Telling the truth is fucking hard. That’s my big takeout not from Infinite Jest pages 507-80. It’s fraught is what it is.
Not only do you have to decide whether you’re going to tell the truth – whether you want to, even – but you have to know what it is. How do you know what it is? How do we help each other to tell the truth, to hear the truth and know the truth?
These are the questions I’ve been wrestling with this last week, just like Hal and Avril and Tavis, Steeply and Marathe, Joelle, Gately, Lenz and Green have all in their own ways struggled with finding and articulating truth.
We start our reading with the Dynamic Duo of compulsion: Dr. Charles Tavis and Avril “Dean of Females” Incandenza. While CT is presented as possibly the most pathologically open person on the planet – his “wordy and bluff” way of thinking out loud about thinking out loud re-buries, in their very exhumation, the capital K-T Kernels of Truth in a whole lot of lesser and parenthetical truths. You can just never know with him.
Avril’s a bit the same, openness-wise, except she takes it even further with what Orin and Hal have dubbed “Politeness Roulette”.
This Moms-thing that makes you hate yourself for telling her the truth about any kind of problem because of what the consequences will be for her. It’s like to report any kind of need or problem is to mug her.
While I feel (sorry) that Tavis’s openness is excruciating to behold because you have to experience the full recursive turmoil of a mind in reflexive overdrive, Avril’s is definitely more emotional and it’s more like she’s mugging you by making you mug her, no matter what you do.
[Orin] said she went around with her feelings out in front of her with an arm around the feelings’ windpipe and a Glock 9 mm. to the feelings’ temple like a terrorist with a hostage, daring you to shoot.
Avril’s emotional openness might be a form of honesty, but what good is this honesty without responsibility? What makes Avril the mugger here is that she’s ceding responsibility for her emotions to someone else (here it’s Hal who, judging by his literal orbiting of the Moms and delivering-the-goods-to-authority-type-figures compulsions, has enough maternal issues already thank you very much).
So which puts Hal in a difficult position vis-a-vis his own abilities/desires to be honest – not just to Avril, but we’ve seen time and time again how much Hal has struggled with being honest with himself – finding his own truths. (A brief bit of hand wringing: I don’t blame this on Avril at all – but it’s probably worth noting that many of Infinite Jest’s characters’ issues are inherited from their parents and their parent’s parents and so on – so I don’t think we can completely ignore Avril’s influence in this regard, re little Hallie (Orin and his issues pretty much go without saying). Like, which is the bigger disservice to Avril: to give her too much blame, or too little?)
Wallace shows us how these characters’ desires-slash-abilities to tell the truth (or otherwise) are caught in a kind of feedback loop with the social structures and dynamics that exist between them; but then over the next fifty or so pages lets us continue to ponder the questions way supra as he takes us through a few variations:
Steeply and Marathe are basically professional deceptors, but as they alternate between their deceptions, feigned candor, (possibly) real candor, it’s clear that they are both hiding important truths from their selves. We learn in this section that they each hide something true from their respective superiors – Marathe perceives Steeply needs to satisfy “some U.S.A. desire to hold some small thing back from one’s superiors”.
At Ennet House, a place who more-or-less must facilitate some level of personal/communal inventory-taking, Joelle and Gately are talking past each other – asking but never answering re their own yet-unfaced issues. The whole conversation feels very much like Hal and Orin’s grief-therapist and toe-nail-clipping phone call.
Lastly we get Randy Lenz struggling with whether he wants to tell Bruce Green to screw or not – with whether he wants Green to screw or not. (Sorry Jenni – this is as far into Lenz-territory I’m going to get: maybe Ryan, Corrie or Dave will have the guts).
To tell the truth or not. To know whether you should, or not. To live with the consequences either way. The hurt; the other’s potential hurt. To know what the truth is. To be able to give it voice at all. Wallace keeps reminding us just how fucking hard and complicated it is. How easy it is to be wrong.
If there’s anything we can learn about how to tell the truth from these pages – and not just how not to – maybe it’s that you have to be prepared to live with the consequences, risk the hurt and take responsibility for them.
I can think only of Don Gately’s own p.476 attitude towards developing some kind of rigorous-personal-honesty sense, being Progress Not Perfection.