July 6, 2009

Of attachment in Infinite Jest

[The spoiler line is currently page 168.]

Scribbled down on the back of my Infinite Summer Bookmark:  “Our attachments are our temple, what we worship, no?  What we give ourselves to, what we invest with faith” (107).  These words are from a conversation between Marathe and Steeply. Marathe has been expressing his frustration with Steeply’s real or pretended ignorance about history–literary and otherwise–and etymology. Steeply, in turn, is amused that Marathe is about to launch into what must be one of his pet lecture topics. Despite Steeply’s derision, Marathe is insistant, “Make amusement all you wish.  But choose with care.  You are what you love.  No?” (107).  Marathe has, up the same page a bit, defined love as attachment.

When I read this passage, it resonated thematically with an earlier conversation between Mario and Schtitt (and, really, an unnamed narrator, who bursts in on page 82 and takes on the expository role that he finds Mario incapable of), where Schtitt, commenting on the modern idea of happiness as “The happy pleasure of the person alone, yes?” (83).  He continues “Without there is something bigger.  Nothing to contain and give the meaning.  Lonely.  Verstiegenheit” (83).

DFW glosses the foreign word, in note 36, as “Low-Bavarian for something like ‘wandering alone in a blasted disorienting territory beyond all charted limits and orienting markers,’ supposedly.”  The Walace Wiki glosses it as “litterally German for ‘eccentricity’.”

It’s clear enough from just the opening pages that subjectivity is going to be one of Wallace’s concerns in Infinite Jest.  And I’ve often heard that, along with it, loneliness is as well.  This makes sense, as “post-post-” modern life, despite all of the ubiquetious technologies we design to faciliate interaction, of which this post is part and parcel, can feel fairly isolated. I’m typing this and you’re reading it. We’ve likely never met and likely never will. Yet, on a certain lexical level, you and I might know more about one another than I and plenty of other people I’ve met in the “real wold” do.  Still, sitting on opposite ends of this node, the connection certainly feels a lot less real, doesn’t it? In fact it is not unlike the real-yet-not-real conversation authors and readers have had as long as there have been authors and readers, separated in time and space (essentially, since the birth of writing itself).

Marathe, a fanatic, a devotee of a cause larger than himself, is caught in a bind between the love of the cause he believes in, and his love of his sick wife. We don’t know, at this point in the novel, which one he will be willing to sacrafice for the other.

Schtitt and Marathe agree that individualism is a problem and attachment is the solution.  Marathe defines the thing deserving of such devotion as that for which one would die without a second though, or, in his sometimes pidgin English, “without, as you say, the thinking twice” (107). Schtitt seems more ambivalent about it. His concluding comment to Mario is “Any something.  The what:  this is more unimportant than that there is something” (83).  And, though the syntax of that line is certainly open to interpretation, I think the point is that having something larger than the self in which to believe is more important than the real existence of that chosen thing.

How this argument grows and shakes out will be interresting to see, as there are fairly obvious dangers both to Marathe’s fanaticism and Schtitt’s pragmatic nihilism. I’m just curious at this point; I’m not entirely sure where DFW will (or would) pitch his weight.

[This post was also published at Infinite Zombies, a group blog of readers of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.]

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