Friday, August 05, 2016

Poor Yoricks' Summer - Infinite Jest, Pages 461-503

'Do you remember hearing,' U.S.O.U.S.'s Hugh Steeply said, 'in your own country, in the late I think B.S. '70s, of an experimental program, a biomedical experiment, involving the idea of electro-implantations in the human brain? ... They proposed to implant tiny little hair-thin electrodes in the brain. Some leading Canadian neurologist — Elder, Elders, something — at the time had hit on evidence that certain tiny little stimulations in certain brain-areas could prevent a seizure. As in an epileptic seizure. They implant electrodes — hair-thin, just a few millivolts or — ...

'It was all experimental. A whole lot of electrodes had to be implanted in an incredibly small area in the temporal lobe to hope to find the nerve-terminals that involved epileptic seizures, and it was trial and error, stimulating each electrode and checking the reaction. ... What happened was that Olders and the Canadian neuroscientists happened to find, during all the trial and error, that firing certain electrodes in certain parts of the lobes gave the brain intense feelings of pleasure. ... [T]he Canadians found that if they rigged an auto-stimulation lever, the rat would press the lever to stimulate his p-terminal over and over, thousands of times an hour, over and over, ignoring food and female rats in heat, completely fixated on the lever's stimulation, day and night, stopping only when the rat finally died of dehydration or simple fatigue.'
This experiment was real. It occurred in Canada in 1954. According to one website:
The existence of a pleasure center was first hypothesized in 1954 by two Canadian researchers at McGill University, James Olds and Peter Milner.

In December of that year, Olds and Milner published a classic paper describing an experiment in which they implanted thin needles with electrodes into various areas within the brains of rats, one needle per rat. Each rat was able to press a lever that would send a small electric current through the needle, thereby stimulating a specific part of its brain.

For the experiment, Olds and Milner used 15 male rats, all of whom were given 6-12 hours of time during which the electrode could be activated by pressing the lever. Six of the 15 rats were fortunate enough to have their electrode inserted into an area that created a good feeling when turned on. On the average, these 6 rats ended up pressing the lever more than 81 percent of the time. One rat — unfortunately, history does not record his name — distinguished himself by pressing the lever 92 percent of the time.
James Olds and Peter Milner were researchers who found the reward system in 1954. They discovered, while trying to teach rats how to solve problems and run mazes, stimulation of certain regions of the brain. Where the stimulation was found seemed to give pleasure to the animals. They tried the same thing with humans and the results were similar. ... When rats were tested in Skinner boxes where they could stimulate the reward system by pressing a lever, the rats pressed for hours.
In Infinite Jest, when the McGill researchers wanted to try their experiment on humans, Steeply notes that
human volunteers [were] lining up literally around the block outside the place, able-bodied and I should remember to recall mostly young Canadians, lining up and literally trampling each other in their desire to sign up as volunteers for p-terminal-electrode implantation and stimulation. ... And of course this eagerness for implantation put a whole new disturbing spin on the study of human pleasure and behavior, and a whole new Brandon Hospital team was hastily assembled to study the psych-profiles of all these people willing to trample one another to undergo invasive brain surgery and foreign-object implantation —
Hence USOUS's fear about the availability of the Entertainment among Americans and their likely inability to choose wisely and avoid the lethal cartridge.

We learn a bit of the back story of Ennet House's Executive Director:
Pat Montesian was both pretty and not. She was in maybe her late thirties. She'd supposedly been this young and pretty and wealthy socialite out on the Cape until her husband had divorced her for being a nearly fullblown alcoholic, which seemed like abandonment and didn't improve her subsequent drinking one jot. She'd been in and out of rehabs and halfway places in her twenties, but then it wasn't until she'd almost died from a stroke during the D.T.s one A.M. that she'd been able to Surrender and Come In with the requisite hopeless desperation, etc. ... She'd come to Ennet House in an electric wheelchair at thirty-two and been unable to communicate except via like Morse-Code blinks or something for the first six months, but had even without use of her arms demonstrated a willingness to try and eat a rock when the founding Guy Who Didn't Even Use His First Name told her to, using her torso and neck to like chop downwardly at the rock and chipping both incisors (you can still see the caps at the corners), and had gotten sober, and remarried a different and older South Shore like trillionaire with what sounded like psychotic kids, and but regained an unexpected amount of function, and had been working at the House ever since.
Also: Don Gately gets to happily tool around Boston in Pat Montesian's 1964 Ford Aventura.
The engine sounds more like a jet engine than a piston engine, plus there's a scoop poking periscopically from the hood, and for Gately the vehicle's so terrifically tight and sleek it's like being strapped into a missile and launched at the site of a domestic errand. He can barely fit in the driver's seat. The steering wheel is about the size of an old video-arcade game's steering wheel, and the thin canted six-speed shift is encased in a red leather baglet that smells strongly of leather. The height of the car's roof compromises Gately's driving-posture, and his right ham like exceeds the seat and squeezes against the gearshift so that shifting pinches his hip. He does not care. Some of the profoundest spiritual feelings of his sobriety so far are for this car.
And we get still more about Gately's journey through his first year of sober time and his struggle to understand how AA works. (This must have been very important to Wallace because he has Gately ruminate over this three distinct times over a 120-page period in the middle of the book.)
Down near E.W.D.'s barge-docks off the Allston Spur one night he [Gately's sponsor, White Flagger ('Ferocious') Francis Gehaney] invited Gately to think of Boston AA as a box of Betty Crocker Cake Mix. Gately had smacked himself in the forehead at yet another limp oblique Gene M. analogy, which Gene had already bludgeoned him with several insectile tropes for thinking about the Disease. The counselor had let him vent spleen for a while, smoking as he crawled along behind land-barges lined up to unload. He told Gately to just imagine for a second that he's holding a box of Betty Crocker Cake Mix, which represented Boston AA. The box came with directions on the side any eight-year-old could read. Gately said he was waiting for the mention of some kind of damn insect inside the cake mix. Gene M. said all Gately had to do was for fuck's sake give himself a break and relax and for once shut up and just follow the directions on the side of the fucking box. It didn't matter one fuckola whether Gately like believed a cake would result, or whether he understood the like fucking baking-chemistry of how a cake would result: if he just followed the motherfucking directions, and had sense enough to get help from slightly more experienced bakers to keep from fucking the directions up if he got confused somehow, but basically the point was if he just followed the childish directions, a cake would result. He'd have his cake. ... He had nothing in the way of a like God-concept, and at that point maybe even less than nothing in terms of interest in the whole thing; he treated prayer like setting an oven-temp according to a box's direction. ... He couldn't for the goddamn life of him understand how this thing worked, this thing that was working. It drove him bats. At about seven months, at the little Sunday Beginners' Mtg., he actually cracked one of the Provident's fake-wood tabletops beating his big square head against it. ...

That was months ago. Gately usually no longer much cares whether he understands or not. He does the knee-and-ceiling thing twice a day, and cleans shit, and listens to dreams, and stays Active, and tells the truth to the Ennet House residents, and tries to help a couple of them if they approach him wanting help. And when Ferocious Francis G. and the White Flaggers presented him, on the September Sunday that marked his first year sober, with a faultlessly baked and heavily frosted one-candle cake, Don Gately had cried in front of nonrelatives for the first time in his life. He now denies that he actually did cry, saying something about candle-fumes in his eye. But he did.
As Gately is driving the Aventura through Inman Square, he stirs some trash in the street and a paper cup goes sailing against the door of "Antitoi Entertainment", where Lucien and Bertraund - two hapless Canadian sleeper terrorists (of a sort) are in their shop - when members of the wheelchaired AFR attack. They are looking both for the Entertainment and a 585-rpm-drive TP capable of playing master copies and making copies. They end up murdering both brothers and ransacking the cluttered store. The Antitois would appear to have only a conventional 450-rpm-drive TP and so some of the in-coming cartridges that Lucien plays offer only static. The brothers might very well have a master of the Entertainment in their shop, but they would not know it.
Note 205: "Copy-Capable cartridges, a.k.a. Masters, require a 585-r.p.m.-drive viewer or TP to run, and on a conventional 450-drive decline to give off so much as static, appearing rather empty and blank. Q.v. here Note 301 sub."

Note 301: "Noreen Lace-Forché protected InterLace's golden goose's copyrights by specifying that all consumer-TP-compatible laser cartridges be engineered as Read-Only ... N.L.-F. had even rigged it so that Masters have to be run at 585 r.p.m. instead of a consumer-TP's cartridge-drive's 450 r.p.m."
Lucien Antitoi's death - presented at pretty much the middle point of the novel - is both grotesque and violent. Reading it this time, I was more trying to dissect the various phrases - the sentence is 605 words, more than a full page in length - to see exactly how Wallace does it, how he builds the tension to its grisly finale, when Lucien - presented as naive and innocent as Mario - "finally sheds his body's suit ... and is free, catapulted home over fans and the Convexity's glass palisades at desperate speeds, soaring north, sounding a bell-clear and nearly maternal alarmed call-to-arms in all the world's well-known tongues".

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