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August 2, 2009 / Infinite Tasks

Sir Osis of Thuliver Gets in Touch With His Feelings

It is a tribute to Don Gately that his range of possible experience is quite wide, even if his ability to describe it is occasionally somewhat limited. Fortunately, since the narration of Don’s experiences is presumably not his own (that is, according to a variety of endnotes, e.g. #137, #197, as well as the linguistic verbosity, we have to assume this is either Hal’s or some other quasi-omniscient voice), we are given access to his complex feelings and memories in such a way as to bring us quite close to his own existential awakenings. In a previous post, I looked briefly at our first glimpse behind the Gately “wall,” when Joelle’s complaint about the poor grammar of an AA cliche leaves him speechless and thus, for the first time, deathly afraid.

For years on end Gately had not a single conscious thought of his mother or this past; these memories begin to haunt him, now that he is detaching from the Substance cravings he experienced in his first months at Ennet House.  Sometime in Y.D.A.U., Gately recalls the abuse suffered by his alcoholic mom, and her ultimate relegation to the Long-Term place after her cirrhotic hemorrhage (pp. 448-449).  Yet he hardly understood the significance of her Diagnosis and mixed it up  with stories of King Arthur, which is how he came to imagine he was “Sir Osis of Thuliver, most fearsomely loyal and fierce of Arthur’s vessels [sic].” (When I first read this, I didn’t get that “sir-osis of thu-liver” = “cirrhosis of the liver”.)

His memories, though, are not structured so much like a series of recollections as a conscious recognition of self in the world. Most self-experience is at a pre-conscious level (something that goes for all of us, of course); without even formulating a notion of “ego” or “I”, we are simply and directly engaged in the business of the/our world and not reflective of it. This immersion sometimes breaks down, throwing us back onto our own resources to judge, act, will, conceive, etc. While there is a rich tradition of phenomenological philosophy [18] to capture and describe the experiences of consciousness, a joke can sometimes do as well. This one comes from Bob Death, a biker from the Tough Shit But You Still Can’t Drink Group:

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. (p. 445)

We live in an environment without being effectively, that is, self-consciously, aware of it. When we do become aware of it, we recognize its artificiality, its pretense, its absurdity, perhaps also its necessity, its cruelty, its indifference. This is the moment of possibility, the moment when we learn that we are a self like other selves, that our purpose is unintelligible, that we are finite, contingent, that our death will neither cause nor impede anything. This is a horrifying moment, but it is also one that must happen, because the stage-sets around us, the atmospheric permeation that is represented here by the fish in the water, collapse.

To know that we live in a fully permeated environment is to be entombed, not simply by a coffin or a bed or a Cage or a Substance, but by the denseness of the universe itself. It is to despair of oneself. Gately represents this, unsurprisingly sticking with the fish image, as a cohering, impenetrable sea.

And his dreams late that night, after the Braintree/Bob Death Commitment, seem to set him under a sort of sea, at terrific depths, the water all around him silent and dim and the same temperature he is. (p. 449)

In earlier posts, I have looked into Orin’s dread, his yet unrealized capacity for authentic or resolute self-awareness. Orin, I think, is one of the characters who may show us, not simply what it means to survive in a world where we are consumed by the Entertainment we think we are consuming, but what we may be if we come out the other side. He is thus one of the characters who may show us what it is for which we may hope (and recently, there have been some very powerful posts on whether IJ leaves us with any, hope that is, specifically Daryl H. on the bleak, bleak double-bind of addictions even when we know better, and Gerry C. on how addictions are conceived as communal, and therefore ideological, normalized, and inescapable).  It turns out that Gately, too, is one of these characters.  He helps us to understand the difference between the dread-which-produces-hope and the pain-that-we can-flee.

‘Getting In Touch With Your Feelings’ is another quilted-sampler-type cliche that ends up masking something ghastly and real, it turns out. (p. 446)

Indeed – Getting In Touch is not becoming aware of the pain that one was fleeing when one took up Substances as a replacement for experience. Getting In Touch is not providing a causal story about the sources of that pain (see pp. 370-374 on why “causal attribution, like irony, is death, speaking-on-Commitments-wise”). Getting In Touch is not a form of recollection in which a formerly lost past produces new obligations (though Gately probably should go visit his mum at the Long-Term place at some point). Getting In Touch is discovering the vastness of the indifferent universe, the closeness of the air/water we breathe, the all-suffusing singularity of the self from which there is no escape but only, if all goes well, a grasping hold of that self.

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6 Comments

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  1. stephanie / Aug 8 2009 12:32 pm

    “Getting In Touch is discovering the vastness of the indifferent universe, the closeness of the air/water we breathe, the all-suffusing singularity of the self from which there is no escape but only, if all goes well, a grasping hold of that self.”

    YES!

  2. stephanie / Aug 11 2009 6:16 pm

    To follow up – all day I was looking for a passage in IJ that I read and loved, but I couldn’t find it in the text. It finally occurred to me that it isn’t even in IJ – it was on your blog. The paragraph that begins “We live in an environment…” has become as ingrained in my mind as the rest of the book.

    • infinitetasks / Aug 11 2009 6:41 pm

      Shucks… blush… thanks. Nice of you to stop by and make my day.

  3. fraser knight / May 25 2010 3:24 am

    stephanie – same here!
    A Note From the Future: it’s 24/05/10 and having just finished IJ i’m scouring the internet for answers/thoughts/reflections and although you guys didn’t know it yet, you are writing some of the most stimulating words on the net re:IJ

    • Infinite Tasks / May 25 2010 1:02 pm

      Welcome, Future! Thanks for the compliment, and I hope that you’re able to join us for Insurgent Summer.

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