David Foster Wallace’s Inferno

When reviewing the Celebrity Cruise promotional material early on, David Foster Wallace revealingly drops a name –

“Sharing a laugh with your friends’ in the lounge after dinner, you glance at your watch and mention that it’s almost showtime …. When the curtain comes down after a standing ovation, the talk among your companions turns to, ‘What next?’ Perhaps a visit to the casino or a little dancing in the disco? Maybe a quiet drink in the piano bar or a starlit stroll around the deck? After discussing all your options, everyone agrees: ‘Let’s do it all!'”

Dante this isn’t, but Celebrity Cruises’ brochure is an extremely powerful and ingenious piece of advertising.

This is a time-honored allusive tactic – make a reference in a seemingly unrelated context, give one’s reader a clue to the entirety of the present work.  If Infinite Jest was Wallace’s grant synthesis of Joycean verbal virtuosity and Dostoevskian theological heft – “A Supposed Fun Thing I’ll Never do Again” (the essay) is nothing less than a contemporary retelling of the first third of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Here’s how Canto 1 of the Inferno begins:

In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost. It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear. It is scarcely less bitter than death: but, in order to tell of the good that I found there, I must tell of the other things I saw there.  I cannot rightly say how I entered it. I was so full of sleep, at that point where I abandoned the true way.

Instead of a Dante’s “silva obscura”, here’s DFW’s lead-in to the spectacularly monstrous tale of his week at sea about a luxury cruise-liner, set in an airport waiting area:

Right now it’s Saturday 18 March, and I’m sitting in the extremely full coffee shop of the Fort Lauderdale Airport, killing the four hours between when I had to be off the cruise ship and when my flight to Chicago leaves by trying to summon up a kind of hypnotic sensuous collage of all the stuff I’ve seen and heard and done as a result of the journalist assignment just ended.

DFW leads us through limbo – the strange fleet of coach buses and then enormous hangar-like tent.  He then brings us along through the successive layers of Hell – the twelve different numbered decks of the Zenith (tellingly “rechristened” The Nadir).  We also learn of all those level’s inhabitants – Captain Dermatitis, the Ping Pong Pro, Deirdre the 9-year-old chess phenom, Mona the harpee-ish late teenager who pretends it’s her birthday to get luxury dessert, The Cruise Director Mr. Scott Peterson, etc., before finishing  arguably with the final greatest Satan of them all – the British-accented hypnotist Nigel Ellery.  All the while surrounded by the “bovine” overweight aged leathery-tanned “Lumpenamericanen” who make their way on and off the ship at every port of call.  Instead of the she-wolf that walks Dante first into Hell, we have Inga and Geli (“two Aryan-looking hostesses from the Hospitality staff”).  Last arguably Dante allusion – he’s even got a Virgil-esque literary guide of sorts: renowned memoirist Frank Conroy, DFW learns, has written a promotional essay (“I prostituted myself” – Conroy’s words), which seems to cause great consternation on DFW’s part when he learns of it.  He gets some (but incomplete) guidance from Conroy, one of his personal heros.

Recall the famous words inscribed above Dante’s entrance to Hell (“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”)  Instead we have the more prosaic “WATCH YOUR STEP” and ubiquitous “YOU ARE HERE” signs – signs which, according to DFW anyway, generate a great sense of despair (etymologically: the absence of hope).  And despair is a huge and prevailing theme from DFW’s 7NC cruise.

Now arguably this despair is just evidence of DFW’s problems with depression and agoraphobia (the latter is discussed at decent length in this essay).  But there’s something deeper.  DFW’s point is something along the lines of: the more you let yourself be “pampered”, the more you descend into a Hell you cannot escape, the Hell of complete surrender to what he calls an “almost prenatal” urge to demand everything at any time for any reason.  This despair takes on this seemingly paradoxical quality –  the more one is indulged and pampered, the longer the list of minor complaints grows.  One day upon glimpsing a grander cruise ship nearby, the external cabins of which have private balconies, DFW becomes sure he’s missing out on something vital in the cruise-ship experience, something that leaves him deeply unhappy while he contemplates it.

There’s also a grander political agenda here, deployed through references to the unwitting “echo of the Auschwitz-embarkation scene in Schindler’s List” when he learns he should leave his luggage behind as he exits the plane.  There’s a further seemingly random name dropped when we learn of Mona’s fake birthday plans:

…she informs me on Monday, is July 29, and when I quietly observe that July 29 is also the birthday of Benito Mussolini, Mona’s grandmother shoots me kind of a death-look, although Mona herself is excited at the coincidence, apparently confusing the names Mussolini and Maserati.

To complete a trio of authoritarian political allusion, we learn of the Nadir captain:

This helps explain why Nadir Captain G. Panagiotakis usually seems so phenomenally unbusy, why his real job seems to be to stand in various parts of the Nadir and try to look vaguely presidential, which he would except for his habit of wearing sunglasses inside, which makes him look more like a Third World strongman.

Not to get too Thomas Friedman on you (because it w0uld run the essentially comic aspect of the original piece) but what’s going on here, to me anyway, is DFW is showing us, through the metaphor of a cruise ship, just how all of us have conflated Mussolini and Maserati.  And yes, ALL of us, not just these “bovine” Nadir travelers.

See, what’s so convicting about “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” is that, though it was written in 1995, and about the cruise-ship industry, to write this essay today, one would hardly need to board a cruise-ship.  This whole idea of packaged “entertainment experience” has run like wildfire through almost the entirety of our consumer economy.  I was at CVS recently and – to my horror – told that “the next guest could step down.”  GUEST?!?!?  I’m buying deodorant.  This happens up and down now – the primary purpose of most consumer interactions, at least if a lot of these corporations had their way (which they pretty much have with all of us) is for them to provide an “experience” which we are invited into as “guests.”  They do the thinking for us, about what emotional experience we’ll have, when and how – as DFW puts it, they “want something from us” that’s more than just money.

And we are led to crazy lengths to complain about “customer service,” “satisfaction,” etc. etc.  A facebook friend of mine recently shared a letter received from the manager of a local McDonald’s: “McDonald’s is in the business of satisfying customers, and that is a value I truly believe in.”  Like DFW says, the more we get, the more we want, and the more quickly despair sets in when we realize we’re not getting something.  And the more we all think that whatever that is, is something to “truly believe in.”

That something is at the heart of Plato’s vision of tyrannical man – the “son of democratic man.”  Plato begins Book IX of The Republic with a chilling line of inquiry, describing a process that, in many ways, DFW’s essay makes vivid to late-20th-century readers (emphasis added):

Soc: Last of all comes the tyrannical man, about whom we have to inquire, Whence is he, and how does he live–in happiness or in misery?  There is, however, a previous question of the nature and number of the appetites, which I should like to consider first. Some of them are unlawful, and yet admit of being chastened and weakened in various degrees by the power of reason and law.

Glauc:  What appetites do you mean?

Soc: I mean those which are awake when the reasoning powers are asleep, which get up and walk about naked without any self-respect or shame; and there is no conceivable folly or crime, however cruel or unnatural, of which, in imagination, they may not be guilty. ‘

Glauc:  True, very true.

Soc: But when a man’s pulse beats temperately; and he has supped on a feast of reason and come to a knowledge of himself before going to rest, and has satisfied his desires just enough to prevent their perturbing his reason, which remains clear and luminous, and when he is free from quarrel and heat,–the visions which he has on his bed are least irregular and abnormal. Even in good men there is such an irregular wild-beast nature, which peers out in sleep.

To return:–You remember what was said of the democrat; that he was the son of a miserly father, who encouraged the saving desires and repressed the ornamental and expensive ones; presently the youth got into fine company, and began to entertain a dislike to his father’s narrow ways; and being a better man than the corrupters of his youth, he came to a mean, and led a life, not of lawless or slavish passion, but of regular and successive indulgence.

Now imagine that the youth has become a father, and has a son who is exposed to the same temptations, and has companions who lead him into every sort of iniquity, and parents and friends who try to keep him right. The counsellors of evil find that their only chance of retaining him is to implant in his soul a monster drone, or love; while other desires buzz around him and mystify him with sweet sounds and scents, this monster love takes possession of him, and puts an end to every true or modest thought or wish. Love, like drunkenness and madness, is a tyranny; and the tyrannical man, whether made by nature or habit, is just a drinking, lusting, furious sort of animal.

From such a trance, Dante makes his memorable escape:

The Guide and I into that hidden road
Now entered, to return to the bright world;
And without care of having any rest,

We mounted up, he first and I the second,

Till I beheld through a round aperture
Some of the beauteous things that Heaven doth bear;

Thence we came forth to re-behold the stars.

And finally, David Foster Wallace’s escape:

And even though the tranced stasis caused me to miss the final night’s climactic PTS and the Farewell Midnight Buffet and then Saturday’s docking and a chance to have my After photo taken with Captain G. Panagiotakis, subsequent reentry into the adult demands of landlocked real-world life wasn’t nearly as bad a a week of Absolutely Nothing had led me to fear.

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