Disclaimer: I meant to post this two months ago, when it was actually timely, but my laptop’s graphics card all but went up in flames and I really didn’t want to type out the rest of the post of my phone. Then I forgot about it, which is less of an excuse but probably easier to believe. So apologies for my tardiness.
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I’m not sure this blog is the place for celebrity tributes, but this is a big one. For a couple of different reasons.
Robin Williams, to me, will always be two things simultaneously: he will be the Genie in Aladdin, a warm, congenial (eh? ehhh?) voice from my childhood, and he will be a large, hairy man, drenched in sweat and screaming profanity on stage in an HBO special, ranting about golf and colostomy bags. That one man could encompass both things in my mind — without even getting to Dead Poets Society or Good Will Hunting — speaks, I think, volumes about his versatility as a performer and entertainer.
The man’s a legend. I’m going to reveal a couple of things I’m not particularly proud of about my childhood movie tastes here, but one of the first movies I remember laughing uproariously at was Flubber. Eight-year-old Seth thought the “Make a Little Flub” dance was the most brilliant cinematic masterpiece since Ben Hur. At the same time, I think the first time I actually realized, internalized, that I wasn’t going to live forever was watching Bicentennial Man at age eleven.
I’m not sure either film has well withstood the years since its release (I certainly haven’t rewatched either, and Rotten Tomatoes is… less than kind), but they still both were driven by one man. One man, and such opposite emotions — emotions that, to this day, I can remember, even if I couldn’t tell you a single plot point of either movie.
The internet has already offered up all sorts of tributes and paeans to Williams, of course, and I’ve seen the following quote posted frequently. It’s from the graphic novel Watchmen, set in a fairly dystopian alternate reality where Nixon has been president since the 70s, costumed superheroes are outlawed, and the world generally sits on the brink of nuclear disaster on a minute-by-minute basis. Unlike your weekly Superman print, this is not an entirely odd place to find a rumination on the ironies of life, or a meditation on freedom and fatalism — albeit flavored heavily with giant naked blue dudes. At some point amidst the novel’s stylized symbolism — some heavy-handed, but some deftly done — one of the main characters, Rorschach (who, like every other character, is a complete nutjob), tells the following story:
I heard joke once. Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed, life is harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in threatening world. Doctor says, “Treatment is simple. The great clown Pagliacci is in town. Go see him. That should pick you up.” Man bursts into tears. “But doctor,” he says, “I am Pagliacci.”
It’s fitting for Williams, I’ll give it that. His death certainly makes it seem that Robin Williams was a man like Pagliacci, who gave so much joy to so many others that he had none left for himself.
I can’t help but think back to what I felt when I was eleven years old and the credits rolled on Bicentennial Man. It was an emptiness, a loneliness, that I had never felt before, like staring into a wall of black that never blinks and never ends. I tried to squeeze my eyes shut and imagine what it would be like not to see, not to hear, not to smell, not to think. I never got very far. It was so overwhelming, this thought of doing — having — being — nothing that I was physically uncomfortable thinking about it. That feeling hasn’t gone away.
I can’t, and won’t, argue that being afraid of my own mortality is anything similar to what Williams must have been going through. It’s easy for me to sit here and type that, oh, I’m afraid of dying, he was afraid of living, both are challenges har har har — but that’d be pretty much as close to bullshit as I get on this blog. I stared into the face of something I felt I couldn’t control and I balked, I ran away. I’m still running away, but not every day. Not every hour. Being afraid of dying is a pretty human emotion, I’d like to think, and it’s not something I dwell on on a daily — or hell, monthly, even — basis. Williams, on the other hand, stared into the face of something he felt he couldn’t control, for I don’t know how long, and it must have gnawed at him every second of every minute of every day until it ultimately devoured him. I don’t know what that’s like, to be consumed by something like that. I hope I’ll never know.
We are, each of us, Pagliacci in our own ways. There’s a public Seth and a private Seth, a Seth that gives to others and a Seth that needs things for himself. And over the last decade I’ve watched my friends, my loved ones, my tangential social acquaintances wrestle with their private selves, longer and harder battles then I’ve ever fought.
I want to close by saying if you need me, I’m hear to talk. And if you don’t want to talk to me, you can pick up the phone and talk to someone else who cares: 1-800-273-8255.