English: MS Majesty of the Seas, one of Royal ...
English: MS Majesty of the Seas, one of Royal Caribbean International’s Sovereign class cruise ships, anchored off Coco Cay, Royal Caribbean’s name for Little Stirrup Cay, an island located in the Bahamas. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Warren mentioned the shared dislike he and DFW had for The Professional Smile, I did not realize that this was specifically in the context of cruise ships, and that DFW had, in fact, taken a cruise run by the same company[1] that we did last month. And now I understand, because the Cruise Ship Smile is the worst adaptation of professional friendliness I’ve ever seen. Especially in the aspect of living on the same boat as the staff and having less than a 2:1 ratio to them, the slavelike demeanor of nearly every cruise ship staff member did the exact opposite of making one feel comfortable and pampered. Not only did it induce guilt, but yes, despair of exactly the sort DFW described in his essay A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again[2]. The brochure, he notes, claims that the staff is “one big family”, just like plantation times. “Even the most demanding passenger seemed kind and understanding compared to the martinism of the Greeks, and the crew seemed grateful”, as one is grateful for an ounce of human kindness in NYC.

So the Professional Smile I’m used to using is A) NYC-based and B) under a very relaxed, enlightened minimum wage employer, an independent bookstore. There was a library on board the ship, seemingly filled with abandoned books nobody wanted. To gain some amount of the satisfaction of personal contribution, I tried to organize it, as this is What I Do, for Not Much Money, but it’s not hard enough to warrant soul-sucking servitude. I gave up on this pretty quickly, because it felt wrong to pay to do anything anti-entropic. The extent to which these pristine white megaships represent an absolute transcendence of the oceans great death engine goes as far as continuous maintainance and towel-refreshing and so on. Implicitly, you are the death and decay you are paying to eradicate.

We went to Alaska, while DFW cruised through the Caribbean on the Zenith (alias the Nadir) which is supposedly more activities-oriented and less food-oriented. The excuses given for taking cruises are as empty and, DFW notes, shame-filled as the excuses I’ve heard for going to grad school for art. Ours was that my aunt was playing a Scrabble tournament on board and also hadn’t been with her family for a while. Sadly, my aunt lost the seasickness lottery, and spent the first two days full of Dramamine and sleeping, with an aspirin in her navel because she and her cohabitant believe in such things. Her cohabitant was also the best example of the “most demanding passenger” I saw, although my mother also tended to respond to the subrosa ickiness by trying to engineer away various smells. For unexpected mishaps during the trip, passengers can call upon professionals like those on https://www.aronfeld.com/practice-areas/cruise-ship-injuries/.

Fresh fruit indeed continuously renewed in my aunt’s cabin. They waited for a pear to ripen for several days before realizing that the pear was being replaced each morning.

One of the things that my betrothed and I found most discouraging about the cruise booklet was when it asked “who is this cruise for?” and the answer was explicitly not introverts or anyone inclined to be alone at all. I am thankful that the entire point of our trip was “family time” and not a Harper’s article[3]. DFW went to a “singles night” and noted that the still-minority of other singles looked as “self-hypnotized” as himself. And his pseudo-agoraphobia led to hiding out in his cabin ordering room service constantly. Much like him, we ended up spending huge amounts of time in the cabin, although we had a suite with a veranda where we played way too many games of Shanghai and drank wine that kept showing up as a “gift”, plus the wine I brought along because I thought the ship would only be selling it to me at exorbitant prices. One of the high points of the cruise was discovering that Snakes on a Plane was on, just as DFW gave up on the singles night for Jurassic Park.

I am no stranger to boredom as pleasure, but this was a strange Catch-22 of that. The cruise, DFW notes, advertises as “something you haven’t done in a long time: absolutely nothing” – and the last time DFW claims you did this was before birth. Noted in parallel is the womblike sensation of the engine and the rocking of the boat. But this makes the cruise worthless for a non-workaholic like myself and unbearable withdrawal for the workaholic. The same sort of “sedulous-service double-bind” occurs with the Professional Smile: conventionally grumpy service or empty grinning interchangeability; the consumer despairs either way. While DFW had a crush on his maid, who came closest to acknowledging his uniqueness in calling him “a funny thing”, we had an assistant waiter who memorized our names but insisted on calling my mother Lewinsky and myself Miss Jackson[4] but conflated everyone’s dietary restrictions[5]. There is a sense not that if you show camaraderie with the staff they will distinguish you from the herd, but that you don’t deserve their affection. What makes you so special that you think you can make the help like you better or have them consider you in any way different?

I admit I have some amount of perverse appreciation, fostered by years of art cynicism, for breaking down the consumer illusion and becoming indistinctive. In the Nadir’s ads, DFW observes,“your troublesome capacities for choice, error, regret, dissatisfaction, and despair will be removed from the equation.” You have been depersonalized as thoroughly as a Holocaust victim: your luggage will follow you, and don’t you dare try to derive pleasure from carrying it yourself and doing the staff a favor, because more likely they will be chewed out by their masters. “MIND YOUR BUSINESS AND LET THE PROFESSIONALS WORRY ABOUT YOUR PLEASURE”. DFW imagines the future of his adulthood, behond choice, “drowned by time”, which is one of the many harbingers of suicide in his writing. But the weirdest part is that the marketing on cruise ships takes “responsibility for my interpretation of experience”, for pleasure, which as Kant’s critique of judgment knows, is not pleasure at all if it is not accompanied by an agency in finding the response.

I was relieved, at the time, by the extravagant internet pricing, since for reasons of my own I felt that a week away from the internet would be good for me. It did not work out this way. Not only did my semantic arousal persist, but I also ended up spending about a hundred dollars trying to figure out cheap ways to jump ship and travel to Vancouver. These are the contradictions of the bourgouisie with its agency supplanted.

Unfortunately I did not actually get to finish A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, as the book was bought from work where I was reading it while I was only halfway through the title essay. Let’s call it anticonfluentialist, or some kind of metaphor for DFW’s untimeliness.

[1] A big scary Greek family, Chiros, hence the X after Celebrity
[2] Suicide by hanging: supposedly fun, thanks to auto-erotic effects, but you can only do it once.
[3] Which is why we were allowed on the bridge, and not suspected of being an investigative journalist set on defaming Celebrity X, as DFW somehow persuaded Mr. Dermatitis he was. Curiousity was definitely subtly discouraged. Example: in the middle of the ship was an area described by maps as the “Tower”, accessible to nobody, that on our last day a guide explained to me was usually a center for more Activities on Caribbean cruises. Throughout the cruise we speculated it of being one of: gyroscope, staff sleeping quarters, sewage storage, smuggling hold.
[4] He was nasty.
[5] My mother is diabetic and has to severely limit starches and sugars, which is something that despite the Infinity[5a]’s gourmet foodism had to be explained daily. Many of the “sugar-free” desserts were merely sucrose-free, and the very concept of starch[5b] vs. protein and fiber met with enthusiastically polite apathy. My aunt has various allergies and digestive sensitivities including chocoholism. Anyone who professed any kind of dietary restriction was offered extra steamed vegetables and rice, as if nobody could be picky for reasons other than weight loss, or as if those were automatically okay for everyone.
[5a] alias the Aleph, perhaps, or the Infinitesimal
[5b] like flour in soups

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