Can we handle pleasure? 500 pages.

One of the things that has kept me going on Infinite Jest–and let’s be clear, the reasons why people quit reading this book are evident every few pages, most recently when there was a 10-page depiction of moving a mattress–is the parts where he lands an insight into how we live now–20 years later–and specifically on the single thing I believe that is crippling our culture.  (OK, one of two things…I’ll let you know what the other one is at the end of the post.).

For now, we are talking about how the book addresses people’s weakness/sheer helplessness in the face of pleasure.  Simply put, people seem to be unable to self-regulate their pleasure intake.  When something makes us feel good, we are powerless to say “no” even if saying “yes” is deadly in a chronic or even acute sense.  This fact is certainly well known by the food scientists at Taco Bell (see above) and has been demonstrated in rats for a long time.  A rat that has the option of stimulating its pleasure center will starve to death.  Also, according to Fortune Magazine, researchers believe people are forgoing sex to watch Netflix.

The book is replete with examples.  In AA, one of the 12 steps is to admit that you are powerless over your “disease,” which is, essentially, an addiction to a pleasure-giving substance.  There’s a video-like thing that is the rat-killer on steroids….it gives so much pleasure that a person literally can do nothing else.  In fact, this cartridge is so valuable that is has become a pawn in the bizarre and mostly indecipherable Quebec subplot and resulted in a violent burglary.

DFW had to know about this research, given his eclectic knowledge base, and in fact, he appropriates it in the Quebec section as research conducted in Canada and on animal subjects up to dolphins.  When Canadian scientists look for human subjects for this research, they have people trampling each other to participate, even when the know the end result.  Deviance?  Not according to DFW…

All just for the chance at this kind of pleasure, and the M.M.P.I.s and Millon’s and Approception tests on all these hordes of prospective volunteers—the hordes were told it was part of the screening—the scores came out fascinatingly, chillingly average, normal.

“Chillingly average.”  Just like the studies of the nazi war criminals.  Nothing is more chilling than the actual reality of the average person.

So, here’s the thing.  Our society has moved closer to the reality of people being able to choose to expose themselves only to things that give them pleasure.  We can use Netflix to only watch things we know we like.  In the old days, we had to sometimes watch something different because there was nothing on.  Now we can watch Bar Rescue day and night.  We can choose “news” that makes us feel good, a concept that would have been foreign a few years ago and should be foreign now.  You can watch Fox News or MSNBC and only have pleasurable feelings of righteousness drizzled over your head.

And it’s killing us just like it killed the rats.  Literal and metaphorical obesity is killing our culture.  Whether we fail to nourish or minds or souls or bodies, we are wallowing in a hot tub of our pleasure addiction and our primary thought is how to make the water hotter.

This cannot be separated from the country’s political culture, where a fact is now defined as something that makes you feel good and “fake news” is something that makes you feel bad.

The thing is, you need to face unpleasant facts.  And discomfort.  You have to eat vegetables and not just foods designed by people who, in an unrelated DFW quote, “do not love us.”  If humans cannot self-regulate, they cannot survive.  They will literally optimize their way out of existence.  This realization brought about the dark ages and much of the religious discipline we know today.  Sadly,  I see most of today’s contemporary religion as being too busy “affirming” us to save us.  The answer is unclear.  (Irony alert:  there is no better proof of your ability to self-regulate your pleasure centers than reading 500 pages of Infinite Jest).

FWIW, the other one is nostalgia.


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