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The Infinite Jest Liveblog: The Pursuit of Happiness/The Clipperton Suite

November 7, 2011

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


November 7, 2011, pgs 418-434/1031-1032.  Back to Marathe and Steeply debating first principles of the pursuit of happiness. Or more accurately, Steeply running through his own point-counterpoint while “Part of Marathe always felt almost a desire to shoot persons who anticipated his responses and inserted words and said they were from Marathe, not letting him speak.” Steeply is banging the drum of Freedom and Individual Liberty, which are so often used as charged political language and partisan identifiers that it’s hard to tell where Steeply really stands. To avoid diving too much into contemporary politics, suffice it to say that it’s tough to read what he’s saying without lumping him in with folks who use the teflon quality of the ideas to defend actions that aren’t exactly consistent with freedom and liberty themselves. Say for example a party of small government — which it appears Steeply would support — believing that government should say who can and cannot choose to marry each other.  At any rate, Steeply (and Wallace) seem like they’re hewing closer to the actual principles in this discussion, which is good because the principles are important. And complex. And deeply relevant to the rest of the book. Not to mention, life.

That’s not to say that Steeply doesn’t over simplify. What he calls the “genius” of “realizing that each American seeking to pursue his maximum good results in maximizing everyone’s good,” is not exactly a that-takes-care-of-that solution to happiness in a crowded, pluralistic nation. Marathe manages to throw it into confusion with a simple thought experiment over two individuals and one  single-serving can of soup. Paradoxes come in Steeply’s own behavior as well. The man who rises to the defense of the individual pursuit of happiness is someone who has sacrificed his personal identity, physical form and, it seems, his marriage, not for an increase in his own individual pleasure but for the good of his country*. He is also working to prohibit the distribution of something that, in most cases, Americans would be free to watch or not watch based on their own individual choice.

Steeply can’t explain why the sanctity of individual freedom inherently leads to communal harmony, or as some coincidentally topical Sunday morning reading of Reinhold Niebuhr’s “The Nature and Destiny of Man: Vol. II” says, “Human experience constantly yields some knowledge of the fact that concern for the other rather than self leads inevitably to consequences which cannot be justified in purely historical and this-worldy terms.” (Niebuhr is a good complement to this thread in IJ.)

Steeply says that people “must be freely enlightened to self,” which is similar to the “benign anarchy” that Gately sees in AA. And his remark that the American educational system works to “teach how to make knowledgable choices about pleasure and delay and the kids overall down-the-road maximal interests” parallels the “teaching you how to think” figuring DFW did in his commencement address.

Then to the conclusion of the Clipperton Saga. There doesn’t seem to be much here than what is obvious: that Clipperton couldn’t stand the success once he got it. It may not be the story itself that is important so much as the fact that this kind of thing seems more or less normal in the ETA/competitive jr. tennis worlds. People are more excited to see Lyle outside of the weight room, and years later the Clipperton Suite is invoked as a sort of humor-laced threat. Let me know in the comments if you see something crucial that I’m missing.

* Speaking of sacrifices and culture, endnote 173 gives you the opportunity to jump ahead and read the history of the AFR. I’m not going to cover it here just yet, but in this liveblog’s commitment to freedom, you may choose to do so.

Read the full Infinite Jest Liveblog

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