This turned out to be sort of another springboard off of Shazia’s previous post. You guys really get the rusty gears a-turnin’, I tell ya.
I think I’d like to start this week off with a note that I wrote to myself in my well-loved, ripped and yellowing copy of Infinite Jest on my first read-through. On page 350, during the AA meetings bit, right at the top, I wrote, “This whole bit is an interesting follow-up to the Eschaton part. Eschaton is presented as brutally complicated, but simple in execution (tennis ball lobbing game) –>AA is brutally simple but somehow insanely complicated, un-figure-outable.” Both Escahton and AA are paradoxes of sorts in that they are both riddles with no answer. In both, as soon as you begin to close in on an answer, it begins to slip away—sort of like the uncertainty principle in theoretical physics that states that if you precisely calculate the position of a particle, then you move further away from a precise calculation of its momentum/speed, and vice versa.
Might I add now, that in either Escahton or AA, if anyone dares to attempt to try to figure out (i.e- do a calculation of the “real” reality…whatever that is…) then he/she will end up completely and utterly hosed because one question leads to another, which leads to another, which leads to more number and stat crunching, and…and…beforeyouknowitow!that’sacomputermonitoronmyhead! You get the picture. Peace out. Sayonara. Later gator. Nice knowin’ ya.
(^kinda like this)
So, let me try to explain my margin scribble a bit further:
On the surface, Escahton seems like a simple game. From a distance, it is just a bunch of groups of kids lobbing balls at various pieces of gear that represent different resources in the game. Ping-pong. Back and forth. No big deal. But behind the apparatus of the seemingly simple game, though, is a whole unexamined and invisible world that comes to bear on the outcome of the game: the math part of it, cause and effect, and etc.—equations and functions that are supposed to lead to the (capital t) Truth. Lord, who is hilariously God, is supposed to have all of the answers. He has access to the great computer in the sky: an objective way of figuring out the chaos contained in the simple.
So, on the other hand, when I suggest that Eschaton is also brutally complicated, I’m really talking about the math and variables involved in figuring out the statistics for each carefully considered chess-like move in the game: in Eschaton is contained an “elegant complexity”, like the fractal structures we find everywhere in the book. For every action, there are potentially an infinite number of variables that could be entered into the c:\Pink2\Mathpak\EndStat-path Decision-Tree—all of which can alter the outcome. But how can anyone know each and every variable to enter? The bottom line is that you simply cannot. It is impossible. In a way, the reality of the game is created by the imaginations of the Combatants. If they can think it up, it can and will affect the game. I think here, Wallace might be suggesting something about the incredible power of your thought process and the need to be or become aware at any cost.
There’s a strange humour to the Eschaton game section because these kids simply keep coming up with additional variables that should (in all fairness, for Chissakes!) have an effect on the points racked up (or not) by various Combatants (wind directions, weather patterns, interpersonal relationships between world leaders, whether or not the leader of Iran had a bowel movement in the morning, you name it). In some ways, it also reminds me of the butterfly effect: where a seemingly insignificant change in a system can have a large effect elsewhere.
The scene is also funny because reminds me of how kids play certain games when they are young—rules are invented as you go, some are in accord, others disagree, and hilarity and yelling ensues. Also, perhaps a political commentary on how world politics are conducted, hm?
The funny thing is, is that there is simply no possible way for any of these kids (let alone adults!) to know all of the variables that could have an effect on the game. As I said before, it’s impossible.
I think the Escahton game is meant to simulate reality (maybe even be a perfect representation of it, ideally—or at least be as close to reality as math will allow—math being [supposedly] the most objective measure of facts around), but by the end, the simulation breaks down (because, as Shazia mentions, Ingersoll sees a crack in the façade), and, well, boom goes the dynamite, as they say.
On the flipside of things, as per my scribbling comment from a few years back, “AA is presented as brutally simple, but somehow insanely complicated and un-figure-outable.” It’s almost like the flipside to the Eschaton coin. Like Wallace is taking us by the hand, saying “guys, I’m sorry, this is what I really meant by the Escahton thing.” The narrator goes so far as to tell us that “nobody’s ever been able to figure AA out.” Similar to Eschaton, AA also possesses an “elegant complexity below the surface in that its truths are deep yet elusive (uncertainty principle, again).
On the surface, like Eschaton, AA looks positively crude, but this is just because it is made up of unhip sounding clichés—people talking their way out of various messes. I’m sure that you might be able to plug most of the things that happened in the AA devotees’ lives into some sort of decision tree algorithm (again, if they could all be recalled!). As the narrator states on page 374, “The Why of the disease is a labyrnth” and “it is strongly suggested all AAs boycott [the Why].” Like Escahton, there seems to be an elegantly complex invisible reality to the logic of AA (I would like to think of it almost like magic) that can never really be fully understood (sort of like how a complete picture of stats and variables cannot really be crunched in Escahton). In either Eschaton or AA, if things go too far in trying to analyze Why then the whole thing falls apart and chaos ensues.
No matter how infantile or unsophisticated AA seems to the outside observer, it cannot be denied that the thing works. The machinery behind it is really not all that important. It is about accepting the way things are in one particular moment and not asking silly questions like Why that often lead to silly excuses for poor behaviour: a justification for abusing a substance—like the speaker with the daughter diddling daddy in the AA section. Attempting to pin some particular effect to a root cause is a fool’s game and probably prevents the AA devotee from having more awareness and insight into his/her self.
*Additional stylistic thing I found very clever and fun in this week’s readings:
Did anybody else find the part where John L, “the greencard Irishman” tells his story about taking a solid shit so great? Wallace did such a great job of capturing the Irish sound of his voice by phonetically spelling everything out. Interestingly, you need to pay attention and really listen in order to really hear his message. Like, seriously, I needed to intently concentrate and speak this part out loud with my voice so that I could actually hear what is being said using my ears (just not my brain voice)! How cool that Wallace forces you to really experience what it’s like to hear (by AA standards) with this stylistic shift.
*PS- this post is in no way an endorsement of the 2004 Ashton Kutcher blockbuster “The Butterfly Effect”