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Posts Tagged ‘death’

When I heard tonight that Robin Williams had died, apparently by suicide, the thought that jumped into my mind instantly was the last line of Cyrano de Bergerac, the defiant claim that the hero would sweep heaven’s floor with his hat and make his “panache” immortal. Whose panache (or “style,” in the often dumbed down English version of the word) was as big as Williams’? To be honest, I hadn’t seen his work in years. Maybe I thought it had become watered down, or that he was pandering too much to broad tastes. Or maybe I thought his “panache” had been created already and needed no constant witness. Style is deathless, says Cyrano. Williams was around and still lurking in my jaded hipster heart, whether I was watching his movies or not. Always I could catch his breathless, voluminous jokes spilling out in a cameo appearance or some talk show. And I thought he’d always be there for me to go back to, so maybe I took him for granted.

In any case, it’s for that reason—his vitality—that a lot of people will say his death feels unreal. As unreal as the sadness in him that only insiders seemed to acknowledge. He was not a suicidal icon. He was the human Jaws of Life. He’s the guy who reportedly talked a disabled Christopher Reeve out of suicide. He’s the guy we turn to when we’re down.

The comic crying on the inside is a cliché. But when you turn it over, you can ponder how great artists become estranged from their own talents, how their ability to summon brilliance in words or movement might become a blank or banal experience for them—a horrifying idea, especially to the audience that craves a connection to the people who bring them joy and perhaps dreams of somehow giving it back. I think of a Williams movie, “The World According to Garp,” a movie I saw when I was perhaps too young because, despite its flaws and weirdness, it had a very strange grip on my heart and even influenced the course of my life. I think of the short story “Magic Gloves” described in the movie, about a man who can make people happy by touching them, yet can’t feel them, and dies trying, and I’m sad again, because today that seems appropriate.

The comics of the ‘60s redefined their art as philosophy, examining the mundane, questioning what language was, what nature was, in an appropriate revolutionary spirit after Vietnam and Watergate. Williams came up a bit later and reflected something very different: the aesthetic experience of life as television. He was as fast in his patter as the boob tube—probably one of the few people who was faster in associative thinking than teenage channel changers—and could synthesize weird cartoon voices, hippie wisdom, unconscious horrors, puerile boy fascinations, feminist critique and political schadenfreude all at once into one experience of being the way the Beatles could synthesize “Blue Suede Shoes” and Fluxus. Williams was the living remote control for the 80s. He didn’t merely give voice to ideals of the time; he showed the experience of all the information noise and offered possible transcendence of it. His style was such that he was like the rocket once described by Louis C.K.: something that sucks everything up into it, including flowers, trees, lakes and (according to a few comedian detractors) maybe other people’s jokes.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Williams’ career and cable TV developed together. Here at once was the benign Mork who offered you “nanoo nanoo” on Channel 5 side by side with Robin Williams the cocaine animal spirit on Home Box Office talking about bawdy sex and the dangers of toot, the red and the blue side by side, the barriers between our Vaudeville silliness and our dangerous private compulsions exploded. (Before that, comedians kept their risqué stuff for when they were “working blue” off camera.) The convergence of 24-hour TV, HBO’s premium content and the unity of light and shadow in Williams’ characters allowed straight culture and the underground to feed off each other and offer us the best (the beast?) of the two.

What did this mean for me as a kid going through puberty? A lot. I almost hate to admit it, but probably one of the reasons I moved to New York when I was 25 was that T.S. Garp told me in 1982 that that’s what real writers did. (OK, Woody Allen helped, and later Lou Reed, Sonic Youth and Thomas Pynchon.) But Robin Williams and other comedians pondering the unconscious on pay cable also offered me a glimpse into what sex was, at least if you joked about it, what religion really was, if you joked about it. There’s a lot that kids ought to learn in school but don’t because there’s no point of view on it. From Williams (and Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy and George Carlin) you got a viewpoint, and thus a narrative, and thus a reason to remember all these confusing dates and places and rituals. Honestly, I only remember what the Edict of Nantes is because Anne Beatts once told a joke about it.

For a not very intellectually curious kid (me circa 1982), Robin Williams offered explanations of who Alexander Haig, Charles Manson, William F. Buckley and P.W. Botha were, and by the way, they were ridiculous.

And it was a talent whose sweep was broad enough for horror. Garp witnessed two assassinations and succumbed to another. Williams did not buckle as an actor in confronting these developments. Instead, his face registered the pain of watching idealism die (those fake assassinations were about real ones). If you were young and watched Mork confronting existential terror, you realized finally that there was a way to reconcile it to your innocence and maybe even your optimism and go on. The comic who had showed you what style was in the postmodern era, was there to show you all the facets of what’s comedy and horror and comedy again.

But ultimately, a lot of his routines were life affirming, inoffensive to the powerful, interested in shared humanity rather than fraying human bonds with acid, which is why the love for him today is largely apolitical. He could joke about childbirth. Joke about generation gaps. Joke about cats having sex (and being offended by the dog watching) in a way that the president or a 5-year-old could laugh at. Sometimes I wonder if that’s the best mark of greatness in art there is—something accessible to a child that you grow to love more as an adult.

Today we have to confront Robin Williams’ sadness, and to assume a man so beloved by millions had no one to talk to about his despair, even to his family and children. Depression, like genius, wants no company. (I think of the wife in Mrs. Doubtfire, who was tired of being in the shadow of such a staggering personality, having all the style sucked out of the room before she could use any, and wonder if any of that happened in Williams’ real life personal relationships.) Both depression and genius reflect, if nothing else, a brain talking to itself, trying to find satisfaction in itself. Depression is both a psychological and neurochemical problem. Whether you’ve seen it work directly or indirectly through somebody you care about, you probably know that it’s a constant headache. A lack of motivation. A feeling of helplessness or a zombie-like feeling of being trapped in your body where you are forced to do things you don’t want to do—like be awake ever again. Pleasant physical sensations like laughter or sexual fantasy no longer succor this person. I would almost go out on a limb and say that the “reason” for being sad doesn’t matter to somebody who’s truly depressed. He or she will simply make something up to choir with the pain. (“The world is awful.” “I’m a fake.” “I’m worthless,” etc.) So as much as I’d like to think Williams simply forgot he was a genius for a brief tragic moment and that he’d made us all happy, what I really think he forgot was the nature of his affliction and that if he’d waited, not listened to himself, he might have emerged from the depths into the arms of those who truly knew and loved him. But what is an artist if not someone who goes on instinct? Could anyone stop him?

I’d like to think we could. Because how many more geniuses do we have to lose this year? Let’s let the kid in me talk: I grew up with Robin Williams, and I loved Mork, and “The World According to Garp” made me want to move to New York and be a writer. Even when Williams’ movies were bad, I often loved watching him make stuff up. A person who helped fill the creative ether with ideas for me to drink from is filling the world with his ideas no more. I hadn’t put him on a list of my artistic heroes in a long time, because I’ve never wanted to be an actor or a standup comedian. But he’s part of my subconscious in numerous ways, feeding my ideas, a guy whose talent I’ve probably at one point or another secretly wished I had. He’s always been an affirmation of life for me. That won’t change because of what happened today.

 

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The 9/11 Tribute In Light

I guess I spoke too soon. People did eventually fill the streets in Lower Manhattan to cheer and wave flags Sunday night, wearing face paint and shouting “America No. 1!” But I was not wrong about the long, long process of closure. In fact, it seems like there’s a battle for the soul of American justice and how we pursue it.

As people cheered, there was a competing sentiment about Osama bin Laden’s death (perhaps even mine in my previous post) suggesting that this closure should be po-faced, grim and puritanical, that it should be a new opportunity to mourn, not a photo op moment to celebrate more bloodshed.

It’s pretty silly, after all, to say America is great because some Navy SEALs shot a supposedly unarmed guy in the head (I say, “supposedly” because the story corrections and equivocations continue to flow from the White House like an eruption of chocolate party fondue that never quite hardens. This ought be a clue to conspiracy theorists if many of them weren’t so beastly dumb: Even attempted transparency can be contradictory. Now that the White House has decided not to show the photos, you can prepare for years of headache-inducing “Osama’s Alive” stories.)

Almost immediately after Bin Laden went to heaven to claim his virgins, letters and comments and tweets and posts appeared condemning Americans’ jubilation, quoting and misquoting Martin Luther King’s admonitions about hating enemies. Many people on this New York Times’ mood meter summed up the general feeling of the minority: “I refuse to celebrate the death of any human being.” “I take no joy in yet another killing.” “The death of one person should not be celebrated, even to save thousands.” One of my favorite comments: “Anyone who thinks death or physical pain is a valid form of retribution for any crime is an absolutist.” A rhetoric lesson for the author: Anyone who starts a sentence with, “Anyone who …” is also an absolutist. Some Bertrand Russell might be in order for this gal.

You might think that last sentence was meant to be cute. It’s not. I, too, feel something less than glory in bin Laden’s death. But many of these critics are displaying an absolutism all their own.

The perception that people are in the streets cheering only at the blood is A SUBJECTIVE ONE that says a lot more about those who point it out than the people it aims to criticize. The statement willfully ignores other things Bin Laden’s death might mean to people, emotions of relief and hope. Certainly there were people at the WTC site shouting, “Let the dogs eat him.” Weren’t there? Well, yes, there is some of that as there would naturally be, and no, it’s not healthy. But I also heard a lot of other defensible sentiments more along the lines of “We got him. Or, “We did it,” and simply, “I’m proud of my country.” Maybe, “America No. 1.” It’s always likely that jingoism is going to be the order of a day like Sunday’s. To be fair, though, it’s kind of hard to put euphoria into words (just as it was hard to put into words the complicated reasons we were attacked in the first place–by a former ally, no less, with grudges that cut both ways).

But for those of you who only see a celebration of death Roman gladiator style, let me give it a try: This ain’t a sporting event, and we aren’t crazed football fans looking for a high. This was, arguably, our deliverance from ten years of a questionable moral universe in which a religious cult leader willing to murder thousands of people–secretaries, waiters, delivery drivers, security guards, airplane passengers, Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc.–was going to go unpunished mainly for political reasons: First, because our scurrilous U.S. president at the time decided to settle an unrelated score elsewhere, and second because the murderer was safe in the bosom of a chaotic nuclear power. As I said in my first post on this subject, many people celebrating in the streets on Sunday night were children when 9/11 happened, and many of them likely grew up disillusioned that the defining moment of their young lives was going to have an ambiguous, nihilistic conclusion. “Life isn’t fair,” is a hard thing to tell children, as is telling them that they could die instantly and violently for political reasons and the killers would go free. It’s an outlook that could easily lead to despair and erode many people’s sense of morality or accountability. Do you agree, moralists? Do you believe it’s OK to be happy that we’re freed from that reality, at least for the time being? Being happy, are we allowed to cheer? Being allowed to cheer, are we cheering in a way that’s chaste enough to clear the hurdle of your sanctimony?

But that’s the complicated argument. The real hypocrisy of the “humanists” this week is an obvious point they miss: Some of us are cheering because a couple of wars might come to an end, not because a guy got shot in the face. This is something fairly easy to see, unless you’re really, really inclined not to (or if your critical sword only cuts one way). This war, lest you forget, was in a lot of people’s minds about bringing Bin Laden to justice. His death doesn’t mean we’re leaving Afghanistan next week, of course, but the main symbol of our struggle, bin Laden, who ought to embody our entire casus belli, has been removed from the scene. That fact augurs peace, not to mention justice. It suggests deliverance from the nightmare that was the 2000s and the wars that defined the decade. Why is it not allowed for a moral person to celebrate that?

Yet self-proclaimed humanists choose not to look at it that way. Why? What’s the bias? Must they assume those of us who feel a sense of relief and satisfaction right now are just dancing in blood because we have violent ape natures and a nationalistic chauvinism and no reflection and no morality and life for us is like a particularly gruesome version of Battlefield 3?

My thought is that it’s a bit of a tip off, an advertisement of the critics’ conflicted and unhappy relationship with their country. How many of them, I dare ask, used 9/11 as a moment mainly to rip into U.S. foreign policy, as if suggesting that a cult religious figure kicked out of Saudi Arabia had right to avenge El Salvadorans, and in the confusion temporarily left their “humanism” at the door that day? Evidently, there were enough of them that they managed to turn Marxist Brit Christopher Hitchens into a U.S. right winger. I guess people really do have the power.

I, too, disliked a lot of American foreign policy both before and after 9/11 and believe America has committed crimes for which we ought to spend a few years in an international court. But that doesn’t blind me to the clear immorality of Bin Laden’s mass murder or to what his removal means: the possible deliverance from a violent person and a violent past, the need to live in the past with the twin specters of the World Trade Center and the need for more bloodshed.

Merry Christmas, humanists. War is over. Geddit?

Next: Why is it not OK to be happy that a mass murderer is not out mass murdering anymore? That’s kind of a perverse thing to ask for, isn’t it? Why should deliverance from that reality not be worth celebrating? Why is it not right to say, “Rot in hell, Osama!” to give comfort to yourself or others? Was it not OK for Jews to celebrate Hitler’s passing? Would you deny them that, or only deny it for yourself and your own countrymen? You might say all death diminishes us, even Hitler’s, that hatred demeans you, even if the mass murderer wouldn’t show you–or thousands of others–the same sympathy. To want to be better than your murderer is a fine goal. But warning: there is also perhaps a lack of self-regard in it. You wouldn’t force that morality on a rape victim, say, if she said she was glad her attacker had been killed. To say that one person must be allowed to live, to hate and sow new violence based on his medieval religious outlook is a form of extremism, too. Beware your own extremism if you’re going to denounce it in others.

Did bin Laden deserve a trial? Another good question. Remember that a trial of Osama bin Laden would have become a trial of his ideas. And that ought to lead you to this question: Do all ideas deserve trial? Do Hitler’s ideas deserve trial? (Ohhh! That comparison again. More on that later.) Does the madness of a murdering extremist refusing to participate in society (ours and his own) demand society’s channels of due process? Maybe. Would it be more important than emotional closure? Maybe. Is it realistic? No. The reasons for why that is will be debated forever and never answered to anybody’s satisfaction. The violence of one sometimes can’t be made square with the peace of the many. I’m not generally for the death penalty, but as Groucho Marx said, “for him I’ll make an exception.” Does that make me a sell-out to my own values or a person with a bit of depth perception?

OK, the Hitler argument. Isn’t it facile and self-serving to compare Bin Laden and Hitler? Let’s get quickly to the argument that festers underneath this like a hard-to-kill staph infection: Did America deserve 9/11 in the first place? Many people who smartly wheel in horror at mindless patriotism somehow turn dumb really quickly when it comes to mindless knee-jerk anti-patriotism, which they ought to realize is just as bad, especially if they are not willing to support their country doing something inherently good, such as protecting its citizens against a religious maniac. If you insist that every American citizen is guilty, regardless of party or philosophy or details on the ground, for what has happened in Nicaragua, East Timor, Angola, Iraq, etc.,  so guilty he or she, every one, is worthy of dying in a hijacking at the hands of an Islamic religious fundamentalist with an agenda specific to his own idea of God, your outlook can’t survive what we’d call humanism or rationality. It’s such a hopeless argument, I feel dumb even bringing it up. And yet every once in a while … I see that post or hear that argument: “You might not know this about 9/11, but America’s done some awful things…” So goes the critical insight of the new Mother Jones subscriber.

Yes, it’s better to take the moral high ground and not hate or take satisfaction in violence, because it doesn’t do your enemies any harm really, and it doesn’t do you any good either, to say nothing of your humanity. And yet, as much as I hate to say it, I think a fair burden of proof falls back on some of the “humanists” this week. Are you seeing hate in the streets because it’s there or sometimes because maybe you hate a little too? Why should I not feel relief and joy at being delivered from the past? Why do I have to explain myself to you?

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This week saw the passing of Edward M. Kennedy, patriarch of the legendary Kennedy political dynasty and the third-longest serving senator in U.S. history. Why is Kennedy’s death such a poignant moment in U.S. history?

–*Because it was like he was one of us.

–*Because he was not one of us. He was better.

–*Because he was going to give us universal health care.

–*Because he was such a good kisser.

–*Because he was mainly a funny drunk and not so much a mean-spirited drunk.

–*Because sex with a powerful political figure feels that much more powerful, and because he offered that gift so freely to so many.

–*Because he was able to overcome partisanship and seek compromise, and to play the game of politics shrewdly enough that it sometimes fomented progress, prosperity and equality for all.

–*… doing so with a lot of alcohol lubrication and sexual intercourse along the way–just as much as human progress demanded it of his poor, oversexed body.

–*Because a man who can pass civil rights legislation one minute and then the next be widely photographed having sex on a motorboat for the delectation of European paparazzi is just too damn fun to live without.

–*Because his fiery rhetorical style hearkened back to a less cynical time when politicians could still be heroes.

–*… back when we still bought into that kind of thing.

–*Because he got the COBRA Act passed, something that often went unnoticed when so much of the talk was about his trouser snake.

–*Because his greatness was curtailed by his deep human flaws, and that reminded us of our own fragile humanity.

–*… or just made the stupider among us feel superior.

–*… which, you gotta admit, is one of the less-heralded and more necessary talents of great leaders, given how many stupid people there actually are and how many guns they own.

–*Because he was the only one among his brothers to grow old, the designated mourner for their age of idealism, elegance, sophistication and daring.

–*And because, in the end, for all that, you don’t even get a lousy t-shirt.

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