Thursday, September 18, 2008

On Death, Celebrity and Vicarious Grief

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.


Evie said...

Yeah, this is pretty dead-on. I felt really surprised by this news, why?

“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?” That’s why, without a doubt…

“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 obscenely true.

Still I don’t care about it either way and I don’t see the need to get so pissed, he was great and it doesn’t bother me if those types go out and cry.

I bought a Princess Di and Charles money clip at a garage sale when I was a kid, it’s probably worth quite a lot now.

Evie said...

it would be tempting (but I won't) to quote Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being, on kitsch//mourning/death and all that noise

Zachariah Wells said...

Doesn't bother me either, Eves. Nor does it bother me that some people choose to worship Jesus Christ as the only begotten son of God. What bothers me is people being told to shut the fuck up for questioning the validity and motivations of these practices and claiming that they are for some ineffable reason sacrosanct.

Zachariah Wells said...

Good call on Kundera.

Brenda Schmidt said...

Excellent post. While I haven't been and won't be following any of the commentary to which you link, I've long found the subject of public grief fascinating. I do wonder about this statement, however: "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." It's the the matter of entitlement that causes me to pause. While I am not into public mourning myself, DFW was a public figure and I imagine he is simply being mourned as such. This is nothing new and is considered quite normal. The way people mourn a public figure, from kings to prime ministers to crocodile hunters has changed over time and will continue to do so. People are interesting creatures when it comes to dealing with loss.

Zachariah Wells said...

Thanks for your comments, Brenda. While the sentence you quote may, I concede, be a bit of an overstatement, I have a very hard time believing that this kind of "grief" has been earned, nor that it will last longer than the present moment. I think DFW, more than most writers, has been held up as emblematic. (I wonder how many of the people now claiming to grieve for his death were the same people who carted around _Infinite Jest_ without actually reading it. IJ might just be one of the most abandoned books of the 20th C (tho no doubt lagging far behind Stephen Hawking's _Brief History of Time_).) It just feels to me like a very easy, cheap and ultimately quite painless brand of grief. A fleeting, consumer-culture brand of grief.

GM said...

You douchebag.

Paul Vermeersch said...

Zach, GM,

Honestly. To immediately call into question anyone's emotional state about anything, to immediately assume that people's feelings are a fraudulent, to say that a memorial held in someone's honour is a sham, to have so little empathy or compassion, well, that, to me, is what being a douchebag is all about. To throw people's pain back in their faces and tell them they haven't earned it; that is simply cold, mean-spirited and twisted.

People cope with loss in their own ways, and deriding people for doing it in a way they you wouldn't, or indeed, for feeling something that you don't, is inhumane. It's the emotional equivalent of drowning a neighbour's cat because you can't stand the idea that's it's more loved than you. It's actually psychopathic.

And for the record, I wasn't a huge fan of DFW, though I liked some of his work, but I respect the sense of loss people feel, whether for his work, or whether they knew him personally, and if a memorial was being held for him or anyone for that matter, the last thing I would do would be to call his mourners a bunch of phonies.

Roland Brown was acting the troll, and he knew it. He stuck his stick in the hornet's nest, and he got the reaction he was looking for. His tactics, in this instance, are similar to those used by Fred Phelps' WBC -- disrespecting people's mourning rituals is a great way of kicking up dust and attracting attention to yourself, and yes, it's a great way of being a douchebag.

Paul Vermeersch said...

Oh, and since this was addressed directly. Yes, I am an atheist, but I disagree that being an atheist means it's okay to mock other people's emotions. Not believing in gods and magic and angels and fairy tales is not a license to be an insensitive jerk.

Religious beliefs? Those are divisive and arbitrary. Mock away.

People's feelings? Those are universal and the root of our shared humanity. Have some compassion.

Grief is an emotion. It's real to everyone, regardless of their religion or lack of it.

Paul Vermeersch said...

And one last thing. There are a lot of people in Toronto, mostly writers, who actually did know DFW personally. Sheila Heti, who organized the vigil, probably crossed paths with Wallace while promoting her books in the USA, running, as they do, in similar circles. Why shouldn't these people be allowed to quietly, peacefully, assemble in a park at dusk and, communally, share their grief and sense of loss? WHat's the harm? What's false about that? And if well-wishers and admirers want to come by and pay their respects, to say, at least, in the spirit of human brotherhood, we appreciate what this person offered the world, why should that be sneered at?

GM said...

What's all this about DFW? Weren't we just taking the opportunity to call Zach a douche?

I jest.

Evie said...

In the spirit of friendly argument and with the knowledge that everyone has likely given up on this topic I have something douche-bag-ish to add. Obviously many atheists replace the notion of the Supreme Being with something else, for someone like Carl Sagan this would be capital N nature, for someone else, a poet like Paul, this could be ‘B’rotherhood. There’s no issue for me with this or what great minds like Schopenhauer have called the noble lie, how else are people to go on? But I do question the way in which you’ve arrived at the values placed on belief vs. feelings. As an atheist I don’t think “mocking” is productive or where the significant arguments are to be made. But beyond that I don’t know that people’s feelings are arrived at in any less arbitrary ways, they are also often divisive and are swayed by trivial external factors as well. They are universal and important but shouldn’t trump the need to look at our civilization critically.

Paul Vermeersch said...

Evie, I was driving at something else: that holy reverence and common decency aren't the same thing. That empathy and compassion for mourners doesn't depend on where one believes the soul of the departed to have gone, or indeed, whether or not it ever existed in the first place. It's a fallacy to suggest that atheists are exempt from common decency simply they don't believe in gods and ghosts.

"Brotherhood" (or "altruism" or "neighbourliness" or "solidarity" or "commonality") is a product of human behaviour as much as human need, not an intangible essence that bestows meaningfulness on our relationships. This kind of socialization is actually perfectly consistent with natural selection, so it needn't be mythologized. Rather than a noble lie, the impulse to be kind and decent to others actually has a rational, scientific explanation.

When someone feels loss, whether or not we believe that feeling was arrived at through logical or illogical processes, whether or not we agree that the person has a "right" to feel what he does, we should still know that the "feeling" is real in the person who is experiencing it, and our sense of compassion should tell us that it is cruel to belittle it. Similarly, someone who suffers from clinical depression may experience pain that someone else may deem to be invalid because it isn't caused by external stimuli, but the pain in the sufferer is no less real for not having had an external cause.

On a purely practical level, it is simply mean-spirited to scoff at memorials, not because it's sacrilegious or unholy, but because it's done intentionally to hurt the people who do grieve, to diminish their loss, to rub their pain in their faces. And that is just plain sociopathic.

Zachariah Wells said...

Boy, go out of town for a few days and look what I miss!

Paul, "common decency" is by definition something shared by a number of people, if not all people. It is therefore polyvalent. Roland Brown said nothing about any specific person, so you can't say he was assaulting any individuals' feelings. He was questioning (note the punctuation in the original offending remark) an event. A public event. You, on the other hand, called him names and continue to apply overheated rhetoric (psycho-/sociopathic) to the guy. If, as you maintain, he can't appreciate the "mourners'" motives, then you can't pretend to have some kind of special access to his. What you have said to him and about him is far more indecent than anything he's said. So get down off that high horse before you slide down his muzzle, will ya?

I can't speak for Brown, but personally I see a big gulf between questioning the propriety of such an event and impugning the motives of those who organize them. And I still maintain that applying the same terminology of "grief" and "mourning" to someone who "may have crossed paths" with DFW as one would use to apply it to his family and friends is more than a little offensive the latter group. Have a memorial, fine. Remember him, good. Celebrate his work, excellent. But Jesus Harold Christ, don't call it mourning. This is exactly what that very funny and typically bang-on satire in _The Onion_ is about.

Mourning DFW--or appearing to mourn him--has become as fashionable now as reading him--or appearing to be reading him--was 12 years ago. Any public ceremony, however noble the intentions of its organizers, is bound to be widely attended by people who don't really care, as a social occasion. This is obviously an infinitely debatable point, but it doesn't seem farfetched to me.

Anyway, personally I don't give a shit who mourns DFW privately or publically. But I'm bothered by someone who questions such things being vilified. It's not very brotherly, eh. C'mon people, now...

Roland Elliott Brown said...
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