The Illusory Benefits of Success in ‘Infinite Jest’
While all people want happiness in life, most struggle to achieve this goal as a result of various distractions and other factors at play. In Infinite Jest, a maximalist novel by David Foster Wallace, the distraction inhibiting individuals from happiness is success, or the allusion of it. Wallace presents contrasting forms of success, from athletic achievements, to producing entertainment, and even success in fighting against addiction. The issue is that these successes, for the most part, are temporary, self-imagined triumphs. In the novel, lasting happiness seems to be nearly impossible to procure, as humans inherently believe that happiness comes from being superior to others. Wallace argues that while all individuals strive for happiness in life through success, the only way to achieve it without allowing it to become destructive is by neglecting its existence.
In order to understand Wallace’s depiction of human nature, it is necessary to provide a working definition of success. Success is the accomplishment of a goal set by an individual. These “goals, objectives, and trajectories based on what we desire” (Jasin) are what decide, societally speaking, how successful an individual is. Because the individual determines what success is, there is no singular, universal success that all people strive for. As Alex Jasin claims, “My vision of success probably looks nothing like yours, and that’s how it should be.” While this is oftentimes the case, many people want to achieve similar goals in life monetarily, athletically, and academically. In general, though, individuals tend to set goals because they believe that reaching these goals will make them happy. The issue with success is that what actually makes people happy is vastly different from what they believe will make them happy. This is why a standard of happiness must be laid out to compare what people perceive as success to actual happiness.
According to Robert Spitzer, a psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at Colombia University, there are four levels of happiness. The first level of happiness is derived from pleasure. This level is characterized by “fundamental drivers in life such as physical pleasure, immediate gratification, and excitement” (Spitzer). The happiness produced by this level is generally superficial and temporary, as it only lasts as long as the action providing the happiness itself does. The second level of happiness is personal achievement, which applies directly to many of the characters in Infinite Jest. This happiness comes from a gratification of the ego, stemming from defeating others in oftentimes meaningless competition. The second level of happiness is most often transitory in nature, only lasting as long as an individual continues to win and obtain their goals in life. As soon as this achievement ends, the person’s happiness terminates. While the first two levels of happiness are not completely futile because they do provide the individual with some sense of content, it is important to realize that they should not be the main source of happiness in a person’s life. The next level of happiness, according to Spitzer, is called “contributive happiness.” It results from a satisfying inner feeling that arises when helping others. While it is still ego-driven, it is more beneficial to society than the first two levels because it involves assisting other people. Spitzer characterizes this idea, saying, “My happiness is now growing in its pervasiveness because it impacts others people” (Spitzer). The last, and most permanent type of happiness comes from trying to find purpose in life. Spitzer argues that everyone has an intrinsic need to find meaning in life, and this search for meaning results in the greatest amount of happiness.
While success is not totally evil, it often has unintended negative consequences. The ideas of Malia Keirsey convey this message, as she says that when people become too focused on results, they begin to believe that they must succeed in everything they do. Of course, this is impossible, and when people fail to succeed, they “can’t deal well with successes and failures” (Keirsey). Another negative effect of success, she argues, is that an excess of it will inhibit an individual from reaching their goals. Their entire livelihood will become dependent on winning, and they will become so obsessed that they will refuse to even risk failure. For example, if a professional athlete became so successful and obsessed with winning that their entire livelihood was dependent on whether or not they won in their field of expertise, once they lost, they would cease playing. This would inhibit them from winning anything at all because it is impossible to always succeed in personal endeavors.
Through the character of Don Gately, Wallace shows that happiness should not be a goal in life; rather it is the byproduct of a constant search for meaning. In the novel, Gately is the only character that does not let his success, in this case fighting against addiction, affect him negatively. In fact, at one point in the novel he does not even realize that he has been successfully fighting against his addiction for months until he stops to think about it. He doesn’t understand how he is successful, but he realizes that “It just works, is all; end of story” (Wallace 349). Gately simply lives his life, searching for a meaning, claiming not to find it, but still remaining happy the entire time. One way he attempts to find a meaning is by seeking God. He claims that “when he kneels at other times and prays or meditates or tries to achieve a Big-Picture understanding of God as he can understand him, he feels Nothing” (Wallace 443). This relates back to the fourth level of happiness, as Gately is fulfilled simply because he searches for meaning in life, not necessarily because he finds anything. Gately does not make it his sole purpose in life to beat his addiction, rather he decides to focus on finding meaning in life, and this helps him to preoccupy himself and forget about his addiction. Wallace uses Gately to show that ignoring success is the best way to reap its benefits.
Mario, another depiction of success, is able to avoid the negative effects of success through his innocence. While his somewhat disabled condition, described as “atrophic in-curled arms and arachnodactylism” (Wallace 314), prohibits him from enjoying most of the benefits of level two happiness, he still achieves minor success as a filmmaker for Enfield Tennis Academy. The difference between Mario and most of the other characters in the novel is that Mario is not seeking success for its own sake, rather he is just filming for E.T.A. because he wants to (and because he is incapable of playing tennis). While he does not directly search for meaning, he finds it by accident. Mario’s childlike innocence helps him to find meaning because he does not even realize how much he loves his position as a filmer at E.T.A. If a person does not realize that they are succeeding, they will not have to face the negative consequences laid out by Keirsey that come with being successful. To describe Mario’s innocence, Wallace writes, “Mario, being alone and only fourteen and largely clueless about anti-stem defensive strategies outside T-stations… extended his clawlike hand and touched…” (Wallace 971). Mario is not worried about how successful he is because he cannot comprehend the idea of comparative success. His mental condition of innocent ignorance renders him incapable of looking beyond his own being and comparing his achievements to the achievements of others. Gately and Mario both neglect success in their own ways, as Gately ignores it by occupying his mind with other endeavors, while Mario is incapable of even acknowledging its existence.
If Mario and Gately are Wallace’s positive examples of dealing with success, Orin Incandenza is the exact opposite. Orin falls into the classic second level of happiness trap. For most of his younger years, he enjoyed great success in tennis, but he eventually reached his peak and realized he was not good enough. This shows the temporary qualities of level two happiness. His quick transition to football encapsulates his entire mindset. The only reason he continued to play tennis was because he enjoyed some level of success. The reason he stopped playing tennis is because “he realized he had at eighteen become exactly as fine a tennis player as he was ever destined to be” (Wallace 289). After fulfilling his athletic success needs, (by becoming the best punter in the world) his desire to become more and more successful (by his own terms) grows, and he turns to sex. The more women Orin is with the more successful he considers himself, leading to his rather promiscuous lifestyle. When describing Orin’s behavior, Wallace claims that “one Subject is never enough” (Wallace 566). The only way Orin is satisfied is if he continues to achieve his goals, athletically and sexually. His world continues to turn only if he can appease his egotistical personality. This addiction to success is what ultimately leads to his downfall. After sleeping with the alleged Swiss hand model (who actually works for the A.F.R.), Orin is captured and locked up. Wallace utilizes Orin’s capture as a way to show the negative effects of becoming too obsessed with personal success.
Wallace uses E.T.A. as a lens to show that society has created a mindset in people where they have to succeed. It is important to preface this with the idea that E.T.A. does not represent society itself, but rather the feeling society instills in people of having to succeed. At E.T.A., adolescents train countless hours everyday, subject to intense physical strain, even described as “draconian practice- and drill schedule as personally directed and thus cruel and sadistic” (Cobb 33), and are basically turned into mindless tennis-playing robots. They are pitted directly against each other, wanting to succeed because they fear the failure of not making it to The Show (professional tennis), not because they want to achieve success for its own sake. Wallace describes the juniors at E.T.A. as having the “look of bodies hastily assembled from different bodies’ parts” (Wallace 100). While on the outside, Wallace seems to be referring simply to the players’ body types, but this closely resembles how robots are put together, piece by piece. Gavin Cobb echoes these sentiments, saying that E.T.A. “is in fact the result of the coaching staff’s careful planning” (Cobb 33). The juniors at E.T.A. are nothing more than robots in a grand scheme of churning out professionals. E.T.A. realizes that the best way to handle success is to ignore it, which is why they treat their players the way that they do. If and when they enjoy success playing tennis, they will ideally be able to act as John Wayne does, indifferently.
In order to learn how to deal with success, people need assistance from others. E.T.A. and Ennet House perfectly exemplify this, as they teach their clients how to handle success properly. With the exception of Mario, every character in the novel that experiences some type of success relies on an institution to help them handle their triumphs. For Ennet House, this is the Crocodiles, as they have all experienced the struggles of addiction and know how to deal with them. At E.T.A., the coaching staff is responsible for making sure they equip their juniors properly to handle their inevitable success. Wallace emphasizes the idea that we need others to manage success, saying, “That other people can often see things about you that you yourself cannot see” (Wallace 204). He argues that humans are inherently unequipped to handle success on their own without the help of people who have undergone similar experiences. This is why attempting to identify with others is such an important aspect of Ennet House and why “The unstructured time in the showers is an intentional allowance by the coaching staff” (Gobb) at E.T.A. Without help, Wallace depicts the state of humanity in a bleak light: “One way or another these poor cocky clueless new bastards start gradually drifting away from rabid Activity In The Group, and then away from their Group Itself, and then little by little gradually drift away from any AA meetings at all, and then, without the protection of meetings or a Group, in time–oh there’s always plenty of time, the Disease is fiendishly patient–how in time they forget what it was like, the ones that’ve cockily drifted, they forget who and what they are, they forget about the Disease, until like one day they’re at like maybe a Celtics-Sixers game, and the good old Fleet/First Interstate Center’s hot, and they think what could just one cold foamer hurt, after all this sober time, now that they’ve gotten `Well.’ Just one cold one. What could it hurt. And after that one it’s like they’d never stopped…” (Wallace 355). Ennet House and E.T.A. teach their clients how to neglect the existence of success by trying to distract them from it. At Ennet House, the residents are encouraged to go to as many meetings as possible and to pray daily, and E.T.A. juniors must play tennis for countless hours each day. The key to ignoring success, these two institutions believe, is by focusing on undertakings in life to distract individuals from any success they might be enjoying.
Through his masterpiece Infinite Jest, Wallace argues that while all people strive for success in life, in hopes of it leading to happiness, the only way to achieve it without allowing it to become destructive is by neglecting its existence. He utilizes the characters of Mario and Gatley to show that success is best left untouched, either due to ignorance or innocence. To contrast these characters, he uses Orin, Mario’s brother, to show what can happen to individuals who let success dominate their lives. People are naturally unable to handle success, so they need the help of some type of an institution or of people who have experienced the same things that they are going through. The Crocodiles at Ennet House encapsulate this point, as they use their first-hand knowledge about addictions to aid the younger, less-experienced Ennet House members. These ideas are important to keep in mind because society has adopted a mindset where level two happiness is the only thing that matters in life. In order to make sure that we do not fall into the trap Wallace presents, we need to make sure we live balanced, modest lives, doing our best to not let our successes dominates us.