Will without Thinking

[Cross-posted to Infinite Test.]

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If the Enfield Tennis Academy promises “self-forgetting through pain”, it’s not as though that’s the only means to self-dissolution. Thinking about Jim Incandenza’s films, Joelle van Dyne suggests that they begin to acquire an “almost moralistic” thesis: “present[ing] the self-forgetting of alcohol as inferior to that of religion/art” (742). After all, presumably Jim knew what he was about: he had been an alcoholic as well as an (increasingly) obsessional maker of films. But pain, alcohol, art, and religion don’t exhaust the ways in which the various characters in Infinite Jest seek what van Dyne terms the “Grail” of self-forgetting, the “mediated transcendence of self” (742). Drugs, politics, and death (by suicide), not to mention mass entertainment, are other routes contemplated or actually taken to achieve this apparently common and universal goal: getting out of oneself, away from oneself. Even recovery programs such as Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous are, as their critics observe, simply another form of self-renunciation: “an exchange of slavish dependence on the bottle/pipe for slavish dependence on meetings and banal shibboleths and robotic piety” (706). So then isn’t the moral of the story (and surely David Foster Wallace is as much of a moralist as Jim Incandenza) simply that some modes of self-forgetting are better than others?

The paradox of it all is that being “not yourself” is the problem as much as it is the solution. In a long conversation about melancholy and its symptoms, Jim’s widow Avril tells her son Mario that there is “a certain very strange type of sadness that appears as a kind of disassociation from itself.” Explaining further, she adds: “You know the idiom ‘not yourself’–‘He’s not himself today,’ for example [. . .]. There are, apparently, persons who are deeply afraid of their own emotions, particularly the painful ones. [. . .] As if something truly and thoroughly felt would have no end or bottom. Would become infinite and engulf them” (765). Note here that infinity itself is seen as a curse. The only thing is that there’s no “apparently” about this observation: what Mario’s mother is describing is almost precisely the condition that seems to afflict just about everyone in the book, not excluding Avril herself, whose permanent smile and good humour appear no better than denial and have a perverse effect on those around her. When, for instance, she accepts a “pathetic lie” from her eldest son, Orin, about the death of her beloved pet dog (whose demise had been in fact as gruesome as one could imagine), it leaves Orin’s friend “wiping [his] forehead and wishing the immaculately polished and sterilized hardwood floor would swallow up the whole scene in toto” (1050). Indeed, Orin’s friend continues, Avril’s reaction was in effect abusive because it was “almost too unconditionally loving and compassionate and selfless to possibly be true” (1051; emphasis added). Likewise, van Dyne, on meeting Mrs Incandenza for the first time, finds herself “half-crazed. She could detect nothing fake about the lady’s grace and cheer toward her, the goodwill. And at the same time felt sure in her guts’ pit that the woman could have sat there and cut out Joelle’s pancreas and thymus [. . .] without batting an eye” (747). Just about everyone, in short, in this book flees emotion, and seeks to escape (transcend, forget) themselves with all the energy they can muster.

If, then, we have a choice, then the only (ethical?) question that remains seems to be that of which of these modes of self-forgetting is superior. The problem here is that although choice itself is presented as endlessly burdensome, perhaps because (along with emotion) it is assumed to be the mark of individuality and selfhood. Here perhaps the true hero of the story is turning out to be the curious figure of Rémy Marathe, Quebecois wheelchair assassin and double (quadruple?) agent. Admittedly, Marathe makes a rather dubious hero, let alone ethical exemplar: it is revealed, after all, that it is he who personally administered the most horrific violence of what is already a pretty horrifically violent book: as he “pushed the sharpened handle of the manche à balai broomstick through the Antitoi’s insides during the technical interview of the Antitoit”; and it surely is no great saving grace that he “later had vomited out into the alley under secrecy” (753). Yet Marathe manifests the power and will to choose, and in (potentially) betraying his country is apparently opting to live in a “confusion of choices” (752). This is so even if to begin with these choices are forced upon him from outside, when he sees a woman stuck on the freeway and about to be run over, who thus enables him to decide (perhaps despite himself) to save her. As he puts it in his broken, French-inflected, English: “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” (778).

“Will without thinking”: is this then what we are all striving for or should be striving for? This is not complete self-erasure, for (again, perhaps despite himself) Foster Wallace seems to rail, here at least, against such “self-destructing logic” (725). We need, as the Quebecois multilingually put it, to be learn to “say ‘Non’ to fatal pleasures” (722). At the same time, it is not quite a return to the traditional, liberal notion of the rational subject. This isn’t, I think, a particularly humanist book. It’s often suggested that people are really machines of some sort: a crazy guy in the halfway house says that he and Marathe are the only ones there who aren’t (“I could tell you were real. [. . .] The metal ones–have faces” [734]), but this may well not be what makes him crazy. Pemulis and Hal, too, see themselves in machinic terms: “What happens if you try to go without something the machine needs? Food, moisture, sleep, 02?” (1065). What’s more, loss of the self is not the worst of all problems: there are also people who are too much themselves, who (as Mario puts it to his mother) become “even more themselves than normal” (768). The ideal, at least if Marathe is to be trusted–and of course, he isn’t–seems to be a kind of impersonal subjectivity, neither the impossible bastion of rational individualism, not surrender even to the allegedly most superior of “transcendent” forces. A truly corporeal subjectivity, that doesn’t pass through thought or rationality, but expresses rather a conatus of objects and things. Not that even this leads to any great celebration. As Kate Gombert, Marathe’s interlocutor, puts it: “I don’t think I’m like thinking this is a feel-better story at all” (779).