A Beautiful Mind
It’s an oft repeated phrase, but with some people, you remember exactly where you were when you heard the news of their passing, especially those whose death comes out of the blue like a lightning bolt. A life lived so briefly, as all ours are, at least in the context of human and earthly history, that it can be reflected in a single stroke of a billion volts, illuminating all and sending a surging charge of life into all who were touched by them, a bolt that would never again strike in that exact same place and one that shakes Heaven and Earth like a trumpet call from God, as if someone had at that precise moment passed into another Kingdom, leaving us richer and yet poorer for their passing.
I felt that tingle of Universal electricity as I was lying in bed inside the dorm of St. Christopher’s Hostel, Paris; St. Christopher, the patron saint of travellers; Paris, who shot his arrow into the only vulnerable part of Achilles, his heel. The claustrophobic temperature inside the room was the focus of a battle being fought by the whining and all too small air conditioning unit and the still humid fetid air, the machine stubbornly spreading its relief with at least some degree of success.
Around about 1 a.m. I was in that twilight zone between wake and sleep, when the Morpheus drug was interrupted by a bell and a buzz from my mobile phone; a text from my son in England. He’d forgotten Paris was one hour ahead and of course he had no idea of my tiredness and lack of sleep due to my wide-eyed wandering around the City of Light. Forgiving him, I squeezed the show button to read ‘Did you hear about Robin Williams?’
‘No’ I replied, after all when you are on holiday the news just seems to fade into the distance, World War Three could start and you would not know it.
‘Been found dead, apparent suicide’ came the terse reply.
My mind instantly saw Robin Williams face in front of me like Banquo’s ghost, hovering a foot above the bed with that thin-lipped grin, his twinkling eyes and that manic delivery like Einstein on acid.
Then the unbelievability factor kicked in. Robin Williams? Not that Robin Williams? No, not him. Dead? Well stuff happens. Dead I could perhaps believe. But suicide? Him? No, that’s not right. The funniest man in the world and surely the happiest man in the world too? His wasn’t an act was it? He just seemed to be on a high about life all the time. Yes drugs and stuff were there in his life, I’d read of his struggles. But to wantonly take his own life? The imbalance of that equation, the scales of life, happiness on one side, misery on the other, how could they have swung so far down and so heavily towards the act of taking his own life?
The struggling air-conditioning unit need not have worried any longer as my body shivered with coldness and I slumped off to sleep knowing the world would wake up tomorrow with its news reports and newspapers and commentaries filling their main headline with the news of his death, replacing even the worst stuff that this sometimes unhappy world all too often gives us.
It was true. The terrible truth was that Robin Williams had ended his own life by his own hands and it was impossible to know how he above all people would do that. A clown prince ends his own life. It’s just too Shakesperian, it’s a story, a film, but surely not real life?
We watch films and interviews and we think we know someone, we think perhaps that the world they inhabit is a heaven made on earth, full of dreams come true. Yes we also know that there is a dark side without perhaps fully realising that the dark side of the Moon that is always hidden from us is always there inside their mind. All we actually get is a snippet and no more, like an iceberg we only see one eighth, the rest is never seen or truly known.
The tributes come and go, the funeral will too, the plaudits, the statue maybe somewhere in a pleasant park, the season of his films to be shown, the remembrance at the Oscars and the re-runs of his chat show appearances and we will sit and smile and laugh and cry and thank him for his life and his legacy. Meanwhile his family and friends will somehow have to live on with excruciatingly happy and sad memories and perhaps even the guilty feelings of ‘if only I could have been there’. And maybe that’s what most of us think too, if only.
So the dust clears, the newspapers go in the trash can, the world moves on, and we look for an answer. Why?
There have been many eloquent articles from friends, experts and those who knew him, all of them at least partially funny in a recollection of his zany comedy, some sad and frightening in their description of a man whose mind could never quite shut down, except to sink into his own nether world of doubt and darkness from where perhaps the well spring of his humour, which though at times could be as light and fluffy as a passing cloud, could actually be dark, cutting and menacing, slashing open much pomposity and revealing bullshit for what it was and whichever direction it came from.
Reports say that he did not leave a note. We may never know and in any case, what would it say? An explanation perhaps as to the state of his mind would be welcome to everyone, because if he can do that, what stops us? If someone that in touch with the human condition and all its eccentricities can fall on his sword, how do we come to terms with what he was facing should we too fall foul of the cruelties of slipping back into childhood, like Benjamin Button, old losing our faculties, regressing into a state of mind that seems to abandon our consciousness until we slip back into Mother Earths dark womb, a full circle of birth, childhood, adulthood and returning to a helpless human once again.
It would have been welcome to us all because we are all scared, scared that maybe even into the apparent ordinariness of our own lives can come darkness, whether through our own physical and mental difficulties or that of our family and friends, the frailty and illness of old age and all its ramifications, the deterioration of the self and the dependency on the have or have not society or the slow decline into pipe and slippers with a life lead never quite achieving our dreams or ambitions and wondering where all the time went. An explanation from someone who appeared to have the answers would have been welcome. After all wasn’t it the clown or the jester who in the court of the king, with his barbed wit and humour, could reveal the truth to all, even if that truth was unwelcome?
In humour is often the truth of the matter and through his life Robin Williams revealed much truth to us all and maybe his final act was his final story, his final truth, his final stand up show that we watch like he is holding up a mirror and in it we see ourselves. And maybe he didn’t want to let us down, disappoint us, maybe he just knew when the curtain ought to come down on the final act in his life. Perhaps if it could or will, a court or a coroner may say his mind was deranged, distressed, out of synch, depressed, unbalanced or that it was a cry for help, help that could not come. But he had family, friends we say, how could he? How can you hurt those you leave behind in the full knowledge that you committed that most heinous of crimes, suicide.
After Vincent Van Gogh killed himself, the room he died in was locked up and left for all eternity, such was the disgrace in the act of suicide, successful suicide. Even today a stigma exists about it, that relative mentioned in hushed tones, not spoken about in front of the children, the one buried elsewhere, away from the family, the one with no photographs on the wall, as if they almost never existed or lived.
But Robin Williams lived. Boy did he live. He lived a thousand lives through a thousand voices and a thousand characters, all of them us. There’s that mirror again. That’s what heroes do, did you know that? They venture out there into the woods, into the unknown, into that dark forbidding forest and they rescue the fair maiden, bring back the Golden Fleece, the elixir of life and hand it over to the community from whence they came. They lose themselves to find out who they are, because we dare not and so they do it for us, on our behalf and then hold up that mirror that shows us in all our glory and our dishonour too. Here is our good side and here is our dark side and the two can be resolved as one and it’s OK to be human as long as we forgive ourselves and each other, then we can move on to a greater understanding.
Humour is a wonderful weapon, a weapon of mass destruction, that’s why the Dalai Lama laughs so much, life is funny, laugh more, laugh often. When something really shit happens to us, what do we find ourselves doing years or even months later? We laugh, we tell our friends and make ourselves look ridiculous at our own expense and the sooner we do that after it happens, maybe the sooner we are healed.
It’s said that the human brain contains something close to 500 trillion trillion atoms and that’s a helluva machine and if we were to build such a machine with that many parts we would not be at all surprised if it went a little nuts from time to time or even if it failed completely and just shut down and said enough is enough.
Maybe, and perhaps this is fanciful, stupid even, but maybe he wanted to spare himself and us too. He was the travelling angel, the gum-slinger who rode into town firing off his wisecracks and shooting down the bad guys, the men of misery, the depressive dudes for whom we do the oppressive pointless job, the privateer or politician who took our life and breath and used it for their own purpose instead of sharing it wisely, the miserable wretches with their dogmas and dirty talk and fundamentalist views whose word is supposed to go unchallenged. Hell, if I want a religion to believe in I’d rather believe in this angel of a man who taunted Lucifers wagging tongue and urged us not to believe what the cloven-hoofed devil says. I don’t need a God thanks.
Maybe with his diagnosis of the onset of Parkinson’s disease he saw his future and decided to call not a time out but an end game. Maybe that brilliant brilliant mind, genius no less, saw his possible future degeneration, slow painful and hideous and thought, no thanks, that’s not for me, that’s too much to bear for me, my family and the rest of the world. No one needs to see that. It would be like Picasso losing his fingers, like Babe Ruth losing an arm. Yes there are many greats who go on suffering like us all, struggling into old age in silence, in care. But to know the heights that you reached, that summit as high as the Heavens and to know your talents were preserved on the silver screen, on television, on DVD, in the minds of millions who were your audience, whether on a chat show, a stand up tour or amusing war torn soldiers or handicapped kids and making their lives better and forever more joyful. Maybe in his state of mind he thought, no, job done, how on earth can I be seen as a dribbling fool after all that, unable to even hold a spoon to my mouth, slowly slipping into becoming a truly tortured soul with nothing to say, an empty vessel sailing nowhere. Who could blame him? To have known such humble greatness and to go out at the top. Isn’t that what they say, don’t outstay your welcome, know when to exit, leave them wanting more?
Maybe he wanted to spare himself and us too. Remember me this way because you’re not getting the chance to see me fall apart in front of your eyes, you already know enough. Maybe it wouldn’t have gone that way, who knows, but who are we to say? It wasn’t our life to live or take away. If our ultimate gift is life then its soul-mate maybe is choice and though we’d all like to make a choice about our last day with a clear conscious and hopeful mind, sometimes it just can’t happen that way.
“Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make a soul?’ – JOHN KEATS
As I left Paris I accidentally bumped into a man near a ticket machine at Gare du Nord railway station, he backed into me not seeing me at all. He apologised and said ‘Parlez vous Francais?’ He needed help of some sort, directions maybe.
‘Non’, I said, ‘Sorry’.
He started to walk away, I looked him square in the face and he was the spitting image of Robin Williams.
I said, ‘You look like Robin Williams’.
‘Pardon?’ he said.
‘You are the spitting image of Robin Williams’, I said with a smile on my face.
He smiled too, the likeness even more heightened now.
‘But he is dead’ he said, and we both smiled at each other and walked away.
No he’s not I thought, his body no longer breathes, his heart no longer beats, but Keats was right, in this world of pain and troubles his soul and intelligence now lies within us all and as John Nash says at the end of the film, ‘Perhaps it is good to have a beautiful mind, but an even greater gift is to discover a beautiful heart.’