The Collegiate Laws of Life Essay Contest asked Penn State students to explore ethical values and intercultural issues, and their talent for expressing their views in writing. Steven Schneible, ’21 Paterno Fellow and Schreyer Honors Scholar, English and Psychology, won First Place for his essay, “And They Were Found Wanting,” in response to this prompt:
“Everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else.” David Foster Wallace
What makes us the same?
And They Were Found Wanting
When David Foster Wallace wrote Infinite Jest, the doorstopper of a novel for which he is best known, the literary maverick used his tongue-in-cheek, maximalist style to deliver relatively old-school moral lessons to his hip and well-educated audience. True to postmodern form, characters argue about advanced mathematics using swear words and the solecistic “like,” and avant-garde films are explicated via their self-referential scripts. But Wallace asserts some relatively conservative social tenets amid the book’s farcical elements: Alcoholics Anonymous becomes a religion that really works in spite of its adherents’ initial cynicism; empty pleasure, be it substances or entertainment, consumes Infinite Jest’s characters with “centerless eyes and a ravening maw.” Wallace hinges these potentially holier-than-thou claims on a post-subjectivity approach to human psychology and moral philosophy, namely, that “Everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else.” True, we cannot ever fully know the experience of consciousness in another person, and in that regard, we all have unique perspectives and psyches. Be our idiosyncrasies as they may, however, human beings are unified in our propensity to be done in by our own egos. Our talents and personae define our individuality, but our collective capacity for falling prey to ourselves is ubiquitous, unifying, and unsettling.
The self wants. Call it the lizard brain or the inner caveman or whatever you will, but our most evolutionarily ancient — and, for that matter, pressing — instinct is simple survival. While Tuk-Tuk and his hunter-gatherer companions may not have known of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as such, they surely recognized that food and shelter came before dancing and singing. Clearly, the drive to keep ourselves safe and fed helps us rather than harms us — and has done so for a good long while. But we don’t hunt and gather anymore. With the dawn of agricultural societies, in which stowable surpluses of food became the norm, survival became less of a daily issue. Historians of the discipline attribute the dawn of Ancient Greek philosophy to agriculture’s freeing up of time to think in the abstract, and with the near-universal adoption of agriculture, humans the world around have accomplished a great deal with their penchant for abstract thought.
Abstract thinking, however, still takes place in the human brain, an organ expertly crafted to lead us astray from what our better angels would have us do. Computers are literally wired for reason; we, on the other hand, possess a volatile neuroendocrine circuitry susceptible to just about any biological data input. Furthermore, we desire pleasure over pain, to use Bentham’s terms. Yes, food in the belly brings more pleasure than death by saber-toothed tiger, but heroin brings much more pleasure than just about anything. Dante made them into his Inferno’s giants, and Freud called them the id, but regardless of their name, our pleasure-bent desires can lead us to dark places indeed; it’s no accident that so many major religions emphasize self-denial and asceticism in their moral codes.
Wallace knew all too well the bestial seduction of the chemically pleasurable; much of Infinite Jest came from the author’s experiences in and reflections on Boston AA when he was a recovering user, and the novel decries our base impulses to pursue empty pleasures like substances. But the desire to be satiated dwells within the brain, that handmaiden of specious higher-order reasoning, and avaricious pleasures can jump to the abstract, too. The cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner argues that narrative thinking often overpowers rational thinking, making us ill-suited to good decision-making. Combined with the need to preserve one’s self-esteem, the false seductions of narrative thinking can be especially detrimental — moreso when advertising is involved. Advertising, not coincidentally, is arguably the second main symbolic villain of Infinite Jest, and Wallace observes that marketing targets our shallow drive to see ourselves as cool or smart or attractive — in other words, the drive to piece together a cohesive, pleasurable narrative in which we are the best in some way. We all succumb to this irrational thinking, and we all consume the products that advertising pushes our way. Drugs represent the worst of detrimental pleasure-seeking, but food, sex, shopping, exercise, and even anonymous generosity can be abused a là substances; the last example actually precedes this prompt’s quotation in Infinite Jest, as it comes from a section listing what one learns in a halfway house.
Wallace does not deny that we are our own individuals. Rather, it is our tendency to seek harmful pleasure that we all share, including maladaptive self-narratives and what we buy to make ourselves feel better. Acknowledging our ever-present and self-obsessed compulsion to feel good can be difficult and even depressing. Even so, as Wallace says: “The Truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.”