Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest Quotes and Analysis

...sarcasm and jokes were often the bottle in which clinical depressives sent out their most plangent screams for someone to care and help them.

Narrator, p. 71

This quote appears during Kate Gompert's first appearance in the novel. She is laying down on an examination table after attempting, not for the first time, to end her own life. This time she uses the MAOI inhibitors she's prescribed; she takes every pill in her possession. The doctor asks Kate to sit up, and Kate responds that she is already sitting up (which she clearly is not doing). The doctor then asks her if she means to say that she actually feels as if her body is in an upright position. At this point, Kate rolls her eyes, and Wallace provides this brief analysis of why the best medical practice is to treat sarcastic comments as sincere, which relates to the novel's broader thesis on sincerity.

A U.S. of modern A. where the State is not a team or a code, but a sort of sloppy intersection of desires and fears, where the only public consensus a boy must surrender to is the acknowledged primacy of straight-line pursuing this flat and short-sighted idea of personal happiness...

Narrator, p. 83

This quote expands on Schtitt's philosophy of play and his upbringing in a program where one's participation in junior athletics was a preparation for citizenship. Wallace contrasts the nationalist undertones of Schtitt's training with the individual-centric American culture. Wallace adds on the next page that "junior athletics is but one facet of the real gem: life’s endless war against the self you cannot live without" (84).

"The point is that what launches vessels of war is the state and community and its interests ... You only wish to enjoy to pretend for yourself that the love of one woman could do this, launch so many vessels of alliance."

Marathe, p. 106

This is Marathe's response to Steeply on the Arizona mountainside during their argument about sentimentality, freedom, and the self. The quote is both a cynical thesis on politics and an allusion to the Iliad, particularly the notion that Helen's face "launched a thousand ships." The topic of Helen adds an additional dash of humor to the scenario, given that Hugh Steeply's alias name is Helen and Marathe spends so much of the conversation internally confounded by how anyone could believe that Hugh Steeply is actually a woman, given his brutish masculine features.

"Are we not all of us fanatics? I say only what you of the U.S.A. only pretend you do not know. Attachments are of great seriousness. Choose your attachments carefully. Choose your temple of fanaticism with great care. What you wish to sing of as tragic love is an attachment not carefully chosen. Die for one person? This is a craziness. Persons change, leave, die, become ill. They leave, lie, go mad, have sickness, betray you, die. Your nation outlives you. A cause outlives you."

Marathe, p. 107

Marathe continues his attack on sentimentalism. His argument turns out to be ironic, given that his personal chosen "altar" upon which to die and lay his devotion is his wife, with whom he cannot even communicate given her vegetative state. It is a further irony for Marathe to be discussing the virtues of loyalty and dying for a cause when he is an active informant against his separatist cause.

"'We’re all on each other’s food chain. All of us. It’s an individual sport. Welcome to the meaning of individual. We’re each deeply alone here. It’s what we all have in common, this aloneness.’

‘E Unibus Pluram,’ Ingersoll muses."

Hal and Evan Ingersoll, p. 112

This exchange of dialogue occurs during one of Hal's Big Buddy meetings where he explains that the hard training and seemingly draconian stress level to which E.T.A. students are subject is actually a way of forging the students into a community. Hal expounds on the importance of the community aspect given the extreme loneliness of tennis as a whole. Ingersoll responds with a rearrangement of the phrase E Unibus Pluram, meaning out of many, one, or "all for one," the traditional motto of the United States, which is a country made up of many individual states with individual state laws. E Unibus Pluram inverts the phrase; it is also the title of Wallace's theoretical essay that serves as a kind of theoretical justification for the themes in Infinite Jest.

Everyone should get at least one good look at the eyes of a man who finds himself rising toward what he wants to pull down to himself.

Narrator, p. 128

This quote is in reference to one of Lyle's go-to pieces of advice, which is, "And the Lord said: Let not the weight thou wouldst pull to thyself exceed thine own weight" (128) which conveniently relates to conditioning (Lyle lives in the gym) but also becomes a powerful motif throughout the rest of the novel. Shortly after the adage appears for the first time, Wallace includes an email exchange with an insurance agent about a workman's comp case. The man writes about trying to lower a pallet of bricks off of a building and being yanked into the air. He writes, "Due to my surprise at being jerked off the ground so suddenly, I lost my presence of mind and forgot to let go of the rope. Needless to say, I proceeded at a rapid rate up the side of the building. In the vicinity of the third floor I met the barrel coming down. This explains the fractured skull and the broken collar bone" (139). This story serves as a slapstick companion to Lyle's quote.

"You want to be great, near-great, you give every ball everything. And then some. You concede nothing. Even against loxes. You play right up to your limit and then pass your limit and look back at your former limit and wave a hankie at it, embarking."

J.O.I.'s father, p. 166

J.O.I.'s father explains to his son the anxiety that comes with the ambition to be great; in his case, he wants to leave a mark on the world with tennis. He pressures James to learn the game of tennis, and this misguided attempt to vicariously live through his son actually results, in the long-term, in the founding of Enfield Tennis Academy.

Madame’s themes are at once unpredictable and somehow rhythmic, more like probability-waves for subhadronics than anything else.

Narrator, p. 187

Though the narrator specifies that this particular simile is in the language of the M.I.T. sound engineer, the description of Madame Psychosis's themes easily relate to the way Wallace structures the thematic material of Infinite Jest; he has said that the novel is loosely structured in the fashion of a Sierpinski Triangle fractal, so the themes appear and then fan out, and in a novel the size of Jest, the correlations can seem random, but in the grand scheme of the novel adhere to a mathematical rhythm.

That the people to be most frightened of are the people who are the most frightened.

Narrator, p. 204

This quote appears in a section of the novel where Wallace lists in clauses beginning with the word "that" the lessons people learn while living at Ennet House. This little truism follows the structure of a lot of Alcoholics Anonymous and self-help slogans by inverting itself into a neat, circular logic. Through Gately, Wallace explores how sincere, reductive slogans like this can actually be of great use in the course of practically living one's life.

"To turn my will and life over to the care of clichés. One day at a time. Easy does it. First things first. Courage is fear that has said its prayers. Ask for help. Thy will not mine be done. It works if you work it. Grow or go. Keep coming back."

Geoffery Day, p. 270

Geoff Day laments what he sees as overly reductive slogans and clichés pushed by the AA community. Day uses the audience of new members to air his grievances. Day is characterized as one of a small minority of members with a highly academic background; he also spent the past several years before coming in for rehabilitation in a perpetual blackout state while teaching at community college.

"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?"

Marathe, p. 321

This is Marathe posing one of the key questions of the novel and speaking to a major theme of whether freedom of choice translates directly to a broader understanding of freedom. In other words, Steeply maintains that American citizens should be able to choose the degree to which they consume media, but Marathe suggests that some products (including media), the most extreme case being the film Infinite Jest, precludes all possibility of future freedom of choice.

"You are in the kind of a hell of a mess that either ends lives or turns them around. You are at a fork in the road that Boston AA calls your Bottom, though the term is misleading, because everybody here agrees it’s more like someplace very high and unsupported: you’re on the edge of something tall and leaning way out forward…"

Narrator, p. 347

This quote emphasizes the paradox of the term "rock bottom" in that when someone has reached their lowest point in their addiction, they feel the most unsupported and imbalanced, as if they're teetering from a high ledge. Wallace depicts the "rock bottom" of several Ennet House residents, most notably Don Gately's as he watches his friend Fackelmann's torture and murder while he, himself, is immobilized by heroin.

"Boston AA’s Sergeant at Arms stood outside the orderly meeting halls, in that much-invoked Out There where exciting clubs full of good cheer throbbed gaily below lit signs with neon bottles endlessly pouring. AA’s patient enforcer was always and everywhere Out There..."

Narrator, p. 359

Wallace personifies the disembodied motivating/enforcing structure of Alcoholics Anonymous (and all other branches of Anonymous) as the Sergeant at Arms, a trickster type of figure who waits around in front of all possible sources of temptation for members to slip. The Sergeant at Arms serves as a reminder to members about how, despite the temptation of momentary pleasure and escape, their lives will quickly careen out of control if they return to their old habits.

There is much cracking wise and baritone mimicry of a President roundly disliked for over two terms now. Only John Wayne and a handful of other Canadian students sit unhatted, chewing stolidly, faces blurred and distant. This American penchant for absolution via irony is foreign to them.

Narrator, p. 385

This quotation returns to one of the main themes of Wallace's essay E Unibus Pluram, which establishes a theoretical foundation for the novel Infinite Jest. Wallace believes that this contemporary instinct to rely on irony as a form of cultural critique is uniquely American and has something to do with the extremely individualistic consumer culture of the United States. In this scene, the Americans at E.T.A. are criticizing Johnny Gentle by performing humorous imitations of him; the Quebecois students, whose home province coincidentally suffers most from the creation of the Concavity, do not participate.

"So I’m stuck in the cage from either side. Fame or tortured envy of fame. There’s no way out."

"You might consider how escape from a cage must surely require, foremost, awareness of the fact of the cage. And I believe I see a drop on your temple, right… there…."

LaMont Chu and Lyle, p. 389

The metaphorical "cage" returns as LaMont Chu explains the anxiety accompanying his rabid ambitions to be a "great" tennis player and make it to the Show. LaMont has action shots of pro tennis players torn out of magazines taped to his dormitory wall. He wants so badly to be great, but his desire to be great is weighed down by his fear that he won't be, and it is affecting his game. LaMont's conundrum relates back to J.O.I.'s father's story.

...when an E.T.A. jr. whinges too loudly about some tennis-connected vicissitude or hardship or something, he’s invited to go chill for a bit in the Clipperton Suite, to maybe meditate on some of the other ways to succeed besides votaried self-transcendence and gut-sucking-in and hard daily slogging toward a distant goal you can then maybe, if you get there, live with.

Narrator, p. 434

The parable of Eric Clipperton relates to both LaMont Chu's and J.O.I.'s father's inhibiting ambitions in the sense that Clipperton demonstrates the other side of that coin—what happens when someone attains the recognition and rank that they so badly want (and especially what happens when they attain that success without working for it, without knowing that they deserve it). Clipperton kills himself after he is ranked #1 by O.N.A.N.T.A. officials while standing in a room in subdorm C with J.O.I. and Mario Incandenza because he's so afraid of losing his spot.

[Bob Death] leans in more toward Gately and shouts that the one he was talking about was: This wise old whiskery fish swims up to three young fish and goes, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ and swims away; and the three young fish watch him swim away and look at each other and go, ‘What the fuck is water?’ and swim away. The young biker leans back and smiles at Gately and gives an affable shrug and blatts away, a halter top’s tits mashed against his back.

Narrator, p. 445

This quote is essential to both the thematic life of Infinite Jest as well as to David Foster Wallace's legacy as a public speaker and public figure. The short fable speaks to the importance of understanding that life is not made up of many climactic points connecting long periods of waiting; life happens during the waiting. The young fish don't know what water is because they are surrounded by it at all times and fail to realize it's there. One of Wallace's best-known works is a commencement speech he delivered at Kenyon College entitled "This is Water" that uses this same fable as a jumping-off point.

Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.

Narrator, pp. 696-697

This quote discusses depression, suicide, and the relativity of experience. Wallace explains that people cannot understand why a person would commit suicide, or believe that people who end their own lives are somehow unafraid of death. He maintains that this is not the case, but rather that people who end their own lives are more afraid of what it would do to them to continue living, and that it is impossible for someone who doesn't feel this way, i.e. as if they are standing in a room engulfed by flames, to understand why someone might end their life.

What’s intriguing but unknown to everyone in V.R. 6 is the way Boone’s take on Himself’s take on the substitution-of-one-crutch-for-another interpretation of substituting Catholic devotion for chemical dependence is very close to the way many not-yet-desperate-enough newcomers to Boston AA see Boston AA as just an exchange of slavish dependence on the bottle/pipe for slavish dependence on meetings and banal shibboleths and robotic piety, an ‘Attitude of Platitude,’ and use this idea that it’s still slavish dependence as an excuse to stop trying Boston AA, and to go back to the original slavish Substance-dependence, until that dependence has finally beaten them into such a double-bound desperation that they finally come back in with their faces hanging off their skulls and beg to be told just what platitudes to shout, and how high to adjust their vacant grins.

Narrator, pp. 706-707

This quote refers to J.O.I.'s film Blood Sister as an allegory for Alcoholics Anonymous and James Incandenza's own unfavorable view of the Program, which he tried for himself and found the slogans and truisms too reductive and tyrannical to last him very long.

"It now lately sometimes seemed like a kind of black miracle to me that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end. Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately—the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly. To games or needles, to some other person. Something pathetic about it."

Hal, p. 900

In one of Hal's last addresses to the reader, he explains how he feels since giving up marijuana and how his feelings about tennis have changed over the years. Hal experiences anhedonia, meaning he can't feel pleasure and lacks the motivation to engage in anything because relationships and activities don't have the ability to make him feel anything. Hal's state is precisely what James Incandenza fears for his son. J.O.I. fears that his son has lost the ability to feel and has thus been shunted to the periphery of life, like an extra on Cheers!