“Attitude of Platitude” (Infinite Jest, pp.686-727)

Tom Bissell talked about how much care DFW put into Infinite Jest. The touchstone quote I keep returning to in my mind as I read the novel and think about DFW’s care, especially when I get frustrated with reading (i.e. with confronting my own inattentiveness and failure to concentrate and be there with the book wholeheartedly and mindfully), is this gem: “Please don’t think I don’t care.” There is so much desperate love in this world; or, to be more fair, there is so much love that it’s overwhelming. It’s easy to dismiss because of its sheer abundance. If DFW couldn’t live with this powerful force, what are we to do with it as lowly readers?

Let’s avoid that rabbit hole for now (not because I don’t care, nor because I’m lazy, but because I’m afraid of going there). Bissell got me thinking about care in my own writing. I’ve been producing “morning pages” every day, 3 pages of unadulterated freestyling that amounts to 2000 words or so per session; it’s mental cleansing (I apologize if I’ve written about it before, but so be it if I revisit the same themes), and recently, I wrote this: “Care about your sentences first. They are the houses in which your characters dwell. Love your characters by taking care of their sentences. You sentence your characters to life (in the prison you create, or the world you set them free in).” I’ve already covered the book on writing that sends a similar message: that as a writer, your job is making sentences. I’m not sure I’ve ever tended so carefully to the sentence, and to the world it creates. If I don’t know what my sentence says, I don’t know what world my characters inhabit, and so I don’t know what world my audience will get to visit. If my hope is to let my characters live, then I must take care where I place them, which is in my sentences. If my hope is to let my audience go on a journey and empathize/live with my characters, I must take care where I place them. It all comes down to the sentence. With each sentence, I breathe life into the world brought forth by the original utterance. The Word is World, and every word that follows is sustaining the world. With each sentence, I breathe life into the audience. I let them breathe with my characters, as my characters, i.e. as themselves more fully. When we become one with the characters we read, we expand our possibilities and open ourselves wider to the Universe’s expanse. All this comes in a sentence.

As Heidegger described, “Language is the House of Being.” Few writers have managed to labor with Language so earnestly and steadfastly as DFW. This book is all about Being, the clearing in which beings commune. It’s a transcendental place where our lives are made bare; our insecurities, anxieties, and joys made visible; formed for a moment without judgment; glowing in a field for observation; summoning curiosity and wonder; dismissing all systems of ethics and social norms. This is a frightening suspension of everything that we know, so it is hardly easy for us to travel to such a place with DFW. We do not want to surrender everything that has shaped and fed our Ego. And yet that beast is what DFW has tried to exorcise through this exercise. He invites us into the possibility of Empathy, dethroning the Ego. I’ve suggested before that Mario is our template for that. We look upon Mario through the lens of our Ego as deformed, an absurd tragedy. We see only his physical structure and ignore his being. Yet as we grow closer to Mario, we see him more clearly, and we see in ourselves the crippling of our Ego. It’s a scary prospect, and so we might return to hiding behind the comforts of our Judgment, even if it means the endurance of our sadness. Pain is real, but it is most felt in proximity to our Ego. Pain is not us, but with the imperial insistence of our Ego, we confuse it for who we are, and we assume that pain is the house in which we must always remain. It is a cruelly comforting delusion, to believe that we deserve nothing more than such a dwelling. All the characters in this book are trapped in their pain. Pain becomes their identity; it consumes them. I can’t say that it doesn’t have to be that way; I’ve never endured chemical dependency (on the level of these characters, of course), so I don’t know the inescapability of the demons that come with it. I do know that I don’t have to let pain define me. I do know that I don’t have to avoid pain. I do know that I’ll still try to avoid pain regardless. Call it instinct, call it conditioning. I don’t care. But I do know that I do care, and that I want others to know that I do care.

I care about the characters in Infinite Jest, which I think is inviting greater self-care. I care about E.T.A.’s youth, paralyzed by “how the coaches are seeing you, gauging your progress” (686). Despite the most benevolent intentions from our elders, we inherit and internalize their demons, and we keep them alive. I care about Hal as he lapses into anhedonia, lost in cartridge-viewing, perhaps searching hopelessly for some existential value in Himself’s creations (692). For surely if we turn to what our Father has made, answers will find us. I care about Poor Tony Krause on his nightmarish journey through living hell, Danteish rings ensnaring him in blistering succession. I care about the aforementioned anhedonia and how it sounds eerily similar to Nirvana, “a hollowing out of stuff that used to have affective content” (693). Except that Nirvana is a spiritual reckoning with existence, not a psychological/physical escape from it. The anhedonic becomes “Unable to Identify,” but the Enlightened become Totally and Only Able to Identify: as One (693). I care about Himself, who may have experienced existential anhedonia, to the point that nothing could confer worth on his life; the same goes for all goal-oriented people chasing an elusive (and illusive) carrot.

I care about the Moms and her tragic failure to really connect with her children, or at least Hal, e.g. “His Moms Avril hears her own echoes inside him and thinks what she hears is him, and this makes Hal feel the one thing he feels to the limit, lately: he is lonely” (694). Feelings are facts, and to the anhedonic, they are Fact, i.e. a feeling of loneliness now means a feeling of loneliness forever. To the enlightened one, feeling alone is an impossibility, since you are never alone (you are one with all living beings). But enlightenment is as much an illusion in our world construct as the construct itself, as far as it concerns we who are living in the construct. So forget talk of enlightenment. Identify, stupid.

I care about all kids like Hal (i.e. all kids) who want nothing more than “to be admired and accepted and included and so Unalone” (694). I care about Kate Gompert and It: “a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it. It is a sense of radical and thoroughgoing evil not just as a feature but as the essence of conscious existence. It is a sense of poisoning that pervades the self at the self’s most elementary levels. It is a nausea of the cells and soul” (695). I care that it can’t be explained away: “Everything is part of the problem, and there is no solution. It is a hell for one” (696). I care that my care can do nothing to help.

I care that the Entertainment is willed anhedonia, away from the world of pain and into what feels like the Moment of pleasure.

I care about Blood Sister’s fate, and the gendered behavioral patterns of E.T.A.’s student body.

I care about “an exchange of slavish dependence on the bottle/pipe for slavish dependence on meetings and banal shibboleths and robotic piety” (706). As though independence is a state of being in dependence.

I care about the stories of all the addicts who feel marginal but to whom DFW extends infinite Empathy, sans jest.

I care about Joelle and how she wants to unveil herself to Don Gately, and then how she dreams of him “ministering to her teeth” (724).

I care about Gompert again, and Lenz, and the Chinese women with their “Orientoid tongues”, and the A.F.R. in all their MacGuffin glory, and Poor Tony Krause, and the desperate chases (716).

I care about Fortier and his maniacal not-care caring, his total “willing to sacrifice” attitude for something larger than himself (723).

I care about the engineer who sacrifices all his digits to enjoy the Entertainment to its fatal end, proof that it’s “macropolitically lethal” (727).

What good is all my care? What does it do? What might I do with this care? Perhaps these are silly, banal questions. Or, perhaps, by asking them, by caring enough to ask them, they represent all I can hope to do in this life.

Please don’t think I don’t care.

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