Eat Your Smile: Addiction and Where to Put It, Exactly

The following page numbers correspond with David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, the 2006 printing (although I’m not sure the page numbers will change from the 1996 edition).
The proposed cover for Infinite Jest: Fritz Lang directing Metropolis. The actual cover of both the original and 2006 editions are “skyscapes”; the 20th anniversary cover is more of a TV/cassette tape with an eye on it.

I’m sitting in the university library. It’s a Tuesday night, around ten pm. The fluorescent lights above me flicker between on to less-on in accordance with the motion-sensor activity. To my right is my stack of book on Nancy Drew and video gaming w/r/t children. To my left are books on a high wooden library-grade shelf. A few of the titles: Perceptual learning and adaptation; Categorizing Cognition; Individual Differences in Cognition, Vol. 1. In the center of my head, right behind my eyes, plays spellwrks’ “Overthinking [LP],” courtesy of in-ear headphones. The bass line pumps at the same time as my blood; the scratching and trip-hop aspects of the song stutters with my brain activity, a scratched spinning CD on a Walkman. “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Decides?” a book on a separate shelf from the psychology texts asks me.

To get to this spot, I walked up the stairs to the second floor, through the glass doors, past my peers who crowd around the sacred tables next to the waist-high glass panes overlooking the first floor, back through long rows of books, past a (presumed) homeless man[1] with a large suitcase, past a young man sitting on the opposite side of these townhome-style desks, and sit down at my own private cubicle with high blue walls and a small cave under which sit my books and empty tea cup. A near-demolished copy of Infinite Jest sits to my immediate left, separated from those invasive psychology books on the shelves. This is a public library. Is there a Poor Tony, seemingly permanently fixed to a toilet in the male bathroom? Who else is detoxing in here?

And although Bozeman is not Boston[2], there is an Enfield Tennis Academy near the fieldhouse, a Man o’ War Grille on Prospect on Main St. in The Cannery, an Ennet Recovery House near the hospital, an Antitoi Brothers Entertainment in Rook’s Games. It is all in the map, now perhaps the terrain; the pages are not separate from reality.

What may I say about my intentions when I shield myself from my peers with giant walls of books? I notice that there are not many people with library books sitting next to their laptops, signalling that this is more of a place of commune and social gathering than it is acquisition of knowledge. Surrounded by my finds, I feel special, above. These objects are my entertainment — they are also my downfall.

First mentioned in endnote 24, The Entertainment sits deeply embedded within James O. Incandenza’s filmography, waiting for readers to recognize its presence. The Near-Eastern Medical Attaché serves as an example of its effect; unable to get up and feed himself or go to the bathroom as un-affected citizens would be able to do, he is captured, enrapt, complacent in the gaze of both the film and Joelle Van Dyne.

“Petrified. Ossified. Inanimate,” offers Marathe.

“No. Not inanimate. More like the opposite. More as it… stuck in some way.” […]

“Glued?

“Stuck. Fixed. Held. Trapped. As in trapped in some sort of middle. Between two things. Pulled apart in different directions.” […]

“Meaning between different cravings of great intensity, this.”

“Not even cravings so much. Emptier than that. As if he were stuck wondering. As if there was something he’d forgotten.”

“Misplaced. Lost.”

Steeply settles on lost.

“As you wish” (647).

Insofar as The Entertainment captures the viewers immediately and indefinitely, it stands as a representation of the antidote to an addiction to thinking. While viewing the film, the audience is rendered incapable of moving, even to complete tasks that would help them survive (drink water, go to the bathroom in the bathroom, eat). Pursued because of these incapacitating abilities, the A.F.R. intends to use this as a terrorist device against O.N.A.N. so that Quebec will “be not so much allowed as required by Ottawa to secede” (722). The geopolitics in the background of the purposeful usage of the tape do not overshadow the philosophical implications of The Entertainment, as they more inform the severity of the addiction. It is, however, important to note that the viewers of the film, regardless of their mental or physical capacities are equally rendered inutile by it; that is to say that all viewers are seen as equals in the eye of The Entertainment and are treated as such.

In a psych ward, attempting to diagnose her depression, a doctor interviews Kate Gompert. She has a difficult time stating exactly how she feels, trying out explaining that “‘this,’ — she gestured at herself — ‘isn’t a state. This is a feeling. I feel it all over. In my arms and legs’” (73). She is a head explaining a body, although they are intricately intertwined, impossible to separate peacefully. So she asks to be sedated for a month, to be put in “a controlled coma” (75). Entertain the thought, she begs. Just take her out of the misery that causes the pain and nausea of cells, “just get [her] out of this” (78). To be in the present moment, as Eckhart Tolle begs her to remember, is, for Gompert, not a relief from thinking, but rather to embody and realize an inescapable pain.

Although Kate Gompert may, in fact, be the perfect subject for the A.F.R. given her descriptions of depression, it is made clear that both Poor Tony and Randy Lenz are also beneficial for the Quebecois separatist group because they are simply bodies to be disposed of[3]. The dispassionate and objective collection of test subjects is still not so clinical — it is representative of the vast and overwhelming reach of an addiction to thinking. After all, there is not a person alive today that can survive without thinking[4]. All suffer from this addiction to thought, and thus all will be enraptured by the film.

The film itself is a simple premise, at least as far as Joelle Van Dyne discusses it with Steeply near the end of the novel. She suggests that the film was not what led to J.O.I.’s suicide, but rather it was the withdrawal from alcohol — a rather straightforward, if not even somewhat standard reason for suicide. Joelle appears detached in the interview, as if she would rather be doing anything else. Yet the people who are ensnared by it, although they experience the most simplistic and primal form of happiness and bliss, find themselves in the intricate and not in the slightest simple web that surrounds The Entertainment’s presence[5]. It becomes apparent that the complexity surrounding the film is caused by the viewers and their reaction. J.O.I. has created the perfect entertainment (as opposed to The Failed Entertainment, the original title) insofar as it has accomplished all end-goals of marketing and televised entertainment schemes: keep the viewer there indefinitely via totally enrapturing entertainment and self-gratifying, simplistic plots so that just the right amount of thinking is involved for the product to be accessible on a basic, universal level (in this case, the “right amount” is something like none at all). The tension that is created from too much choice of entertainment is destructive in the end, as it is impossible to satisfy our own needs when we are our “own programming director.” We do not want to “define the very entertainment-happiness it [is our] right to pursue” (416)[6].

Whether intentionally or not, Wallace presents a similar struggle within the novel itself through the symbolic titular connection between J.O.I.’s work and his own. Scores of readers-turned-(Amazon)-reviewers close its covers (shut off the screen) before they can entirely invest themselves within the novel, signalling, perhaps, Wallace’s own opinion of himself and his work insofar as the film Infinite Jest is immediately enrapturing, and the novel, it seems, is not. Or perhaps this is a clear critique of the readers of themselves due to the fact that they did not allow themselves to fully realize the complexity, importance, and mind-altering substances within the novel due to their inability to simply stop thinking. The serious, more dedicated readers of the novel[7] are there to play the game as it were and, by result, own up to and revel in their addiction to thinking through their continuous attachment and dedication to the novel and its story. As with film students, however, readers must simultaneously be aware of the threat of “reading too deeply” into the novel, as this may be exactly why Wallace intersperses huge philosophical and existential sections with reminders of the giant, radioactive babies crawling around the Great Concavity[8]. We, the readers, make the game a difficult yet addicting one, recognizing the deep importance of Wallace’s subtle statement within the lines that he’s sorry for this text.

But to become paralyzed by fear or terror at the sight of a smiley face is also to lose — to become lost. To stop moving is to settle into the easy chair and relegate ourselves to the position of the infantile medical attaché, plastic (yet somehow adult) bib strapped to our front, staring at the lines on the pages until we become incapable of moving ourselves away. So we continue on, flipping page after page, mimicking tennis with our heads between the story and the subtler story in the endnotes. The infinitesimally thin line between “reading too much” and “reading too little” into the text becomes perfectly crystalline as we straddle this line through our thoughts and addiction to them. To be able to “know what is on them,” these pages, those tapes, we keep reading, for “who can study the Entertainment while detached?” (489)

So then the bliss begins. There[9] we are on that page; I Identify here. Whether it is Gompert’s Great White Shark of pain and depression or Kevin Bain’s own self-sacrificial and referential discovery of underlying childhood trauma or Hal’s basic inability to feel anything outside of his husk of self, each page has the potential to bring tears to our eyes and make us realize that we are not alone, that we are represented through and by this novel. What more blissful experience could there be than seeing yourself represented so accurately and completely, in the crib where you’d lie, awaiting the milkily-obscured yet soothing vision of the one who was supposed to love you the most?

Marathe’s reflection on the specifically American taste to the intrigue of The Entertainment may provide insights into the ways in which we view thinking and the value of addictions within our own specific cultural context. What do we want on a basic level? “Freedom from tyranny, from excessive want, fear, censorship of speech and thought…We want choice. A sense of efficaciousness and choice…Not to be agendalessly despised” (423): a basic American landscape of thought and thought practise. But perhaps more than all, behind the fear of tyrannical systems impeding our so-thought “paths to happiness,” is the sense that we are not able to “balance [our] interests” (429). We require the assistance of others in this way, and all falls apart when we realize that this also requires the destructive of the idea that we should be independent, self-sustaining, and ultimately in control[10]. This, Marathe argues, is the complication behind the idea of The Entertainment. If we “do not fear so many U.S.A.s cannot make the enlightened choice,” “why make a simple Entertainment?” (430) Addiction to the film results in an “outing” of those who are not in control of their desires, which is, appropriately, everyone.

And so this addiction to thinking is caused by an overthinking and thus dependency on the capacity for thought to become the only mode of managing the world. When Americans are rendered paralyzed by the sheer number of choices they may have, thinking critically about their situation (however menial) may be the only way out. But what to do when this very source of ability to handle an individual world becomes also something to which you are addicted? Your only choice is to replace an addiction with another — to walk between cages, unaware of the space between those cages[11].

I’ve travelled across a campus and a city since the inception of this paper. In that walk, ideas came and went, still skipping like a broken, ever-repeating record. I now sit on a 70s lounge chair in a dorm room surrounded by furniture made by inmates and dirty clothes. What cages have I walked into and out of unknowingly? How to stop The Entertainment’s presence in my life, in my bag, in my thoughts? Where may the next cage lie, door open, promising me bliss, unable to fully satisfy my constantly waning p-terminals? What do I let out of the cage when I crave the chance to sit down with this piece of entertainment, yet choose instead to watch TP or eat a sky-high sandwich, containing anything I can find?

Although my physical location may have changed since the beginning, my thoughts have never stopped quieted. They never do. Like drinking, smoking, eating: can’t stop. I have moved, and I have purged at least a small part of the overlapping and interrupting sentences in my brain. The Entertainment continues; I am in here.

[1] Here, I ignore and resist the “Id”-part of me that thinks I should sit down next to him and actually ask him if he is homeless.

[2] The first letters of these cities catching my Wallace-ized attention briefly.

[3] Similar to the decaying, hygienically sealed bodies of the Antitoi brothers (723).

[4] Regardless of depth of thought, all people are made equal by thought: “I think therefore I am.” There have also been recent studies that destroy any notion that comatose patients are brain-dead — quite the contrary, it seems, which has led to a relatively massive uprisal against euthanasia or the colloquially-termed Americanized tradition of “pulling the plug.”

[5] See, for example, Marathe’s involvement between the A.F.R and Office of Unspecified Services as a presumed triple agent, in actuality a quadruple agent.

[6] Yet it is the people around it that complicate the process of the film and its creator, reflecting on the faultlessness of Joelle being both a film major in the beginning and the focus of J.O.I.’s attention due to her nonchalant and unaffected reaction to it.

[7] The people who make it to the end, you could say.

[8] Or Great Convexity, depending on your own personal national affiliation.

[9] Sometimes as violent an insertion as Lenz’s (in regards to his/our issue resolution) (541).

[10] “Their normal paralyzed status allowed these patients’ own minds to chew themselves apart” (72).

[11] Here a discussion of “WE ARE WHAT WE WALK BETWEEN” painted on the walls of E.T.A. (81) becomes extremely relevant, as it asks precisely what that space may consist of. Can we say it is the sadness that comes with quitting an addiction, partially consisting of a subconscious awareness that we are on our way to the next cage? Or is it the elation that arrives when we wake up one morning and realize that we haven’t thought about a cigarette for a few hours, instead of the normal five-minute timespan?

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