I got myself in hot water a while back when, in a discussion thread on a blog, I suggested that the untimely death of a much-beloved writer had done good things for his reputation. I was leapt upon as an inhuman monster. One person, a friend of the late writer (who died about 20 years ago, of cancer) took my meaning to be "It 's a good thing he's dead." This is only so if you think literary reputation more important than a human life. At any rate, what was from my perspective a detached, value-neutral statement was hardly received as such.
Whether it's writers, musicians, actors or other popular public figures, people generally react very differently to an unexpected early death than they would have had the same figures died quietly at an advanced age. Think Princess Diana, think Morrison, Hendrix, Joplin, Page, Cobain. And now, think David Foster Wallace. The reaction seems to be particularly strong if the death is self-inflicted. Part of it has to be that we're disappointed that we'll be seeing no more new work from our hero. Part of it must be that we can more easily see ourselves in that situation than dying of old age. A big part of it has to be that we see these exceptional figures as standing out from the dross of the age, as totems of hope in a hopeless world, and if they couldn't make it, what chance can we have? I haven't seen it explicitly expressed thus yet, but in the case of DFW, who was such a satirist of our society, people probably on some level see him as a martyr, killed by that very society. There has certainly been a lot of rhetoric going around suggesting that DFW was somehow "more human" than the rest of us and hence, presumably, more susceptible to the inhuman brutalities of his social environs. The facts of the matter, insofar as we know them, is that he was badly depressed and used a rope to end his depression.
When Roland Elliott Brown had the temerity to suggest that a public memorial being held for DFW in Toronto might be a "Diana-style vicarious grief-wank," he was immediately pilloried, called a "pitiful fucking troll" and a "fucking douchebag," and was told to "go fuck [him]self." Granted, for anyone planning to attend the memorial, Brown's phrasing was bound to be inflammatory, if only because there's probably very little overlap between the fans-of-Diana and the fans-of-DFW cohorts. Still, the flaming insults seem to me vastly out of proportion with Brown's offense. What he did was call into question the emotional authenticity of DFW's mourners. He went on to elaborate: "People will go there to worship their own idea of a person they did not know. They have been invited to do this. It is a form narcissism." This sounds pretty accurate to me; for someone to claim grief over the death of a stranger, they must have invested something of their own identity in that stranger's life and death: in it, they see a reflection of themselves and what might become of them. This is of course far easier to do with a writer or performer than with most other people. A reader can easily develop a sense that they know the writer from having read his works. But folks, this is a fallacy, pure and simple, an illusion created by the artifice of very good writing.
It's been stated in the Bookninja discussion thread that people's grief and the forms it takes should not be called into question, that it's "absolutely vile" and "reptilian" to do so. Ironically, this charge, along with several epithets thrown at Brown and another person who has had the spine to stand up for his argument, has come from my friend Paul Vermeersch, who has been most outspoken on many occasions in his opposition to religious belief. It's often argued that atheists should not tell people how or what to believe, that this is none of their business. Paul should be aware of this and be able to see the parallels with his own attempted shout-down of Brown's skepticism. For an atheist, the only taboo should be against taboo. There's no reason grief should be left off the table, particularly when it's public grief. The grief, pretend or real, over the deaths of people like DFW is tantamount to idolatry. People who only know the writing of a person have no entitlement to public grief because what they know of that person is the thin edge of the wedge and, moreover, it's not dead.
One of the most regrettable things about DFW's death is that we will never get to read the hilariously incisive satirical essay he might have written about attending one of his own public memorials. This is the worst, most unintentionally ironic thing about all this earnest mourning: it goes against the grain of DFW's work as a writer. Far better the Onion's take on it, which, as George Murray says, "Wallace might have got a kick out of." But what do we know? We never met the guy.