DFW Part IV

This is a continuation of David Foster Wallace’s essay A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. The first part can be found here.

Earlier on this site, I featured the American artist Duane Hanson’s most famous interpretation of tourists and can be found here. Here are some other examples of his work that pair well with DFW’s writings on the subject matter.

Below, we’ll arrive at David Foster Wallace’s descriptions and see if there are any similarities.

From the broader, overall feel of the trip (described in an earlier post), he goes into more specifics, touching on particular passengers and crew. Excerpts pulled from different parts of the section featuring the passengers waiting to board the Nadir-

Chapter 5

Everyone’s clutching his numbered [boarding] card like the cards are identity papers at Checkpoint Charley. There’s an Ellis Island/pre-Auschwitz aspect to the massed and anxious waiting, but I’m uncomfortable trying to extend the analogy. A lot of the people waiting- Caribbeanish clothing notwithstanding- look Jewish to me, and I’m ashamed to catch myself thinking that I can determine Jewishness from people’s appearance.

DFW footnote: For me, public places on the U.S. East Coast are full of these nasty little moments of racist observation and then internal P.C. backlash.

Men after a certain age simply should not wear shorts, I’ve decided; their legs are hairless in a way that’s creepy; the skin seems denuded and practically crying out for hair, particularly on the calves. It’s just about the only body-area where you actually want more hair on older men.

The women all somehow give the impression of being on magazine diets.

And a major percentage of this overheard chitchat consists of passengers explaining to other passengers why they signed up for this 7NC Cruise. It’s like the universal subject of discussion in here, like chitchatting in the dayroom of a mental ward: “So, why are you here?” And the striking constant in all the answers is that not once does somebody say they’re going on this 7NC Luxury Cruise just to go on a 7NC Luxury Cruise. Nor does anybody refer to stuff about travel being broadening or a mad desire to parasail. Nobody even mentions being mesmerized by Celebrity’s fantasy-slash-promise of pampering in uterine stasis- in fact the word “pamper,” so ubiquitous in the Celebrity 7NC brochure, is not once in my hearing uttered. The word that gets used over and over in the explanatory small-talk is: relax. Everybody characterizes the upcoming week as either a long-put-off reward or as a last-ditch effort to salvage sanity and self from some inconceivable crockpot of pressure, or both.

DFW footnote:  I’m pretty sure I know what this syndrome is and how it’s related to the brochure’s seductive promise of total self-indulgence. What’s in play here, I think, is the subtle universal shame that accompanies self-indulgence, the need to explain to just about anybody why the self-indulgence isn’t in fact really self-indulgence. Like: I never go to get a massage just to get a massage, I go because this old sports-related back injury’s killing me and more or less forcing me to get a massage; or like: I never just “want” a cigarette, I always “need” a cigarette.

By the way, I have now empirically verified that I am the only ticketed adult here without some kind of camera equipment.

DFW is assigned a dining table. He remains nice and gentlemanly in describing the majority of his tablemates and “with the conspicuous exception of Mona, I liked my tablemates a lot…”

Mona is eighteen. Her grandparents have been taking her on a Luxury Cruise every spring since she was five. Mona always sleeps through both breakfast and lunch and spends all night at the Scorpio Disco and in the Mayfair Casino playing the slots. She’s 6’2” if she’s an inch. She’s going to Penn State next fall because the agreement was that she’d receive a 4-Wheel-Drive vehicle if she went someplace where there might be snow. She was unabashed in recounting this college-selection criterion. She was an incredibly demanding passenger and diner, but her complaints about slight aesthetic and gustatory imperfections at table lacked Trudy and Esther’s (two older ladies who are also tablemates) discernment and integrity and came off as simply churlish. Mona was also kind of strange-looking: a body like Brigitte Nielson or some centerfold on steroids, and above it, framed in resplendent and frizzles blond hair, the tiny delicate pale unhappy face of a kind of corrupt doll. Her grandparents, who retired every night right after supper, always made a small ceremony after dessert of handing Mona $100 to “go have some fun” with. The $100 bill was always in one of those ceremonial bank envelopes that has B. Franklin’s face staring out of a porthole-like window in the front, and written on the envelope in red Magic Marker was always “We Love You, Honey.” Mona never once said thank you for the money. She also rolled her eyes at just about everything her grandparents said, a habit that quickly drove me up the wall.

Intro to Chapter 9

Celebrity’s fiendish brochure does not lie or exaggerate, however, in the luxury department. I now confront the journalistic problem of not being sure how many examples I need to list in order to communicate the atmosphere of sybaritic and nearly insanity-producing pampering on board the m.v. Nadir.

After 8.5 pages of examples of “insanity-producing pampering,” the conclusion to Chapter 9

The feeling’s not all that dissimilar to the experience of being a guest in the home of somebody who does things like sneak in in the A.M. and make your guest bed up for you while you’re in the shower and fold your dirty clothes or even launder them without being asked to, or who empties your ashtray after each cigarette you smoke, etc. For a while, with a host like this, it seems great, and you feel cared about and prized and affirmed and worthwhile, etc. But then after a while you begin to intuit that the host isn’t acting out of regard or affection for you so much as simply going around obeying the imperatives of some personal neurosis having to do with domestic cleanliness and order… which means that, since the ultimate point and object of the cleaning isn’t you but rather cleanliness and order, it’s going to be a relief for her when you leave. Meaning her hygienic pampering of you is actually evidence that she doesn’t want you around. The Nadir doesn’t have the Scotchguarded carpet or plastic-wrapped furniture of a true anal-type host like this, but the psychic aura’s the same, and so’s the projected relief of getting out.

Chapter 12

Looking down from a great height at your countrymen waddling in expensive sandals into poverty-stricken ports is not one of the funner moments of a 7NC Luxury Cruise, however. There is something inescapably bovine about an American tourist in motion as part of a group. A certain placidity about them. Us, rather. In port we automatically become Peregrinator americanus, Die Lumpenamerikaner. The Ugly Ones. For me, boviscopophobia is an even stronger motive than semi-agoraphobia for staying on the ship when we’re in port. It’s in port that I feel most implicated, guilty by perceived association. I’ve barely been out of the U.S.A. before, and never as part of a high-income herd, and in port- even up here above it all on Deck 12, just watching- I’m newly and unpleasantly conscious of being an American, the same way I’m always suddenly conscious of being white every time I’m around a lot of nonwhite people. I cannot help imagining us as we appear to them, the impassive Jamaicans and Mexicans,* or especially to the non-Aryan preterite crew of the Nadir. All week I’ve found myself doing everything I can to distance myself in the crew’s eyes from the bovine herd I’m part of, to somehow unimplicate myself: I eschew cameras and sunglasses and pastel Caribbeanwear; I make a big deal of carrying my own cafeteria tray and am effusive in my thanks for the slightest service. Since so many of my shipmates shout, I make it a point of special pride to speak extra-quietly to crewmen whose English is poor.

*DFW footnote:  And in my head I go around and around about whether my fellow Nadirites suffer the same steep self-disgust. From a height, watching them, I usually imagine that the other passengers are oblivious to the impassively contemptuous gaze of the local merchants, service people, photo-op-with-lizard vendors, etc. I usually imagine that my fellow tourists are too bovinely self-absorbed to even notice how we’re looked at…

A few paragraphs further-

But of course all this ostensibly unimplicating behavior on my part is itself motivated by a self-conscious and somewhat condescending concern about how I appear to others that is (this concern) 100% upscale American. Part of the overall despair of this Luxury Cruise is that no matter what I do I cannot escape my own essential and newly unpleasant Americanness. This despair reaches its peak in port, at the rail, looking down at what I can’t help being one of. Whether up here or down there, I am an American tourist, and am thus ex officio large, fleshy, red, loud, coarse, condescending, self-absorbed, spoiled, appearance-conscious, ashamed, despairing, and greedy:  the world’s only known species of bovine carnivore.

Four paragraphs later-

Speaking of expression carnivores, Carnival Cruises Inc.’s good ships Ecstasy and Tropicale are both anchored all the way across the harbor. In port, Carnival Megaships tend to stay sort of at a distance from other cruise ships, and my sense is that the other ships think this just as well. The Carnival ships have masses of 20ish-looking people hanging off the rails and seem at this distance to throb slightly, like a hi-fi’s woofer. The rumors about Carnival 7NC’s are legion, one such rumor being that their Cruises are kind of like floating meat-market bars and that their ships bob with a conspicuous carnal squeakatasqueakata at night. There’s none of this kind of concupiscent behavior aboard the Nadir, I’m happy to say. By now I’ve become a kind of 7NC snob, and when a Carnival or Princess is mentioned in my presence I feel my face automatically assume Trudy and Esther’s of classy distaste.

Four paragraphs describing the ship, Dreamward, that has pulled alongside the Nadir. DFW explains what if the neighboring ship was in every way better than his current ship?

This saturnine line of thinking proceeds as the clouds overhead start to coalesce and the sky takes on its regular clothy P.M. weight. I am suffering here from a delusion, and I know it’s a delusion, this envy of another ship, and still it’s painful. It’s also representative of a psychological syndrome that I notice has gotten steadily worse as the Cruise wears on, a mental list of dissatisfactions and grievances that started picayune but has quickly become nearly despair-grade. I know that the syndrome’s cause is not simply the contempt bred of a week’s familiarity with the poor old Nadir, and that the source of all the dissatisfactions isn’t the Nadir at all but rather plain old humanly conscious me, or, more precisely, that ur-American part of me that craves and responds to pampering and passive pleasure: the Dissatisfied Infant part of me, the part that always and indiscriminately WANTS. Hence this syndrome by which, for example, just four days ago I experienced such embarrassment over the perceived self-indulgence of ordering even more gratis food from Cabin Service that I littered the bed with fake evidence of hard work and missed meals, whereas by last night I find myself looking at my watch in real annoyance after fifteen minutes and wondering where the fuck is that Cabin Service guy with the tray already.

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