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infinitedetox: Waving the White Flag: Reading as Rehabilitation

07.22.09 | 45 Comments

infinitedetox is blogging about addiction and Infinite Jest at infinitedetox.wordpress.com.

My name is infinitedetox and I am an addict.

Some time around May, 2004, I willfully entered into a relationship with pharmaceutical opiates. It began as a sort of experiment, quickly escalated into a recreation, and from there vectored toward present-day dependency on a straight line whose slope was gradual, but unwavering.

In December of last year it became apparent that this line would never flatten out or stabilize on its own, that it would just keep trundling on upwards, tending toward infinity given infinite time. This is when I started to get scared.

David Foster Wallace had just passed away and I decided to re-read41 Infinite Jest over the holidays, and something difficult to explain happened to me when I began digging into the book again. Somehow the book–and now brace yourself for one of those clichés that Wallace seems so interested in in IJmade me want to be a better person. And it inspired me to stop taking drugs immediately, to Kick the Bird, via a mechanism which I’ve had a hard time articulating. But let me give it a stab anyway.

You’ve probably noticed that the idea of self-surrender is treated as a sort of grand, motivating force throughout Infinite Jest – cf. “American experience seems to suggest that people are virtually unlimited in their need to give themselves away” (p. 53); cf. the Ennet House’s unnamed founder’s “sudden experience of total self-surrender”; and especially cf. every addicted character’s surrender to their enslaving Substance, every recovering character’s surrender to a Higher Power, and can it be just a coincidence that Don Gately’s very own AA group goes by the name White Flag?

Now let’s take a book. Any book will do, but I think Big Books like Infinite Jest or Gravity’s Rainbow or Ulysses work particularly well.42 The thing with books – the more you put into them, the more you get out of them (“Give It Away To Keep It”). You may not care about junior tennis or Quebecois separatism or avant-garde film or AA cliché-mongering, but if you’re going to make any sense of Infinite Jest you’re probably going to have to start caring, a lot. You’re going to have to accept that proto-fascist tennis instructors and disabled pistol-toting terrorists are capable of delivering frighteningly insightful critiques of U.S. culture. You’re going to have to lay aside your Irony Shields and believe, with all your heart, that clichés can be just as potent as Don Gately says they are. In other words, you’re going to have to surrender to the book.

Be careful not to confuse surrender with passivity. I’m talking about an active surrender here. The actively-surrendered reader will sift through reams of mathematical arcana in order to tease out the implications of an oblique reference, or follow an obscure narrative thread deep into the bowels of Greek mythology to flesh out the author’s hinted-at ideas. Surrendered readers develop an eye for the author’s shortcomings. They share in the author’s failings. They are engaged, but not encaged.43 It may be instructive to compare active surrender with the drooling, pants-soiling passivity of Substance abuse and Entertainment addiction as portrayed in IJ.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. What happened to me, on December 26, 2008, is that I surrendered myself completely to Infinite Jest. I signed some sort of metaphorical blood-oath committing myself to looking at the world through David Foster Wallace’s eyes. And what happened then was that I saw myself as DFW would have seen me, refracted through the wobbly nystagmic lens of Infinite Jest. Wallace’s judgments on addicts and addictions fell upon me with great force, and something about the ferocity of his critique, coupled with his profound compassion and humaneness toward the subject, compelled me to waste absolutely zero time in booting the pills and Getting My Shit Together.

Of course, the book ended, and vacation along with it. The circumstances of life returned to normal, and life’s normal stresses and anxieties returned along with them. I stayed clean for exactly two weeks, after which the addiction vector resumed its patient acclivation at precisely the same point it left off. My Shit went back into diaspora.

Fast-forward six months or so and here we are: another reading of Infinite Jest, another Total Surrender, another attempt to Starve the Beast. I don’t know, though – I’ve got a good feeling about this one. The circumstances, before which I admit complete powerlessness, are different, perhaps permanently so. As of this writing I am 10 days, 4 hours and 22 minutes sober, with some 758 pages of Infinite Jest left to go. But as they say — one day at a time.

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