Maybe Infinite Jest is About Addiction

And so but I’ve been re-reading Infinite Jest in this strange, almost purely subconscious way, where I take on just a few pages (seriously, like 2-3 pages) every night right before sleeping. I’ve done the calculations, and so you don’t have to tell me it will literally take years to finish it this way.

I’m in no rush. I’ve read it before.

If you’ve never read it, you really must. It’s terrifying how prescient it is. How could someone in the mid 90’s have seen the coming technology that would be so entertaining it would totally consume our lives? I’m thinking Twitter and Facebook and our phones and the games on them. But DFW actually has a Netflix-like system where people can watch any TV they want at any time. That was unthinkable back then.

It also predicts that we’d come to live in an opioid epidemic.

And all of the below, etc.

Anyway, I digress.

This weird thought occurred to me around page 300 (yes, I’ve been doing this for 100+ days already):

Maybe Infinite Jest is about addiction.

Hear me out. This is one of those things that’s so obvious it requires justification.

I know, Don Gately is in a halfway house for Demerol addiction, and the opening scene is of Hal’s (supposed) reaction to taking DMZ destroying his life, and the kids at the Tennis Academy do pot and alcohol and amphetamines and have tricks to pass urine tests.

I know, the title refers to entertainment so infinitely addicting you pee and poop yourself and then die rather than pull yourself away, and that one character, whose name I can’t remember, holed up in the bathroom stall of a library and drank cough syrup every day to avoid withdrawal but had to go out at some point and ends up having a massive DT withdrawal on a train and probably dies.

I know DFW, himself, had addiction problems and was in AA.

Etc, etc.

But hear me out. It’s not as obvious as it seems. Addiction is everywhere in the novel, but what is the novel about?

What if someone said to you: Breaking Bad is about addiction.

You’d say: Whoa! Hang on. Addiction is everywhere in that series, sure, but that’s not at all what the show is about. Not. Even. Close.

DFW is famous for complaining about the reviews (even (especially) the positive ones!!) when it came out, because no one could possibly have read it in the two-week window (or whatever it was) and actually understood what it was about.

I owed it to him to understand what the book was about if he would rather have crappy reviews than positive reviews by people too intimidated by it to admit they were clueless as to what the book was even about.

I took his comments to heart.

Infinite Jest wasn’t about addiction. That was too obvious. Everyone would immediately understand the book if that’s what it was about.

DFW was also obsessed with literary theorists and philosophy and Wittgenstein and psychiatry and math and semiotics and postmodernism and irony, etc. I looked to these for answers, and I found a treasure trove of ideas.

I won’t try to go into depth on what I came up with. You can see early thoughts in some other posts I’ve done: Westward and Preparation for Infinite Jest among others.

Basically, one can read Infinite Jest as a critique of the psychological theories of Jacques Lacan. The “Entertainment,” at least as much as we can see in the novel, is an on-the-nose manifestation of his ideas.

Language is central to our subconscious, and Saussure’s signifier/signified distinction live on different layers. Wallace thought these poststructuralists were brilliant but flawed. Infinite Jest wants to use postmodernism to show why they were flawed.

Now we’re on to what the novel might actually be about!

Many scenes support this reading, mostly having to do with the various recovery methods. Wallace wants to say: how do we break free of our addictions? Well, it’s obviously not what these theorists were saying! Look what that would look like.

DFW presents a parody as refutation.

This view is also supported by all the circumstances under which characters literally lose their ability to speak. Sure, drugs are the proximate cause, but think through the other circumstances of their lives at that time. Think about Hal’s encounter with the therapist after finding his father having committed suicide.

Why was Wallace upset at people calling the novel funny?

Maybe it’s that things that were supposed to be deep references to Lacan were seen as surface-level jokes.

Corporations subsidize years in the future. Most of Infinite Jest takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (YDAU). We laugh, thinking about what it would be like to have to sign checks with the year being the name of an incontinence product.

No!

It’s more than that. The year wasn’t chosen purely for humor. It’s saying that when our society progresses to this point, adults will have regressed back to babies. All we think of is: want, want, want. We rage at the TV like a baby when Netflix goes out for, heaven forbid, 30 seconds.

In Wallace’s version of the future, terrorists use this entertainment as a tool of both terror and placation. In our reality, we entertain ourselves to death with Facebook while our adversaries use it to elect our presidents for us.

And so but then we don’t care. We want reality stars to be our leaders. It keeps us entertained.

What in the world was this post even about anymore? How did I start talking about real life when this is supposed to be about a book published over 20 years ago?

Focus.

I thought Infinite Jest was about this brilliant refutation of heady philosophers. It cleverly uses addiction to get these points across in multiple ways. It invents its own language to poke at the signifier/signified hypothesis.

Then I woke up in the middle of the night with cold sweats, heart pounding, disoriented (probably withdrawal), and I thought to myself:

Maybe Infinite Jest is about addiction.

Then I realized it doesn’t matter.

Your phone notified you of 10 more interesting things since you started reading this. You haven’t made it this far, and we can’t progress. Our eyes are stuck to the screen. We won’t be able to pull ourselves away. We will poop and pee ourselves and wish we had put on our Depends until it doesn’t matter, because we’ll all be dead.

The thought brought me comfort, and I went back to sleep.

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Table some issues

Now that I’m done with undergrad, I’ve decided to throw out there some of the things I’ve attempted to have answered, but people always seemed to beat around the bush. Maybe my readers (which I’ve calculated to be somewhere between three and five readers) can help.

1. Setting: Sophomore year: Eastern religions. My prof is amazing and a devout Buddhist. He claims that the religion is one of the few perfectly internally consistent religions. So I ask, how can it be consistent that the principle teaching is that the world is an illusion, and another primary teaching is that you shouldn’t harm another living being? If you truly believe the world is an illusion, then harming someone is an illusion, thus cannot be bad. I was given some mumbo-jumbo about karma, but I replied that this assumes you are putting negativity out while you harm this living thing. This went on, but I’m convinced that it is possible to harm something without feeling hatred etc, he claims that this is still against the teachings. Is this a contradiction? (I think yes).

2. Setting: Recurrent throughout all four years. Would independent art still be considered good if a large mainstream audience started taking interest? So I should elaborate, I guess. Often times it seems like small independent artists that create extremely challenging art are considered “true artists” while mainstream people are considered “pop artists” or “money makers.” It seems to me that even if the art doesn’t change, a sudden burst into fame can cause the art-lovers to despise this artist. As if it is the struggling artist that is the cause of good art and not the art itself that is under consideration. I guess a good comparison would be the filmmakers David Lynch vs Spielberg (although Lynch has had some commercial success).

3. Setting: Senior year: 20th Century philosophy. Is empathy or language epistemically primary? (I won’t even go there). Okay. Yes I will. Suppose we find a “savage” that has been in the woods on their own since birth (i.e. they have no language and have never encountered another human being). I claim that if they saw someone crying, they would remember when they cried and understand what that meant (i.e. the empathy transcends language and is thus epistemically primary). My prof claims that without language the “savage” wouldn’t have memories, or at least wouldn’t be able to access memories of when they cried (i.e. language is epistemically primary). This seems to be a question more directed at cognitive scientists than philosophers though, since it seems as if this could be empirically tested quite easily.

4. Setting: Probably junior year conversation with brother. Why is science fiction as a genre not considered serious as an artistic genre when there are so many examples that show that it is? E.g. Dhalgren, Slaughter-House Five, The Fountain, The Ender Quartet, etc.

5. Setting: Trying to get into grad school (also came up in an ethics class discussion). Is there any fair way to measure ability other than a standardized test? The GRE is a horrid measure of ability, but I just can’t think of any other way to do it that would be more fair (does the concept of “more fair” exist?).

I actually had more when I decided to write this (and some of these weren’t on my list), but once I got through the first one, I couldn’t remember any of the ones that I originally thought of. Maybe I’ll add more later.