I woke up and in keeping with an unhealthy routine rolled over and checked Facebook. The first post I saw was aghast at the death of Robin Williams, the second revealed it was alleged to be suicide, and with that I predicted the flood like a Nine-to-five Noah. I read on, irrationally, to the third post. It was a quote of an anecdote from Watchmen;
Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, “Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.” Man bursts into tears. Says “But Doctor… I am Pagliacci.”
As poignant as it is, applied to the life of Williams it is a misnomer, casting him as the desolate trope of the tragic clown. But, it would serve as a prescient example of what was to come. From the obvious sources there were sanctimonious remonstrations; about his success and his fame, his riches and his talent, and his selfishness in death. Yet as hurtful as these comments were they were to be expected from a consistently compassionless corner of society that barely needs naming. What was more illuminating was the comments of people upset, sympathetic, and clearly hurting because of his passing.
So many of the tributes that spread like forest fire from his home in California and onto every newsfeed expressed a deep sadness and shock that someone so funny and so captivating could be so mortally morose (that one’s for you Keating). Obituaries soon followed that rarely treated his depression with surprise but instead threw it up against his propensity for humour and made his sadness a traceable, innate part of what he did.
There is a jarring juxtaposition in a man known for endeavours of ecstasy to succumb to a conquering malady. Yet, for many it fits. In a tumultuous world, there is a perverse balance to it and the clear links between mania and forms of depression only intensified this conflation. It would, though, be foolish to attempt a communal diagnosis, to try and use mental illness as an exegesis to his abilities.
Depression and the addiction that has received less media focus (perhaps because it still attracts more blame), are both viciously illogical diseases. Like all others they are indiscriminate in victim. It is shocking to think that so many people understand so little about such a common illness that they still think that it is tied completely to material circumstances. Shocking, but not surprising. We are, of course, conditioned to equate happiness to material wealth. Now is perhaps a favourable moment to remind people that mental health issues can effect anyone, but that material conditions can, and do, exacerbate them. So yes, rich people can be depressed even with all the privileges they are afforded, so now imagine the plight of those without. But, I digress, that’s for another day. Wealthy or not, funny or not, famous or not, nobody is immune and we can’t as a society stress this enough.
Robin Williams was a genius who, like many before him, took a deep affliction and used it to create remarkable things – but be sure that he didn’t create them because he was afflicted. He didn’t plug into mania and extract from it breakneck comic designs. That gift of his, for almost irrational, endogenous dialogues, was his supreme talent. He possessed a comic philosophers stone where his neural pathways manufactured delightful comicality, not because he had an illness but despite it. He was tortured but we should not aggrandise the torture. If it were the case that so many great artists could only do what they did because of mental illness they become framed as mere expressive vehicles for the impacts of a disease, manifestations of madness. Even Russell Brand in his superb piece about the deadening reality of a world in which Williams’ beauty could not be accommodated still falls into the trap of associating the symptoms of mental illness with his artistic ability. It’s not to say there is no correlation, just that the sorcery of genius is not caused by a deep ‘madness’ (or illness) but by an ability to use the experiences it gives to express as an artist more fully. Or in some cases, just being able to perform despite of it.
Any time there is a correlative discussion of mental anguish and creativity my mind always jumps to the stunning paintings Van Gogh did whilst in an asylum. Van Gogh was not the painter he was because he suffered so deeply, and although his illness most certainly influenced his work, with art historians and psychiatrists attributing the compositions to hallucinatory images, his ability to express what he saw and felt was always a resistance against the consuming debilitation of depression. It is in this way we should look at Robin Williams. A genius despite of his pain, not because of it. And yet, in the obituaries there is an implicit aligning of his illness and the tendencies of his performances; of the “neediness” of his comedy, or his habit of wandering, or thundering, into the extremes of sentiment to being a symptom. Always this undertone of implication, that his depression was a definitive part of his oeuvre, that he was indeed the archetype of the sad clown. It’s a difficult thing to phrase a rebuttal to even though it sits on the tip of my tongue. But here goes: It will always be conjecture to guess how much depression or addiction influenced his comedy or his drama (or anyone’s creations), and we must always empathise with their cancerously transformative ramifications, but if we look at what depression and addiction are – both illnesses – we should be wary of weaving them so deep into the personality that they become inextricable.
Discard the attempts to define a career by polarities. Flitting between the depressive and the clown, the make-up and the mask. It’s reductive and insulting to his performance and range as an artist to place Robin Williams in this cycle of happy or sad, funny or dramatic. He was an actor, he played both with intoxicating zeal.
In Good Will Hunting, bearded and sombre, imparting visceral wisdom to a scared young man, a far cry from his man-child trademark, Robin Williams was an actor using his experiences to create something magnificent. Not an exhibition of elemental sadness.
I’ve read in various places that the death of Robin Williams teaches us something about depression. It doesn’t. It teaches us only of people’s misconceptions. Any one who has experienced it, any one sympathetic and close to someone suffering from it, will already know everything that can be learnt from his untimely passing. The continued surprise that someone so funny could be so sad is the real lesson here because it shouldn’t be the case. Nobody turned around at the upsetting news that Billy Connolly has Cancer and Parkinson’s Disease and went “But he’s so funny.” I am all for a renewed discourse on Mental Illness and if Robin Williams death proves to be the catalyst then so be it, but I will take something more from it. I didn’t learn a lesson in death from Robin Williams, I learnt a lesson in life. His fierce grip on the whimsy and irrepressible imagination of childhood, the never-ending expressions of Neverland, and his pulsating sense of play are resonant reminders that the march of time is no excuse to lose sight of free expression. He gave so much joy to so many when he was fighting so much hurt, and that, beyond anything else is a lesson in tender nobility. I won’t say rest in peace because if there is some other place, I know Robin will be burning on like he always did, spreading his warmth into the cold. Goodbye Captain.