There are of course the distant examples, the Vincent van Goghs, the Hart Cranes, the Virginia Woolfs, whose deaths happened so long ago as to have acquired a certain abstraction. It's a rawer experience with your near contemporaries. The media persist in defining Gen X by the suicide of Kurt Cobain (we'll discuss the pathological implications of that in another post, thank you), and while American society has grown too fragmented for any single performer to be the true voice of a generation, there's no denying that his death was a where-were-you-when watershed moment. More personally, David Foster Wallace was (and remains) one of my artistic heroes. And even closer to home, everyone in the Chicago circus community remembers Ottavio, the tremendously gifted clown and fifth-generation circus performer whose death shook us all in early 2008.
So while I wish I could say these are new feelings--shock, betrayal, grief for art the world will never know, guilt over kind words left unspoken--they're not. What is new, though, is hearing them articulated in the world at large. I can't remember ever hearing depression and suicide discussed the way they're being discussed now. As an artist with depression, I can't remove myself from the conversation.
Something I've often wished I could unlearn is that depression means seeing the world more accurately. People with depression are less able to believe in the comforting falsehoods that help everyone else get through the day. They're less able to ignore the constant, stupid indignities of being human, and less able to forget the rising tide of doom (ecological crisis, economic inequality, war, take your pick) surrounding us. And the tiny barbs of pain that take place even in friendly social interaction--the reference to a debacle you'd thought everyone had forgotten, that downward glance that clearly means your friend thinks you've gained weight--are similarly impossible to ignore. Now, being able to see and speak the uncomfortable truth is a giant advantage if you're an artist. But the advantage begins and ends with art. For survival, you need a certain amount of convenient self-deceit.
In Psych 101 (the same class, incidentally, that I was sitting in when I heard the news of Cobain's death) we read about a study in which someone gave Rorschach tests to comedians. The comedians were far more likely than non-comedians to see monsters in the inkblots. They would immediately offer some follow-up comment that would neutralize the monster: "A monster--but he's got big funny ears." "A monster, tripping over a dachsund." "A monster, but he's a silly monster." But they saw the monsters. I'm not sure I've ever encountered a tidier way of explaining the distinctly untidy relationship between depression and artistic response.
Robin Williams clearly saw the monsters, the terrible, ridiculous, embarrassing aspects of being human. But more important than that was the way he responded to them: with boundless empathy. His comedy wasn't cruel, even when it mocked. Quite the contrary--he always seemed to celebrate the oddities of human existence, to be knocked over with joy and awe at being a member of this bizarre, contradictory species. A quick (and entirely unscientific) look at the roles he chose reveals that quite a lot of them were teachers, mentors, and healers. I suspect that wasn't coincidence. I suspect that, knowing pain, he wanted to help other people deal with theirs. I think people responded to this extraordinary spirit of kindness, forgiveness, and generosity, at least as much as to his comic genius.
Speaking of genius, a lot of the eulogies have focused on how much Williams's genius separated him from the rest of us--how singular it was, how he worked at a level that no one else could even hope to attain. People tend to speak of genius in a way that explains away their own shortcomings. The discussion of talent often carries a note of isolation, building and reinforcing the wall between The Talented and The Rest of Us. But, with the link between depression and art clearly established, I think it's time to change the way we talk about genius. Artists are all too aware of being different. Language that reinforces the difference--even if it's couched in a tone of praise--can turn into yet another of those tiny barbs the depressive person finds so difficult to ignore. Many of us turn to the arts because it seems like a way to bridge the painful gap between ourselves and the rest of humanity, and when people respond with a comment about our otherness, it can feel like defeat.
I'm not arguing for a wholesale PC-style revision of speech. Just saying, Hey, be careful. Be kind. If nothing else, because that's a fitting tribute to an artist who, having experienced the worst of being human, responded over and over again with the best.