Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Taking Life by the Neck; or, Say It Ain't So, Henry!

I've been trying not to write more about Robin Williams's suicide, but then the other day the sf writer John Scalzi denounced Henry Rollins for his piece in the LA Weekly attacking Williams.  Rollins has since apologized; Scalzi approves of the apology, I don't -- but I don't think Rollins had anything to apologize for.

Start with Rollins's attack on Williams.  It's headed "Fuck suicide", typical boy-culture stuff.  (I've been even more annoyed by all the "Fuck the Police" stuff I've been seeing in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown.  It doesn't mean that these fine, radical thinkers love the police and want to give them pleasure, perhaps to teach them that love is better than hate; it means that they think fucking is degrading and debasing to the person who is fucked.  Women, pay attention to what the straight boys you're marching with are saying about you.)

But on to the article itself.  I shared Rollins's alienation from the popular and media reaction to Williams's suicide.  He went on to praise Williams as a performer, and for doing USO shows as Rollins himself does.  And then:
But I simply cannot understand how any parent could kill themselves.
How in the hell could you possibly do that to your children? I don’t care how well adjusted your kid might be — choosing to kill yourself, rather than to be there for that child, is every shade of awful, traumatic and confusing. I think as soon as you have children, you waive your right to take your own life. No matter what mistakes you make in life, it should be your utmost goal not to traumatize your kids. So, you don’t kill yourself.
I think that first quoted sentence says more about the limitations of Rollins's understanding than it says about Robin Williams.  As far as I can tell, Rollins is not himself a parent; nor am I.

I agree that suicide can be an expression of hostility towards others, as witness the childish line "You'll be sorry when I'm dead."  (Even better when it's combined with "... and I'll be laughing." No, they won't.)  But I think Rollins was cheating here a little bit.  Williams's youngest "child," Cody, was born in 1991, which makes him 23 now.  That doesn't mean he's too old to be traumatized by his father's suicide (or death from any cause), but it does mean he's old enough to understand that it wasn't about him, that his father was suffering terribly -- as everyone seems to agree Williams was -- and chose to end it because he didn't want to suffer anymore.  Cody is also old enough that his parents aren't obliged to "be there" for him at every moment anymore: they have feelings and needs and lives of their own, and so does he.  (Many parents have the same difficulty understanding that everything their children do isn't about them.)  Which is not to say that Williams's children aren't or shouldn't be hurt by his loss, only that at a certain point in life the feelings of offspring no longer trump the feelings of the parents.  It might be that Williams hung on for as long as he could -- he was 63, for heaven's sake, and had apparently been miserable for most of his life -- and finally decided enough was enough.

I can't think about this without also thinking of something I touched on in my previous post, the denial of mortality and of death itself.  The last year of Nelson Mandela's life brought this home for me.  For years before that, he had "retired from retirement" because of his failing health.  2013 was a morbid death watch, the way millions of people panicked every time Mandela went into the hospital.  At 95, after a very long life of public service, I'd have thought he had earned the right to rest.  But people still wanted a piece of him, and wanted him to go on living no matter what.  They saw this craving as love, but I think it was something else.  Selfishness is when you let your wishes override the wishes of another person, and I think that selfishness was the dominant emotion in those who wanted Mandela, or anyone else, to be kept alive forever, no matter what.

This kind of selfishness is evident in much of the public mourning for Robin Williams, needless to say, yet hardly anyone seems to have criticized it.

I don't mean that suicide should be committed lightly.  But Rollins, like so many people, seems to take for granted that Williams took his life casually or lightly and certainly for the wrong reason, even when they blame his decision on "depression." (Yeah, Fuck Depression.)  I don't know, and no one probably knows, exactly what chain of feeling and thought led up to Williams's final decision.  For that reason, a becoming humility should be evident in any judgment of that decision, and such humility has been conspicuous by its absence in most of the commentary I've seen.

Nor do I mean that parents and children shouldn't remain close and mutually considerate throughout their lives if they want to.  But once the offspring are adults, the obligations involved change.  It would be nice if a suffering person -- like Williams, say -- could consult with his or her family and reassure them that his or her decision to die was not meant to hurt them.  I don't think this would work in our society as it is, though.  Especially someone like Williams, with a long history of substance abuse and depression, would risk being forcibly committed for treatment if he confessed the wish to end his life.  Which might not be so bad if psychiatrists could accurately distinguish between a passing morbid suicidal impulse and a reasoned decision to die, or if "treatment" would actually help, but there are reasons to be skeptical on both counts.  Williams made sure his family was provided for, leaving generous trust funds to his children (who, being adults, could take care of themselves even if he'd died penniless); he apparently didn't leave a note.  But I see no reason to assume that his suicide was impulsive.

In any case, I don't see that Rollins said anything here that was worse than what many others had said without being attacked for it, except for its bluntness, even though I disagree with him.

I don't feel that way about the rest of the piece, which is kinda embarrassing.
When someone negates their existence, they cancel themselves out in my mind. I have many records, books and films featuring people who have taken their own lives, and I regard them all with a bit of disdain. When someone commits this act, he or she is out of my analog world. I know they existed, yet they have nullified their existence because they willfully removed themselves from life. They were real but now they are not ...

I have life by the neck and drag it along. Rarely does it move fast enough. Raw Power forever.
Reading this made me wonder what Rollins thinks of Ayn Rand.  Apparently he once called her a "cunt," which fits nicely with his use of "fuck."  Gotta keep the bitchez in their place, eh, Henry?  But he's not as far from her as he'd like to think, with that "I have life by the neck and drag it along" line.  Anyone who fancies him or herself to be in total control of his or her life is a self-deluding fool, even though I understand what could motivate someone to delude himself in that way.  Which, just to be clear, is not to endorse a total fatalism either.  It's like the nature/nurture, free will/determinism divide. Yes, we make choices, but the choices start from where we are, what we have.  We don't chose to be born, and we don't choose to be mortal either; you'd think Rollins would be more respectful of people who choose when to die.  They've taken life by the neck too.

Should he have apologized for this diatribe?  I can't see why.  "That I hurt anyone by what I said, and I did hurt many, disgusts me," he wrote.  "It was not at all my intent but it most certainly was the result." C'mon, Henry, you have life by the neck and you drag it along.  What you did was your intent. You can probably see why I don't share Scalzi's approval of the apology: it looks to me like the typical celebrity/public-figure nonapology, which is the same bilge regardless of nation, party, or political stance.  It's all about him: that he hurt anyone "disgusts me."  Who can help but sympathize with his disgust, it must be so painful for him.  I find it hard to believe that someone who's been performing and writing for decades could be unaware of the effect his words would have, especially someone like Rollins whose persona is built on blunt, straight-talking, fuck-this-and-that rhetoric.  His disavowal of responsibility here is at odds with his stated philosophy.

And what about the people who reacted to the original piece?  At least some of them must have been fans to begin with, who read Rollins for his tough, take-no-prisoners style.  (If they persist in reading him just to get the adrenalin rush of offense, they presumably got what they were looking for.)  Were they shocked! shocked! to find that Rollins didn't agree with them in every particular?  Were they fine with fucking capitalism but not a beloved media star?  Well, I don't know what was going on in his readers' minds either.  Maybe he should have apologized, but I don't take his apology seriously.  But maybe that just shows the limits of my understanding.