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Robin Williams and the Virtues of Suicide

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Now let the reader’s own moral feelings decide as to whether or not suicide is a criminal act.”

– Arthur Schopenhauer, On Suicide, in Studies in Pessimism

The Grim Reaper never runs out of converts. Put another way, death never gets his full due. Comedians do not figure well in this – they are particularly attractive targets in the business of death.  Ironic, then, that clowns are sometimes hired to make the ill in hospitals laugh, to give the impression that the world is not as dark as all that.

The more one is engaged in the business of making one laugh, the more one is taken from. It is a well that never runs dry.  There is much to be said that the jovial one is the creative giver, and the one who laughs in response is a pirate of emotions, a recipient, yes, but a parasitic one.  While we will never know the extent of what a comedian like Robin Williams was going through when he took his life, a tendency of exploitation is all too strong. The comedian is doomed to suffer, and when that life is taken by the joker’s own hand, questions will be asked.

The casualty list for such noble people is high, and it comes with its fair share of ailments – alcoholism, drugs, the softening blow of dejection.  Tony Hancock, one of Britain’s finest, found himself mocking the Australian society he visited near the end of his life with well-targeted viciousness.  There was a sense that he was coming to his end, brooding in the twilight of his years. He died in a Sydney flat in June, 1968. He did leave grief, but he left a stunning record of humour.

For American audiences, John Belushi is cited as an example of one the reaper carried off the day the comedy died.  Ironically, Belushi’s own death in 1982 after a combination of heroin and cocaine in his Chateau Marmont room in Hollywood was something of a spur for Williams to get clean.  No slate, however, is ever clean. The prospect of taking one’s own life is always up the sleeve. Nor should it ever be removed. It is the ultimate play.

Grief, when it is total, untapped and uncontrolled, may leave one suspicious. Williams was evidently admired, though throwing words such as love around is not necessarily a wise thing.  It is invariably compensation for what has passed – we did not think enough of him when he was alive.  It says much that, at the end his obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald[1], a helpline number is featured just in case people might get funny ideas.  “Support is available for those who may be distressed by phoning Lifeline”.  (Mensline and Kids Helpline also feature.)  The more one talks about not merely suicide as a reality, the squeamish start taking over. Whatever you do – don’t do it!

The undertone here is one of ingratitude – you were selfish to leave the land of the living, and in so doing, made sure the lights went out for others.  Suicide, which has been practiced since the human condition became aware to humans, is thereby delegitimised. It is somehow wrong to take one’s own life, especially if you are supposedly loved.  Society itself is a barbarism that remains decidedly against the suicidal.

While the scolding element has not been all too evident with Williams, there is a suggestion that he should have shown more concern for his brigades and platoons of anonymous admirers.  Behind the message of love is often a chiding note.  Tributes are not necessarily unqualified in their affection. Why did you, bastard, leave us more jokes, or at the very least, live longer?  We do not know you, but you owed us that.

Philosophers have been busy on the subject of suicide for centuries. A main target of this came from organised religion.  The paradox of most religions, but notably those of the Book, is that suicide is most of all irresponsible and disgraceful to the glory of life.  As Arthur Schopenhauer explained, “none but the votaries of monotheistic, that is to say, Jewish religions, look upon suicide as a crime.”[2]  The Enlightenment thinkers were scathing in their criticism of this tunnel visioned view.

That said, Immanuel Kant did keep a salvo there for those who felt that self-inflicted death was an option.  Suicide, he argued was “in no circumstances permissible”.  To commit suicide sees the man who does so sink “lower than the beasts”.  A curious view, given that human beings are prone to collective suicide on a constant basis (war, economic ruin, and a myriad of other examples).

Again, as Schopenhauer explained, suicide would lead to a cruel appropriation of the dead person’s property, an “ignominious burial”, and a verdict of “insanity”.  This, he pointed out with scathing observation, was most prevalent in England.  How absurd, then, to compare the issue of someone who met a “voluntary death” with that of someone who inflicted a death with voluntary inclination.

While it is true that Williams has received many condolences and tributes, the love simply flows too far, drying even as it flows. Instead, his decision should be respected, however desperate it was when taken.  Suicide is often misunderstood and almost always underrated.  What should matter is the oeuvre, the body of work that says everything about a man who did something all too easy to ignore: make people laugh.  His humour was volcanic, and it bubbled and steamed till death.  Treasure him, if nothing else, for that.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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