Let not the weight thou wouldst pull to thyself exceed thine own weight

Insecurity is a doubled-headed beast. This potentially crippling sense that you are unable to live up to your expectations, that you are not your best self, that you may be found out as a fake, is a huge blow to self-esteem. Yet, when we toss this word around, it is often a dig at someone who presents as arrogant, prickish, almost Trumpian. “He’s just really insecure,” becomes the de facto armchair analysis of the egoist.

 

This is a tricky theme to tackle in this section, so I am excited to see what the other guides make of it. To me Lyle’s advice regarding not pulling weight that exceeds your own is a nice summary of the plight of the insecure. Our efforts to prove we are bigger, tougher, stronger than we truly are, only serve to bite us in the ass when the weights pull us up off the ground. (Excluded this week due to the reading structure, the anecdote of the bricklayer on pp 138-140 is a brilliantly comic interpretation of this warning).

 

The pursuit of individual happiness, which of course is a thread throughout the novel, often results in a sense of insecurity – we are overwhelmed with choices, moved along by impulses, and chase fleeting feelings of pleasure with little reflection on our own role in the larger world. This butts up against our own understanding of why we do what we do – why we strive, why we love, why we care. Several sections in these pages speak to this, especially from characters who are motivated by participating in something larger than themselves:

  • In the conversation between Schtitt and Mario, Schtitt’s dismay at the ONAN-ist focus on “the happy pleasure of the person alone” (p. 83).
  • Marathe’s warning to Steeply to “choose with care. You are what you love”
  • The locker room conversation at ETA about striving for The Show, and the questions the Little Buddies have for their Big Buddies about how to navigate through ETA.

 

The insecure often hide behind fragile personas as well, either unsure of or afraid to show their true selves. To wit:

  • Helen (Hugh) Steeply, whose disguise Marthe describes as a “twisted parody of womanhood” (p. 93)
  • Marathe, a triple, possible quadruple agent who posits perhaps he has “merely pretended to pretend to pretend to betray” (p. 94)
  • Orin, who often comes off as incredible insecure (with his Subjects, and “complicated” relationship with Avril) at this point can vocalize his distaste at the high flying stunts he is made to do yet still has not vocalized his morbid fear of heights to anyone.
  • Tiny Ewell, hinted at that it may be hard for him to accept his addiction.
  • Poor Tony’s duplicity, too afraid to admit his role in ripping off Wo.

Observations

 

Some of my favourite sections come up this week, and while I am not going to squish them into the thematic lens of insecurity, let me lay down some initial thoughts and we can take it over to the subreddit for deeper discussion

 

  • James Incandenza’s filmography. On my first read through IJ I admit I skimmed most of this. But on 2nd and 3rd read it revealed itself to be a treasure trove of connective tissues. Even this far along we can already make the connection between JOI’s life and his work (see Was a Great Marvel That He Was in the Father Without Knowing Him) and see that the use of Stokely Darkstar in Accomplice! connects JOI in some way to the narrative of yrstruly.
  • Kate Gompert. One of the best descriptions of clinical depression I have ever read. The resident doctor is so fully fleshed out too, making this an amazing study of their dynamic as well.
  • The language used in the yrstruly passage is absolutely delicious. “rickytick” “elemondae” “not 2Bdenied”

What we walk between

Have you been riddled with insecurity? Afraid of failure not realizing failure is a part of life. Writhing with the sickness and anxiety that insecurity breeds.

I once found myself lying on the vintage hard wood framed futon couch that sat in the living room of my LA apartment, at risk of failing a project but completely unable to move off of the couch. I was anxious about its outcome. Insecure that it wouldn’t compare to my competition not realizing there was no competition. It was a project that I failed for fear of trying and embarrassing myself.

 

I spent many days just like Kate Gompert, smoking myself into thinking circles. Marijuana is the enemy of the critically self aware aka insecure. It leaves us in a continuous loop of avoiding anything and everything possible.  Yet still even without the “Bob Hope”  there is still this feeling, the pain of  which is really just insecurity that has yet to be dethroned. It lurks because it has power and it doesn’t know this (insecurity can’t think) you simply let it because you believe.

I relate to Kate Gompert on a whole different level than some of the other IJ characters.

 

3 Statements:

  1. WE ARE WHAT WE WALK BETWEEN (pg.81 , p3)
  2. TE OCCIDERE POSSUNT SED TE EDERE NON POSSUNT NEFAS EST(THEY CAN KILL YOU BUT THE LEGALITIES OF EATING YOU ARE QUITE A BIT DICIER) (pg.81, p4)
  3. THE MAN WHO KNOWS HIS LIMITATIONS HAS NONE (pg.81, p4)

 

All 3 statements to me represent different aspects of the interaction with insecurity.

Insecurity at its core is a SELF issue and an understanding not only one’s self but how one exists in the world. We are what we walk between removing the idea that we are just the self and not the sum of our experiences. That we are gathered in those in between spaces. And therefore may be understood at any point as we become and others do as well.

They can kill you but the legalities of eating you are quite a bit dicier because nothing not even insecurity can combat conviction.

Experience can kill your spirit but it can’t necessarily destroy you. And if it can’t destroy you then you can always experience the regenerative powers of life.  We see this with Marathe and Steeply two guys shamelessly in drag in order to fulfill their convictions. It’s the willingness to be somewhat embarrassed for a cause they find greater than themselves that offers the power of  Self confidence that can—if they choose—transcend beyond the mission.

 

“The man who knows his limitations has none” is interesting in that it can be read as saying You have control over what limits you once you can identify it. Knowing insecurity firsthand we all know that isn’t true. In some terms this is the same mentality of control that often breeds insecurity because often not even the deepest convictions can completely overhaul who we are and the abilities we are naturally gifted. This can lead to instances where we find it necessary to mask or cover up our weaknesses.  Also the increasing desire to know more of one’s limitations in an attempt that often is fueled by desperation to fix every limitation that we perceive to be keeping us from something we desire. Using critical self awareness—Insecurity—as a weight similar to that in the ETA weight room.  We begin to find ourselves being pulled up not to our highest selves but to our insecurities—rising to a standard set by our limitations rather than pulling down the walls they create. And if “ everyone should get at least one good look at the eyes of a man who finds himself rising toward what he wants to pull down to himself…” We might one day find ourselves looking at our own eyes.

Who do we trust?

Full disclaimer: I can be an incredibly linear thinker, and so I enjoy reading Infinite Jest for the fabulous connect-the-dots plot rather than as an exercise in exploring the larger meaning of its thematics. Because themes, well you just feel them, you know? The waves of emotion that wash over you (or drill into the core of your being) almost lose their teeth, their power when we try to explain them. So I was excited by the challenge of taking another tour of IJ through a sacred lens. This to me means we should seek out the novel’s humanness – what it offers us as a path, a way to explore ourselves, our connection to those around us, and ultimately – to me the essence of all sacred texts – to provide a guide on How.To.Be.

 

So self-awareness is a wonderful place to start, and the beginning of this book is a wonderful place to explore the idea of self-awareness. The second read of IJ astounded me when I realized how much is set in motion in these first 60-odd pages. It is dense in character introductions, drops a volume of details about the setting, and contains foreshadowing out the wazoo. But it also sets the tone for our journey alongside Hal Incandenza. Who is Hal, at his core? What motivates him? Is he a trusted narrator?

 

Identity, self-awareness, and how we are perceived by others are strong threads of this work, and as such we begin in media res, dropped into the innermost core of Hal. We are trapped with him inside his head. “There is nothing wrong. I am in here,” says Hal (p. 13). He is aware of how monstrous he will present if he attempts to speak, but also seems remarkably chill about it… This young man is trapped, intellectually intact yet unable to express himself, being hauled around and propped up by C.T. and DeLint, and yet we really don’t get to understand exactly how this feels for Hal.  He asks of the recruiters “Please don’t think I don’t care” (p. 12), but he spends more time reflecting on the esthetic qualities of the bathroom floor than expressing the horror we can only believe he must feel because of his situation.  Is Hal in a place of such self-awareness that he has hit upon some sort of godhead? There’s a tranquility to his demeanor that suggests this.

 

It is this complacency that I want to pick away at and underline 1000x as we move through the novel..

 

The other Hal-centric pieces in this section, including his painstaking efforts to get high in private and his loving yet still distant conversations with his brother Mario give us little understanding of Hal’s inner sense of self, but context a-plenty to better understand his family dynamic and how he is situated within that space. He moves through these scenes like an actor playing a role. There is a considerable lack of agency.

 

In the first of the flashbacks, Hal is just a child, whose consumption of this fuzzy piece of mold has accidentally set something incredible into motion (to be believed if we read p. 12’s “Call it something I ate” at face value).  It is a pure action, bereft of intent, and really only affects Avril. In fact it is not even Hal’s own memory, but told to him by older brother Orin.

 

So let’s have a ‘conversation.’  This segment is so beautiful in its absurdist reveal, and asks for a serious suspension of disbelief, destabilizing the narrative. Who do we trust? Here 10-year old Hal watches and reflects as his father’s absurd attempt at disguising himself as a “professional conversationalist” unravels before his eyes.  The theme of talking and not being heard eerily echoes the previous section. It is interesting to note that Hal and James seem to be able to communicate as long as James is in the persona, but as the mask slips, James seems to lose the ability to understand Hal. Again in this segment, Hal reads as emotionally distant, immersed in a ridiculous situation, yet remarkably capable of handling it. This may infer that he has lived in this sort of chaos for a long time, and can brush it off easily.

 

The character study of Erdedy is fantastic piece – a short story really – that paints a remarkable picture of the addict’s twisted sense of self-awareness. Ken’s strategy that he employs each time he decides that it is the last time (burning all of his bridges and throwing away all of his paraphernalia) has time and time again proven to be an absolute failure, yet it is a process that he holds steadfast to.  He is able to be at once outside of himself and understanding that this is a pattern, but he is also powerless to change. The final frame of this story – with Erdedy paralyzed between answering the phone and answering the door, is a perfect illustration of “analysis paralysis” and how Erdedy’s addiction has eroded his sense of self.

 

If we think of self-awareness as how closely we match the identity that is reflected back on us from others (can we think if it that way?), many of the characters in this section aren’t who they say they are, or they act outside of their stated code: Hal as a secret dope smoker; Don Gately as a murderer instead of a burglar; JOI as a conversationalist; Erdedy as a “casual” dope smoker; even Bruce Green who changes for his love Mildred Bonk. And we are also privy to two sections with a hidden narrator, from both the story of Wardine and the face in the floor.

 

We are also introduced to the visual theme of heads (read into that what you will)

 

  • From the very first sentence, Hal is first surrounded by “heads and bodies”, before they resolve into the Deans of the U of Arizona.
  • The stand-out sentence that seems completely out of place on page 16- 17  “I think of John N.R. Wayne, who would have won this year’s WhataBurger, standing watch in a mask as Don Gately and I dig up my father’s head”.
  • Himself stating that a cartridge of identical material to tennis rackets has been implanted in his head. (p. 31)
  • The phone conversation with Orin on page 32 when Orin says “My head is filled with things to say”, as well as the first mention of Mario’s oversized skull.
  • Orin’s dream on page 46 of “the Moms’s disconnected head attached face-to-face to his own fine head” and the description of the paranoid schizophrenic’s treatment on the CBC program (pg 48).
  • Don Gately’s “massive and almost perfectly square head
  • DuPlessis’s death from suffocation due to the gag and his terrible head cold.
  • The terrifying “face in the floor” on page 62.

 

 

So what’s the sacred take-away from this segment of the novel?  For me it may be that self-awareness is incredibly difficult to develop. We are skilled at self-sabotage, we bury our emotions, we allow others to manipulate our own intentions for their gain.  In the arc of this narrative, it makes sense that we begin here, and as we follow Hal, and Don, and the rest, we hope to glean something from their journey towards their true selves.

Mnemonic Steroids: Secrecy, Biopolitics, Performance

Hi Hals and professional conversationalists of the Infinite Jest Internet a.k.a. world! Here’s my first go at reading IJ using Lectio Divina, with questions from our guide of guides Emily Hoffman:

 

Lectio Divina leads me to page 30:

“…that her introduction of esoteric mnemonic steroids, stereo-chemically not dissimilar to your father’s own daily hypodermic ‘megavitamin’ supplement derived from a certain organic testosterone-regeneration compound distilled by the Jivaro shamen of the South-Central L.A. basin, into your innocent-looking bowl of morning Ralston.”

 

1)   What is literally happening in the text?

 

Hal talks to a professional conversationalist who tells him that his mother was lacing his cereal with steroids made to increase his memory and recall capacities.  At this point in the novel, we don’t yet know that Hal knows it’s his father in disguise, but it’s clear that Hal’s aware something’s askew.

 

2)   What is happening on an allegorical level?

 

The themes of secrecy, biopolitics, and performance recur throughout Infinite Jest. This passage makes me think of Hal’s secrets with himself and the secrets within his family. It also makes me think of the various ways that the pressure to perform and compete is internalized by the characters.

 

The range of global connections within that sentence (i.e. history of chemical makeup of steroid that’s added to Hal’s cereal) is characteristic of IJ for me; I often feel that one thing leads to another but that it’s nowhere as clear as cause-and-effect, and that IJ’s sentence and narrative structure acknowledges this overwhelming complexity that is impossible to grasp.

3)   What does this remind me of from my own life?

 

This sentence reminds me of the various substances I’ve ingested to conform and perform. It also makes me think about the personas that people may need in order to speak to those they care about.

 

4) What action does this call me to do?

 

The range of connections of each thing to another, and the vast complexity of trying to understand and trace these connections urges me to accept people as they are, and to acknowledge that I will never be able to know someone fully.

 

The fact that J.O.I. can’t talk to his own son as himself leads me to question the many ways that our conversations with each other are mediated. It reminds me try to speak openly, especially to those I love, regardless of how corny some things may sound.

What is left unexpressed

1.What role does internal narrative play in self expression?

 

2.Your inner narrative interpreting the times where you float with the buoyancy of hope and sink with an inability to grab hold of perspective.

 

3.Accepting

 

  1. A meeting is taking place inside an unassigned office occupied by Harold Incandenza and various University of Arizona Staff.

 

5.The suspended state from which Hal, observers, Narrates, and acts (and at times doesn’t act) in this scene is telling, From the moments where Hal questions whether or not to “risk” scratching the side of his jaw to his long winded internal response to the over arching reason they are all gathered in that moment; A response that never quite materializes into anything of substance.

 

 

6.This moment in the story is when I was forced to contemplate my own vice, over thinking myself out of conversations, actions, and even responses. When I place myself next to Hal at  the moment I find that DFW is making a striking assertion about how crippling over thinking can truly be especially when accompanied by someone like Hal’s Uncle CT. who leaves little room with all his coaching for Hal to express without over analyzing.

 

  1. Is the illness real or a result of all things perceived.

 

  1. The desire for perfectionism, to show “them”, to express what is actually going on inside not only the situation but the person can leave a crippling anxiety when juxtaposed with a critical or calculating inner conversation.

 

  1. Fashioning reactions to stimuli rather than reacting.

 

  1. When interrupted with the scene of Hal eating the mold I not only stand with April Incandenza, concerned, disgusted, and questioning but I too enter into the space that Wallace illustrates with this scene.

 

  1. Critical Self awareness has a clever way of making your worst fears come true. Marked by a constant questioning one self, overly concerned with the way people will perceive you.

 

12.Left with a disgusting feeling that something quite important in you. Something people should know, had been left unexpressed.

 

 

 

  1. Is it out of self expression that we break undesirable patterns?
  2. Clinging to a comfortable habit that failed to express who Erdedy desired to be. He waits for the young woman
  3. Catalysts can come in the form of other people. People can also be manipulated into enabling us.
  4. Erdedy  is addicted to weed. This is obvious in his desire to stop but his inability to follow through. His preparations are a part of his ritual. Obsessive personalities can often be expressed through ritual and addiction and this can be attached to a number of things
  5. Maybe then it is out of escape from one’s self that we form these habits and rituals. This being the reason Erdedy feels that rather than tell people that his problem is in fact pot. He in various situations convinces people there are other reasons behind his use or purchase of large amounts.
  6. Erdedy is on edge during his wait for fear of missing her. His fear of being unable to complete the ritual. The way we all fear at some point or another let go of one part of our self. One that may not fit as well as others into the overall person we feel we are.

7.While waiting to complete the ritual, Erdedy stifles himself thinking “very broadly of desires and ideas being watched but not acted upon”

  1. In a moment where the reader might think Erdedy is coming to Grips with his problem with pot both the phone and intercom rings
  2. And here lies the issue for Erdedy. Fear. The question of “ how do I  to act in a way that’s going to bring to me that which I desire?”  Fear of missing the mark, the desired outcome for any given situation.
  3. Worrying so much about the outcome of a future action that he in fact fails to act. The way Wallace illustrates this scene for us Erdedy trying to move towards both so that he “Stood splayed legged, arms wildly out…”  shows just how absurd these fears can be. When you’re so worried you’ll miss something that you miss it anyway.

 

 

  1. Don Gately for me is a representation of how things can sometimes just go wrong.
  2. “Drug addicts driven to crime to finance their addiction are not often inclined toward violent crime. Violence requires all different kinds of energy, and most drug addicts like to expend their energy not on their professional crime. But on what their professional crime affords them”
  3. Though we don’t see where Gately has been planning this burglary we know him to be some what of a professional.
  4. Do we expect professionals to never make mistakes or have incidents?
  5. The inability of Gately and DuPlessis to communicate brings to question the what if’s?
    What if Gately had understood Quebecois French? Would the Robbery have turned out differently? Would it have been a burglary.
  6. DFW alludes in the end that despite Don Gately completely acting as himself  in the way he had “no will to energy-consuming violence…”  He was still responsible for the death of DuPlessis and there would be consequences
  7. Not all of the consequences of living out of yourself will be bad and they can often leave you better off than overthinking your way out of yourself.

The familiar panic at being misperceived

Among other less-than-savory monikers like the Special Snowflakes or Participation Trophy Kids, people my age have been referred to as the Self-Expression Generation. For better or worse, Millennials were brought up to value the ability to convey ones inner-self to be perceived by others. Self-expression can be a valuable tool in the human quest to escape isolation. However, in the 21st century, the desire to express oneself has been commodified by social media and exploited by, to quote the David Foster Wallace character in The End of the Tour, “people who do not love us but want our money.” We all want to be perceived as we truly are, but is that even possible?

In the opening scene of Infinite Jest, we find Hal Incandenza, age 18, in a college admissions meeting. Acutely self-aware and painfully self-conscious, Hal has a big problem: he’s completely incapable of self-expression. As readers, we can hear Hal’s thoughts. They’re sensitive, perceptive and articulate. But when Hal tries to speak out loud, his words are perceived as inhuman sounds. Even his movements are uncontrolled, spasmodic, to the point of warranting emergency medical attention. Hal tries desperately to communicate with other people, mentally screaming “I’m in here. I’m not what you see and hear.” But all that comes out are unintelligible noises.

The phenomenon of failed self-expression, which Hal describes as “the familiar panic at being misperceived,” is a universal human experience. On a deeply personal level, we all know the frustration of being misunderstood when our words come out wrong. We’ve all felt the pit-of-your-stomach sensation when some self-expression, be it a new haircut, some work of art we’ve created, or a bold declaration of feeling, is met with confusion, ridicule, or indifference. But we also suffer from this on a larger cultural scale. When one side of the political divide in America tries to express its point of view, what the other side hears is incoherent, almost inhuman.

We met several characters this week, many of whom struggled with self-expression in the context of the story. For instance, Ken Erdedy obsessively composes his disingenuous persona in order to hide the truth about his marijuana addiction from even the dealers selling him huge quantities of the drug. However, one particular character in this week’s reading has self-expression problems stemming not from the narrative, but from the form of the novel itself. Clenette Henderson, a young black woman, is introduced in a section written from her perspective in a vernacular that reads like an outdated, insensitive swing at Ebonics. Lines like, “Wardine be like to die of scared,” are tone-deaf at best. While I choose to believe good intentions of the author, this section is definitely hard to swallow. It’s as if the character is unable to express herself authentically due to the limitations of the author. I find myself wondering what Clenette might sound like were she written by someone more in tune with her experience. While she may make us uncomfortable, the Clenette we get in this week’s reading has a lot to teach us about expression, representation and appropriation. I hope you’ll all join me in grappling with these issues in the forums this week.

When Hal’s father tries to achieve a connection with his son by disguising himself as a “Professional Conversationalist,” he thwarts his own efforts by indulging in self-expression over actually listening to his son. When the elder Incandenza attempts to strike up a conversation about one of Hal’s interests, Byzantine erotica, Hal obliges, asking “Alexandrian or Constantinian?” But Hal’s father, laboring under the delusion that Hal is incapable of speech, plows on without acknowledging Hal, and derails the conversation by unleashing a litany of accusations against Hal and his mother. He’s incapable of hearing anything Hal has to say. Instead, he pontificates, preferring to express himself than truly communicate with Hal. There’s a dark side to self-expression. When we express ourselves at the cost of a two-way dialogue, self-expression can be the death of genuine human connection.

This week, I’d like to take my first stab at the sacred reading practice of Lectio Divina. More accurately, I’ll be practicing the version of Lectio Divina as revised by Vanessa Zoltan and Casper Ter Kuile of the Harry Potter & the Sacred Text podcast. Here’s how it works: I will flip open to a random page from this week’s reading, blindly select a sentence, and ask myself four questions. First, what is the literal meaning of the sentence? Second, what is the allegorical meaning within the context of the book? Third, what in my own life does this remind me of? Fourth and finally, what action does it call me to do? Let’s jump right in.

From page 31: “Who’s lived his whole ruddy bloody cruddy life in five-walled rooms?”

  1. This line is spoken by the Professional Conversationalist/James Orin Incandenza during his rant. He’s telling Hal about the relationship he (JOI) had with his own father, whose newspaper formed a wall between the two, prohibiting a communicative relationship.
  2. JOI has an intense need to express his sorrow over his repeated failure to establish true connections with the people he loves. However, he’s unable to see that this very desire to share his feelings is further alienating Hal.
  3. This sentence makes me think about self-awareness. JOI can’t see the role he plays in the failed communication between Himself and his loved ones. In my job teaching and caring for young children, I deal with a lot of difficult behaviors. Many times, when nothing I’ve tried has worked, I realize that the challenging behaviors I see in a child are actually a reaction to something that I could be doing better.
  4. This moment in Infinite Jest calls me to be more aware of the effect I have on others, and when faced with a difficult problem, always ask myself, “What could I be doing better?” Even when we’re not the sole cause of our own troubles, there’s always something we could change within ourselves to improve the situation.

 

It’s a new year. Here in America, we have a new president. What feels like a fresh start to some feels like the end of days to others. We’re divided, and everyone wants to make their stance known. Whether in the hopes of being understood by the other side, or of being identified with by like-minded people, we all want to express ourselves. We all want to be heard and understood. This is inherently American, unavoidably human. But if the first pages of Infinite Jest have one thing to teach us about the human impulse of self-expression, it’s that there’s another side to the equation which is equally important. We express ourselves to feel less alone. But to truly bridge the gap between two individuals, or two sides of a divided nation, we have to do something else. We have to listen.

 

An Uncompromising Love

I met Infinite Jest at a time when I was majorly depressed and in withdrawal from various drugs and alcohol. I was 20 or 21. I felt known for the first time — I realize how much of an ontological problem it is for a book to know a person, but it’s true.

I came to Infinite Jest after reading “Good Old Neon” from Oblivion. I remember being stunned by the intricacy of each shift in the narrator’s and the character’s perception, the way “David Wallace” is brought into the story, and the unbelievable patience it must have taken to think it through, and to write with such attention – despite the harrowing content. I’d never read anything like it.

 

It’s this quality of patience and attention I sense in DFW’s work that makes me want to read Infinite Jest seven years later for the fifth time. I feel that I always learn something new each time I read it, but more than anything what I love about IJ is that it’s uncompromising; each character is thought out so deeply and thoroughly — no one is “good” or “bad.” I feel that there is a generosity in this and that this is an attitude I aspire to when thinking of others and myself.

 

Gaudeamus!