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Some thoughts on the recovery extract

Some thoughts about the discussion questions.
a circle of empty chairs for an AA meeting

What are the connections to freedom raised in the previous extract?

Freedom here involves placing your trust in the viability of following rules, which are proven to work contrary to your known experience up to that point and contrary to your failing trust in yourself. The recovering addicts experience freedom from terror, rather than freedom to choose substances that promise magic. As Marathe believes, freedom sometimes means having no choice at all; constraint leads to freedom. This higher level of freedom has to entail trust in something that you may not initially respect; relinquishing adherence to values that have been constructed; replacing them with a commitment to a higher kind of entity – whatever that might be – and in the process subsuming yourself to the group.

You relinquish individual thought and choice; it is presented as a loss of self, but because the physical and mental self is so damaged, this is the only option to be free of all that is damaging.

What do you make of the parallel drawn between AA and religion?

Gately presents a paradox of freedom similar to that found in religions: true freedom is attained with great difficulty, and only after a training process in which one obeys an authority. One’s own intuition, ideas, common sense, instincts, reasoning processes and judgement are all so deeply flawed as not to be reliable. (There is a close parallel here with the Christian idea of the ‘fall.’) Instead, one needs to be guided to the truth and a better, less damaging way of living, which is at the same time experienced as a liberation, from the self: ‘and now they’ve got you, and you’re free.’

This passage reveals the ritual nature of AA as part of its efficacy. Humans are ritual animals and repetition is powerful. To absorb truth at a deep level and to change engrained habits and dispositions, requires long-term repetition and the mutual support of a like-minded group. The solidarity of AA, born of shared experience and shared struggle, is just as important to its success as its repetitive rituals. (These are features not only of religion but of Marathe’s AFR).

We know more than we can say we know. Without knowing how it works, AA members know it works, and that is all that matters. Wallace’s presentation of AA is here reminiscent of the philosophical tradition of pragmatism, less interested in metaphysical arguments unless they can be shown to have practical outworking. William James, one of the tradition’s early members, wrote substantially on religion and his essay ‘The will to believe’ presents religious belief as a choice that is unavoidable, existentially significant and perfectly within people’s right to believe even though the evidence or arguments for it are not one hundred per cent certain. The AA resembles this in that one has to trust the older members and the process to be able to access the ‘truth’ of AA. And ‘truth’ here is more practical than theoretical, more lived than known. It is the difficult-to-express deeper meaning buried in the banality of the clichés. Clichés, like religious beliefs or creedal statements, can be trotted out so often they are left unthought and ossify. But lived experience is what revivifies them.

But just like religious communities, the banality and ordinariness of the surroundings and paraphernalia can be off-putting, can make it seem as if truth, or the way to live, could never be found here. Overcoming this through an act of trust is similar to Kierkegaard’s idea of the so-called leap of faith, of believing by virtue of the absurd, and thereby gaining back all that had been lost or resigned. This goes along with the AA as a more pragmatic form of belief. God is replaced by wizened, terse older guys, who garner their authority through proven experience. The tone may be tongue-in-cheek (Gately self-consciously mocks his “buying into” it all), but it is also profoundly emotional. There is the ambiguity in tone of “they’ve got you”, which both creates a sense of being caught but also of being held and cared for. Ultimately, you have to accept and have faith in what can’t be “parsable” and focus on end result.

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David Foster Wallace: Literature and Philosophy

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