Postmodern Conservative

Robin Williams as a Man in Full

It’s impossible not to be moved by the deep and respectful responses to the suicide of Robin Williams. His death wasn’t caused by Hollywood self-indulgence or a chronic chemical imbalance, but by something that touches us all. I, of course, don’t know for sure how well this response reflects the truth about his substance abuse and depression. But we students of Walker Percy are always happy when people take the “existential” option seriously in our therapeutic time.

One line: All comedies laugh on the outside, but cry on the inside. Laughter and tears are twin responses to the tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing that is human life. The comedian’s personal life is a mess. We all enjoy him, but we wouldn’t want to be him. And we wouldn’t want our daughters to marry him.

Well, Robin Williams was blessed with tremendous comedic gifts, and he was the hardest-working man in the comedy business. But, for me, his comedy was hit-and-miss, with more misses than hits. He mostly seemed more frantic than funny to me.

Williams remains an underrated “serious” actor. His most memorable performances were displays of the relational dignity of troubled and somewhat marginalized gentlemen who, despite it all, know who they are and what they are supposed to do. I’m thinking for the moment of his performances in Awakenings, Good Will Hunting, and The Birdcage. In The Birdcage and Mrs. Doubtfire, we see caring dads with the loving confidence to be willing to hide key aspects of who they are in the service of the most indispensable parts of their lives.

Williams’s most annoying and perhaps his most “inauthentic” movie was The Dead Poets Society. There the teacher catered to the most self-indulgent and soft parts of his pampered students, and he actually drove one of them to suicide over a relatively small personal disappointment. The teacher should never point to himself as a role model — as “captain, my captain.” The gentleman shows us who he is by staying in character when the going gets tough. Seizing the day is often really bad advice for those of us born to know, love, and die. Now I’m not saying that “liberal education” shouldn’t be anti-bourgeois, but not in that way.

Compared to virtually all comedians today, Williams was a gentleman. He certainly wasn’t a jerk in the mode of Johnny Carson or Seinfeld. Nor did he content himself with ironically orbiting life with sad eyes in the mode of Bill Murray. He was hardly ever gratuitously gross, because he knew, even as a performer, he had grown-up responsibilities. Even though, in my opinion, Louis C.K. is funnier and maybe deeper, he has a lot to learn about being a grown-up, to say nothing of a gentleman.

Williams, apparently, never achieved in his own life the self-confidence and self-knowledge of his best characters. He seemed never to have been quite comfortable in his own skin. Too much restlessness and not enough serenity. He was a great man.

Peter Augustine Lawler — Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...

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