This is the latest entry in Words, Words, Words the ongoing liveblog of David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest.”
October 24, 2011, pgs 343-379/1025-1028. This is one of those sections that makes you think someone could pull a Jefferson Bible on IJ and, by removing all the tennis and Incandenza and deadly entertainment stuff, end up with a quiet, sad, hilarious novel that would be among the best AA stories ever written. If it wasn’t already taken, a good title might be “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”
The previous chapter was all about fighting; this one is all about surrender. And it’s easily one of the most religious things I’ve ever read. The Don Gately-POV is outlining a conversion experience, complete with capital-M Miracles, and the maintenance of life under a Higher Power. I don’t have any William James to back that up, just some limited experience of interpreting faith in the face of serious skepticism. Wallace is tricky on faith; he was a churchgoer, though for all I know that may be entirely related to AA meetings. According the this story (NYT paywalled, sorry), “Back in Illinois, he began to attend Sunday services at various churches around town — there is something about religious faith, which was missing from his rearing by two atheists, that entices and calms him — and he formed his closest social relationship with an older, married couple, Doug and Erin Poag. They met at a Mennonite house of worship.” Then this from a Details profile: “Brought up an atheist, he has twice failed to pass through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, the first step toward becoming a Catholic. The last time, he made the mistake of referring to ‘the cult of personality surrounding Jesus.’ That didn’t go over big with the priest, who correctly suspected Wallace might have a bit too much skepticism to make a fully obedient Catholic.” Gately’s experience with the program sounds, to me, almost exactly how religion should be: humbling, confusing, questioning, supportive, inclusive (i.e. “They can’t kick you out.”) and just in general content with giving people what they need to be normal and functional. “Only in Boston AA can you hear a fifty-year-old immigrant wax lyrical about his first solid bowel movement in adult life.” I would like for church to be like that too.
Again, the pithy phrases that seem banal at first but unfold into profound truths resemble the Jesus Prayer, or Zen koans that bring on enlightenment by breaking your mind out of things it thinks it knows. “Part of finally getting comfortable in Boston AA is just finally running out of steam in terms of trying to figure stuff like this out. Because it literally makes no sense.”After all that, let me be clear that I don’t think this is Wallace’s subtle effort at evangelism. This section is firmly about addiction recovery, it’s just that Wallace’s treatment of treatment reflects other experiences rather well.
A couple of other things: Wallace acknowledges the strangeness of being addicted in the Gompert/Erdeddy way to marijuana, indicating that there’s something more to the condition than meets the eye. He brings out some of the recurring imagery that links the various struggles in the book, like smiley face masks, faces in the floor, The Ecstasy of St. Teresa and the cage. Joelle van Dyne is now at Ennet House, and says something about the origins of Found Drama and anticonfluentialism that appears to be contradicted by Owen in the extended endnote 145. And we learn the logistics of the Statue of Liberty’s new role as advertisement in subsidized time.
Then Wallace runs us through some troubling and grotesque Hitting Bottom stories, making another important AA (and as I see it, religious) point that external attribution for your addiction (sins) is a non-starter. Even such a hideous back story as the one shared by the woman whose downward spiral she attributes to domestic dysfunction is met with little sympathy. She is part of a “splinter 12-Step Fellowship, an Adult-Child-type thing called Wounded, Hurting, Inadequately Nurtured but Ever-Recovering Survivors.” WHINERS, for short. It’s right around here that Wallace refers to AA as an “Irony-free zone,” which I suspect is part of why it appealed to Wallace as a setting, and also why it bugs me to hear people either credit or dismiss Wallace as a spokesperson for an ironic, disaffected generation. As if he wrote 1,000 pages because he was so interested in undermining the institution of 1,000-page books. He is a deeply earnest writer who is more trying to speak to his generation than as his generation. If you really want to hear about it, his hostility to irony is on full display in the essay “E UNIBUS PLURAM: Television and U.S. Fiction,” from “Supposedly Fun Thing,” where he writes about the then-current ironic-phase of culture as tyrannical, empty and weak fuel for American fiction. We have already talked about Wallace’s feelings that affected meaninglessness is ultimately hazardous for large groups of people who will yearn to believe something and will eventually be susceptible to all kinds of nonsense (see: politics 20 years after the essay was written). The essay also quotes an interesting line from Lewis Hyde, who wrote that “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.” Emphasis mine, in case that didn’t sound familiar enough after reading this section of IJ.
IJ is by all indicators an argument against an ironic generation, not a champion of it. That’s why it spends so much time in a place where irony is shunned and tough, sincere truths are valued. So that we can get to a point, as Gately has at the end of this section, where “When she concludes by asking them to pray for her it almost doesn’t sound corny.”