“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).