Monday, April 6, 2015

Infinite Jest

Phew and egads! I finished rereading Infinite Jest. Relief is accompanied by psychic emptiness, a hollow longing to experience the entire thing again.
... the novel is about many things: fathers and sons; mothers and sons; addiction; communication; entertainment; politics; greatness, mediocrity and failure. It’s a coming of age story alongside a recovery story that is also possibly a love story, all wrapped in a cloak-and-dagger-ish mystery about international realignment and terrorism. Choose your favorite combination and go with it. The book is about a lot of things. -- Mike at Fiction Advocate
The hardest part, psychologically, emotionally, was reading the extremely violent scenes. The Antitoi brothers' deaths, Gately's shooting, the Mt. Dilaudid scene: these are described in straightforward words, treated with the same flat descriptive affect as the extended discussions of drug withdrawal, depression, and early-morning tennis practice. And this consistent authorial treatment is painful to read, because it creates the associative comparison that, for example, being depressed is just as psychically painful as suffering bullets, stabbings, blood loss, head trauma, etc. Reading the violence was unpleasant, not because the violence itself was distasteful or grim or extreme (although those things are true), but because it made so many other things, which had seemed vaguely painful at a clinical remove, become retrospectively intensely painful and excruciating.


I understand that this was the a purpose of the book. The reading experience now is colored by DFW's suicide; descriptions of suicidal and anxious, trapped-in-your-own-head scenes are particularly pointed and affecting. When I read:
What's unendurable is what his own head could make of it all. ... everything unendurable was in the head, ... (p. 1055)
If a person in physical pain has a hard time attending to anything except that pain, a clinically depressed person cannot even perceive any other person or thing as independent of the universal pain that is digesting her cell by cell. Everything is part of the problem, and there is no solution. It is a hell for one. (p. 859)
... then my heart aches, and I am sympathetic and sorrowful that such pain can exist, and can have hurt someone who could so beautifully express the isolating pain in a way which is anti-isolating, which is relatable and unifies the human experience. Yet the words themselves, and expressing them by such clear and enlightening means, can worsen the problem:
Please learn the pragmatics of expressing fear: sometimes words that seem to express can really invoke. This can be tricky. (p. 226)
The novel balances on this edge, not by a sustained series of tiny nudges, but by massive swoops to either side: extreme fear, personality-obliterating anxiety, emotions invoked and clinically discussed and manipulated, each in turn. Rote cliches repeated until they gain meaning, lose it, and eventually become both antaclastically significant and a series of meaningless phonemes.

One overarching goal, or conclusion, or hypothesis of the novel has stood out to me in a few places, on different rereads. It is the conclusive-sounding, earnest, non-ironic idea that we need to give ourselves away.
American experience seems to suggest that people are virtually unlimited in their need to give themselves away, on various levels. Some just prefer to do it in secret. (p. 74)
This is echoed later, with links that grab many of the other threads of the novel.
It now lately sometimes seemed like a kind of black miracle to me that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end. Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately---the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly. To games or needles, to some other person. Something pathetic about it. A flight-from in the form of a plunging-into. (p. 1102)

Certainly the drug-addiction plots, the tennis-academy plots, the terrorist-plotting plots, the militant grammarians, the film studies, the weird undercover assignments, the personal vendettas --- they all fall under this neat summary: the characters care deeply, dedicate their lives to giving their lives away. Although many of them phrase it as an escape rather than a gift; they all seem to be trying to flee some personal fear by this selfless giving-away of themselves.

It seems that Infinite Jest is fractally interesting. Every closer examination reveals another lurking meaning. I have the sense that each individual sentence could be deconstructed in this way, fruitfully although perhaps meaninglessly: the book holds together so well, it seems unlikely that its individually analyzed components would be as effective at achieving its goals. And in any case, I've written a dissertation already, and have no interest in sinking my time into this recondite time-sponge, especially since it will likely reduce my own enjoyment of the novel. In the end, I let the book describe my feelings about it:
This should not be rendered in exposition like this... (p. 113)
... so, what about rendering it in Legos?

This post's theme word is cathexis, "the concentration of mental energy on one particular person, idea, or object (especially to an unhealthy degree)." Infinite Jest uses the word "cathexis" effectively, as well as embodying in several different ways the never-ending loop of self-reflexive cathexis-spurred paralysis.

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