Lyle’s Universal Truth: The Power of Objects in Addiction

“Do not underestimate objects! Lyle says he finds it impossible to over-stress this: do not underestimate objects” (394).

This excerpt begins a section in which Ortho (“The Darkness”) Stice comes to Lyle for advice because every night, his bed moves to another wall while he sleeps. Stice considers several options,1 but Lyle tells him the story of a man who could lift up a chair while standing on it and then jump off and leave the chair floating midair. He could do this, Lyle says, because the man did not underestimate the object.

When juxtaposed with sections about addiction (especially the Entertainment), this excerpt communicates that all addicted people underestimate their objects of desire. Indeed, every character2 underestimates the power of the objects that draw them into addiction.

Each person who watches the Entertainment becomes so addicted that they stop reacting to external stimuli. You would think that becoming a shell of a person would repulse people, but volunteers crowded the lab that stimulated test subjects’ p-terminals, which affects people in the same way that the Entertainment does (472). The appeal is so universally strong that even President Gentle wanted to view the film (549). Those who want to watch the Entertainment underestimate the power that it yields.

The story’s drug addicts likewise imagine that they have power over their drugs of choice; part of being an addict is the false belief that the user can stop at any time. That’s why AA values humility and requires that every speaker begin by saying, “Hello, my name is ______, and I’m an alcoholic.” To be clean from drugs, a speaker must first admit that the drugs have power over him. But if Wallace criticizes AA (especially through Geoffrey Day3), does he really agree with its humility-sobriety complex?  I argue that he certainly does. Wallace speaks through Don Gately (whom he portrays as much more credible than the obnoxious Geoffrey Day) when he writes, “And then the palsied newcomers who totter in desperate and miserable enough to Hang In and keep coming and start feebly to scratch beneath the unlikely insipid surface of the thing, Don Gately’s found, then get united by a second common experience. The shocking discovery that the thing actually does seem to work” (349). Gately admits that despite the program’s corny phrases, the philosophy behind it really works. Plus, Wallace attended AA throughout his life and thought that the clichés (including those that acknowledged the power of drugs, the addict’s object of desire) held great hidden meaning.

In addition, the excerpt’s form forwards its function. Wallace places Lyle’s advice at the very beginning of a section, which emphasizes it and implies that it serves importance beyond this section alone. Lyle’s mantra is excellent advice for every character in Infinite Jest, and perhaps every reader, too.

1. Stice thinks that maybe he’s secretly telekinetic in his sleep, or someone at E.T.A. hates him and is telekinetic, or Stice moves furniture around while sleepwalking.

2. Except Mario, who is arguably the only character who isn’t addicted to anything.

3. Day sarcastically quips, “So then at forty-six years of age I came here to learn to live by clichés … Ask for help. They will not mine be done” (270).

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2 Responses to Lyle’s Universal Truth: The Power of Objects in Addiction

  1. festsjester says:

    Addiction is probably the biggest theme of this book for me and I agree with you on a lot of points, particularly in that the characters underestimated the objects of their desire. What I think Wallace is saying about addiction coincides with the theme about limits, boundaries, and the Duality of self, which is that characters literally become someone different when they are affected; the self is lost to a new self, cyclically bound in a digression towards the “Bottom”, but until this point is reached, they really don’t even understand the power these substances, (if the addiction is a substance, since some characters are addicted to literal objects (I think)). And in order to overcome this addiction, one must prevent themselves from trying to think through it; Just follow the steps to get home. I think this has a strong connection to the mindlessness with which the students play Tennis, and is in some ways a criticism on conscious thought, which it is said got them into their mess in the first place. That the mindless cliche humility admission actually does work for overcoming the self that repeated this cycle, and would repeat it infinitely (I’m realizing just how buddhist this book is; this removal of the self from the infinite cycle (reincarnation) to achieve a state without dependence or desire (nirvana)) without help. But that mindless cliche is simply a cliche because it works and has been used so often and for so long.

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  2. mattdice says:

    I think that one of the things that Lyle means is that if you don’t underestimate an object, then you can control it any way you want. Marathe, who’s group is trying to control the Entertainment, tells Steeply that his group “doesn’t underestimate it’s power.” He and his cell understand what the Entertainment can do, and they respect it. This can be paralleled with any kind of Substance. If the user doesn’t respect a Substance’s power, then he cannot control it and becomes addicted. Also, there is kind of a 180 degree switch when it comes to the user of the Substance. If they overestimate themselves, then they cannot control themselves and fall into addiction with their chosen Substances. One of the things that AA is supposed to do is to make people forget themselves, to humble themselves, and to not overestimate themselves because if they overestimate themselves then they won’t Give In to AA and they might never get better.

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