Tuesday, August 12, 2014

RIP Robin Williams (1951 – 2014)

Photo credit: Alyssa Pierdomenic/Reuters.
"Comic genius" is such a pale, shopworn expression ... the exemplar of cliché. They use it of Groucho Marx; they sometimes use it of Adam Sandler, too. Overworn to the verge of meaninglessness, an empty compliment of the kind in which Hollywierd specializes.
And yet, how else do you describe Robin Williams, a man whose mind worked so furiously yet on a level few comedians can reach? How else can you describe a comedian whose improvisational talent was so reliable that, on his first television series, the writers would leave whole sections of dialogue unscripted, noting only, "MORK CAN GO OFF HERE"? A talent so seemingly free yet so disciplined he could embue it with dramatic portent, or ruthlessly restrain it, for his best cinematic performances?

It's only in retrospect that anyone could say Williams' suicide was "not surprising". Certainly he left enough bread crumbs in his trail, especially the drug and alcohol addictions which plagued his life. The manic pacing of his routines and his delivery always had this desperate edge to it, as though his life depended on getting a laugh out of every line. (He must have had flops in his early stand-up career; his first album includes a sketch that begins, "Come inside my mind and see what happens when a comedian bites the big one.")

Nevertheless, his public face was so frantically alive, so relentlessly funny, and often so touchingly warm, that you were distracted; you never asked if his demons had been put to rest.

It's bound to come up, so I'll just touch on it here. Williams was an Episcopalian ("Catholic Lite: same rituals; half the guilt"); I don't know what they currently teach — and I suspect they don't know, either — so let me give you the Catholic Church's teaching on suicide:

2280 Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.
2281 Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.
2282 ... Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.
2283 We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives. [Emphasis mine.—ASL]

In an earlier time, the orthodoxy was not so tolerant or benevolent. Thus, Chesterton could write, a century ago, "Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin. It is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life. The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world. His act is worse (symbolically considered) than any rape or dynamite outrage. For it destroys all buildings: it insults all women" (Orthodoxy, chap. 5).

If we have become less judgmental, it's not because we've become less certain that "God hath fix'd His everlasting canon 'gainst self-slaughter" (Hamlet I:ii; vv. 131-132), but rather we've become less certain of the human mind which resolves on that course. In the end, only God can know how free Williams was to avoid taking his life, to break through the wall of silence and seek treatment.

So we mourn the loss of a vibrant, beautiful soul, as we should mourn all those who leave us too soon, and we wonder what could have been done to help him love himself as we loved him. And as I wish him farewell, and pray for his healing in the loving embrace of God, I can't help but think of the haunting lines of Don McLean's "Vincent (Starry Starry Night)": "But I could have told you, Vincent, This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you."

Because it's true: This isn't the world we were meant for.