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.

Mourning, not Melancholia – Tisha B’Av 5773

On Tisha B’Av we reflect upon destruction, upon trauma, upon loss.

While the rest of the world is light-headedly embracing the frivolity of summer, we cast our fishing rods deep into the sea of memory, revisiting the archetype of destruction at the bottom of our psyche.

Why do we do this – have the lessons of Jewish history not already sufficiently traumatised us, does not its apocalyptic mood hound us all too heavily as we try to experience the simple joy of life?

There is truth to that, but we mourn today not because we need more trauma, but because we have yet to complete what Freud called our ‘mourning work’.

To mourn is to register loss, to relinquish something, to know that we will never again be fully complete.  We are ejected from the womb, weaned from the breast, usurped in sibling rivalry and banished from the eden of childhood innocence:  our entry into the world is along a boulevard of ruin and loss.

So much is promised, and so much is taken away.  we are left longing, painfully so, pining to return to these earlier states, to the wholeness and fullness which defined them.

We might ask a different question: is the ‘mourning work’ ever complete, can we ever fully come to terms with such harrowing loss, can the vision of wholeness ever be totally abandoned?

In one sense, it surely cannot.

The personality that we build is in response to these losses, the cultures we erect serve to let us cope with the pain.  We work with the pain, we harness it, but we do not fully leave it behind.

It is a curious paradox, but the personality which is built upon hiding the pain, upon denying it, that will be the personality which promotes the persistence of pain, which gives it a constant source of life.  There is no elixir of eternal life like suppression; denial is the surest way to keep something vital and creative.

The personality or culture which acknowledges loss, which encourages consciousness of our incompleteness, of our desire to return to a greater sense of fullness, this is the personality which will be truly strong, which will be resilient, creative, sensitive and generous.  Pain, anger and resentment are slightly defused, it’s harder for them to get going when the loss is in full view.

When the sages visited the ruins of the temple, they saw foxes emerging from the Holy of Holies.  The source of life had become a playground for vermin, integrity and holiness supplanted by sly cunning.

The sages wept, but Rabbi Akiva laughed.  He had visited the site of trauma, the loss was in plain view, yet he did not experience it as paralysing or debilitating.

When the rabbis asked him to explain himself he responded by quoting the prophecies of Uriah and Zekharia.  Uriah prophecies desolation, whereas Zekahria has a vision of rebirth and regeneration. Rabbi Akiva emphasised that the two are intimately connected, that the existence of the former is what safeguards and ensures the latter.

Rabbi Akiva was embedded within the prophetic framework of loss, longing and hope, and the interplay between these was central to his vision.  By keeping one eye on the loss, he is more able to see the hope, and, perhaps more importantly, to connect with the joy.

Megillat Eikha ends on a strange note.  The whole book is a stage by stage dealing with loss, going through shock, anger, existential turmoil, soul searching and eventually, in the final chapter, crying forth in prayer.  At the end of that last chapter, there is an urgent plea:

‘Return us to you oh God, and we will return;  our days will be made new, like they were before’

The ultimate response to the loss here is return, a consciousness of return, an incorporation of the desire for greater completeness.  This neither denies nor suppresses loss, it rather tolerates it respectfully as one of our core aspirations.

It also hints at the impossibility of returning to the past, it will always be a ‘new’ past, a past re-acquired through creativity.

In the haftara of the day the onus is less on God and more on the people:

‘Seek the Divine where It might be found, call out to It when you sense Its closeness.’

Again, the yearning is placed at the centre, it is a creative response to the ravages of suffering.  It is a given that we will never entirely merge with the Divine, but it is also thought that it will be better to have a healthy object or address for our longing.  It should be one which will inspire us in the ways of truth, justice and love; not one which will fetishize specific aspects of an irretrievable past.

We yearn for the unreachable, but somehow that allows us to expand, to stretch, to grow. It enlivens us, filling our veins with oxygen.  It doesn’t cripple us with brooding and melancholia, doesn’t close us back in upon ourselves.  It doesn’t limit and stifle us, forcing us to live in a world of artificially limited emotional bandwidth.

The lovers of the Song of Songs are never fulfilled, and it was again Rabbi Akiva who insisted that this message was the Holy of Holies, that it was the ultimate religious lesson.  There is pining at the centre; unity for him only came in death.

Jewish life is littered with references to the loss of the temple, when we marry, when we build a home, the psalms we recite before grace after meals.  Shabbat too marks something of a loss, the cessation of the Divine hand in creation, the awareness that we have transitioned to maturity, that we have left the secure canopy that our parents provided for us.

Tisha B’Av is really the first day of Ellul, the beginning of the trajectory of intensified return which propels us through to the High Holydays.  As our seeking leads to scrutinising our personalities, we dedicate ever more creative energy to the memory of loss.  From destruction we create, from the horror we re-rekindle desire.

May this be the start of a year of profound rebirth, and may we be spared from further trauma whilst engaged in this task.