Tuesday, March 6, 2012

You Will Die a Million Deaths

So, I hit a story point in Infinite Jest that's really giving me pause. I'm going to presume those of you out here reading this are either never going to read the book or have read it already (or have started and given up on it (them's statistics I really want to see)), because SPOILERS AHEAD.

A character's talking to another character in a bar. Remy and Kate. Kate has extreme clinical depression, and Remy is legless and has all kinds of weird complicated shit going on around him plot-wise, too much to explain. His wife was born without a skull, which we've known from way back, but here around page 780 he explains how he came to marry a woman born without a skull. (Yes, it's absurd. Just roll with it.) The story is long, but at its essence, Remy was very, very depressed and on the point of suicide when he met his wife, a creature even more pathetic than he, and his mission to love her and care for her became the center of his life. He isn't romantically in love with her (I gather), but he's in love with the purpose in life that she affords him. Throughout the book, we've heard often about his willingness to do various things for the sake of his wife, presuming all along that it was for love of her. But it's really not; she has to stay alive so that his purpose in life stays alive. If she doesn't live, and continue to need him to care for her, then he has no meaning in life.

I should add at this time that this is all my interpretation of this aspect of the book, and I have no idea if it's correct. In theory, I should have added that at the beginning. Oh, well.

The fact is, his motivation is selfish. He doesn't want to slip back into the blackness of depression in which he existed prior to meeting and appointing himself savior of his wife. It is too much for him to comprehend, going back to that. This is something I understand, and something Kate in theory should understand, as she gave an exceptionally cogent account of exactly how bad it is to be depressed early in the novel. (She doesn't understand; she provides the counterpoint of this discussion.) However, it gave me a lot of food for thought about our motivations for doing the things we do. The noble wish to nurture and rescue a woman with a ridiculously crippling [and unrealistic] disability, for this character, has at heart a thoroughly selfish motivation.

Is it very different for the rest of us? Aren't most of us just feeding the monkey? I've been following the implosion of Anusara yoga with some interest, and although I don't begrudge John Friend his characteristics as a flawed mortal, I do think it shows us adequately that no guru is devoted to his followers without saving some of that devotion for himself. Is any human a saint?

That leads me into more meta questions about the actual realistic level of self-sacrifice required to attain sainthood when all any of us can be is human, and that's too hard for me. Let's go back to Infinite Jest and Remy's situation. It casts a whole new light on this character to learn that he's self-motivated, one that I didn't at all expect three-quarters of the way through this particularly long book.

It also begs the question of whether it's possible or necessary even to classify a known purpose in life as essentially selfish or essentially unselfish. Why we're here has captivated us as a species since homo sapiens sapiens, and to me it's relevant that Remy actually knows and appreciates his purpose (for as long as it lives), rather than floating around in confusion.

Knowing what I know about Wallace only muddies the waters. Wikipedia tells me that he belonged to a church wherever he lived, which tells me that he got something out of religion. His incredible commencement speech to Kenyon tells me he believes that
The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship - be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles - is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things - if they are where you tap real meaning in life - then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. 

Presumably this passage means that upon discovering this truth, Wallace tried to come to something bigger to worship, c.f. church fellowship. His death tells me that whatever he found during life was not enough to overcome the suffering in his head, which makes me very, very sorrowful for him. All this evidence does not help me to understand what the writer's position on Remy's perspective is, nor does it help me sit with how Remy's purpose, or lack thereof, translates to me, sitting here in my real nonfictional chair.
All the same, you don't do it for money, or you're a monkey. You don't think of the bottom line, or you're a monkey. You don't think of it in terms of hourly wage, yearly wage, even lifetime wage, or you're a monkey. In the end you don't even do it for love, although it would be nice to think so. You do it because not to do it is suicide. ...You don't do it for money; you do it because it saves you from feeling bad. A man or woman able to turn his or her back on something like that is just a monkey, that's all. The story paid me by letting me get back to sleep when I felt I couldn't. 
...so saith Stephen King.

Why I write is a question for which I don't really have a conclusive answer. I accept that there may be a lot of selfishness behind it. But I don't think it's the sole thing keeping me from dropping myself out a window, nor do I think that, like a flagellant Ayn Rand kind of saint, I have to write in order to improve humanity. I think it's something else, some piece of worship that I'm fulfilling. It feels like a purpose, after a fashion, but it seems a lot less grand than that when I'm blocked or whining or come up short against revisions that I don't know how to do. I used to think I understood human purpose, but after being badly shaken by something that happened in February and, over the last few years, grasping a piece of just how long life really is, I'm not sure I understand it anymore.

Especially not after comprehending the true sounding depth of Remy's purpose. I.e. too shallow for sonar.

Or is it? Is his purpose, not to die of misery, actually the only purpose there ever is? Is it one I can adopt for my own satisfaction, or is it selfish enough that it will eat me alive?

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