Monday, September 05, 2011

Summer of Infinite Jest 9 - Pleasure and addiction; my inability to separate the author from the work

One of the main themes of "Infinite Jest" becomes quite clear by the end (at least I hope it's the end) of the drawn-out conversation between the two secret agents, who have for no particular reason stayed up all night on a ridge overlooking Tucson discussing the philosophical reasons behind "the Entertainment." And that theme is simply the trade-offs between pleasure and addiction and the moral implications of choosing, or shall we say acceding to, an addiction.

"The Entertainment" is what they call the weaponized video "cartridge," prepared by an unknown agency, which is so compellingly pleasurable to watch that it puts all who view it into a spell they cannot break. Anyone who watches even one second of the video is instantly bewitched, such that they want only to keep their eyes glued to the video, forsaking everything else in life. They do not -- seemingly cannot -- break away even for a moment, not to eat or drink or (the author makes quite clear) to use the toilet; and they stay in that state, enraptured by the video, until they die. The mechanism by which this happens, whether it is magical or has some scientific basis, is not explained; neither do we have a clue as to what is on the video, at least not at this point around page 530. The mechanism is unimportant; what's important is that this literary conceit allows the characters to explore questions about pleasure, selfhood, addiction, free will, and other philosophical issues.

I can't pretend to be able to really understand, or even follow, the philosophical questions. I never took a philosophy course, and it's hard enough for me even to follow the discussions on the radio show "Philosophy Talk." If there's anything I'm going to understand about this important part of the book, it's by approaching it from a literary angle, as one of the book's themes. And understood that way, in the context of the rest of the book, it seems simple: If seeking pleasure leads swiftly to addiction, as it did for all the characters in the AA-related scenes, then is pleasure-seeking advisable at all? And if not, what does that imply about Western culture, given that so many people live their lives in pursuit of pleasure?

Worthwhile questions in a great book, but the author's own death makes it impossible to leave it there. My friend who is a literature scholar will object, but I'm going to say that no matter how convincingly the author explicates these themes, in this and other works (such as the tour de force essay on pleasure cruises, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" [pdf]), whatever he has to say about the pursuit of pleasure is, for me, undercut by his suicide. Whatever he had to say about pleasure, responsibility, caution, personal growth or duty is, for me, drowned out by that act of violence.

So while it's possible for me to suspend disbelief when I consider the literary conceit of the magically compelling "Entertainment" cartridge, and it's possible for me to put aside my knowledge of the author's ultimate statement while I'm reading this book, when I close the book I am thrown back on what I know about the author. It doesn't spoil the book for me, but it taints it.

A little later: I just found this passage in DFW's introduction, reprinted on the NYT's website, to the non-fiction collection "A Supposedly Fun Thing..." -- a passage which says, in 100 words, a great deal about the themes of his novel:
... we (tennis players in the middle of a long session of drills) were both in the fugue-state that exhaustion through repetition brings on, a fugue-state I've decided that my whole time playing tennis was spent chasing, a fugue-state I associated too with plowing and seeding and detasseling and spreading herbicides back and forth in sentry duty along perfect lines, up and back, or military marching on flat blacktop, hypnotic, a mental state at once flat and lush, numbing and yet exquisitely felt. We were young, we didn't know when to stop.
There it all is -- addiction, a hypnotic state with paradoxical effects, and the pursuit of it.

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