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The Infinite Jest Liveblog: Double Binds

October 3, 2011

This is the latest entry in Words, Words, Words the ongoing liveblog of David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest.” 


October 3, 2011, pgs 306-321/1004-1022. David Foster Wallace walks a fine line with a lot of the scholarly academic elements of  “Infinite Jest.” For instance, Hal’s term paper on television heroes and the graduate students talking nonsense at Molly Notkin’s party where Joelle van Dyne tries to off herself. These pages open with Schacht taking a test on pathological double binds. On first reading it’s not particularly funny and only merely interesting to have a 16-year old trying to answer word problems about satisfying the needs of a kleptomaniacal agoraphobic. But a second look makes me think it is necessary for Wallace to push things like scholarship and geopolitics just past the line into farcical. Otherwise, readers might start thinking that they mean something, that a statement is being made. Which at times it might be, but it shouldn’t be the focus. By taking these things out of the realm of what’s worth considering, we can see people and their stories rather than tendentious philosophical allegories. Same with politics, where any kind of proposed scenario is going to make people draw lines between the politics in their own lives and the politics in the story. Wallace has more serious and fundamental political considerations to offer, as we see later, and none of that discourse is aided by being able to tag one group as clearly the Dems or clearly the Republicans (or Labour and Liberal, as it were) in this scenario and decide at the outset that they’re jerks just like in real life.

The issues need to be cut from whole cloth, for example, a Québécois separatist movement of armed wheelchair assassins working to undermine the unified North American polity. Hal is both studying and lecturing on the issues at hand in the main text and in a lengthy endnote (with its own footnotes) phone call with Orin. They are teasing out the motivations for such a strange resistance force and what that all might have to do with a samizdat that “Helen” Steeply is curiously interested in. Then Mario’s birth to an unexpectingly expectant Avril Incandenza. The boy has a long list of medical, developmental, dental and cosmetic challenges to overcome, including the thin hair reminiscent of Charles Tavis, who may or may not be part of the equation. Fortunately Mario also has a “younger and way more externally impressive brother” who “almost idealizes Mario, secretly. God-type issues aside, Mario is a (semi-) walking miracle, Hal believes.”

Then a serious political discussion between a man in drag and a wheelchair assassin. Here we have a debate between competing philosophies of government and culture, pitting freedom and individual liberty, along with the messy consequences of letting people do what they want when they want, against totalitarian control. Steeply obviously favors the liberty and freedom parts, even in spite of the consequences that have been put in front of him with the Entertainment. Marathe sees it as, “A U.S.A. that would die — and let its children die, each one — for the so called perfect Entertainment…Who would die for this chance to be fed this death of pleasure with spoons, in their warm homes, alone, unmoving…can such a U.S.A. hope to survive for a much longer time?” In a brief, brilliant moment of the book, Steeply’s retort begins with silently lighting a cigarette, causing Marathe to wonder, “why the presence of Americans could always make him feel vaguely ashamed after saying things he believed. An aftertaste of shame after revealing passion of any belief and type when with Americans, as if he had made flatulence instead of revealed belief.” (Please recall that all of this was written in the first years of the rise of the ironic, slacker Gen X.)

Steeply’s proposed alternative to Marathe’s vision of the end times is a revulsion at totalitarian dominance of the state. This section is cornerstone-level important to the novel, I feel, as it deals with the whole pursuit of happiness and excess stuff that occupies the drug addicts and the over-achievers that populate the text. It’s also something that Wallace has talked about often in other venues. For instance, this exchange with David Lipsky on 157-8 of “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself” (Lipsky in bold):

Marathe is basically a fascist. You’re talking about a culture that teaches people how to make moral choices, that teeters very easily into a culture…into a totalitarian, authoritarian culture. But a culture that doesn’t, and that prides itself on not — the way sort of ours does, or has recently…I think we’re just beginning to see, that on either side of the continuum there are terrible prices to pay.

You give no answer to this question, then…

I don’t think there’s an answer. You mean, are there laws that should be passed? Or is there public education we can do […]

So no answer: either that kind of freedom or that kind of guidance.

I think it’s — I mean I think the whole thing is an enormous game of Little Red Riding Hood, and you’re trying to find out what’s just right. And you, you know — what is it? — you can’t find the middle till you hit both walls? You know? The thing that really scares me about this country — and again, I’d want you to stress, I’m a private citizen, I am not a pundit. Is I think we’re really setting ourselves up for repression and fascism. I think our hunger, our hunger to have somebody else tell us what to do — or for some sort of certainty, or something to steer by — is getting so bad, um, that I think it’s, there’s even a, Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom”, I mean, makes a similar argument economically. But I think, you know, with Pat Buchanan, in Rush Limbaugh, there are rumbles on the Western horizon, you know. And that it’s going to be, that the next few decades are going to be really scary. Particularly if things get economically shaky, and people for instance — people who’ve never been hungry before, might be hungry or might be cold.

Marathe talks about the loss of temples and the “confusion of permissions.” Steeply compares Quebec to the Nazis. Both are right and both are wrong and, as a result, both are relevant to the book and to how the book relates to our own lives.

At the end neither of them knows how they’re going to get down off the mountain.

Read the full Infinite Jest Liveblog.

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