Wednesday, September 9, 2009


When I'm not running, I like to read. Currently, I'm reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. It's amazing. You should read it.

Much of it deals with passion. Through out the book there's an ongoing argument about whether you should follow your passions or you should choose your passions. Well that's not quite fair. It's really more of an argument over whether its best to allow people to pursue their own interests as freely as possible, or whether there's something more important than individual self-interest.

Really, Wallace says it better than I ever could:

"This I was saying: this is why choosing is everything. When I say to you choose with great care in loving and you make ridicule it is why I look and say: can I believe this man is saying this thing of ridicule?....These facts of situation, which speak so loudly of your Bureau's fear of this samizdat: now is what has happened when a people choose nothing over themselves to love, each one. A U.S.A. that would die - and let its children die, each one - for the so-called perfect Entertainment, this film. Who would die for this chance to be fed this death of pleasure with spoons, in their warm homes, alone, unmoving: Hugh Steeply, in complete seriousness as a citizen of your neighbor I say to you: forget for a moment the Entertainment, and think instead about a U.S.A. where such a thing could be possible enough for your Office to fear: can such a U.S.A. hope to survive for much longer time? To survive as a nation of peoples? To much less exercise dominion over other nations of other peoples? If these are other peoples who still know what it is to choose? who will die for something larger? who will sacrifice the warm home, the loved woman at home, their legs, their life even, for something more than their own wishes of sentiment? who would choose not to die for pleasure, alone?....Us, we will force nothing on U.S.A persons in their warm homes. We will make only available. Entertainment. There will be then some choosing, to partake or choose not to. How will U.S.A.s choose? Who has taught them to choose with care? How will your Offices and Agencies protect them, your people?....This appetite to choose death by pleasure if it is available to choose - this appetite of your people unable to choose appetites, this is the death. What you call the death, the collapsing - this will be the formality only....Someone or some people among your own history sometime killed your U.S.A. nation already, Hugh. Someone who had authority, or should have had authority and did not exercise authority. I do not know. But someone sometime let you forget how to choose, and what. Someone let your peoples forget it was the only thing of importance, choosing. So completely forgetting that when I say choose to you you make expressions with your face such as "Herrrrrrre we are going." Someone taught that temples are for fanatics only and took away temples and promised there was no need for temples. And now there is no shelter. And no map for finding the shelter of a temple. And you all stumble about in the dark, this confusion of permissions. The without-end pursuit of a happiness of which someone let you forget the old things which made happiness possible. How is it you say: "Anything is going"?....For your walled up country, always to shout, Freedom! Freedom!" as if it were obvious to all people what it wants to mean, this word. But look: it is not so simple as that. Your freedom is the freedom-from: no one tells your precious individual U.S.A selves what they must do. It is this meaning only, this freedom from constraint and forced duress. But what of the freedom-to? Not just free-from. Not all compulsion comes from without. You pretend you do not see this. What of freedom-to. How for the person to freely choose? How to choose any but a child's greedy choices if there is no loving-filled father to guide, inform, teach the person how to choose? How is there freedom to choose if one does not learn how to choose? The rich father who can afford the cost of candy as well as food for this children: but if he cries out "Freedom!" and allows his child to choose only what is sweet, eating only candy, not pea soup and bread and eggs, so his child becomes weak and sick: is the rich man who cries "Freedom!" the good father?"

-- David Foster Wallace

I firmly believe that you should love something greater than yourself. That's why I joined Teach for America, and that's why I'm trying to raise money for them now. I believe closing the education gap is more important than me and I'm willing to sacrifice for it.

What do you all think? Which side are you on?


  1. I think its great - I applaud this vision.. One I have is where a percentage of what you earn, you spend on causes greater than yourself. You do this every single year you are earning, good year/bad year. You constantly are reminded that N percent of every dollar you take home, N percent of what you make on those days where you find it hard to continue, goes to people other than you and your family who are depending on it.

  2. I'm glad to find someone else picked up on what I think is a really great part of the novel (so far; about halfway through now!). However, at least at this point into the book I'd warn against easy interpretations of Wallace's real point. I'm not saying what you've said doesn't have merit, and maybe it is what he's saying, but I think there's more to it than that.

    Think about it: The whole time Marathe is saying this stuff, he's actually betraying his country (larger cause) for his wife, which he has said himself is actually selfish, based on his sentimentality. Yeah?

    I don't think what you've taken from it is wrong, I guess, I just think it's a little myopic. I like what you say, but I think Wallace is trying to be more complicated than that. Really, I think the point (for me, at this juncture in the novel) is that CHOOSING, regardless of what we choose, is the key. Marathe criticizes really anyone that would forgo making choices themselves when easy answers are presented. This post could be a case in point, could it not?

    None of this is meant to disparage what you've said. Personally I like the meaning you've gleaned from it. But, I'm finding that with Wallace there's always something more...

    p.s. sorry for being a little late to the discussion!

  3. Wow. When I saw a comment on this post, I assumed it must be spam. It's been so long. Imagine how happy I was to find a such a insightful response.

    I've spent more time with Wallace now, and you're right. His meaning is more subtle, and for him, choosing, no matter what you choose, is definitely the most important thing. I'm reminded of a quote from a recent New Yorker article:

    'true freedom “means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”'

    (Read more

    That said, I do believe Wallace saw certain choices as more valuable than others. Maybe choosing something bigger than yourself is too heavy handed, but the baseness of the "entertained lifestyle" is a pretty consistent them in Jest. Maybe it's more proper to say that you should choose something bigger than that: media masturbation for lack of a better term. You should do, not be done to.

    I may be getting beyond my knowledge of the subject again here, but if you read the article above it seems like what to choose was what Wallace was grappling with. Unfortunately, I'm not sure he ever came up with an answer that suited him.

    I have a sneaking suspicion that's because you're right. Beyond some simple moral platitudes, its almost impossible to say one choice is better than another. I almost fear that Wallace's despise for entertainment may have been part of what made it hard for him to find joy in life.

    What do you think?