A Wheelchair Assassin Argues About Freedom

We promised there would be more excerpts from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest! This one […]

David Zahl / 12.4.13

We promised there would be more excerpts from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest! This one comes from a clandestine mountain-top conversation between a Quebecois nationalist/”Wheelchair Assassin” named Marathe and the US undercover agent Hugh/Helen Steeply. Some people consider their (lengthy) sparring matches to be the lowpoints of book, real momentum killers (pun intended), and I’m not sure I’d disagree. Still, taken out of context, DFW packed quite a bit of beauty and weight and humor into them. Their standing disagreement about the nature of freedom sticks out as particularly quotable–and lest you think DFW is being overly didactic, be sure to read through the final line. Only details worth mentioning are 1. IJ is set in a semi-parodic North America of the near future, 2. the “recorded pleasure” that Steeply references toward the end is The Entertainment, the so-entertaining-it-kills-you film around which the plot revolves, and 3. Fortier is Marathe’s reporting officer. But none of those are really essential for understanding the passage, which begins with Steeply, the American, speaking:

tumblr_l9arq9svhP1qdib37“‘There are no choices without personal freedom, Buckeroo. It’s not us who are dead inside. These things you find so weak and contemptible in us — these are just the hazards of being free.’

‘But what does this U.S.A. expression want to mean, this Buckeroo?’

Steeply turned to face away into the space they were above. ‘And now here we go. Now you will say how free are we if you dangle fatal fruit before us and we cannot help ourselves from temptation. And we say “human” to you. We say that one cannot be human without freedom.’

Marathe’s chair squeaked slightly as his weight shifted. ‘Always with you this freedom! For your walled-up country, always to shout “Freedom! Freedom!” as if it were obvious to all people what it wants to mean, this word. But look: it is not so simple as that. Your freedom is the freedom-from: no one tells your precious individual U.S.A. selves what they must do. It is this meaning only, this freedom from constraint and forced duress.’ Marathe over Steeply’s shoulder suddenly could realize why the skies above the coruscating city were themselves erased of stars: it was the fumes from the exhaust’s wastes of the moving autos’ pretty lights that rose and hid stars from the city and made the city Tucson’s lume nacreous in the dome’s blankness of it. ‘But what of the freedom-to? Not just free-from. Not all compulsion comes from without. You pretend you do not see this. What of freedom-to? How for the person to freely choose? How to choose any but a child’s greedy choices if there is no loving-filled father to guide, inform, teach the person how to choose? How is there freedom to choose if one does not learn how to choose?’

Steeply threw away a cigarette and faced partly Marathe, from the edge: ‘Now the story of the rich man.’

Marathe said ‘The rich father who can afford the cost of candy as well as food for his children: but if he cries out “Freedom!” and allows his child to choose only what is sweet, eating only candy, not pea soup and bread and eggs, so his child becomes weak and sick: is the rich man who cries “Freedom!” the good father?’


Steeply made four small noises. Excitement of some belief made the American’s electrolysis’s little pimples of rash redden even in the milky dilute light of lume and low stars. The moon over the Mountains of Rincon was on its side, its color the color of a fat man’s face. Marathe could believe he could hear some young U.S.A. voices shouting and laughing in a young gathering somewhere out on the desert floor below, but saw no headlights or young persons. Steeply stamped a high heel in frustration. Steeply said:

‘But U.S. citizens aren’t presumed by us to be children, to pater-nalistically do their thinking and choosing for them. Human beings are not children.’

Marathe pretended again to sniff.

‘Ah, yes, but then you say: No?’ Steeply said. ‘No? you say, not children? You say: 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? You say what your Fortier believes, that we are children, not human adults like the noble Québecers, we are children, bullies but still children inside, and will kill ourselves for you if you put the candy within the arms’ reach.’

Marathe tried to make his face expressive of anger, which was difficult for him. ‘This is what happens: you imagine the things I will say and then say them for me and then become angry with them. Without my mouth; it never opens. You speak to yourself, inventing sides. This itself is the habit of children: lazy, lonely, self. I am not even here, possibly, for listening to.’

Unmentioned by either man was how in heaven’s name either man expected to get up or down from the mountainside’s shelf in the dark of the U.S. desert’s night.” (pg 320-21)


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