I had a plan for this week’s column, but then I learned of Robin Williams’ death. I am sure capitalism will still be fucked up next week, so I will wait until then. As I’m sure you know by now, actor and comedian Robin Williams committed suicide on August 11, and I’d like to take the moment to talk about suicide itself.
I honestly never truly loved Robin Williams’ work, but I would be lying if I said his death doesn’t bother me. I could never sink into his stand-up style, but I recognize that’s my own fault, and that he will be remembered as a master. Besides his stand-up, my childhood was definitely marked indelibly by his kid movies of the ’90s. Movies like Aladdin and Mrs. Doubtfire were not just sources of entertainment, but threads that knit me and my two younger brothers together as did many sources of media in our generation. We were impacted deeply by the power of the image, and it was part of our lives from incredibly early on.
I think that’s why so many people are deeply affected by his death. He did a very good job being part of peoples’ lives. He was cast as a warm-hearted, fun-loving man, and that never seemed to be confined by the role itself. Wherever he appeared, he bared that glowing and infectious smile. I feel like one reason why people loved him so much is that he seemed so familiar. It was never a routine that he used to interface with an audience. It was a genuine part of himself. His demeanor and inflection I’m sure had many analogs in your crazy uncle or your friend’s dad who always was cracking wise.
In spite of all this adoration and supreme talent and success, he died in an act of desperation. This is also why this hits us all so hard. Someone who positively glowed in every instant we saw him died inside depths that we may never understand. I wrote all about comedians when discussing Louis C.K.’s career several episodes ago. Those ideas certainly apply here. We must remember what comedians are. They are not clowns who prance around in a blissful glee. They are, like every other kind of artist, deeply sensitive human beings who walk on the edge of two perspectives: the one the audience clings to and the one the audience can’t see. Outside the safe confines of the cultural boundaries of the world lies an endless wilderness of the deepest fears and darkest questions. Art is that which burns through the symbolic order of a culture and asks the members of the culture to reconsider all they thought they knew. Comedy, as I laid out in the previous episode, is actually probably the most successful art form at achieving this goal.
I also spoke about suicide and seeing beyond the veil when I learned of Mike Ruppert’s death. It’s here that we should turn toward our culture’s view on anxiety and depression once again and how that ties to suicide. Louis C.K. has a line about how there’s no such thing as a sad divorce. It would only be sad if two people who totally loved each other got divorced, but that never happens. What if there’s no such thing as a sad suicide? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I think it’s worth asking. I know to the contrary that there is this very aggressive sentiment in our culture that has no remorse for suicide. I understand definitely where this comes from. When my uncle died of a heart attack last year at the age of 53, there absolutely was a part of me that was angry. Like, “Jesus, you should have gone to the doctor sooner!! You couldn’t have quit smoking?!” I get that angle of it, but I definitely have a hard time with how deep suicide goes into the realm of taboo and how much anxiety and depression get dragged there with it.
There’s no doubt that suicide leaves behind deep cutting questions and feelings of guilt and many obstacles and adversities for the loved ones and relatives of the deceased. If someone is deeply responsible for someone else, as in the father of a child, and he leaves the Earth and his responsibility behind, certainly, that is difficult to forgive. But where do we draw the line, and why does suicide often get tagged as a selfish act? The ironic rub here is that I think it is about what causes depression in the first place.
Our culture is one of detachment and image and narrative. We traipse through our lives sucked into the minutia of our social roles. Between jobs and friendships and romances and consumer desire, we hardly have time to view the world of politics or global affairs, let alone what lies behind human nature. We are told what we are constantly: We are fans of actors or athletes; we are in need of moisturizer; we are overweight; we are upper-middle-class; we are homeowners; we are illegal immigrants. Behind definitions, what is there? The human condition is a condition of infinite sadness. We have developed amazing ways of exploring and understanding the world, but we have no idea who we are or why we are. When depression and anxiety become clinical and labeled as illnesses then suddenly a door is shut. Suddenly, the deep sadness that would motivate us to dig for a deeper truth is invalidated and we seek to eradicate it. Maybe the cause of suicide is the failure to legitimize those who want more.
In a culture so detached, we fail to realize the true nature of our loneliness. And by that I mean loneliness is the destination for which we must prepare. We are at least born with our mother as we live inside her. We die alone. So, no matter how much you need your husband or your mother or your dog, when they depart from this world, you remain. Who will you be without them? Who will you be without the world?
It’s our very own mortality that frightens us and saddens us and tortures us, at least us artists, I mean. Maybe sometimes it’s time for someone to let go. Who is ever to say? I won’t definitively. All I know for sure is that one day it will be demanded of us to let go whether we want to or not. “Out of what little earth and duration, out of what immense good-bye, each must make a safe place of his heart, before so strange and wild a guest as God approaches.” – Li-Young Lee