The loss of Robin Williams leaves a great void. Of a few artists, it can be said they are both truly unique and also gifted with an ability to reach virtually any human being through their work. He was one of these. He had an unbelievable ability to make you pay attention, to watch him just be; he seemed to wear his thoughts like an aura of light and haze. He dazzled with life, and when he became quiet, he could break your heart with just a syllable, a word, a whisper.
When I heard Robin Williams had died, it hit me with a shocking amount of force. I was not ready for that, nor had I ever thought about what it would feel like. I realize now it had never occurred to me that this comic genius would leave us. Friedrich Nietzsche explained that the origin of comedy was in our fear of mortality. Because without the benefits of civilization we were once so vulnerable, surprise tends to carry with it a moment of terror. When the surprise comes, and nothing happens except curious quip, or something funny and unexpected unfolds before our eyes, someone is playing the clown, it unleashes a wave of sudden good feeling.
“Comic relief” is more than a moment of relaxation; it is medicine that helps us through the inevitable stresses of trying to remain safe in a world full of threats. In that sense, comedy is not only about lightness, it is also about weight.
Maybe no one on the world stage was so adept at playing those chords as Robin Williams. Because he seemed always to be riffing on the silly ways in which the world turns rigid, he would be astonishingly likable, even when he was clearly just trying to be annoying. To play a role, for a long time, seemed like maybe it was just a vehicle to let him do his thing—the way he would do it, to let us see that not all is so dark, that life gives us bursts of sudden good feeling.
And then, being a poet, I remember watching him in Dead Poets’ Society. It was the breakthrough moment, the moment of wonder, the surprise so happy that it left me stilled and aware of something sacred. I remember coming to an understanding of how the range of human emotion could run the full distance in a split second, and I don’t know that any other person could have so effectively brought that awareness into being. He was a teacher who cared whether his students experienced meaning; he was a poet who infused the world with energy, simply by the way he read the words of other poets, making the connection between what happens inside of us and what we are able to do in the world.
He wasn’t playing a role. He was exercising his right to prophecy, which comes with knowing something deeply and being honest about its value. He was showing us what we too easily forget—that is it possible to live a life that makes sense to us, and that we have to take chances to do it. It is possible to find the connection that no one can interfere with, but only if we follow the feeling that tells us it is there. It is possible to craft a way of being in which moments, glances, memories, meals, have the epic weight of ancient battles and medieval ballads, but only if we make sure to know the difference between an authentic cry and a haunted compromise, and choose the livelier, truer one.
In The Fisher King, he was even more an outsider and a madman; in fact, he was Don Quijote. But, like Quijote, he was not so much mad as ill-suited to a world whose manners and taste for magic had moved away from him. He lived below the radar, outside the perimeter, in the spaces where serious things keep happening, one after another, and one almost has to laugh, because the pattern is so relentless, and that faintest hint of a laugh is enough to bring tears, and deep reflection and a desire to be of use and of value to others.
Robin Williams gave us that, by these two unbelievable performances, that were as much a result of his comic genius as anything he did that was slapstick or brazen or just a rant of folly and improvisation. And if you paid any attention at all, you could see that same resonance in his most raucous comic performances.
I learned a tremendous amount about writing, about pulling in from the cosmos those elements of meaning that make language sing, by understanding, intuitively what he was communicating: that there is meaning in everything, and some of us have a tolerance for it and some of us don’t, that being conscious is in a way a burden, but in all other ways a limitless blessing, and that whatever we are looking at, there is something miraculous about the fact that we are looking. I think there was always bundled in with his comedy that sense of existential worry, that fear of the wild, that notion that we are great because we are vulnerable, and that if we catch it in time, the knowledge of that will save us.
He had a way of insisting, of repeating the rhythm and the force of his comic observations, of moving and being and happening in his space, that seemed to say that by insisting, we achieve something. He was constantly communicating, through his limitless personality and his chaotically precise art, that it is okay to insist. A big part of what is so tragic about losing him is that he stopped insisting.
He was a teacher, an explorer, and an artist. One observer today said he was “a comedy tornado”. His friend Meryl Streep said of him this morning, “It’s hard to imagine unstoppable energy… stopped.” There is a phrase from the Quechua language—hatun sonqo—that means something like “big heart full of sacred force”. He gave incessantly, and maybe that is in itself a lot to bear. I think a lot of us were hit hard when we heard the news, because we know Robin Williams as someone who was always giving to us, always reaching out across the void and reminding us that what is human in us is something warm, intuitive and dignified, even in the absurd.
Somehow, he was able to communicate from a movie or TV screen that he was not just an actor, he was a friend. That is rare enough in people we know; it is almost impossible to find in someone we know only through film and TV. He embodied that insistence inside us all, that demand that we be part of things and have some right to celebration.
The world is more still today, because he is gone. That should make us stop for a moment and celebrate all the little details of this life that enliven and amuse us. It’s what he would demand, if he were here.
More tributes to Robin Williams:
- 5 Things you didn’t know about Robin Williams
- Robin Williams: a comedic genius, a staggering talent and a big heart
- For millennials, Robin Williams was childhood
- Questlove on Robin Williams
- The Power of a Witness, according to Robin Williams
- President Obama’s statement on the passing of Robin Williams