Infinite Jest, Week 11 (774-845)

In this week’s reading Marathe and Kate meet at a bar, and it’s possibly the greatest crossover episode ever and definitely the best bar conversation to happen in any book ever. Marathe, while struggling between the choice of defending his country or betraying his friends for his wife, sees Kate Gompert in a bar, who looks awfully like his wife, and decides to get drunk and tell Kate about how he met his wife.

‘Katherine, I am, in English, moribund. I have no legs, no Swiss honor, no leaders who will fight the truth. I am not alive, Katherine. I roll from skiing lodge to tavern, frequently drinking, alone, wishing for my death, locked inside my pain in the heart. I wish for my death but have not the courage to make actions to cause death.

The more pain in my self, the more I am inside the self and cannot will my death, I think. I feel I am chained in a cage of the self, from the pain. Unable to care or choose anything outside it. Unable to see anything or feel anything outside my pain.’

Rolling around the countryside, legless, chained in himself, Marathe wishes for his death until he meets his wife and without thinking saves her life.

It was this frozen with the terror woman, she saved my life. For this saved my life. This moment broke my moribund chains, Katherine. In one instant and without thought I was allowed to choose something as more important than my thinking of my life. Her, she allowed this will without thinking. She with one blow broke the chains of the cage of pain at my half a body and nation. When I had crawled back to my fauteuil and placed my tipped fauteuil aright and I was again seated I realized the pain of inside no longer pained me. I became, then, adult. I was permitted leaving the pain of my own loss and pain at the top of Switzerland’s Mont Papineau.’

Kate misinterprets Marathe’s story as a feel good story where Marathe and his wife fall blindingly in love despite her skulllessness and Marathe’s leglessness, but Kate is wrong— Marathe’s story is about love, sacrifice, and the chains you choose.

‘I had to face: I had chosen. My choice, this was love. I had chosen I think the way out of the chains of the cage. I needed this woman. Without her to choose over myself, there was only pain and not choosing, rolling drunkenly and making fantasies of death.’

‘This is what is hard to tell. To ask any person to see. It is no choice. It is not choosing Gertraude over the A.F.R., my companions. Over the causes. Choosing Gertraude to love as my wife was necessary for the others, these other choices. Without the choice of her life there are no other choices. I tried leaving at the commencement. I got only very few revolutions of the fauteuil.’ ‘Sounds more like a gun to your head than a choice. If you can’t choose the other way, there’s no choice.’ ‘No, but this choice, Katherine: I made it. It chains me, but the chains are of my choice. The other chains: no. The others were the chains of not choosing.’

‘You think there is no love without the pleasure, the no-choice compelling of passion. My opinions are only that the love you of this country speak of yields none of the pleasure you seek in love. This whole idea of the pleasure and good feelings being what to choose. To give yourself away to. That all choice for you leads there—this pleasure of not choosing.’

I can Identify, because all my life I have believed that the best things require sacrifice, and the only way to consistently achieve good things is through giving up short term hedonistic pleasure in exchange for long term, “purer” happiness. Like Marathe, I believed that there are always chains, but at least with the pain of choosing something bigger than yourself and your short sighted enjoyment there is still a choice. DFW shares really similar ideas in his commencement speech This is Water:

I submit that this is what the real, no-bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.

I don’t think he has it completely right though. Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about my choices and my priorities, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not enough to just reject pleasure, because there are plenty of other temples to give yourself away to besides pleasure that are just as painful and self destructive. Just look at Marathe: he loses his brothers and both his legs in an obscure Quebecois ritual, he is part of a fringe group of Quebecois assassins, and he loves a woman who he chose to save without thinking and has no skull— fucking fluids leak out of her facial cavities. Consistently struggling against the default mode is hard, but it’s not the only part of the challenge— the real challenge is figuring out what’s worth sacrificing for and giving yourself away to. I have always been goal oriented and high achieving at the sake of my present pleasure, and it’s paid off in a lot of different ways, but was it worth it? I chose the chains of discipline and accomplishment rather than give into pleasure without thinking, but is that really any better?

The other really important part of this week’s reading is the continuation of Mario and Hal’s conversation when Hal tells Mario that he is addicted to marijuana. These few pages are a small part of this week’s reading and a tiny part of the book, but they are an incredibly important part of IJ because after describing 800 pages of misery and suffering DFW finally directly lays out a solution. Hal asks Mario for help:

Hal: ‘Tell me what I should do.’
Mario: ‘I think you just did it. What you should do. I think you just did.’
Hal: ‘…’
Mario: ‘Do you see what I mean?’

Trite as it sounds, the antidote to loneliness is to be honest and to be earnest, and Mario & Gately (maybe Joelle?) are the only two characters in IJ who get it.

Some other interesting parts:

  • Pemulis gets three very long footnotes: one where he talks to Hal about addiction while teaching him math, one where he discusses math and reliability with Possalthwaite, and a final one where Wayne accidentally drugs himself with Pemulis’s stash, Pemulis gets busted, and he gets expelled. All of this happens in footnotes, which is incredibly troll.

  • HAL shows up at ENNET house… incredible…

  • Joelle’s real name is Lucille Duquette and apparently she really is disfigured? (although who knows, Molly’s technical interview begins with the claim that she says a lot about stuff she knows and stuff she doesn’t know)

  • Tiny Ewell’s third grade story, and Don Gately’s beautifully tender response:

    • Gately wanted to tell Tiny Ewell that he could totally fucking I.D. with Ewell’s feelings, and that if he, Tiny, could just hang in and tote that bale and put one little well-shined shoe in front of the other everything would end up all right, that the God of Ewell’s Understanding would find some way for Ewell to make things right, and then he could let the despicable feelings go instead of keeping them down with Dewars, but Gately couldn’t connect the impulse to speak with actual speech, still. He settled for trying to reach his left hand across and pat Ewell’s hand on the railing.

  • We finally get to hear from Himself, albeit in wraith form with an incredibly fucked up Gately at the hospital. Combined with Joelle’s perspective on Himself, this chapter paints a picture of a very pained and lonely man that just wants to communicate with his art to help break out his son. He sees his son withdrawing into himself, and tries to help by creating something so entertaining it can’t possibly be taken ironically, which is funny, because that’s probably at least in part what DFW wanted to do with IJ.

    • Just imagine the horror of spending your whole itinerant lonely Southwest and West Coast boyhood trying unsuccessfully to convince your father that you even existed, to do something well enough to be heard and seen but not so well that you became just a screen for his own (the Dad’s) projections of his own failure and self-loathing, failing ever to be really seen, gesturing wildly through the distilled haze, so that in adulthood you still carried the moist flabby weight of your failure ever to make him hear you really speak, carried it on through the animate years on your increasingly slumped shoulders—only to find, near the end, that your very own child had himself become blank, inbent, silent, frightening, mute. I.e. that his son had become what he (the wraith) had feared as a child he (the wraith) was.

    • The wraith feels along his long jaw and says he spent the whole sober last ninety days of his animate life working tirelessly to contrive a medium via which he and the muted son could simply converse. To concoct something the gifted boy couldn’t simply master and move on from to a new plateau. Something the boy would love enough to induce him to open his mouth and come out—even if it was only to ask for more.