I happened to be on Facebook when the news hit. A friend shared a column from HuffPo: “Robin Williams Dead in Apparent Suicide”. I’m no stranger to that familiar sense of shock that overtakes when hearing such news. Incidentally, when this particular news item hit, my feeds filled almost instantaneously like a swarm of bees deserting a disrupted hive. E-sympathies and diagnoses galore, there was no shortage of opinions based on the initial report of the coroner concerning apparent cause of death: suicide by asphyxiation.
Williams’s publicist is on record stating that the beloved actor was battling depression and in rehab since July. E-sympathies turned into a frenzy of support for what I’ll cautiously identify as a “sanitized” recognition of depression: a mental illness and not a character flaw worthy of social stigma. And who would disagree? Some, like Maclean’s Jaime Weinman, in his write up, shifts the shock of the event into a presumed mass ignorance about the well being of celebrities:
“We may think [that some celebrities] have it together, that others need to get it together, and our guesses are meaningless because we don’t really know these people, even though we think we do. The reasons for Williams’ death will start to become clearer as time goes on, but we’ll never really understand why a man like him did the things he did, or couldn’t find happiness and peace despite his success and popularity. We will always be on the outside, where we belong.” (http://www.macleans.ca/culture/movies/williams/)
Doubtless a rhetorical device, I remain puzzled by Weinman’s presumption. Although I never gave it much thought, were you to ask me about Williams’s state of mind, I would’ve gushed: depressed! (Disclaimer: I’m not a clinical psychologist and so the views and opinions expressed… blah, blah, blah.) His zany quick-witted humor, outrageous and mixed with his usual dry spirited satire, belies anything placid I might’ve imagined about the man (pace Weinman). And what about the morose roles he played? He did that so convincingly that they appeared almost seamless with his comedic personality. Play-acting is most effective when it’s not simply play-acting. No, I’m not at all surprised by the diagnosis. I’m intrigued by it, especially Weinman’s presumption and the social-media outpouring surrounding his death and that of other celebrities.
Even Apple.com has a memorial page (http://www.apple.com/remembering-robin-williams/) and a recent ad for the iPad Air bolstered by an inspirational narration of Williams from Dead Poets Society (http://business.time.com/2014/01/13/apples-latest-ad-is-probably-going-to-give-you-chills/). Matt Vella from Time says the ad will probably “give you chills”. Apple, of course, wants to caress you so you do. Is it a well-meaning gesture that incidentally incites us to associate their product with an iconic figure? Well-meaning? Doubtless. Incidental? Let’s not kid ourselves. Apple’s website theme may be white but its intentions, as a real-world corporation, are necessarily grey. I’m not castigating Apple per se. I’m castigating the semblance of innocence. Nothing is innocent in a corporation, especially one as powerful as Apple. What’s unfortunate about such displays of solidarity is that they feed a society rife with cynicism. Innocence in us is no less bogus. Look at your Facebook and Twitter feeds. For every status and tweet praising such activity, there are as many, if not more, overrun by antipathy. Incidentally, did Apple run ads featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman or post a memorial page in his honor? Is stature what’s really at issue here? Is it about which deceased celebrity or influential person can cast the widest net to solicit interest in a product? See what I mean?!
There’s the other side, too. What if Apple or the rest of social media remained silent about the issue? Surely we’d find reason to apportion blame. “How heartless of organization X or Twitterer Y to ignore such a momentous loss?” Philosophical jigs is about the interstice. An interstice pertains to self-critical reflection about a determinate set of options or opinions, as those traced above. The point, in other words, is not to reach a self-assured perspective about X but to disrupt our self-assurance in tackling X. It’s not that Jaime Weinman is wrong in his presumption noted earlier but rather that his presumption occasions in me an opportunity to assess my reaction to Williams’s death; it’s not that Apple is wrong in using Williams’s death as an opportunity to express its solidarity while marketing their product; it may be in poor taste but it’s not wrong. The interesting question is why such things bother me—you—as I react to news as Williams’s death.
The issue of who dies is unimportant to me, although like you I experience stronger feelings when I “know” the person in question. I know millions die every day in poverty-stricken countries but I’m not as affected by it (I’m ashamed to say) because it’s an abstraction. A celebrity whose career I’ve tracked since youth is weirdly more personal. Williams’s death is not important for what it has to say about the severity of depression or for what it has to say about his contributions to society—better: Williams’s death is not important only in these senses. It’s fundamentally important in the same way every death is important: it occasions in us a sense of our mortality and, therefore, solidarity with fellow human beings who, despite their successes and failures, suffer and die as we do. The circumstances surrounding their deaths accentuate our reactions but at bottom that they die is typically enough to move us.
We look to such events not to feel good about ourselves for announcing it first on Facebook or for guilting ourselves into a show of solidarity by proclaiming it the loudest on Twitter or through Likes and Retweets and whatnot. I’m not denying this happens, says he who is writing an excessively long blog about the matter. However, I like to believe that we really do feel the altruistic things I list above, although it may not always come out “right” or innocently.
Take the saying “rest in peace”. I was surprised to discover that the sentiment bothers many. It irks me only in the form of the inscription “RIP” that accosts from slabs of stone. Horror films are doubtless responsible. In any case, my take is that people who are happy to use the expression do so as a means of coping with loss. The sentiment is basically: peace to us ‘cause we’re feeling something awful. I don’t mean to say that we intentionally say “rest in peace” to the living. That would be to give a whole different meaning to the phrase. We say it about the dead but its significance is really for the living. Religious individuals reserve the right to say it about both. “Rest, rest my friend, as you await to enter another dimension of existence, and I shall rest in the thought of your peace.” But not everyone shares that belief, which is why, in the interstice, I play on a reference to the living. And so, yes, I am torn about media expressions of sadness at Williams’s death and all the issues for which it’s exploited. In times as these I like to take a step back and reserve some humanity to my otherwise cynical feelings and say that at least social media provides us with an outlet to express grief, to discuss it. Desirous of solidarity, it binds the e-community together. It’s just an aggrandized form of what we used to do on a smaller scale, with print and in coffee shops. But make no mistake, the ambivalence surrounding intended expressions of grief will always be there. Robin may have been in pieces, but I trust his peace gives me some rest.