“The bitch of the thing is you have to want to. If you don’t want to do as you’re told – I mean as it’s suggested you do – it means that your own personal will is still in control, and Eugenio Martinez over at Ennet House never tires of pointing out that your personal will is the web your Disease sits and spins in, still. The will you call your own ceased to be yours as of who knows how many Substance-drenched years ago. It’s now shot through with the spidered fibrosis of your Disease. His own experience’s term for the Disease is: The Spider139. You have to Starve The Spider: you have to want to surrender your will to people who know how to Starve The Spider.” (357)
“139. Volunteer Counselor Eugenio (‘Gene’) M. favors entomologic tropes and analogies, which is especially effective with brand-new residents fresh from subjective safaris through the Kingdom of Bugs.” (1026)
In this passage, we are in the middle of yet another one of Wallace’s dense, veritable forest of paragraphs. The narrator here, depicting a White Flag AA meeting on the 8th of November, YDAU (Interdependence Day), is unknown but uses a commentary-like, omniscient voice as depicted in the text that suggests to me it may be Wallace himself, informing the reader of his own experiences and thoughts of AA and The Disease. Throughout the chapter, however, there is a loose orbit in focus on Don Gately who, sitting right up front so he can “see the pores in the speaker’s nose,” [p.345] listens to Commitments made by neighboring AA members.
This initially did not seem to me to be a great passage to blog about. There’s no action, no dialogue, and it seemed to me at first to be a straight-forward, rather lecture-like excerpt of what seemed to me to be Wallace directly telling the reader of how to think when/if you’ve become an alcoholic. But I was (almost visibly) struck when he or, in this case, Martinez chose of all words, “The Spider” to describe the Disease. Wallace seems to me to be building a motif of “creepy crawlies” as a mechanism to personify various assets of addiction and recovery. For the case of Erdedy (17-27), we see a bug crawling in and out of a girder, reflecting Erdedy’s own character of poking his head out in his world of obligations only to retreat back into his abysmal hole of Substance. Poor Tony is tormented by Time “…being carried by a procession of ants, a gleaming red martial column of those militaristic red Southern-U.S. ants…each vile gleaming ant wanted a minuscule little portion of Poor Tony’s flesh in compensation as it helped bear time slowly down the corridor of true Withdrawal”(302). And in this passage, Wallace’s fascination of bugs emerges this time in the form of “The Spider”; the eight-legged Disease spinning the web of your will to eat you alive.
Many addicts on heavy narcotics report hallucinations of bugs under the skin (hence the stereotypical, irrepressible scratching) as well as large insect-like manifestations during a high. My best friends’ mom told me that her friend (in her hippie-days), during a session of LSD high chased cars because she thought they were “big, friendly bugs.” I think Wallace sees this “Kingdom of Bugs” (1026 #139) to be encompassing of many aspects of addiction and withdrawal not just in terms of the many-legged phenomena reportedly observed by substance abusers but also in addiction’s connotative qualities. The addict in some ways can feel reduced to the insignificance and photophobia of a roach seeking shelter under a girder as he holes himself up once again to binge. The addict can feel the anguish of a million imaginary tormentors eating away at him with every second.
And what more fitting metaphor to use than “the entomologic trope” (1026 #139) to describe the thing responsible for all of the addicts’ feelings of insignificance, helplessness and torment; a hairy, fang-bearing, poisonous insect with eight legs and just as many eyes. We see in the text that Wallace views the will as trapping the alcoholic to his own demise as a fly is trapped in a web for the spider’s feast. This “will” I think refers to the pride or confidence that the addict can save himself and reason himself out of it. I think it also can represent the trap of over-intellectualizing your Disease isolating yourself from others who are recovering as in the case with Geoffrey Day and Gately. Wallace, himself an intellectual, while not saying this lightly, contends that to free yourself from the “Kingdom of Bugs”, the spiders’ web and the spider, you must have a “Blind Faith in the older guys” (351). You must adopt and live by the simplistic clichés and “you must want to do as you’re told…to surrender your will to people who know how to Starve the Spider” (357).