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Friday, August 07, 2009

The spoiler line sometimes makes it difficult to write these Infinite Summer posts; the thoughts for this one have been percolating for a few weeks but we were never quite where I wanted to be in the book before discussing them. Like Daryl Houston, a lot of my thoughts on this second reading of Infinite Jest are crystalizing around the Steeply/Marathe discussions of the Entertainment, which now seem to me to be organization points for many of the book's broader philosophical themes.

One of the major existential problems being confronted in IJ is the tragedy of embodied consciousness. It's laid out explicitly for us in this week's section beginning on 470, which discusses the (real-life) experiments surrounding the discovery of the p-terminal in the brain:

'Older's earliest subjects were rats, and the results were apparently sobering. The Nu—the Canadians found that if they rigged an auto-stimulation lever, the rat would press the lever to stimulate his p-terminal over and over, thousands of times an hour, over and over, ignoring food and female rats in heat, completely fixated on the lever's stimulation, day and night, stopping only when the rat finally died of dehydration or simple fatigue."
That pleasure resides inside the brain is, of course, the materialist nexus that links the MacGuffin-like search for the Entertainment with DFW's ruminations on the nature of addiction—both hypertrophic stimulations of the pleasure center that cause abject misery and death.

Scientific materialism sticks a dagger through the heart of humanism, a spike in all our brains. If we are (just) brains, then we are (mere) machines. Highly, indescribably complex machines, sure, but machines. And this can only be understood as a deeply dehumanizing loss for a culture that is so steeped in its own sense of spiritual exceptionalism. It is the ultimate reduction in status. The things that make us feel human—love, music, passion, art—now threaten to recede to nothing after a century of materialist triumph, replaced instead with raw mammalian instinct: a new vision of the human as oversized rat running a maze to pull a lever and get a treat.

Atheism, which is necessarily materialist, necessarily carries with it the bleak and terrible suspicion that you might not even exist in any meaningful sense—a suspicion that, if we are lucky, we don't find ourselves dwelling on for all that much of the time. It's this baseline existential dread that fuels our contemporary anxieties about Pavlovian behaviorism, brainwashing, pharmacological happiness, and soulless bodysnatchers—concepts which threaten us with frightening dehumanization only insofar as we admit they have us pegged.

Isn't happiness-in-a-tube still happiness? Why not chemically synthesize love? Are not the bodysnatched content, better at being us than we are, with none of our squishy excess?

Why not watch the Entertainment?

It's the sublime terror at the Nothing at the core of our existence that plagues Gately whenever he tries to get his hands around the Higher Power demanded by AA (see 443 [on which, Daryl notes, Gately feels like a rat] and 467). Wallace, in the oft-quoted Kenyon commencement speech, seems to really believe that belief in some sort of Higher Power is necessary for any sense of fulfillment, though he tries to leave the details as open as AA does:
In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship---be it J. C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some intangible set of ethical principles---is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things---if they are where you tap meaning in life---then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already---it's been codified as myths, proverbs, cliches, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power---you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart---you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.
For Wallace, the only way out of the trap of embodied consciousness—of being a rat pulling its pleasure lever—is to reassert the existence of transcendent value not as a matter of proven epistemic certainty but as a radical and rational choice against basic human frailty. The speech goes on:
Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the "rat race" -- the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn't sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational. What it is, so far as I can see, is the truth with a whole lot of rhetorical bullshit pared away. Obviously, you can think of it whatever you wish. But please don't dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head.
Of course the tragedy informing all our readings this summer is that DFW didn't make it to 50. He died when he was 46. And when we read Infinite Jest I think we must do so with the recognition that we have lost the infinite thing and it is not coming back. I don't equate this recognition with unconsciousness or automatism—because the sad truth is that even when you set out to worship transcendence you cannot escape the fear that the thing you worship is actually tiny, and a lie, and just inside your head. I don't think we can just fool ourselves into living as though God had never died; I don't think we can play pretend. As an atheist in that nihilistic Gately sense—as someone who does not worship and cannot believe, not even as a life-saving performative choice—it seems to me the terrible first step is to face things as they are, in all their unhappy finitude. The miracle of life comes not just despite this, but out of it.