By Irene F. Starkehaus -
I got the news via instant message while spending way too much money for the back-to-school supplies that I'm required to purchase if my kids want to access their free education that I paid too much money to provide.
The text read, "Robin Williams is dead. He killed himself." This communication had a sort of Kafkaesque quality to it…just dangling there in the logosphere with no consideration of where I was and what I was doing – so detached from the humdrum chore at hand that I couldn't quite grasp what was being said to me.
"Seriously?" was my aporial response.
"And why would I kid about something like that? Yes, seriously."
I don't know. We've often been told and I am quite certain that we will be reminded enough in the coming weeks about the comic genius that was Robin Williams. I felt like there must be a punchline on its way, but none was forthcoming. Fifteen minutes later, I was at the register ringing through the loose leaf notebook paper that represents but a small fraction of this year's back-to-school extortion and thinking through the tragic event. It occurred to me that "Yes. Of course. He killed himself. That makes perfect sense actually."
It's interesting that the death of Robin Williams is sad but that the mode of death – upon further reflection – isn't really out of character, and that even though we knew this about him, we still accept his influence over the culture with deference to his great genius.
Look, I'm not trying to be hard or cruel about his suffering or anyone else's for that matter. I do appreciate some of his artistic output; I realize that there really are people out there who are genuinely heartbroken over this; and a loss of life by suicide always strikes me as the worst kind of waste, but – and it pains me to say this– what we are witnessing here is the logical outcome of his freneticism.
Genius or no, Robin Williams was a frenzied mess of incongruities that he never seemed to reconcile for the sake of his own sanity. One minute he'd be celebrated by the media as husband of the year, the next he'd be leaving his wife for his mistress. First he'd be hosting an appeal to end world hunger and taking comedic potshots at wealthy millionaires who are not seen as paying their fair share, then it was off to hobnob with Hollywood royalty in conspicuous consumption of the finest foods, spirits and material goods. So I can't feign surprise about his downfall in the same way that many of these Hollywood archetypes who call themselves his friends can because he was a living, breathing oxymoron.
And how bizarre that these friends are trampling over each other to find the nearest camera where they can outperform one another with just the right amount of subdued despondency and desire for privacy during this, their moment of sorrow. Scripted and snug like Norma Desmond's close up. If there was any doubt that Hollywood is in a state of entropy, I think it's been sufficiently cleared up for us through this event.
But then even the general public is in on the stage direction and knows exactly how we're all supposed to act in discussing the unfortunate loss of the late Robin Williams. We're like those stage extras that nod our heads and mouth our disbelief on cue. Regrettably, the prompts don't motivate me to partake of the requisite national mourning. Comedic genius notwithstanding, I never quite understood what the big deal was all about. Good? Yes, he was. But great? Legendary?
It's like a Lenny Bruce routine or a Jackson Pollok painting, like Truman Capote or Jim Morrison…you know they were all geniuses because that's what everyone says they were, but in each example, the greatest genius I could ever detect was in the transference of abject hostility from artist to audience. Interesting in small doses, but I can't stand too much of it, and I can't imagine being the person who has to perpetually nurse that kind of rage in order to keep up with artistic expectations. It would be a spiritually devastating undertaking.
To that end, I would characterize Robin Williams as soul sick. He admitted often enough that he was struggling with mental illness and substance abuse – the quintessential tale of the poor little rich boy who replaced the indifference of his preoccupied albeit privileged home life with a desire to fundamentally transform America.
His tenacious meme was simply that there was something profoundly wrong with the American bourgeois; that the middle class is static, shabby, reflexive, limiting and utterly detestable; that the silent majority is to be scorned for its constancy.
These leitmotifs flow through so many of the films with which he was involved. Good Morning Vietnam (anti-war, evils of American imperialism), The World According to Garp (the intolerance that is characteristic of our culture), Birdcage (we need to be more accepting of the gay lifestyle), Good Will Hunting (challenges America's deeply ingrained anti-intellectualism) just to name a few.
Even Aladdin comes equipped with thematic finger wags for the wealthiest one percent...and never mind that Williams singlehandedly transformed the whole of children's cinema through his over-the-top portrayal of the Genie in that film. It's just another alabaster shrine to his comic genius that Disney could take decades of standup material, remove the f-bombs and crotch jokes in order to animate the chaos and innuendo that the film's target audience could more easily laugh at than understand. To this day, rated G movies must by default contain dizzying levels of suggestive freneticism to qualify as funny, and if your child wasn't ADD before he walked into the theater, he will be when he leaves it.
Interestingly, to a large extent the changes that he and his Hollywood cohorts envisioned for the middle class were ultimately adopted by the American people through decades of coercion and manipulation. The social modes that Williams envisioned forty years ago are now securely in place, and the next generation of Hollywood superstars will use the foundations that he and others set and drive change in directions that we could never have imagined when Robin Williams sported rainbow suspenders and instructed unmarried women about the humor of living with a man and lying to the folks about it.
You know, considering the country is adopting most of the social changes that he actively promoted over his entire career, you'd think Williams might have been a little happier. I know. Depression and addiction are diseases and he just couldn't help it. But note the irony of him cashing out just as his vision of utopia is being realized in all its glory.
It's ludicrous that there was nothing anyone could do to help this sad, tragic soul who couldn't even appreciate the paradise that he had helped to create. Or maybe, in spite of the dazzling circles of intellectualism in which he travelled, no one ever thought to tell him that the key to emotional stability is stepping away from the chaos occasionally to…I don't know, mow the lawn or scrub the grout…maybe go back-to-school shopping or something. Maybe such undertakings are too pedestrian…bourgeois…detestable.
But even more important than the disrepair that the mental health industry is in as evidenced by all the ineffectual treatment that money could buy is that Americans seem intent on garnering their social norms from this highly visible, vocal, dysfunctional segment of the population as a means to its own cultural suicide.
You know, over the last three years or so, the number of parents who will allow their children to play little loop football has dropped significantly due to the negative press that the sport has received over injury. Many conservative voices have prophesied that we are seeing then end of America's obsession with football due to the devastating long term effects of multiple concussions on the human body. It has been predicted that this once great dynasty will soon be replaced with kinder, gentler forms of sporting entertainment.
Just three years of negative press has brought this once great industry to its knees and forced it to reform its policies on sports injury at every level – from little loop to the NFL.
As we check off the name of another Hollywood A-lister who has died too soon from the ravages of depression and addiction, how many voices have prophesied that we are seeing the end of America's obsession with celebrity because of the devastating long term effects of self-delusion on the human body?
None. Because we can't live without our pop stars, right?
Consider how many otherwise intelligent adults are choosing their favorite political candidates based on whatever their favorite sitcom star wore on his or her tee shirt last week? How many people will support some vacuous anti-American political cause just because an aging musician made it his cause du jour? How many people will adopt ridiculous, damaging behaviors because they saw their favorite celebrity do the same thing on some reality TV show or a daytime soap opera? How many people dream that they too might gain a spot on a reality TV show, so the whole world can watch them implode in high def glory?
Worse still, how many American parents are still as yet feeding the beast and living vicariously through their children's delusions of grandeur? How many of those same parents would turn their gaze from physical, sexual, psychological abuse if there was a chance that their child might have a shot at the bigtime? How many would sign away their own flesh and blood's chance at mental stability for a brush with stardom?
Robin Williams – may he rest in peace – simple highlights the fact that the celebrity lifestyle offers soul-crushing death to those that are drawn to its bright lights.