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"Editing after death was much easier." This comment floated down into the room, people seemed a little unsettled by it. I laughed. I laughed because it was funny and also because I hate when death is made into a precious thing. Or when mental illness is tiptoed around, as if it were a sleeping dog. That particular dog is never asleep. Treisman recounted what a friend who also suffers from a similar disease told her, which was, "It's not that you wake up one day, saying, I'm going to kill myself today. It's that you wake up every day, saying, I'm going to try not to kill myself today." Which, I think, can be one hell of a lonely way to live. There were more revelations about David. How many of his popularly-known "close friendships," like those with Jonathan Franzen and Don DeLillo, were almost exclusively epistolary. Max called Wallace, "God's gift to the U.S. Postal Service" because of the huge amount of letters he wrote over the course of his lifetime. And, again, there is that loneliness. That feeling of not quite being of the world you live in. Costello called Wallace, "an animal who was in a cage," a man whose only escape from himself was his writing. And the problem with that, of course, is that Wallace's writing was so distinctly his own that it brought him acolytes and imitators who were drawn to his distinctive voice, who were drawn to him.
How can this feel to a person who only wants to escape from himself? I don't know. And there were no answers given. Only dismissals of those who tried to glamorize Wallace's illness or death as being inseparable from his genius, and condemnations of those who thought that Wallace's disease gave him some kind of authenticity that other's lack. When Max mentioned that people get lines of Infinite Jest tattooed on their arms, Karr replied, "Yeah, people killed themselves after Kurt Cobain died, too. There are some dumb motherfuckers out there."
There are. There are so many dumb motherfuckers out there. But it is a very specific, wannabe literary-minded, but really kind of sociopathic, dumb motherfucker, who likes to excuse his or her own lack of genius by lionizing those geniuses whose all-too-human flaws led them on a path of destruction. Because David Foster Wallace—as if this point hasn't been made clearly enough already—was a genius. He had that rare and particular gift of being widely-imitated, while still being totally inimitable. And it is a whole lot easier for the masses to admire someone and try and imitate that person and then excuse their own inability to be a genius too by saying that, oh, well, he was brilliant but he was also crazy and now he's dead. And beyond this being a facile and rather base way of understanding either genius or mental illness, it is also incredibly ungenerous to the people who actually knew these tortured figures, the people who are actually affected by their loss.
The panel ended with Karr reading a bit from a poem she had written about Wallace's death, where she laughed at him—"Ha ha"—because although he had tried to escape, she, and everyone who knew him, will continue to breathe him in and out and in again. And I thought about dumb old Bret Easton Ellis, who is jealous of David Foster Wallace—of his life and work and death—and I thought how ridiculous that is. None of the people on the panel I went to are jealous of David Foster Wallace, no matter how prodigious his gifts were. The people on the panel knew too much about the cost of being David Foster Wallace.
All of us may be "dumber than David," but all of us are alive.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen