In honor of the 4th of July, I'll share a passage from Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace that I read the other day. The passage records a conversation between Remy Marathe, a Canadian (I think), and Hugh Steeply, an American. Both men are in the Secret Service for their countries and Steeply is undercover as a transgender woman.
The setting for the conversation revolves around the recent news of a civilian in America who received a videotape in the mail. Upon viewing this tape, he went into something like a trance and died, along with all other civilians and police who entered the house and viewed the television screen while the tape was still playing. The Americans are trying to track the origin of the tape and Steeply has been sent to consult Marathe and find out if Marathe or his associates are responsible. It is occuring in the future (or an alternate past/present) in which the US and Canada have merged (?) and years are no longer numbered, but sponsored (Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment). Foster writes the book in such a way that you have to figure out these details as you go, and I am still in the middle of the book.
Here is the conversation.
Marathe shrugged. 'Perhaps in you is the sense that citizens of Canada are not involved in the real root of the threat.'
Steeply shook the head in seeming annoyance. 'What's that supposed to mean?' he said. The lurid wig of him slipped when he moved the head with any abrupt force.
The first way Marathe betrayed anything of emotion was to smooth rather too fussily at the blanket on his lap. ‘It is meaning that it will not of finality be Quebecers making this kick to the l’aine des Etats Unis. Look: the facts of the situation speak loudly. What is known. This is a USA production, this Entertainment cartridge. Made by an American man in the USA. The appetite for the appeal of it: this also in USA. The USA drive for spectation, which your culture teaches. 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?’ Marathe leaned slightly forward on his stumps, leaving the machine pistole to use both his hands in saying. Steeply could tell this was important to Marathe; he really believed it.
Marath made small emphatic circles and cuts in the air while he spoke: ‘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 USA 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 USA where such a thing could be possible enough for your Office to fear: can such a USA hope to survive for a much longer time? To survive as a nation of 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?’
Steeply removed with cool deliberation another Belgian cigarette and lit it, this time on the first match. Waving the match out with a circular flourish and snap. All this took time of his silence. Marathe settled back. Marathe wondered why the presence of Americans could always make him feel vaguely ashamed after saying things he believed. An aftertaste of shame after revealing passion of any belief and type when with Americans, as if he had made flatulence instead of had revealed belief.
Steeply rested his one elbow on the forearm of the other arm across his prostheses, to smoke like a woman: ‘You’re saying that the administration wouldn’t even be concerned about the entertainment if we didn’t know we were fatally weak. As in as a nation. You’re saying that the fact that we are worried speaks volumes about the nation itself.’
Marathe shrugged. ‘Us, we will force nothing on USA persons in their warm homes. We will make only available. Entertainment. There will be then some choosing, to partake or choose not to. Smoothing slightly at his lap’s blanket. “How will USAs choose? Who has taught them to choose with care? How will your Offices and Agencies protect them, your people? By laws? By killing Quebecois?’ Marathe rose, but very slightly. ‘As you were killing Colombians and Bolivians to protect USA citizens who desire their narcotics? How well did this work for your Agencies and Offices, the killing? How long was it before the Brazilians replaced the dead of Colombia?’
Steeply’s wig had slipped hard to starboard. ‘Remy, no. Drug-dealers don’t want you dea, necessarily; they just want your money. There’s a difference. You people seem to want us dead. Not just the Concavity redemised. Not just secession for Quebec. The FLQ, maybe they’re like the Bolivians. But Fortier wants us dead.’
‘Again you pass over what is important. Why BSS cannot understand us. You cannot kill what is already dead.’
‘Just you wait and see if we’re dead, paisano.’
Marathe made a gesture as if striking his own head. ‘Again passing over the important. 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. Do you not see? This was the genius of Guillaume DuPlessis, what M. DuPlessis taught the cells, even if FLQ ad les Fils did not understand. Much less the Albertans, all crazy inside their head. We of the AFR, we understand. This is why this cell of Quebecers, that danger of Entertainment so fine it will kill the viewer, if so—the exact way does not matter. The exact time of death and way of death, this no longer matters. Not for your peoples. You wish to protect them? But you can only delay. Not save. The Entertainment exists. The attache and gendarmes of the razzle incident—more proof. It is there, existing. The choice for death of the head by pleasure no exists, and your authorities know, or you would not be now trying to stop the pleasure. Your Sans-Christe Gentle was in this one part correct: ‘Someone is to blame.’”
‘That had nothing to do with the Reconfiguration. The Reconfiguration was self-preservation.’
‘That: forget it. There is the villain he saw you needed, all of you, to delay this splitting apart. To keep you together, the hating some other. Gentle is crazy in his head, but in this ‘fault of someone” he was correct in saying it. Un ennemi commun. But not someone outside you, this enemy. Someone or some people among your own history sometime killed your USA 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 people 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 “Herrrre we are going.” Someone taught that temples are for fanatics only and took away the 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”?’
‘And this is why we shudder at what a separate Quebec would be like. Choose what we tell you, neglect your own wish and desires, sacrifice. For Quebec. For the State.’
Marathe shrugged. ‘L’etat protecteur.’
Steeply said ‘Does this sound a little familiar, Remy? The National Socialist Neofascist State of Separate Quebec? You guys are worse than the worst Albertans. Totalitarity. Cuba with snow. Ski immediately to your nearest reeduation amp, for instructions on choosing. Moral eugenics. China. Cambodia. Chad. Unfree.’
‘There are no choices without personal freedom, Buckeroo. It’s not us who are dead inside. These things you find so weak and contemptible in us—these are just the hazards of being free.’
‘But what does this USA expression want to mean, this Buckeroo?’ Steeply turned to face away into the space they were above. ‘And no here we go. Now you will say how free are we if you dangle fatal fruit before us and we cannot help ourselves from temptation. And we say “human” to you. We say that one cannot be human without freedom.’
Marathe’s chair squeaked slightly as his weight shifted. ‘Always with you this freedom! 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 USA selves what they must do. It is this meaning only, this freedom from constraint and forced duress.’ Marathe over Steeply’s should suddenly could realize why the skies above the coruscating city were themselves erased of stars: it was the fumes from the exhaust’s wastes of the moving autos’ pretty lights that rose and hid stars from the city and made the city Tucson’s lume nacreous in the dome’s blankness of it. ‘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?
Steeply threw away a cigarette and faced partly Marathe, from the edge: ‘Now the story of the rich man.’
Marathe said ‘The rich father who can afford the cost of candy as well as food for his 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?’
Steeply made four small noises. Excitemen of some belief made the American’s electrolysis’s little pimples of rash redden even in the milky dilute light of lume and low stars. The moon over the Mountains of Rincon was on its side, its color the color of a fat man’s face. Marathe could believe he could hear some young USA voices shouting and laughing in a young gathering somewhere out on the desert floor below, but saw no headlights or young persons. Steeply stamped a high heel in frustration. Steeply said:
‘But US citizens aren’t presumed by us to be children, to paternalistically do their thinking and choosing for them. Human beings are not children.’
Marathe pretended again to sniff.
‘Ah, yes, but then you say: No?’
Steeply said. ‘No? you say, not children? You say: What is the difference, please, if you make a recorded pleasure so entertaining and diverting it is lethal to persons, you find a Copy-Capable copy and copy it and disseminate it for us to choose to see or turn off, and if we cannot choose to resist it, the pleasure, and cannot choose instead to live? You say what your Fortier believes, that we are children, not human adults like the noble Quebecers, we are children, bullies but still children inside, and will kill ourselves for you if you put the candy within the arms’ reach.’
Marathe tried to make his face expressive of anger, which was difficult for him. ‘This is what happens: you imagine the things I will say and then say them for me and then become angry with them. Without my mouth; it never opens. You speak to yourself, inventing sides. This itself is the habit of children: lazy, lonely, self. I am not even here, possibly, for listening to.’
Unmentioned by either man was how in heaven’s name either man expected to get up or down from the mountainsides’s shelf in the dark of the US desert’s night.