Orin’s Endless Fall
[This post is a follow-up to my earlier posts on Orin’s Dread and Orin’s Dread II. It is an attempt to track the dilemmas of becoming an authentic self in the one character – Orin Incandenza – who is portrayed as plagued by classic existential symptoms of anguish and dread. Resolving Orin’s existential crisis is an important feature of IJ, since it is one indication of whether there is a latent humanism in IJ, a hope that human will and choice can be directed for the sake of responsibility and ethical self-understanding. Most characters in the novel, to the contrary, are performing ordained roles in relation to Pleasure and Power, and face only pre-existential choices, for instance: whether to live or die as the Slave of a Spider; whether to join the Show or sink into Nothingness.]
As IJ progresses past its mid-point, Orin has emerged as a primary target for uncovering the mystery of the Entertainment – or at least, so thinks on the one hand the A.F.R. Wheelchair Assassins, who are following him everywhere, and on the other O.U.S. agent “Helen” Steeply, who pumps Orin for Incandenza-type information (without, well, pumping him, if you know what I mean). Caught between these two tidal geo-political forces, Orin remains oblivious, blinded by his passionate need for Helen. And now, when his loneliness and woe is greatest, a Swiss hand-model carrying a Schmeisser GBF miniature machine pistol in her handbag shows up to take him to bed (pp. 565-567 & 596-601).
The appearance of the Swiss hand-model, as , is a moment of “Pynchonian contraparanoia,” in DFW’s words. That is, he is living in a world in which he has every reason to be paranoid, but fails to connect the dots. Rather than suspect a plot around every corner, Orin takes it all well enough for granted without a single frisson of concern. The wheelchair assassins are shy football fans who idolize his powerful leg. The Swiss hand-model’s appearance is
as if the universe were reaching out a hand to pluck him from the rim of the abyss of despair that any sort of rejection or frustration of his need for some Subject he’d picked out always threatened him with, as if he’d been teetering with his arms windmilling at a great height. (p. 566)
Yet, rather than be suitably appreciative of this seemingly “unStrategized” sexual encounter, we get a glimpse of Orin’s contempt for his Subjects. I think we should be careful not to reduce this contempt to simple misogyny (though there’s no reason to think that misogyny doesn’t play a psychological role – Hal gets this right when he notes that “It’s poignant somehow that you always use the word Subject when you mean the exact obverse” (n#110, p. 1008)). Rather, it is yet another expression of his existential anxieties, here expressed by the failure of the Singular to achieve the Universal.
It feels to the punter rather to be about hope, an immense wide-as-the-sky hope of finding something in each Subject’s fluttering face, a something the same that will propitiate hope, somehow, pay its tribute, the need to be assured that for a moment he has her and is what she sees and all she sees… that for one second she loves him too much to stand it, that she must, she feels, have him, must take him inside or else dissolve into worse than nothing. (p. 566, underlines represent italics in original)
The emphasis on ‘must’ indicates here Orin’s strong desire to find an Absolute, a Same, that can quell the doom-laden feelings of his veritable contingency. He wants to be the sexual companion that results not from a deliberate choice, but from a deep and core metaphysical Necessity that will establish his permanence, his reality. He seeks to negate the Singular Individual who confronts him in vulnerability, and thus leave only the Universal; furthermore, he needs to find that Universal in himself, the One. Let me briefly explain this in philosophical-ese.
The route to the Universal, the Absolute, must always travel along the pathway of the Singular, the Individual. Philosophers, seeking the universal, have consequently and for so long negated the uniqueness of the individual, fearing that the finitude of the singular would prevent access to the the supra-individual heights of Reason or God. Even the introduction, with Augustine or Descartes, of an “I” that exists and turns ever on the axis of its self-consciousness, turns out to be an “I” that must be purified of its singularity, its contingency.
Hegel tried, as he always did, to reconcile the Universal and the Singular, to find the universal sociality (community) that conditions and is conditioned by the individual: the “I that is We and the We that is I.” But Kierkegaard, discovering that Hegel had built a beautiful castle but could not live in it, revealed that singularity could never be negated, could never be identified with community, that we must pass through the travails of our finite subjectivity to face down – to construct a relation to – the infinite. The failure to retain or return to our finite and contingent existence is the source of all sorts of what Sartre later called “bad faith.”
Orin is, to put it simply, frustrated that he is unable to establish the necessity of his existence for more than a brief and fleeting moment. He cannot admit that the path to an unstable (the only kind) resolution to dread lies in profound commitment to a Singular Individual, one which does not seek to be outside of all time and change, one which is real because it is finite, not in spite of that. As explained parenthetically,
(This is why, maybe, one Subject is never enough, why hand after hand must descend to pull him back from the endless fall. For were there for him just one, now, special and only, the One would be not he or she but what was between them, the obliterating trinity of You and I into We. Orin felt that once and has never recovered, and will never again.) (p. 566f.)
Orin’s need to be saved, if only temporarily, from his “endless Fall” is spent in the sex and leaves behind only the dry bitterness of contempt. He resents each Subject’s Uniqueness, which threatens his own capacity to be the One, the Everything – he blames them for their ontological inability to sustain his flight from truth. Orin hides this contempt, as he hides the fact that he does not receive pleasure from his Encounters with Subjects. He was, nevertheless, “resoundingly gentle and caring afterwards,” and apparently did not hesitate to explain to the subject that his “#2 favorite is this post-seminal interval of clingy vulnerability on the Subject’s part and gentle intimate care on his own” (p. 597; though misogynist, at least he is not also an asshole).
Speaking of trying to save him from his “endless Fall,” let me point out some insights that come from The Fall, Albert Camus’ last published complete novel. The Fall bears an interest to IJ readers for its opaque and duplicitous narrator Jean-Baptiste Clamence. Clamence leads his voiceless interlocutor through a confession of his (Clamence’s, that is) life which, by his own eventual admission, is full of lies – all of which lies lead nevertheless and unerringly to the truth. Clamence keenly feels this Orin-like struggle to exist necessarily, and also recognizes what he calls the “dual-nature” of all human beings, the worm at the heart of all self-consciousness that makes its motivations untrustworthy.
At one point in his tale, Clamence has embarked on a series of Orin-like affairs (had he been asynchronously influenced by DFW, Camus could very well have used “Subjects”), with the added enhancement that rather than send them quickly away so he could bear out his night sweats alone, Clamence would drag them into the mud of his despair by keeping them attached, even feeling, for his part, a certain alarm and perhaps fooling himself into a bit of suffering at the threat of their abandonment. But of course it was just a mask. Here is Clamence’s most honest portayal of his circumstance:
No, it was not love or generosity that aroused me when I was in danger of being forsaken, but merely the desire to be loved and to receive what, in my opinion, was my due. […] Be it said, moreover, that as soon as I had re-won that affection I became aware of its weight. In my moments of irritation I told myself that the ideal solution would have been the death of the person I was interested in. Her death would, on the one hand, have fixed our relationship once and for all and, on the other, removed its constraint. But one cannot long for the death of everyone or, to go to extremes, depopulate the planet in order to enjoy a freedom that is unthinkable otherwise. [… ] On my own admission, I could live happily only on condition that all the individuals on earth, or the greatest possible number, were turned towards me, eternally unattached, deprived of any separate existence. […] In short, for me to live happily it was essential for the individuals I chose not to live at all. (The Fall, Everyman’s Library edition, 2004 , pp. 311-312)
Note the similarity to Orin. Recall how he sought to lose himself in the natal rush of the stadium crowd, how all existence must be “turned toward him” in order to guarantee his tenuous purchase on life. To lose themselves in Him, of course, is of a kind with destroying themselves for His sake – or being destroyed by him, specifically.
Ahh, existential conflicts can seem so grand and world-shattering! Yet, they are so futile when taken to these extremes. Clamence ultimately resolves the deep truths of his lies, and achieves (apparently) a sort of Sisyphean, anti-heroic joy. And in an analogue to Meursault in The Stranger, he feels he will be “saved” in death, specifically in an execution, after which
… you would hold up my still warm head, so that they could recognize themselves in it and I could again dominate – an exemplar. (p. 356)
And thus are we led once more to the image of a Head, a reminder of JOI’s head which is yet-to-be-dug, and whose importance I have addressed in my recent discussion of Hal “the revenant” Incandenza. As I pointed out recently in comments at Infinite Zombies, we should not expect that all of our connections to things outside of IJ are ones that DFW studiously put there for us to find – but find them we must. The annular recurrence of squeaks, wobbles, heads, triangles, &c., that give IJ its fractal quality, evoke resonances not only in his fictional construction but in our world as well. To quote myself:
The more I read both your work and Detox’s, the more sense I have that it is not DFW’s imagination that is fractalized or Serpinskied, it is the human cosmos (if that looks like an odd phrase, I mean it intentionally) of which he is a part (an admittedly visionary one). He doesn’t have to think all the triangles within triangles; he just has to attend carefully to his own patterns and keep the lustrous description of phenomena flowing. The associations will emerge as we dig, as we attend to the myriad and expanding connections between his world and our own.