French transdisciplinary philosopher and sociologist Edgar Morin explored the phenomena of stardom from a integrally-informed complex thought perspective in his book The Stars (2005). From this integral complexity perspective the star can be seen as a composite being, born out of a complex dialectic between their private selves, the roles they play, their public personas, and our individual and collective identifications and projections onto this mixture of self, role, and persona. Since the star is formed through this compound fusion of life and dream they intervene and function “…on every level of life, the imaginary level, the practical level, and especially on the level of the dialectic between the imaginary and the practical, that is, in the bacterial cultures of affective life where the personality elaborates and modifies itself…and forms and transforms humanity within the general evolution of civilization” (Morin, 2005, p. 147).
Because of the star’s complex interpenetration of self, culture and world, the loss of a star “before their time,” such as the loss of Robin Williams, can induce a profound sense of loss for both individuals and the greater culture and society; and the greater the interpenetration of star, self, culture, and world, the greater the experience of loss. This greater or higher order of stardom is reserved for those rare talents who become associated with deep archetypal patterns. This association is creative in that the star puts their own stamp on a previously formed archetype. Examples include Rudolph Valentino and the Latin Lover archetype; Charlie Chaplin and the Lovable Tramp archetype; and James Dean and the Young and Wild Rebel archetype. And, while only history will tell for sure, the collective response to the passing of Robin Williams suggests that Robin may have been among this higher order of star with his own unique spin on the Jester archetype.
In addition to the degree of the star’s archetypal interpenetration of self, culture and world, the circumstances around a stars death and its relationship and resonance with the stars own life, the lives of their characters, and the life of their individual and collective audience can have an effect on this process as well. To unpack this further I will explore my own reactions and perceptions of this experience through an integrally-informed and complexity lens…and in my own way offer another tribute to the life and loss of this fallen star…
Like many people around the world I was deeply affected by the news of Robin Williams passing. For me, the loss and grief I felt was beyond what I normally feel for a “star” that I loved and admired. On a personal level, in addition to the suddenness of his passing, the way he reportedly died (suicide by hanging), and learning about some of his personal challenges that I had not known before (suffering from early onset Parkinson ’s disease), the loss of such a unique talent and source of laughter was deeply affecting for me. No other comedian has made me laugh so often and as hard as Robin Williams has. Whenever he was on a talk show I was pulled to watch it like a junkie in need a fix of laughter and that lightness of being his virtual presence induced in me.
From an integral perspective, Robin’s film, TV, stand-up and talk show performances revealed a genius level talent for multi-domain comedy as he would rapidly shift between physical, psychological, cultural and social comedy and often combining some or all of them at once. At the same time, he could dive into whole-person four dimensional characters with different physical mannerisms, psychological makeups, and cultural and social identities. Often he would create deep human, cultural, and social commentary by using his different voices to humorously reveal absurd conflicts between different stages of psychological, cultural and social development. Even when he made fun of these various cultural and social identities, there was often a sense of lightness in his approach that was disarming and lacking in any form of mean-spiritedness as in his classic skit on the creation of the game of golf…
Robin Williams Golf Routine
On another level, Robin’s comedic genius was also felt by many, including myself, through Robin’s seemingly natural and effortless capacity to tap into some higher, deeper, almost other worldly or divine source and become an open conduit for that source. It was almost as if he could directly channel the creative muse itself; one could almost feel the electric-like current of divine comedy shooting through him and out into our hearts and souls.
Excerpts from Robin Williams, Inside the Actor’s Studio (2001)
As a film actor Robin went beyond comedy to give us many performances that have been deeply affecting across the full spectrum of experience from joy to sorrow and often all of these emotions at once. Some of his performances even reached the point of becoming iconic patterns within individual and collective consciousness, including my own:
When tragedy strikes in my life I sometimes think of his character in The World According to Garp (1982) turning the seeming tragedy of an airplane crashing into a house he was about to buy into an absurd yet profound “look at the bright side” moment…
The World According to Garp (1982)
And of course there is the classic iconic Carpe Diem “Seize the Day” moment from Dead Poets Society (1989)…
Dead Poets Society (1989)
These and many other performances contribute to the interpenetration of Robin’s characters on the collective and archetypal levels. Iconic and archetypal patterns like these not only affect us through Robin’s work directly, but also indirectly as inspiration for other works and performances. For example, like many other filmmakers and screenwriters I often envision an actor playing a character I am creating as a means of helping me fully bring that character to life; and like many other cinematic artists, I have used Robin Williams as a creative template in creating a character in one of my works. The idea that this unproduced script that I wrote with Robin Williams in mind will never have the chance to be brought to life by Robin himself has produced another level of loss within me that is hard to describe. When I read this script now tears well up in my eyes and when I think of the character I created there is a strange aura of sorrow around him that was not there for me before. Of course, many scripts that use a certain actor as their template are often made with other actors filling those roles, but the logic of this does not translate to the emotional field of my grief.
In terms of Robin’s private self and public persona, there are countless stories of his kindness, his gentleness, and his capacity to give to others; whether it was bringing laughter to his friends and colleagues during challenging times to giving his full presence and appreciation to an adoring fan to bringing the healing power of laughter to the sick and dying. While this private self and public persona of a loving, giving, and selfless bringer of laugher and joy for many of us was totally congruent with Robin’s body of creative work, the juxtaposition of this selfless and giving divinely gifted performer/person/persona with the taking of his own life seemed incongruent for many who believe that suicide is a selfish act. On another level, for many, having someone who appeared to “have-it-all” also goes against some of the cultural and social constructs around suicide. All this along with a stream of information about his personal struggles with addiction, depression, and bi-polar and manic-depressive disorders has stimulated a great deal of discussion and public discourse about suicide, depression, and mental illness, exploring these issues from various individual and collective inner and outer perspectives.
In many primal and indigenous traditions madness or what we call mental illness is considered a gift from spirit and is often seen as a sacred calling for the one “touched” to become a healer. The healing power of laughter is well known, and Robin Williams was indeed a master at inducing deep full-body laughter. So from this perspective I think we can safely say that Robin was a healer and he spread his healing through movies, television, standup routines, and one-on-one interactions with the sick and dying and many others who were going through challenging times in other forms.
On another level and in a strange way, Robin’s gifts may be seen as directly connected to his manic and bi-polar condition; indeed his ability to rapidly bounce between emotions, perspectives, and characters is one of the hallmarks of his unique talent and gift. Given this we could also say that Robin was a living example of the notion that the line between madness and genius is incredibly thin…in life and in his art he danced between madness and genius with his whole heart and soul and transformed madness into genius like no other before him.
All of this is a surely a sign of the deep interpenetration of Robins self, role, and persona with our own selves and the greater culture and world.
Thank you Robin, for touching us so deeply in art, in life, and in death…
Farwell O Captain, My Captain…
- Morin, E. (2005). The Stars. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
- Robin Williams Golf Routine: http://youtu.be/pcnFbCCgTo4
- Excerpts from Robin Williams, Inside the Actor’s Studio (2001): http://youtu.be/U48KpK1srx4
- “Airplane Crashing” scene from The World According to Garp (1982): http://youtu.be/DBSAeqdcZAM
- “Carpe Diem” scene from Dead Poets Society (1989): http://youtu.be/z4gpAW2kt6k
- “O Captain, My Captain” scene from Dead Poets Society (1989): http://youtu.be/X6y2Y9i5Sj0
- Robin as Mork in Mork & Mindy Television Series (1978-1982)
- The Many Faces of Robin Williams, Tribute by Artist Emily Stepp (http://www.emilystepp.com/blog/?p=777)
- Robin as healer Patch Adams in the motion picture Patch Adams (1998)
Mark Allan Kaplan, Ph.D. is an independent award-winning filmmaker and the pre-eminent theorist and practitioner of the application of Integral Theory to the cinematic arts. Mark is also the developer and instructor of the MetaIntegral Academy courses on Meta-Movieology, a groundbreaking new approach to using movies as a transformative practice to more deeply understand and fully embody an integral and evolutionary perspective. For more on Mark and the Meta-Movieology courses visit: www.metamovieology.com