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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.

1 comment:

Michael Cassamas said...

Well said Lenny better than I could say and you are special for that gift.