Infinite Jest and Moralistic Therapeutic Deism
April 16, 2009
Judging by its sudden leap to the top of the bestsellers list in the wake of David Foster Wallace’s suicide, I’m guessing I’m not the only person rereading Infinite Jest. This is a good thing; it’s a fantastic book, definitely worth the considerable effort necessary to get through it. I first got acquainted with Wallace’s writing back in highschool and I think it’s managed to lodge itself deep in some reptilian part of my brain, so much so that going back to it is like revisiting places from my adolescence… His writing has that fine blend of sarcasm, empathy, and poor editing that makes for incredible story telling that spans a huge emotional range.
One scene I had completely forgotten really struck me when I read it this morning, particularly given the recent discussions of American’s natural deism circulating the blogosphere…. The scene concerns Gately, a recently clean Alcoholics Anonymous member who works at the halfway house where much of Infinite Jest takes place and who spends the first 500 pages of the book working and trying to empathize, a la the AA-credo, with people he pretty much can’t stand. Then we get to this beauty around pg. 359…
…Gately had an epiphanic AA-related nocturnal dream he’ll be the first to admit was banally trite. In the dream Gately and row after row of totally average and non-unique citizens were kneeling on their knees on polyester cushions in a crummy low-rent church basement. The basement was your average low-rent church basement except for this dream-church’s walls were this weird thin clear glass. Everybody was kneeling on these cheap but comfortable cushions, and it was weird because nobody seemed to have any clear idea why they were all on their knees, and there was like no tier-boss or sergeant at arms type figure around coercing them into kneeling, and yet there was this sense of some compelling unspoken reason why they were all kneeling… …And but then some lady over to Gately’s left got off her knees and all of a sudden stood up, just like to stretch, and the minute she stood up she was all of a sudden yanked backward with terrible force and sucked out through one of the clear glass walls of the basement…
A bit further on Gately notices a giant shepherd’s crook dragging away those who dare to stand up…
Gately turned his big head as far as he could without leaving the cushion and could see, now, just outside the wall’s clean pane, trolling with the big stick, an extraordinarily snappily dressed and authoritative figure manipulating the giant shepherd’s crook with one hand and coolly examining the nails of his other hand from behind a mask that was simply the plain yellow smiley-face circle that accompanied invitations to have a nice day… The slow silent stick with the hook he held was what kept them all kneeling below the baroque little circumferences of its movement overhead.
The masked figure is a metaphor for the Out There of modern life, the ever-present threat of blissful relapse, while the walls of the church basement and the practice of AA (kneel, thank the higher power, repeat), is the only barrier standing between the members and their death. This is more or less the core of Wallace’s moral vision in the book: that the refusal to succumb to entertainment, be it drugs or tennis or eponymous deadly video cartridges, is noble and is the first step to living an authentic life. And that the only way to do that is to adhere to the rules which give life meaning, which are often nonsensical and certainly not very entertaining.
Of course, to anyone speaking within in the Christian tradition, this should sound familiar. The notion that law and custom and tradition in all their boring splendor are the life-giving forces has extremely deep roots in the West, as it does in different ways all over the world. What makes Wallace’s take on it so interesting is that he doesn’t tie it to anything beyond AA’s fiercely non-denominational creed. This requires prayer, a recognition of a higher power, and regular meetings with the similarly afflicted, but that’s pretty much it, and Wallace constantly reminds us just how difficult even these basic steps are for people of a postmodern persuasion.
Wallace’s portrayal of the moral dimensions of therapy put him intriguing close to Therapeutic Moral Deism, that weird amalgamation of self-help, common sense, and non-political posturing that Tocqueville predicted, Reiff dissected, and which increasing numbers of Americans subscribe to. It’s a view that boils down to a dessicated theism that is rarely brought up in public and plays a minimal role in political life. Orthodoxy, dogma, staid interpretations, and the traditions that give us those beliefs are put to the side or forgotten outright. All that matters is that everyone have a comfortable life, that we all get along, and that we be able to find meaning when we need it. Though Wallace is a bit more explicitly existential in his dealing with these issues, the language he uses to explore them is at core pulled from MTD, and the remarkable thing about his moral voice is his ability to take that language and show that it can indeed come to matter for us, via institutions like AA, despite its seeming banality.
I bring this up becaue the subject of MTD has has been a hot topic in the interesting parts of the internet for the last few days, and the one point almost everyone seems to agree on is just how gross MTD is culturally speaking, without making distinctions as to MTD’s internal divisions. Damon Linker thinks it’s good politically if pretty damn vapid culturally. Rod Dreher thinks it’s very bad on all counts. James Poulos points out how much all of this was described already by Toqueville, and also says it’s got potential to outdo pantheism in overall lameness. And at least on the political front, I’m inclined to agree with Dreher; having a substantial politically active religious life, be it liberal or conservative, is important, and makes the kind of prophetic message of movements like Civil Rights possible to begin with. It would be sad to see some combination of Eckhart Tolle and Joel Osteen replacing Reinhold Niebuhr and MLK in the American soul, and I think Dreher is more or less right on this count.
But putting political issues to the side for the moment (as if that was possible), it’s worth asking what parts of the MTD we’re talking about here, since like any broad cultural movement it has many facets, some trite and others profound. Of course, it’s easy to see something as life-sucking and ultimately transgressive in MTD when our model for it is something like, oh, Orgasmic Meditation, but those kinds of organizations and belief structures are ultimately derivative of a much older strain in Therapeutic thinking, that concerned with actual therapy. This strain, which thankfully avoided Freud and probably has its strongest articulation in Alcoholics Anonymous, was one of the first to promote the “spiritual and not religious” mantra, and carries with it all the heterodoxy that entails. It’s this side of MTD that Wallace brings out: one which caters not to the hypochondriac, but to those who have been truly ruined. What Gatley’s dream shows, and what Infinite Jest is ultimately about, is that for the sick, moral deistic therapy can lead to a deep, nourishing, communal, and above all interdictory relationship with the divine and the social order, and which will always be a matter of ultimate concern, since the alternative is guaranteed death. And this is surely something we can all recognize as being important and of value, despite its bland ecumenical flavor.