Irrevocable emblems

If, by the virtue of charity or the circumstance of desperation, you ever chance to spend a little time reading Infinite Jest as a sacred text through the theme of commitment, you will realize just how many different types of commitment there are.

You can be so committed to the Anonymous part of Alcoholics Anonymous that you refuse to use even your first name in meetings.

You can be so committed to your cover as a female soft-profile journalist that you write a piece on a literal stolen heart.

You can be so committed to the filtered, beautified image of yourself that you transmit digitally that you will avoid seeing people in real life so as not to shatter the illusion.

You can be so committed to your particular recreational substance that, when the young O.N.A.N.T.A. toxicologist shows up to collect urine samples, you buy a clean one in a Visine bottle.

You can be so committed to some delusion of yourself, and alcohol, and the desire to craft your son into a tennis prodigy, that it can detrimentally affect generations to come.

You can commit a crime.

You can be so committed to a sport in which you show the potential of greatness that you’ll sacrifice your childhood for a chance to fulfill that promise.

You can be so committed to your sobriety that you’ll live with a bunch of other recently-sober folks as your minds unravel and then attempt to put themselves back together again just for a shot at a life without your Substance.

You can be committed to listening to your favorite radio show every night.

You can be committed to another person, or to a mental hospital, or to reading a long book as a sacred text every week.

Commitment, I think, is a promise to do something even when you don’t feel like it. That’s the turning point of addiction: when you keep doing it even when it’s not fun. But it’s also the foundation of a lasting relationship: when you’re willing to Hang In and Keep Coming Back to that person, even if something else sounds more appealing.

It’s striking to me that this section ends by talking about a very specific type of commitment: tattoos. The recovering addicts of Ennet House sport tattoos of the most regrettable variety. There’re the pot leaves and martini glasses; the misspellings of racial slurs; the names of women long gone or forgotten. Don Gately’s simple square prison tattoo, inscribed by hand with a sewing needle and ball-point pen ink, isn’t a particular source of shame or regret for him, “if only because these irrevocable emblems of jail are minor Rung Bells compared to some of the fucked-up and really irrevocable impulsive mistakes Gately’d made…which Gately’s trying to accept he’ll be paying off for a real long time.”

Some commitments are superficial.

Some commitments can be quit and cast aside, forgotten.

Some commitments are worth fighting for, and others are better off abandoned.

Some commitments can be changed, the terms renegotiated.

And some commitments, like tattoos, or certain crimes, are irrevocable. Irredeemable.


Lectio Divina time!

From page 183: “Like most marriages, theirs was the evolved product of concordance and compromise.”

  1. Literally speaking, this sentence has two meanings, because it occurs twice. The first time, it’s read almost as a sound-check at the start of Madame Psychosis’ radio hour. The second time, it’s adjusted to directly reference the marriage of Avril and the late James Incandenza.
  2. Allegorically speaking, a lot is happening here. The two instances of this sentence form a link between Madame Psychosis and the Incandenzas, or perhaps between MP and the narrator, or maybe both.
  3. This sentence reminds of me of the way that very warm concepts can sound cold when spoken so directly. The evolved product of concordance and compromise sounds like what all marriages aim to be. But the detached way MP utters this sentence reminds me that neither concordance nor compromise are necessarily positive. Perhaps these words don’t do justice to the married couple in question, or perhaps the words gloss over something more complicated and painful.
  4. This sentence calls me to examine my own commitments, to describe them to myself and ask myself: are the words I use merely scratching the surface of the depth and meaning these commitments bring to my life? Or are the words prettifying something unhealthy or unworthy of my time and energy?



Next week, we’ll be reading pages 211-283 through the lens of expectations. In the meantime, head on over to and join the discussion!

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