“life’s endless war against the self you cannot live without” (Infinite Jest pp.63-95)

Oh, fathers. Thanks for bequeathing us all your failures, for putting them into us. It’s not enough that we have to inherit all your shit genetically, but then you go and make sure all bases are covered by conditioning us socially. Physically and psychologically, we can’t live without you. Because you live within us. We are your creatures (e.g. p.63 description of Incandenza building his son in the basement like he – Incanzenza – is Victor Frankenstein and his son is an inert thing, even less than Frankenstein’s creature). We are indoctrinated into your Prescriptive Usage even, although we might get that from our mothers (64).

I guess it “could be worse” (66). But why are we all stuck doing shit we don’t want to do (e.g. kicking for the Arizona Cardinals, playing tennis, doing drugs) for reasons that we can’t remember to ends that we know we’ll never reach? “A boy probes at his own navel with great interest.” And then he – the reader? – returns to the psychedelic trip that is this novel he’s in, “waking me up in medias for week,” unable ever to find his bearings (67). He ends up isolated from himself and others, “never [getting] quite to see the distant opponent, for all the apparatus of the game” (68). Thanks, Moms. Thanks, Himself. Your “total unconditional support,” if that’s even true, has done little to mitigate the “depressing and boring and unpleasant” reality that is this world (68, 69).

And so we move from parental support to other “supportive” authority, like our beloved doctors, who struggle mightily to enact empathy in the moments when we need it the most. Take Katherine Ann Gompert. She couldn’t have expressed herself more clearly, and there’s this guy, this mocking but oh-he’s-trying-so-hard-to-understand-her other, getting all clinical with her when what she needs is some genuine human connection, not a robotic diagnosis. Because she sees through all this shit: “I just wanted out. I didn’t want to play anymore is all” (72). Yet play on we must! Stuck in this cruel game, alone, given only the illusion that we’re together, that there’s an other hitting the ball back at us.

“It’s like horror more than sadness” when you pause to think about the game we’re playing. All these rules and boundaries that we didn’t decide on and yet here we are, thrown right into the middle of the Show, waiting for the lights to go out. It turns out “I’m here because I want to die” (72). The “I” in the book is Kate and “here” is the hospital, but it’s a statement that points us to every “I.” Because “life is pro-death.” So “I” – my Ego? – am here looking for ways to die, beholden to “life’s endless war against the self you cannot live without” (84). In a Buddhist sense, this want is the drive toward enlightenment; in the Freudian (and biological) sense, perhaps it’s just the death-drive. But no, that’s not true. Life wants life. And not much more than that. So perhaps that’s where all these characters go astray. They are taught to expect more from life than life. Than the state of being-there. Than “the chance to play, yes?” (85).

“The animating limits are within, to be killed and mourned, over and over again” (84). As Joseph Campbell argued, the best thing we can learn from mythology is the art of dying again and again and again. Which means killing all those social rules we’ve internalized. Rules used by our warden, the Ego, to keep us bound to the expectations and desires of this world. It’s hard enough to fight the vague Others out there beyond us – who we typically can’t see anyway because of the rules, trapped as we are within ourselves – and then here we go having to fight the greatest battle internally. And that’s if we’re lucky enough to realize that that’s where we need to fight most. Or rather, that’s where we need to turn in order to surrender. In order to be free of our cruelest master, to find the love and compassion buried beneath the rubble of the collapsing social architecture he’s built to confine us in endless toil. “It is tragic and sad and chaotic and lovely,” the quest to transcend the Self (84).

The pain can be too much to bear. If you don’t have others who are able to practice self-compassion and love, then how can they ever extend it to you when you need it? How can you save them? If we’re all too busy dying while watching the Entertainment (p.87), or worrying about how we might interpret this human being medically, or wondering if anyone is sincere, if we can trust what we see before us, then we’re all “pro-death.” Like Kate Gompert, who wants simply to “not hurt” (78). Like all the fools who’ve already fallen prey to Himself’s Infinite Jest. We can’t look away from our own death. We’re captivated by it. And so we’re sucked right into it, but long after it’s been sucked into us.

Death is there always. Lurking inside us. It’s the sickness all over. But that’s only if we are bound by everything upon which Death preys. Everything attached to the order of our social beings. But there is no mystical salvation in DFW’s world. It’s too anesthetized. We need to feel. We need guaranteed feeling. Give me my sports, my drugs, my entertainment. If I can’t trust human connection, at least there are things I can turn to. They can’t betray me. Until, of course, they do. When they no longer bring me anything but numbness. When I have to question why I’m doing anything, even though it can be “any something. The what: this is more unimportant than that there is something” (83).

So what then? Just join a team? “Sacrifice the hot narrow imperatives of the Self to the larger imperatives of a team (OK, the state) and a set of delimiting rules (OK, the Law)” (82-3)? When we speak of freedom, what do we actually want to be free from? The Self, right? But displacing the Self with the State, that’s not the remedy. It’s extracting ourselves from all such social obligation, but doing our thing anyway. (The fuck?) Are or we, like Marathe, just pretending to pretend to pretend our betrayals (94)?

Oh, fathers. Oh, boundaries. We can’t live without you, and yet we spend our entire lives trying to destroy you, and so too ourselves.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *