In a Daily Beast article warning against “glorification” of celebrity suicide, Russell Saunders focuses on an enthusiastically received tweet that I have screen-captured below:
The “Academy” is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and the “Genie” is, of course, a role that Robin Williams voiced and made his own in Disney’s Aladdin twenty years ago, while the fact that Williams is often called a “genius” further reinforces the association. The unidentified Academy tweep, who may have been more aware of Williams’ personal struggles than the average consumer of his films and TV shows, seems further to have envisioned Williams’ creative spirit as imprisoned in his depressive, addiction-prone existence, held hostage by life. From that perspective, news of Williams’ death by his own hand would qualify almost as bittersweet, and the tweet as a gesture of fond farewell, conveyed to someone imagined not yet beyond the reach of a last embrace. Though there is something nauseating about rushing into the Twitrosphere with a saccharine sentiment on fresh tragedy, decorated by Disney art, this basis for a possibly comforting rationalization is similar to or the same as the one most of us will seize upon sooner or later when coping with the death of a loved one after a long, debilitating illness, and perhaps when the one is our own beloved self. For many fans, Williams in his own way was just such a loved one, if as a beloved figure rather than as a true family member, and his depression-addiction syndrome, long and perhaps more debilitating than we knew, seems to fulfill the second requirement.
Saunders was, however, disturbed by the Academy tweet, though perhaps less about the tweet itself – three words and an image – than about what it might represent: “On its surface, the message is simple and poignant, yet hopeful,” he writes. “But beneath that surface is a very wrong idea.” A practicing physician, Saunders goes on to offer an economical, scientifically informed discussion of the “contagion effect” in relation to adolescents and young adults, on the way to a firm judgment: “While I understand why the Academy chose the message and image it did to memorialize [Williams], they are not what I would want those struggling with depression or thoughts of suicide themselves to see and hear.”
Saunders’ views, both on the larger issue and specifically on “Genie, You’re Free,” have since been echoed and amplified in major media, including in the Washington Post as well as on TV, but we should be clear that, as further conversation on Twitter verified, Saunders meant or saw himself as meaning “very wrong” only in a narrow sense: wrong in the sense of harmful, not wrong in the sense of untrue. Though the title of his article asserts unambiguously that “suicide is not liberation,” in his discussion with me he attributed the claim to the Daily Beast’s headline editors, and insisted that he had “nothing to say about the private beliefs of other people.” For Saunders, apparently, we are free to believe anything we like about suicide, but we should not feel free to say it if it can be taken to celebrate the act when vulnerable people might be listening. To Saunders, the point at a moment of focused public attention would not be whether conceivably for Robin Williams or for anyone else suicide might represent a release and a reasonable, morally acceptable choice, but whether some vulnerable individuals might receive such discussion as a lethal prescription. As for positive views on suicide otherwise, Saunders recuses himself: “I happen to think any such belief is problematic,” he said, in a tweet, “but it’s not something I would pronounce on.”
In my view a close reading of Saunders’ article as well as of his tweets demonstrates how difficult it is to pronounce on the expression without implicitly pronouncing on the underlying idea. If the danger and therefore the complicity of the person with the wrong feeling or opinion are heightened at a moment of public focus, the danger and complicity arise as potentials at all times. More broadly, Robin Williams’ suicide, given the glorification of Robin Williams, is already a glorification of suicide with which one way or another we will have to deal. Any misconstruable gesture will stand as trivial, even if isolated as a supposed trigger: If not this one, then how do we know it would not be the next one? For that matter, how would we know how many people itching for a trigger saw the Academy’s treacly tweet and felt their moods lift, just in the nick of time?
I have doubts that the causal chain or multi-causal chain of chains of suicide and diversion from the path of suicide is or can possibly be as well understood as the brute statistics are taken to suggest, but the issue or potential issue that I briefly raised on Twitter was whether some individuals drawn to suicidal ideation might demand precisely the discussion that Saunders considers beyond his ken – thus my last comment to him: “[I]ndividuals being forbidden to think/express – doesn’t always work well.” I was trying to compress into a few rushed tweets some ideas that it has by now taken me days to sort out.
Elizabeth Picciuto, a freelance writer and philosophy professor who had apparently been following the dialogue, focused on the question, which I think amounts to the key question, that Saunders dismissed as “theological”: “Are you saying,” she asked, “that it may be correct to believe suicide is an escape?” As I told Picciuto before having to cut off the exchange prematurely, in my view suicide obviously represents an escape in some senses. The task for us, theological or not, would be to explain, if we can, in what senses it might not be.
I know the addictively analgesic character of the thought of death. To my expectations of increasingly unendurable miseries to come, the only guarantee of relief (or escape) is my present perception of my future readiness to cease enduring. Yet the effect must wane. In order to intensify or re-experience it, I need to imagine it more concretely, which means I must make it more convincing. Making it more convincing means thinking through the requirements to act, identifying sufficient causes as well as the necessary tools and methods, and handling any remnant concerns and contingencies, from moral notions inculcated during childhood to last attachments to friends, relatives, and dependents.
Luckily enough – or come to think of it, not really – advancing age and attendant ailments persuade me that the thought of my death is by no means idle, but, if my present despair and terror were more intense or all-consuming, having the means of my self-disposal at hand might become more crucial to an effective suicide prescription. At the same time, hope of any kind other than the hope for that end of all hopes and fears alike would present a problem, since improved prospects undermine my misery, without whose super-adequacy the saving danger of voluntary self-extinction loses credibility: To whatever small extent I am threatened with increase in happiness, or subsidence of pain to tolerable levels, my belief in my willingness and therefore my ability to destroy myself are weakened. To resuscitate my faith in death sufficiently, I would need to mutilate all hopes and void all pleasures, until my life is pervaded by evidence of its approaching, necessary, and convincingly more desirable conclusion.
In sum, under addiction to suicidal ideation, my continued existence would become the experience of its own progressive disfigurement, to be perfected as annihilation. The thought of death might divert me from the experience of suffering and fear of worse suffering, but the believability and therefore the effectiveness of the thought depend on the amplification of both the suffering and the fear.
On the bright side, from the perspective of suicide as project, intensifying life-hatred creates a motivation to acquire even stronger medicine, though, eventually, even placing the barrel of the loaded gun in my mouth would no longer sufficiently establish my seriousness. To prove I am not merely humoring myself, I would need to massage the trigger, or play a game of Russian roulette – and so on, but perhaps not very far so on.
Liberation must ensue sooner or later, just not “for” me. In that sense, I would never be convinced of my intentions. I would never know that I did not, in fact, pull the gun away at the last moment. To know that I really did mean it after all, I would need an additional moment, the one which I, or rather my no longer existent self, had successfully denied me. In other words, the only liberation for me is not to come, but must suffice as experienced now in transparently false anticipation of something that will never occur, a thought perhaps not in itself adequately helpfully unhelpful.
Such liberation as I could ever experience would depend on my continued ability to have experiences. Suicide is not only action against oneself, but realization of a self-contradictory concept as the annihilation of its own possibility: To a surfeit of distortedly refracted choices found meaningless one by one, only all the more nauseatingly so when viewed together, suicide adds one more: a redundant merely physical self-negation, death as the pointless period on a nonsensical sentence. As Saunders notes, despite his stated intention to remain theo-philosophically impartial, the suicide, unlike the Genie, does not “live on.” Both the emptiness and the redundancy of the choice or pseudo-choice suggest that, like all of the other things that turn out not to be what was hoped, suicide cannot bring an experience of liberation to the sufferer, it brings only the fact of it – all object, no subject. We cannot therefore say that suicide really “is” liberation or that it is, as the Oscar-nominated song insisted, “painless”: It is neither painful nor painless because, for the individual who successfully executes himself or herself, there is no experience of success to be had. “It brings on many changes” is, of course, a joke, or, if you prefer, an open lie: Suicide brings on many changes only for others, while ending change, a property of life, for the suicide. Suicide has no being for the suicide upon its success.
Neither sadly nor happily, the nihilist is therefore wrong, however soothing his verse about the “the soft and long gloom”: The “eternal tomb” brings whatever peace it offers only to survivors.1 Since peace like any other experience is experience only for those capable of experience, the cheat of suicide as release is that the release it brings is never brought to the one who brings it about. Suicide may be the only certain cure for suicidal syndrome, which is perhaps not quite uniquely, unless it defines the suicidal nature of every vice, medicine and disease in one. Until it takes effect, however, a point never actually reached by the suicide, it is administered and realized not as liberation, but as ever more complete enslavement.
It produces a void that widens as one pours oneself in to fill it. (Like this post.)
Having spent countless hours with desperately depressed and self-destructive people, I do not advocate an alteration in prevailing attitudes toward suicide, least of all among vulnerable young people, but in contemplating or speculating on alternative views, we may begin to wonder whether the type of the suicide in our culture is constructed by other factors than – as is frequently and quite typically put forward – neurochemistry, the popular diagnosis that is meant to explain away and excuse, but inherently reinforces the belief in something simply wrong with the self-lethally depressive person.
When suicide seems to deliver mercy to anyone in great pain and beyond treatment, it may qualify as self-administered euthanasia, an act which we may be as reluctant to judge as we are to approve – as the most “personal” decision imaginable, implemented precisely beyond the reach of anyone else’s judgment or approval, self-determined and self-determining, absolutely. Suicide may clearly produce a kind of escape from agony, if nothing else, and operates at least as liberation from us or from our finally irrelevant qualms.
In many cultures, notoriously in Japan from feudal times and into the modern period, famously in Ancient Rome, traditionally in European militaries and long after the general disappearance of dueling, suicide offered an escape from shame or from concern for one’s legacy: Not a merely personal decision at all, but precisely a meeting or re-connection of most personal and most social or most responsible. A seemingly opposing tradition is inherited from Christianity, which puts what can be considered a complex image of suicide, a martyrdom of the divinized man, at the very mytho-poetic centerpoint of its entire system of belief, doctrine, and dogma. After the self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ as God incarnate, a believer might sacrifice his or her life in the service of Christ, in emulation of Christ, not as a relief from suffering but as a witnessing acceptance of it, in other words as martyrdom, and for no other reason and in no other way. Yet it is not hard to imagine a suicidal individual, especially an impressionable young person, reading or simply internalizing the New Testament as the story of the greatest suicide ever completed. The suicide bomber, the self-immolating monk, and the honored soldier will have been operating by a parallel logic – and the same may finally be said of the samurai, the noble Roman, the disgraced officer, and perhaps even, if least cogently, the fatuous sophomore: They receive license in some instances to take lives, but in all of them to sacrifice themselves, from ethical systems pointing beyond individual mortality, to an essence or reality greater than the self-infinitude of ego. All die to affirm a greater life.
Whether in the secular West the “canon fix’d against self-slaughter” still underlies contemporary attitudes toward suicide, with ownership of the body transferred like so many other prerogatives from God to the so-called biopolitical state, is an interesting question: Certainly suicide puts an end to career and, at least by the time the morticians and lawyers have been paid, consumption. In a way, as common expressions about throwing one’s life away may underline, suicide represents an especially inadvisable choice of vocation. Yet we can also imagine, under a not too dramatic re-configuration of contemporary habits and assumptions, the adoption of the opposite view: suicide as service to the overburdened environment, for example, so a witnessing of a different faith. Alternatively, under the ethos of universal encouragement of self-esteem that seems to dominate educational theory and practice today, a school counselor who offered supportive understanding to a student’s extra-curricular self-destruction project could call on any of a number of familiar fill-in-the-blank scripts. Robin Williams would have handled either or both roles brilliantly – assuming that somewhere in his voluminous work he had not done so already.
For all we know, the therapy most likely to rescue the suicidal loner, at least of a certain type, would be the one never, never to be tried: the one that openly approved of despair, and encouraged follow-through with solicitous smiles, a reading list, and practical suggestions – in a world in which “suicide help” lines offered exactly what they advertise, if mainly for conformists. For all we know, but cannot be expected to accept, since doing so would overturn so many other assumptions, we would all be better off urging as many who care to “check out,” whatever the age or reason, to do so at an appropriate time, and without unreasonable delay. Our goal would be not fewer suicides, but better ones.
What may be most unseemly about the Genie tweet is not implicit glorification of suicide, nor the assumption of a non-existent and never-to-be-experienced liberation, but a reflection on the end that unself-consciously replicates its origin in despair.
Robin Williams was not the Genie. Neither was he any of the other characters he played; nor in many or most instances did he write the lines that others, imitating the Academy’s impulse, have been quoting as though they constituted remembrances of him, when each was in its own way an additional negation of who- or whatever the real Robin Williams was – as for all actors, just a bit more so. The news of Williams’ death seemed contradictory – of the public image of the immensely successful, beloved, and caring man, a father, an honored professional, four new movies in the can. Yet, among the things most affecting about the news was its confirmation of an immense dissatisfaction with what gave others pleasure, always a kind of second order of expression attached to the manic improvisation that was Williams’ trademark.
I confess I always found that aspect of Williams’ work off-putting, as I found Williams himself the time I happened to meet him, randomly, walking down Sunset Boulevard very late at night. Not that he was in any way impolite or condescending: I regret leaving the amiable conversation with him mostly to my companion. In recent days I have felt pangs of guilt for expressing my dislike for his act over the course of years, to the point that I was known among my friends as a decided non-fan. Yet now, when I see his old bits played in commemorations, the dissonance I used to hear has turned into a harmony, and the unhappy image I have always recalled of him finally seems right.
Like Kurt Cobain and other famous suicides, Williams apparently had been coping, until he could not any longer. It is difficult to believe that he was unaware of alternatives, and, if he wanted help, he certainly lacked neither time nor resources nor friends and family, not to mention legions of potential volunteers. Perhaps he was truly liberated from an evil, a brokenness not exactly of character but in the conjunction of character and being or mind and body. Maybe suicide was a happy or happiest available ending for him. If so, however, his death finds us doubly bereft, since such witnessing as he has passed on to us must be assembled by others indirectly. We are left to conclude provisionally that the entertainer stood in the end for entertainment, and therefore for the termination of lives found no longer sufficiently diverting from half-hidden agonies.
I am tempted here to quote a fellow amateur of the suicidal, another old friend, one who contacted me last week for the first time in several years, but I suspect Saunders and all those like-minded would gravely disapprove of a statement that approved of Williams’ apparent one. Our way is to require the incurably self-ill individual either to accept restraint, offered at first in the form of comfort, or to slink away and die alone, self-incriminated as well as self-extinguished, escaping us morally as well as physically. We apply or try to apply the same rationale to discussion. We resist the third option: to allow the famous to open their veins in a warm bath like Petronius Arbiter, who, it is true, was facing condemnation by an Emperor, not by bad habits or dopamine levels or other banal misfortunes, but still: surrounded by loved ones and admirers, doing what he liked, applauded even to the end or a little bit past it – unless all three options for a man like Williams are really the same option after all, irresistibly.