Laughing With Dead Poets

This article was originally published in Ha’aretz, in its ‘Jewish Thinker’ section, shortly after the news of Robin Williams’ tragic suicide.  

Toward the end of Dead Poets’ Society, as John Keating is being ushered out of the school following the suicide of one of his pupils, his disciples make a defiant statement of allegiance and respect, of honour and recognition, by standing on their desks and shouting, “Oh Captain, My Captain.” They do this one by one, hesitantly, nervously, and in that moment they enact the poetic passion, the courageous individuality, that he had worked so hard to awaken in them.

He looks back at them admiringly, appreciatively, but there is a tinge of sadness in his face. He has been rocked by the death of his pupil, he has been reminded that the embrace of passion will sometimes lead to destruction. The light may burn brightly, but it may also be prematurely extinguished.

I want to stand on my desk and shout, “Oh Captain My Captain.” Through this role and his therapist role in Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams conveyed to many in my generation a profound sense of the possibilities in being human, of overcoming fears, of the need for “Carpe Diem,” seizing the day. And he always did it without coming across as trite or shallow, it was spoken from the depths of strength, from an awareness of the obstacles that would get in one’s way.

He gave flesh and spirit to a character who had battled demons, who had held his friend’s corpse in Vietnam, who had watched his wife slowly die of cancer, and who was still willing to play a hand, to give life a go.

Robin Williams could seamlessly merge the comic with the tragic, finding the light amidst the darkness, the redemptive laugh in the face of despair.

And yet, it seems, in the end his own darkness was too much to bear, the pain could not be evaded, the abyss pulled him in with a force he could not counter.

I’ve heard people being surprised by this – “but he knew so much,” “why did he not seek help?,” “but he seemed so jovial” – and my feeling is that people misunderstand what it means to suffer in this way. Perhaps this misunderstanding is deliberate, and rational, for to contemplate the abyss too deeply is to start to feel its grip, to awaken oneself to its horror.

It would be trite and disingenuous to suggest that Judaism has solutions or answers to such problems. My own work as a therapist – perhaps part inspired by Good Will Hunting – has taught me that the paralysing blackness of depression needs to be respected, that it can’t be argued with or cajoled into relenting.

It is a space in which words and sense lose all meaning, wherein connections to the future feel frail, like a bridge that cannot be crossed. Sitting with the pain and trauma can help, but there are no guarantees or formulaic fixes.

Severe depression ravages our most basic levels of motivation, decoupling us from the engine that unconsciously propels us through life. And sometimes, when the engine can’t be restarted, even the will to live cannot be found.

What the Talmud may offer us is a sense that we’re not alone in our suffering; that the dead poets of previous generations have been there too.

I am not speaking of finding comfort in God, for as Julia Kristeva notes in “Black Sun,” to be depressed is to be a most proper atheist, to find salvation utterly blocked, to be wholly enclosed within one’s suffering.

The Talmudic sages lived amidst loss, and their approaches carry the weight of that experience.

A particularly thoughtful approach is offered by Rava (Berakhot 5b). He suggested that in the face of tragedy we might use our acute vulnerability as a source of soul searching, as a call to improve ourselves. This wouldn’t alter our external circumstances, but it might enrich our internal circumstances, and be of tremendous benefit in the long run. It would also keep the aggressive energies from turning depressive, sublimating them into more constructive pursuits.

It is Rava’s position that we adopt at this time in the Jewish year, as we transition from the depressive mourning of Tisha B’Av to the creative self-regeneration of Elul and the High Holy Days.

Rava’s emotional flexibility was in part shaped by his own master Rabbah.

Rabbah was famous for opening his discourses with a joke, with a touch of comic lightness. Once his audience had been opened up by this, once their defences were down and their emotions were receptive, he shifted into a mood of awe and reverence, and then began to teach.

Occupying different emotional registers, transitioning from tragedy to construction, these are Jewish values we are much in need of, this Av more than most.

As we remember Robin Williams, a contemporary master of this dynamic, may we find the strength in ourselves to remain fluid rather than rigid, open rather than closed, and instead of fear may we find the courage required for peace.

Royale with Cheese Berakhot 39

(Spoiler alert – I haven’t found a heter…)

 One of the greatest films of the 90s, if not of all time, was Pulp Fiction.  And what was particularly exciting about this somewhat nihilistic, noir exploration of contemporary culture was its humour.

 I still vividly remember sitting in the cinema, being stunned at the way the sprawling dialogue of the first ten minutes had me shrieking with laughter.  I remember thinking: “there are no jokes here, but if you bring together enough minutaie and trivia, enough entirely meaningless detail, and you relay them with enough deadpan earnestness, the result can be funnier than anything you could construct more directly, anything more deliberately and directly humorous”.

 Who can forget the joy of the discussion of French cheeseburgers, and the even funnier conclusion when he’s asked about the naming conventions around the Whopper:

 I don’t know, I didn’t go into Burger King. 

 The discussion only gets funnier when he continues to ruminate on the merits of the big Kahuna burger, and the ‘tasty beverage’ one may wash it down with.  Poor Brett is being held at gunpoint, knowing he’s rumbled and that his time is up.  He’s not seeing the funny side.  There can be nothing further from Brett’s mind at this time than the hamburger he’s chosen to eat for breakfast and yet Jules forces him to think about it.  It is this disparity between what’s really happening and what’s actually being said that creates an absurdly humorous spectacle for the viewer.

 I’m no film expert, so I can’t say for sure that he re-wrote the rules.  I can say, however,  that for me and my peers, Quentin Tarantino opened our eyes to some new possibilities of humour, to some of the ways that great writing can come out of walking the fine line between the absurd and the severe.  He trademarked the way that the most mundane conversation can come to life if the participants engage in it with enough seriousness, with a level of conviction totally out of whack with the levity of the subject matter.

We can know that humour works in this way, that it can gain in energy and vitality through being apparently hidden, and yet this can sometimes only make it even more difficult to tell when someone is joking.  Sacha Baron Cohen has taken this direction in humour to ever greater extremes, using his characters to generate situations where people are lulled in by an apparent earnestness.  His victimes are left ruefully unaware of the outrageous levels of humour their equally serious responses are then generating.

So part of humour, perhaps the best part, comes about through ambiguity, through not really being able to say for sure if someone is joking, through observing a conversation without being completely sure what the participants are thinking.

And so, to the daf.

It has transpired in passing that Rabbi Yochanan made a berakha over a salted olive.  The discussion then goes onto other topics, before Rabbi Yirmiyah, a later Amora, takes the matter up with Rabbi Zeira:

This Rabbi Yochanan, what was he thinking making a berakha on a salted olive – seeing as he removed the stone, it wouldn’t have been the size of an olive??  [An olive size being  the minimum quantity of food for a berakha.]

Rabbi Zeira isn’t going to be taken for a fool, he knows Rabbi Yirmiyah’s game, and he’s up for it:

What, you think when we talk about an olive it has to be a large olive?? 

Nonsense!  All we need is a medium sized olive, and the olive that was brought in front of Rabbi Yochanan was a large olive, so even though he removed the stone, he was still left with something the size of an olive. 

Now I can’t say for sure that they were joking here, but there is something deeply absurd about questioning whether someone eating an olive has eaten an olive’s size.  And I find the alternative reading, that they were being genuinely and entirely serious in having this discussion, to be too disturbing.

The idea that we should entertain such a question, that this is what our religion is about, so beggars belief that I simply cannot accept it.  And I am forced to the conclusion that they were having this discussion tongue in cheek, or, at the very least, that the Redactors who recorded the material did so with one eye on its humorous dimension.

People may insist that I’m wrong, that my post-Tarantino reading is warping the spirit of the text, but there’s a part of me which is only the more entertained by their earnest protestations.

This stuff is funny, the amount of libido invested into these minute legal details cannot but fail to give the discussions a life and an energy which feels displaced and inappropriate.  And perhaps it is this sense of unawareness, perhaps it is the extent to which someone expresses themselves without irony, without genuine knowledge of what they’re acting out or looking for, that makes them quite so funny.

I see another critique of this excessive seriousness later on in the daf.  An unknown scholar appeared before Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak and was able to resolve a dispute that his pupils had been arguing about extensively.  It turned out his name was ‘Shalman’, which led Rav Nachman to the following quip, playing on the letters of his name:

You are peace [shalom] and your teaching is complete [shleima], for you have established peace amongst the students.

I hear Rav Nachman here expressing relief, it seems he felt that his students were perhaps getting overly excited by the details of the discussion they were involved in.  His use of the term ‘the students’ is what strikes me, he seems to be distancing himself from them.  He is perhaps acknowledging that they are at an age when this is the safest way for their libido and vitality to be contained, when there can be no better way to sublimate their aggressive energies than through the intricate details of halakhic inquiry.

If I sound disparaging, that is not my intention, for the most part I embrace this way of life and all of its accompanying accoutrements.  I only want to insist that we are sometimes able to laugh at it, to see the funny side, to get the irony, for if we miss that, if we come to take these things too seriously, then I fear we really are in danger of losing touch, of losing our always precarious grip on reality.

Humour can be a great release, by taking excessive seriousness out of a situation, out of our own relation to ourselves, we can clear the ground for a new lease of life, for a new injection of seriousness.

And once we know what we really needn’t worry about, we have a much better chance of finding the thing that really does merit our energies and attention, the thing we have perhaps been deliberately avoiding through all of this diversion.