Subscribe in a reader

Friday, September 05, 2014

All Life Is--What?

I was going to let a lot of this go until I read this particularly idiotic piece on The New Yorker's website.  It concerns the death of Joan Rivers and seeks to justify all the hate-filled blather she vomited up over the course of her career, and it turned my stomach.

Mr Schulman's thesis is that Joan Rivers wasn't a cruel and heartless beast because her theme was "Life is shitty."  Life is shitty.  As Broadway Danny Rose might say, that's a philosophy of life?  That life is shitty?  This is not some Upper East Side equivalent of the Buddhist idea that all life is sorrowful.  In sorrow there is also beauty and a sense of the sublime.  But when something is shitty, all there is is shit.  There is no redemption, there is no solace, there is no hope.  It is a small-minded and solipsistic view, one void of subtlety and wit and judgment and insight.  It is the philosophy of a monster.

The joke I came up with about her death--and it is about the coldest and cruelest joke I've ever come up with, although Ms Rivers would have used it about someone else in a heartbeat--was "Plastic surgery's loss is Hell's gain."  That joke sums up the despair I've long felt at her jokes, her act, and her groveling and disgusting addiction to fame.  That anyone could think that could be a fitting obituary for anyone is sad statement; when it actually is a fitting obituary is even sadder.

Mr Schulman writes that "her surgically taut features . . . were symbols not of vanity but of pragmatism, the hallmark of a woman who knew that looks matter, money matters, and, in show business, status matters."  This statement is such a load of hogwash that one hardly knows where to begin with it.  Looks, money, and status are the aspects of life that "matter"?  Kindness, virtue, nobility, knowledge, and empathy are dross?  It is a foolish statement, the kind of drivel that a writer is driven to when he finds himself in the position of having to justify atrocity.

For that is what her "surgically taut features" were:  atrocious.  Her vanity drove her to destroy herself, to make of her face nothing more than a voodoo mask.  It makes me think that there might be a short story someone could write about a person who has plastic surgery so relentlessly that they eventual reveal what lurks inside them:  a monster.  She, in her relentless quest for beauty, became a grotesque object.  Did she get the looks that Mr Schulman would have us believe she pragmatically wanted?  She did if she wanted looks of horror.

He also vaunts how "truthful" she was, but was she?  And isn't that always the defense that bullies and other cruel people use?  "Hey, I was only telling the truth!"  That is the excuse that is supposed to cover for a person's lack of judgment, lack of tact, and lack of empathy.  They are the truth-tellers, and not just bloated egomaniacs who care not who they harm or what lies they tell.  That Elizabeth Taylor, in her later years, was overweight was factual, but what value came from Ms Rivers's relentless fat jokes concerning her?  What grand truth was exposed?  What deep torrent of wisdom was brought forth?  That Elizabeth Taylor--a woman of great beauty in all stages of her life--was fat?  That grand truth is true in only the paltriest sense of the word, the grossest and meanest sense.  To be hurtful, awful, miserable, and petty is not a good thing.  It is a terrible thing, more to be deplored than celebrated.

He also, as seemingly everyone who has written about her death has done, brings up the whole contretemps with Johnny Carson.  And, as so many have done, he gets it completely wrong.  Johnny did not cut her out of his life because "she became his competitor."  He cut her off because she had been disloyal.  In the American Masters episode concerning Johnny, she flat out said that she knowingly stabbed him in the back because "that's how this business works."  And that is how the business works.  If you are a venal and narcissistic creep.  Had she been smart, she would have talked to Johnny the minute that Fox approached her.  He would have given her wise and thoughtful advice, and she would have had something to head back to once the novelty of her signaling that she wanted to throw up inevitably got old.  Instead, she took the most craven and loathsome approach she could and burnt a bridge she very much needed for her retreat.

I am not glad that Joan Rivers is dead.  I wish no one ill.  And that's just one of the ways that I am different from Joan Rivers.

Friday, August 15, 2014

A Few Thoughts on Robin Williams

The shock that resounds from the unexpected and possibly self-inflicted death of Robin Williams on August 11th has not yet begun to eddy into knowledge or acceptance.  He was a stranger, but a stranger that we felt we knew, that we thought we understood, that we thought we had an insight into, despite the quicksilver changes and shapeshifting nature of his basic mode of performance.  His fundamental character was of a bi-polar person in the grip of his mania, and that character was lively and consumed with the life around it.

The flip side to mania, of course, is depression, and a terrible shadow it can be.  That a man as gifted, as successful, as beloved as Robin Williams can be overtaken by depression is no small measure of how devastating a condition it can be.  I have known a dark night of the soul myself on occasion, but never anything so profound.  And reflecting on the depths and darknesses to which I fell without considering suicide, I can only dimly imagine the chasm and abyss that consumed Mr Williams's soul.  It must have been a terrible thing, dark and seemingly endless.  We cannot criticize because we cannot know.  We cannot know his sorrow, we cannot know his shame.  We cannot understand the demon that inhabits another.  It's difficult enough to know what to make of the demons of our own possession and design.

The Robin Williams most of us encountered was a mythic being, always on, always performing, always presenting a representation of himself that no person could ever really be.  His character was a representation of the concept of spontaneity, and, despite the general consensus that he was always improvising, those improvisations had mostly been carefully constructed and crafted.  I've seen at least three references to him "improvising" the Shakespeare version of the Three Mile Island disaster at three different times in three different locations.  And I can add a fourth; I saw him do it on Dick Cavett's PBS show around 1979 or '80.  He was an artist, and he knew his craft and could draw on a wealth of material in the blink of an eye.  Did he improvise off that structure?  Sure.  Did highly structured routines just spring from his brain fully formed filled with associations and allusions and conclusions?  No.  He was man, not machine, and I'm sure that the persona that made him famous became, over time, a jail for him.  Be on, Robin!  Be spontaneous!  Be funny!

Only, sometimes, even the funniest person needs not to be.  Sometimes even the funniest person needs to be understood as a complex and multifaceted being with moods and thoughts and considered opinions.  I'm not saying that Robin Williams was killed by his fame.  I don't believe that.  I'm not saying that he was killed by his art.  I don't believe that either.  I don't know why Robin Williams killed himself.  I didn't know him; I knew only his persona.

Why someone would choose "[t]he undiscovered country,/from whose bourn no traveller returns" will forever remain a mystery to us.  That it is done selfishly is also almost certainly untrue.  From what I can glean from my own darkest hours and from the testimony of others who have suffered far more than I have, the impulse to suicide stems from a perverse kind of altruism.  Suicides do not so much seek to assuage their own pain as relieve the pain of those nearest them who they feel are condemned to withstand their quicksilver moods and hurricane lives.  It is actually an attempt at heroism, although a heroism observed through the reflection of a funhouse mirror.

At least, that's my guess.  The truth is that we can never know and can never know whether there is one answer or many.  Each such occurrence is a journey alone and a singular story.  To draw grand conclusions is misguided at best and presumptuous at worst.  The only thing we can bring to a discussion of a suicide is compassion--compassion for both the person who died and the people they left behind.

In the case of Robin Williams, all we can offer is sorrow and grief and compassion in his passing, and admiration and appreciation for his work.  He was, by all accounts, a generous and loving man to those who knew him.  We honor that best by offering generosity and love in return.