Steeply and Marathe: The Unironic Ironists (?)

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“But of these types of your persons—the different types, the mature who see down the road, the puerile type that eats the candy and soup in the moment only. Entre nous, here on this shelf, Hugh Steeply: which do you think describes the U.S.A. of O.N.A.N. and the Great Convexity, this U.S.A. you feel pain that others might wish to harm? […] Are you understanding? I am asking between only us. How could it be that A.F.R. malice could hurt all of the U.S.A. culture by making available something as momentary and free as the choice to view only this one Entertainment? You know there can be no forcing to watch a thing. If we disseminate the samizdat, the choice will be free, no? Free from force, no? Yes? Freely chosen?” (DFW, Infinite Jest, 430)

For context: In this passage, Rémy Marathe (of A.F.R.) just finished drilling Hugh Steeply (of O.U.S.) about the American right for pursuit of happiness (pursuivre le bonheur) via the example of a can of pea soup. This eventually degrades into a conversation on utilitarianism, but ultimately remains unsettled for Marathe.

I’m drawn here for a couple of reasons. So far class hasn’t touched on the O.N.A.N. political complexities and what exactly Marathe and Steeply are up to. Thirdly, it’s that word—samizdat.

Fourthly, that I believe the two most outlandish characters, a youngish wheelchair assassin and man undercover as an unflattering woman, seem to have the most unironic and straightforward sections in the entire novel, which also prominently center on the Entertainment and O.N.A.N.ite politics. This section I’ve drawn from is layered within Mario’s I-Day puppet show film, which appears to do exactly the opposite; it’s laced with double-meaning, fake headlines, jokes, and many references I don’t entirely understand from the very start. Marathe and Steeply are inherently paradoxical (however I concede that I’d have to go back to the beginning in order to fully state my ground on this, and as I don’t have space to do this I’ll settle for anyone else’s opinion on the matter) and this conflict is why I’m intrigued.

In terms of the passage’s formal properties, I cited pretty straightforward text, all of it direct speech from Marathe. Marathe questions Steeply’s dedication to a U.S.A. full of greedy and selfish people. The second half is where Marathe’s speech becomes pretty charged and contentious: “How could it be that A.F.R. malice could hurt all of the U.S.A. culture by making available something as momentary and free as the choice to view only this one Entertainment?” Marathe, being Quebecois, seems now to attack Steeply’s patriotism and pride with his belittlement of the highly addictive and life-consuming Entertainment when he calls it a “momentary and free” choice. “Free choice” of course representing the pinnacle of Americanism, democracy. Similarly, we finally seem to have some idea of the Entertainment’s “stakes,” because although it’s been strewn throughout the novel as some illusively corruptive and addictive power, Marathe indicates that the Entertainment is a threat to the entirety of U.S.A. culture because it’s been made “readily available” (and presumably a U.S.A. full of static drones and zombies isn’t worth very much).

Marathe furthermore jabs at another tenet of US culture, freedom from oppression, when he says, “You know there can be no forcing to watch a thing. If we disseminate the samizdat, the choice will be free, no? Free from force, no? Yes? Freely chosen?”

In this instance, contrary to my initial claims, Marathe definitely seems to be overdoing it with sarcasm and irony—he repeats the word “free” four times, three times in rapid succession in what I read as pure condescension. Marathe suggests doubt in the whole construct of freedom (or maybe in a veiled way, US resistance to glutton themselves on something as powerful as the Entertainment [which in its own way reinforces the stereotype of Americans as consumerist pigs]).

Because Marathe lingers so dramatically on freedom of choice, it seems that even if the samizdat gets distributed (recall: Hal’s definition of samizdat is ‘any sort of politically underground or beyond-the-pale press or the stuff published thereby;’ ‘incendiary;’ and ‘materials advocating violence, destruction of property, disruption of Grids, anti-O.N.A.N. terrorism, and so on’) he doubts the US public can resist the Entertainment. There may be a greater political doublespeak occurring here that I can’t identify, but ultimately what I’m getting out of this is Wallace putting ‘incendiary’ words in the mouth of a radical, violent, separatist Quebecer, which also contradicts all of my known stereotypes of Canadians as overly pleasant and polite people. Maybe things are different in Quebec? At least in the world of Infinite Jest and the Great Convexity/ the Redistribution/ etc. the political associations make sense.

Maybe it’s obvious in hindsight, but I see this passage as a conflict concerning important U.S. values, expressed condescendingly by an anti-O.N.A.N.ite Quebecer, in a somewhat ironic break from his usual demeanor, purposely juxtaposed within the overarching I-Day puppet show, by a character so hilariously unbelievable that we have to accept what he says. If Marathe and Steeply were regular suits, I don’t think Wallace could write them serious dialogue (look at the overabundance of ridiculousness in the “regular suits” of the various secretaries & JGFC in Mario’s puppet show), because I think that would ultimately go against Wallace’s plan. Therefore, the question I’m left with is, “Why does he have to hyperextend reality in order to say something serious, meaningful, and detracting of the United States?”

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About Steph Roman

2015 University of Pittsburgh grad with majors in nonfiction writing and English literature. Formerly of the Pitt News and PublicSource. I like games and nerd culture in general.
This entry was posted in Infinite Jest, Interactive Literature, Required Posts and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Steeply and Marathe: The Unironic Ironists (?)

  1. epiratequeen says:

    The conversations (extended single conversation, really) between Marathe and Steeply are some of my favorite sections in the novel. The directness of Wallace speaking through them is refreshing in between the double meanings and metaphor that dominate the rest of the novel. While the political implications of their talks are also metaphorical, their commentary on human tendencies and philosophical speculation seems bare compared to the meaning made by the rest of the novel.

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  2. endorphinique says:

    I feel like we can start a larger conversation between this post and the comment section of my post on Tiny Ewell! In terms of yours and 1ady1az’s comments about humor, that is. I’ve been thinking about how humor detracts from the messages that Wallace wishes to convey in the novel, since it seems that finding ourselves so entertained with certain scenes (such as the selected transcripts of the Ennet House drop-in hours) tends to have us gloss over certain issues and themes illuminated in the text.

    But as to your question of why Wallace feels the need to hyperextend reality in order to say something meaningful, the opposite seems to be the case. Wallace uses the “outlandish” appearance of the characters themselves to explicitly discuss social, political, and cultural problems and ideas. The only way I can reason myself into believing that this move works is how differently this scene would be perceived if it were played straight–two able-bodied, James Bond-type secret agent men in suits. I’m envisioning such a change as much more preachy, a lecture or a weird set of Socratic dialogues instead of an argument. The sense that I get from Wallace is that such a move would serve to be too imposing a means of making us agree with his characters’ viewpoints here. And pointing at a page and saying “here’s the moral” is not what I think Wallace is going for in terms of conveying his message here. The humor inherent in this scene invites us into the conversation that Marathe and Steeply are having so that we can question and argue with their points, as opposed to having an overarching, powerful figure spelling these beliefs out for us.

    On a final note, Assassin’s Creed: Wheelchairs would be such a badass game. I’m imagining a lot of mirrors, cliffs, and punchlines that talk about “the squeak.”

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