with a motive.
It's short, I know, but I find it particularly salient because I always try to be as sincere and honest as possible, but sometimes I feel like just being sincere is itself a form of insincerity, because, like Orin, it has
this quality of Look-At-Me-Being-So-Totally-Open-And-Sincere-I-Rise-Above-The-Whole-Disingenuous-Posing-Process-Of-Attracting-Someone-,-And-I-Transcend-The-Common-Disingenuity-In-A-Bar-Herd-In-A-Particularly-Hip-And-Witty-Self-Aware-Way-,-And-If-You-Will-Let-Me-Pick-You-Up-I-Will-Not-Only-Keep-Being-This-Wittily,-Transcendently-Open-,-But-Will-Bring-You-Into-This-World-Of-Social-Falsehood-Transcendence, which of course he cannot do because the whole openness-demeanor thing is itself a purposive social falsehood; it is a pose of poselessness.
It's a weird loop that I usually resolve by deciding that being sincere is good anyways. In the same letter, Bani also makes some very astute comments about abuse from your parents.
The word “abuse” is vacuous. Who can define “abuse”? The difficulty with really interesting cases of abuse is that the ambiguity of the abuse becomes part of the abuse.
I am not sure whether you could call this abuse, but when I was (long ago) abroad in the world of dry men, I saw parents, usually upscale and educated and talented and functional and white, patient and loving and supportive and concerned and involved in their children’s lives, profligate with compliments and diplomatic with constructive criticism, loquacious in their pronouncements of unconditional love for and approval of their children, conforming to every last jot/tittle in any conceivable definition of a good parent, I saw parent after unimpeachable parent who raised kids who were (a) emotionally retarded or (b) lethally self-indulgent or (c) chronically depressed or (d) borderline psychotic or (e) consumed with narcissistic self-loathing or (f) neurotically driven/addicted or (g) variously psychosomatically Disabled or (h) some conjunctive permutation of (a)… (g).
Why is this. Why do many parents who seem relentlessly bent on producing children who feel they are good persons deserving of love produce children who grow to feel they are hideous persons not deserving of love who just happen to have lucked into having parents so marvelous that the parents love them even though they are hideous? Is it a sign of abuse if a mother produces a child who believes not that he is innately beautiful and lovable and deserving of magnificent maternal treatment but somehow that he is a hideous unlovable child who has somehow lucked in to having a really magnificent mother? Probably not. But could such a mother then really be all that magnificent, if that’s the child’s view of himself?
I read a book by Mitch Albom that talks about a similar thing many years ago. I can't really remember what the book was about/ what the book even was, but I still clearly remember the metaphor he used to explain the idea. He described all children as mirrors, and says that all parents leave some kind of mark on the mirror.
All parents damage their children. It cannot be helped. Youth, like pristine glass, absorbs the prints of its handlers. Some parents smudge, others crack, a few shatter childhoods completely into jagged little pieces, beyond repair.
Recently, I've been thinking a lot about childhood trauma, and how even the most well-intentioned parents leave marks.
DFW, on depression
I can't do this passage on depression justice by squeezing it into two paragraphs or cherry picking quotes, so instead I'm going to point you to page 692-698, where DFW shares some of the best insights into depression I've ever read.
Most of these insights are accompanied with or shared in Hal's musings on American anhedonia and depression, but remember DFW's classic slow burning revelations! Since the first chapter of the book, set chronologically after everything else in the book so far, the big question looming over every Hal chapter has been: What is wrong with Hal? What terrible thing happened to him that made him crazy, unable to speak, so terrifyingly trapped in his own body? How did dictionary memorizing television theorizing tennis prodigy Hal become screaming wreck Hal? But this chapter is where DFW completely flips that question. The real terrible thing that's happened to Hal is how empty and robotic he feels, how desperately lonely being wearily cynical is, and how much he craves the sentimental gooey parts of him. With that context, the first passage is transformed, and the burning question is no longer what terrible thing happened to Hal, but rather, what wonderful thing happened to Hal, to take him from knowing that he is empty and there is nothing inside to shouting internally "I am in here?"
Some other notable things, in part because of their importance to the plot, in part because they're just crazy:
- The sound engineer of Madame Psychosis gets kidnapped by AFR, which means, slowly and slowly, the four subplots are converging towards a crash
- Stice almost beats Hal in a show match before Whataburger
- That insane story about Orin killing Moms' dog and then Moms forgiving him
- Matty Pemulis's terrible story. Literally no one has a happy story in this book
- "Hal looks just as perfectly dead out there, but he’s more vulnerable in terms of, like, emotionally."
- The vibrating strings in The American Century as Seen Through a Brick, esp w.r.t. Day's story about vibrations from fan and the violin
- Nov 14 YDAU Pemulis gets drugs from his ceiling
Some notable quotes:
- On the repellence of certain types of charity:
For some reason now I am thinking of the sort of philanthropist who seems humanly repellent not in spite of his charity but because of it: on some level you can tell that he views the recipients of his charity not as persons so much as pieces of exercise equipment on which he can develop and demonstrate his own virtue. What’s creepy and repellent is that this sort of philanthropist clearly needs privation and suffering to continue, since it is his own virtue he prizes, instead of the ends to which the virtue is ostensibly directed.
- On getting high and foraging:
This tendency to involuted abstraction is sometimes called “Marijuana Thinking”; and by the way, the so-called “Amotivational Syndrome” consequent to massive Bob Hope–consumption is a misnomer, for it is not that Bob Hope-smokers lose interest in practical functioning, but rather Marijuana-Think themselves into labyrinths of reflexive abstraction that seem to cast doubt on the very possibility of practical functioning, and the mental labor of finding one’s way out consumes all available attention and makes the Bob Hope–smoker look physically torpid and apathetic and amotivated sitting there, when really he is trying to claw his way out of a labyrinth. Note that the overwhelming hunger (the so-called “munchies”) that accompanies cannabis intoxication may be a natural defense mechanism against this kind of loss of practical function, since there is no more practical function anywhere than foraging for food.
- On occurring:
‘You just never quite occurred out there, kid,’