This theme’s week is “Otherness.” I think Infinite Jest is all about the “other,” but instead of thinking of it in terms of binaries like ETA / Ennet, or Concavity / Convexity, I want to think about otherness in terms of the porousness of certain borders, particularly during Poor Tony’s withdrawal.
When Poor Tony is experiencing withdrawal on the train he recalls scents from his childhood, like his father’s Old Spice. Tony loses all self-control and shits in his clothes. “He suddenly felt nothing, or rather Nothing, a pre-tornadic stillness of zero sensation, as if he were the very space he occupied.” (305)
This description of the experience of Poor Tony’s withdrawal reminds me of the description of the experience of an astronaut (whose name I can’t remember now) in outer space. The astronaut said he felt that there was no distinction between him and the space around him.
I think that Tony’s experience might seem to be different from the astronaut’s at first (Tony sees it as “Nothing” but the astronaut’s experience was more fulfilling and closer to awe) but both these experiences involve a loss of the self and a sense of merging with the space outside of oneself.
I think that stepping outside of oneself is one of the driving questions/challenges for many characters in IJ — how they try or fail or succeed in these many many small ways.
During my reads of IJ, I’ve found myself questioning the extent to which characters have really been able to “step outside” of themselves. I’ve changed my mind often and continue to do so. The initial sadness I felt when I read IJ the first time (I didn’t think anything was funny then!) returns to remind me just how difficult it is to “step outside” for all the characters of IJ. Today I find Tony leading me to questions about Mario. What does it mean for Mario to be disabled; to live with an awareness that he’s dependent on something external to him for functioning? Does this allow him to step outside of himself much more easily than the other characters (because it allows him to acknowledge the interdependence on other factors and people, and to understand others better)?