I cannot yet tear myself away from the Robin Williams clips, movies, and interviews this week. When celebrities die we collectively gasp, then mourn. For a few days we honor their lives by sharing our favorite bits of their work, the ways our lives were shaped by their willingness to live in the public eye.
The thing about artists is, by definition, they give of themselves intimately in order to do their jobs. Actors and musicians and writers – they weep, sweat, and bleed their work.
Ernest Hemingway said, "There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."
When actors step into character, they rely on deeply personal things, hidden in the recesses of their minds, the depths of their souls, to authentically portray that sadness you’re seeing on the screen. They could not do their jobs well if they did not bleed into their art; it would be flat. Artists voluntarily prick at their own nerves.
This means that when we watch breakthrough performances, we are seeing real tension, real conflict of conscience, real love, real anger, real everything. Whatever emotion you saw that took your breath – that CONNECTED with you – it was real.
The words in books and poems are real. The heartbeat in music is real. Artists live open wide to the world; that’s what makes them artists. Celebrity, then, adds yet another layer of vulnerability. Not only do artists draw on intimate personal experiences to bleed into their work – they live in a spotlight. It’s The Truman Show for real. We see them grocery shopping and at the beach and at basketball games and breastfeeding their babies. They live wide open voluntarily for their art, and then again whether they want to or not because of the paparazzi and TMZ and your and my obsession with pop culture.
We KNOW them. And largely, they allow us to know them. They give themselves to us.
That’s why celebrity deaths affect us in a way that is often confusing. It doesn’t seem proportional, at first. We think, “I didn’t know this person. They were just an actor, far away, on a screen. Why do I feel like I am moving through molasses?”
(That’s how I felt when I heard about Robin Williams. Grief slowed everything down, like it does. The face Robin Williams made when he threw back his head and laughed was taking up all of my thoughts, so they came slower, like adding an extra space between all the letters on a page. My mind was filled with Robin, and everything went into slow-motion.)
For a second I thought, “I didn’t know him,” but then I thought – “That’s silly. Of course I did.”
I saw real joy, real struggle, and real depression, because Robin Williams was an artist. Something inside of him bled into Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting. His one little spark of madness, as he called it, poured ALL UP OVER Happy Days and Mrs. Doubtfire, and Aladdin. Did you know that Aladdin was reportedly disqualified for “Best Adapted Screenplay” because Robin improvised so much of the Genie’s character that they couldn’t even call it a “script?” He bled his stream-of-consciousness thoughts all over that piece of work and we saw it. We got to know that bit of him.
We didn’t know all of him, of course.
I love how the French language distinguishes the word “to know.” There is “savoir,” which is the information-kind of know. I know how to ride a bike. I know how to do algebra. But they never use “savoir” to describe a person, because people are not facts to be known. People cannot be read like books. The French use “connaître,” a to-be-familiar-with kind of know. I know of this person. I am ever-growing-in-knowing this person. But I don’t information-know them. People are deep and nuanced and ever-changing, every-minute, affected from without and within, like rivers. We can never know them, we can only keep getting to know them.
We didn’t “savoir” Robin Williams. We didn’t know everything he struggled with, or loved, or believed, or experienced. But we “connaître-ed” him. With every single public appearance, he kept on bleeding self and art for us, and we had the honor to keep getting to know him.
Our collective mourning of celebrities doesn’t mean we disproportionately disvalue the lives of the other people dying around the globe. We don’t devalue children, or the persecuted, or the cancer warriors, or the noble, heroic, self-sacrificing soldiers. Those of them we know we mourn hard and long and deep, and those we do not know, we mourn as appropriately as we can - because they matter, and their lives matter.
But the reason we’re all mourning Robin this week is because we KNEW him.
He wept and laughed and bled into his art, and then fame shone a bright light on him so we could all see.
It was an honor to know Robin Williams, and I am so, so grateful that he allowed me to know him, by giving of himself so tirelessly. He brought incredible joy to my childhood, and I miss him.