Culture

10 Provocative Perspectives on the Death of Robin Williams

1. Matt Walsh at his eponymous blog: “Robin Williams didn’t die from a disease, he died from his choice

I’m not normally one to write a blog post about a dead celebrity, but then I suppose there is no such thing.

There are only living celebrities, not dead ones. In death, wealth and prestige decay and we are brought into a new reality, the only reality there is or ever was — one which, for much better or much worse, doesn’t care at all about our popularity or our money.

The death of Robin Williams is significant not because he was famous, but because he was human, and not just because he left this world, but particularly because he apparently chose to leave it.

Suicide.

A terrible, monstrous atrocity. It disturbs me in a deep, visceral, indescribable way. Of course it disturbs most people, I would assume. Indeed, we should fear the day when we wake up and decide we aren’t disturbed by it anymore.

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We tend to look for the easiest answers. It makes us feel better to say that depression is only a disease and that there is no will and choice in suicide, as if a person who kills themselves is as much a victim as someone who succumbs to leukemia.

2. Jim Geraghty at National Review: “Robin Williams and Our Strange Times: Does our society set the stage for depression?”

The constant online presence would lead to a world of nonstop instant reaction, where everyone could immediately transmit the first thought that popped into his head in response to news. Everyone’s first reaction would become his defining reaction, particularly if it’s dumb or knee-jerk. If it was racist, sexist, hateful, or obnoxious, even better. Those horrified would then share and retweet it to their friends and followers, spreading the perception that the world was overpopulated with hateful idiots, and that average Americans — or average human beings! – were rather nasty, ignorant creatures unworthy of respect or affection. Many people would quickly and easily forget that the people who comment on Internet websites represent a small slice of the population, a fraction predisposed to getting pleasure from posting shocking, obnoxious, or hateful material.

The widespread perception that almost everyone else was a moron — why, just look at the things people post and say on the Internet! – would facilitate a certain philosophy of narcissism; we would have people walking around convinced they’re much smarter, and much more sophisticated and enlightened, than everyone else.

3. Bryan Preston at the PJ Tatler responding to Walsh: “Chasing Shadows in the Death of Robin Williams”

Anyone who has seen true mental illness up close knows that the idea of choice gets bent and blurred.

I’ve seen Alzheimer’s Disease up close. It’s not depression, but it is a different disease of the same organ, the brain. Alzheimer’s sufferers do not choose to lurch from the present to three decades into the past in an instant. They don’t choose to forget who you are, what your name is, who they are, where they are, everything they have ever known and everyone they have ever loved. They don’t choose to become hostile to those they love who are caring for them. They are not choosing any of that. Yet what is happening in their brains impacts their behavior and can be incredibly frustrating and crushing for their loved ones. It’s heart-breaking, one of the most heart-breaking experiences a person can experience.

There is no more choice in that than there is choice to come down with cancers unrelated to behavior. There is no more choice in that than the choice to grow old, see your organs wink out one by one, as you approach the end. Did the boy who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, an organ disease which will probably kill him in his 20s, choose that? Depression, like Alzheimer’s, is a disease of an organ, the brain. Where choice begins and ends in the mind of someone with clinical depression is quite blurry. I don’t pretend to know where it is. Depression is the ultimate mind game, only your own brain is working deviously against itself.

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4. Dr. Helen at her PJ blog over the weekend: “Is Suicide Genetic?

The problem is that suicide samples are small and I often wonder how much gender plays a role in the lack of studies and data on suicide…

5. Charlie Martin here at PJ today: “Depression Is No Joke

First of all, people need to understand depression is something essentially physiological. It’s not just a bad mood, being sad. (Look at that list of symptoms: that’s not just me, that’s been observed medically and is part of the standard diagnostic criteria for depression.) Understanding that there’s a physiological basis for depression has been slow in coming, but the discovery of selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (or SSRIs for short) like fluoxetine (Prozac) made it clear that there was a neurological basis. (A good description of the studies that established this can be found in Peter D. Kramer’s Listening to Prozac; an excellent follow-on is Kramer’s Against Depression.)

That doesn’t mean life events can’t precipitate it. It turns out that in rats — and very plausibly, in humans — uncontrollable traumatic events lead to physiological changes that are exactly the ones that SSRI drugs help control.

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6. Kent From Ohio started an emotionally engaged comment exchange on Charlie’s post: “Depression is most common among those who have no belief in God.”

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7. Kathy Shaidle here at PJ Lifestyle: “Yelling At Each Other About Robin Williams, Ann Coulter, Death, and God”

Now onto the always unpleasant topic of “raising awareness.”

Yes, it is good and important to take this opportunity to remind troubled individuals to “get help.”

However, we have to acknowledge, especially in this particular instance, that Robin Williams did “get help” — he voluntarily went back into rehab — and he took his own life anyhow.

So here is another instance where words exhaust their power to explain events to our puny satisfaction and thereby provide us with comforting certainty (and, perhaps, a truncheon to beat up on other people.)

Many of us instinctively balk when presented with inherent contradictions, “negative capability” and paradox because we detect the alarming stink of “moral relativism” hovering above those concepts.

However, we can only debate the rightness and wrongness of someone’s suicidal actions to a point, before we have to acknowledge that we will never have all the answers this side of heaven.

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8. Another comment exchange on Charlie’s post: “depression is a threefold problem — it’s skills-based, it’s cognitive-based, and it’s spiritually-based. The solution is to attack all three, and it gets very confusing from there.”

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9. My favorite comment on Charlie’s post:

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10. And where do I stand? Without getting too personal or technical, what these questions come down to for me is that the psychological model and materialist understanding of suicidality are mostly correct at diagnosing and describing the problem (as chemical imbalances in the brain) but inadequate for treating it. The spiritual model is much more practical for delivering results, in tandem with medical treatment. For Charlie it’s Buddhism, for Kathy it’s Catholicism blended with AA. And for me it’s Bible-based occultism. I do believe that it is very useful to understand suicidal thoughts as demons. And the Judeo-Christian magickal practices that teach one how to invoke a Higher Guardian Angel to slay these demons do actually work…

One of the most important of occult aphorisms is among the most misunderstood — as they often are:

“Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted”

Some people choose to take it at face value, as an invitation to nihilism. They can do whatever they want and let their impulses run wild. Nothing matters.

I choose to see it rather as a descriptive statement rather than an instruction, a few additional words illuminating the point more: “When nothing is believed to be true, then every act imaginable can be done.”

Lady Hillary, when left with no other options, resorts to her variation of the magick spell:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CMZmoZwkgaQ

Is there a link between secularism and suicide? Yes there is. Because answer this question: if no higher power exists, and if all evidence of human life will someday be erased when the sun transforms into a red giant and engulfs the earth, what difference does it make if one yields to Lady Suicide’s seductive advances and dies alone or resists and dedicates their life to self-sacrifice, patriotism, and supporting a large family?

Honest secularists like screenwriter-turned-exploitation filmmaker Paul Schrader admit the unanswerability of this question:

I was raised with moral responsibility and the idea that life has to have some meaning. When the fact that it doesn’t have meaning becomes apparent — how do you get out of that conversation? When you realize your life has as much meaning as your dog’s, that’s a conversation that’ll never end.

Williams was a video game fanatic to such a degree that he named his daughter Zelda. One of his films, What Dreams May Come, embraced the idea of reincarnation. He claimed to be an Episcopalian and joked that, “And the Number One reason to be an Episcopalian: 1. No matter what you believe, there’s bound to be at least one other Episcopalian who agrees with you.”

When Williams killed himself, did he do so with the belief that what he was doing was akin to hitting the reset button on the Nintendo? That it would just be a chance to start over with a new life, maybe one without wild mood swings assaulting him all the time? Do belief systems which theologically tolerate suicide, that fail to elevate human life above animal life, that don’t see the individual life as unique and significant, lead to cultures in which it happens more often? What to make of countries like Japan and South Korea that have suicide rates of 28 and 21 per 100,000 people versus the United States, Chile, Switzerland, and India with rates that are half as large?

Wikipedia has a good section on cultural attitudes to suicide in Japan:

Japanese society’s attitude toward suicide has been termed “tolerant,” and in many occasions suicide is seen as a morally responsible action.[9] Public discussion of the high rate of suicide also focuses on blaming the economic hardship faced by middle-aged men (see sarakin). However, the rise of Internet suicide websites and the increasing rate of suicide pacts (shinjū) have raised concerns from the public and media, which consider the pacts “thoughtless.”[9]

In 1703, Chikamatsu Monzaemon wrote a puppet play entitled Sonezaki Shinjuu (The Love Suicides at Sonezaki), which was later re-engineered for the kabuki theater. The inspiration for the play was an actual double suicide which had recently occurred between two forbidden lovers.[22] Several more “double suicide” plays followed which were eventually outlawed by the governing authorities for emboldening more couples to “romantically” end their lives.[22]

During Japan’s imperial years, suicide was common within the military. This included suicide when a battle was lost. The samurai way of glory was through death, and ritual suicide was seen as something honorable. Writer Yukio Mishima is famous for his ritual suicide while trespassing on the grounds of theDefense Agency headquarters in Ichigaya.

The cultural heritage of suicide as a noble tradition still has some resonance. While being investigated for an expenses scandal, Cabinet minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka took his life in 2007. The former governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, described him as a “true samurai” for preserving his honour. Ishihara is also the scriptwriter for the film I Go To Die For You which glorifies the memory and bravery of the kamikaze pilots in WWII

We can parse Williams’ words and his films and read between the lines here and there but it will remain a mystery what combination of ideas and psychological distortions led Williams to end his life alone in a noose. But his path there was his own, and each person’s journey there will be different.

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images via shutterstock / iurii / Adadurov / Viacheslav Lopatin / zebra0209