After this initial intro, all that follows will be a long quotation from the book Infinite Jest. This passage is one of my favorite in any book I have ever read. I think about it a lot, for a lot of different reasons. I was thinking about posting it recently, but wasn’t sure.
Then, today, while talking to the Youth Pastor at my church I was talking about how the Bible often has a lot of things going on that we miss and that if we see those things then the Bible becomes so much more interesting and it impacts our lives in deeper ways. The example I gave was about Romans 1-3. The typical way we read that is that Romans 1-3 is basically teaching that everybody sins, etc. And while I’m not denying that, my point is that there are a lot of other really interesting things going on. One particular point I raised is about how Romans 1-3 should be read in light of ancient ideas of purity and impurity, especially with the Jewish idea in mind that the Gentiles were unclean people, etc (see Honor, Patronage, Kinship, and Purity by deSilva, for instance).
Because if we simply read Romans 1-3 as teaching that everybody sins, then there isn’t a ton of application. But if we also take on this reading about purity and spheres about what things/people are pure and what things/people are impure, then some of the application is that we should be overcoming our own purity maps and reaching out to the sick, the diseased, the homeless, etc. And so I basically summarized the quote that follows. While doing so, I, quite honestly, started to tear up. Let me be clear: tearing up about a passage in a book I know is fiction is not a normal occurrence by any means for me. It actually reminds me of a quote from David Foster Wallace, “Fiction is one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved. Drugs, movies where stuff blows up, loud parties — all these chase away loneliness by making me forget my name’s Dave and I live in a one-by-one box of bone no other party can penetrate or know. Fiction, poetry, music, really deep serious sex, and, in various ways, religion — these are the places (for me) where loneliness is countenanced, stared down, transfigured, treated.”
Anyway, there are a lot of interesting things going on in the passage, but I will simply quote it here. I know it’s long and not formatted particularly well (I simply follow the book here), but it’s worth it (Infinite Jest, 969-971):
“In outline, it eventually boiled down to this: a desperate Barry Loach—with Mrs. L. now on 25 mg. of daily Ativan and just about camped out in front of the candle-lighting apse of the Loach’s parish church—Loach challenges his brother to let him prove somehow—risking his own time, Barry’s, and maybe safety somehow—that the basic human character wasn’t as unempathetic and necrotic as the brother’s present depressed condition was leading him to think. After a few suggestions and rejections of bets too way-out even for Barry Loach’s desperation, the brothers finally settle on a, like, experimental challenge. The spiritually despondent brother basically challenges Barry Loach to not shower or change clothes for a while and make himself look homeless and disreputable and louse-ridden and clearly in need of basic human charity, and to stand out in front of the Park Street T-station on the edge of the Boston Common, right alongside the rest of the downtown community’s lumpen dregs, who all usually stood there outside the T-station stemming change, and for Barry Loach to hold out his unclean hand and instead of stemming change simply ask passersby to touch him. Just to touch him. Viz. extend some basic human warmth and contact. And this Barry does. And does. Days go by. His own spiritually upbeat constitution starts taking blows to the solar plexus. It’s not clear whether the verminousness of his appearance had that much to do with it; it just turned out that standing there outside the station doors and holding out his hand and asking people to touch him ensured that just about the last thing any passerby in his right mind would want to do was touch him. It’s possible that the respectable citizenry with their bookbags and cellulars and dogs with little red sweater-vests thought that sticking one’s hand way out and crying ‘Touch me, just touch me, please ’ was some kind of new stem-type argot for ‘Lay some change on me,’ because Barry Loach found himself hauling in a rather impressive daily total of $—significantly more than he was earning at his work-study job wrapping ankles and sterilizing dental prostheses for Boston College lacrosse players. Citizens found his pitch apparently just touching enough to give him $; but B. Loach’s brother—who often stood there in collarless mufti up against the plastic jamb of the T-station’s exit, slouched and smirking and idly shuffling a deck of cards in his hands—was always quick to point out the spastic delicacy with which the patrons dropped change or $ into Barry Loach’s hand, these kind of bullwhip-motions or jagged in-and-outs like they were trying to get something hot off a burner, never touching him, and they rarely broke stride or even made eye-contact as they tossed alms B.L.’s way, much less ever getting their hand anywhere close to contact with B.L.’s disreputable hand. The brother not unreasonably nixed the accidental contact of one commuter who’d stumbled as he tried to toss a quarter and then let Barry break his fall, not to mention the bipolarly ill bag-lady who got Barry Loach in a headlock and tried to bite his ear off near the end of the third week of the Challenge. Barry L. refused to concede defeat and misanthropy, and the Challenge dragged on week after week, and the older brother got bored eventually and stopped coming and went back to his room and waited for the St. John’s Seminary administration to give him his walking papers, and Barry Loach had to take Incompletes in the semester’s Training courses, and got canned from his work-study job for not showing up, and he went through weeks and then months of personal spiritual crisis as passerby after passerby interpreted his appeal for contact as a request for cash and substituted abstract loose change for genuine fleshly contact; and some of the T-station’s other disreputable stem-artists became intrigued by Barry’s pitch—to say nothing of his net receipts—and started themselves to take up the cry of ‘Touch me, please, please, someone!, ’ which of course further compromised Barry Loach’s chances of getting some citizen to interpret his request literally and lay hands on him in a compassionate and human way; and Loach’s own soul began to sprout little fungal patches of necrotic rot, and his upbeat view of the so-called normal and respectable human race began to undergo dark revision; and when the other scuzzy and shunned stem-artists of the downtown district treated him as a compadre and spoke to him in a collegial way and offered him warming drinks from brown-bagged bottles he felt too disillusioned and coldly alone to be able to refuse, and thus started to fall in with the absolute silt at the very bottom of the metro Boston socioeconomic duck-pond. And then what happened with the spiritually infirm older brother and whither he fared and what happened with his vocation never gets resolved in the E.T.A. Loach-story, because now the focus becomes all Loach and how he was close to forgetting—after all these months of revulsion from citizens and his getting any kind of nurturing or empathic treatment only from homeless and addicted stem-artists—what a shower or washing machine or a ligamental manipulation even were, much less career-ambitions or a basically upbeat view of indwelling human goodness, and in fact Barry Loach was dangerously close to disappearing forever into the fringes and dregs of metro Boston street life and spending his whole adult life homeless and louse-ridden and stemming in the Boston Common and drinking out of brown paper bags, when along toward the end of the ninth month of the Challenge, his appeal—and actually also the appeals of the other dozen or so cynical stem-artists right alongside Loach, all begging for one touch of a human hand and holding their hands out—when all these appeals were taken literally and responded to with a warm handshake—which only the more severely intoxicated stemmers didn’t recoil from the profferer of, plus Loach—by E.T.A.’s own Mario Incandenza, who’d been sent dashing out from the Back Bay co-op where his father was filming something that involved actors dressed up as God and the Devil playing poker with Tarot cards for the soul of Cosgrove Watt, using subway tokens as the ante, and Mario’d been sent dashing out to get another roll of tokens from the nearest station, which because of a dumpster-fire near the entrance to the Arlington St. station turned out to be Park Street, and Mario, being alone and only fourteen and largely clueless about anti-stem defensive strategies outside T-stations, had had no one worldly or adult along with him there to explain to him why the request of men with outstretched hands for a simple handshake or High Five shouldn’t automatically be honored and granted, and Mario had extended his clawlike hand and touched and heartily shaken Loach’s own fuliginous hand, which led through a convoluted but kind of heartwarming and faith-reaffirming series of circumstances to B. Loach, even w/o an official B.A., being given an Asst. Trainer’s job at E.T.A., a job he was promoted from just months later when the then-Head Trainer suffered the terrible accident that resulted in all locks being taken off E.T.A. saunas’ doors and the saunas’ maximum temperature being hard-wired down to no more than 50°C.”