Thursday, August 14, 2014

On Celebrity Suicide

The Internet announced it was in mourning. It was in mourning for a comedian and actor whose work I honestly didn't appreciate for a long time, until I recently, within the past couple weeks, really, discovered his early stand-up career, before he became associated with a long string of what I always considered to be dreadfully sentimental films.

And I have to wonder why and how the hive mind mourns. It has always bothered me how people's lives become metaphor, and in the case of a suicide, the suicide becomes the central metaphor. If the person has enjoyed some level of fame, the media coverage of their death turns a complex and remote experience into something “personal” and “sincere” for the general public, a tidy little pill we can swallow. Take two after dinner to feel pathos.

In this case the central metaphor of his personality-- in public, that of the clown, privately maybe not so much, as intimated in the now-famous Marc Maron interview-- is hijacked and transformed into a Pagliaccio figure, the clown carrying inner pain, which, of all tropes in the media, is one of the laziest and most played out.

The notion of comedians as being funny on stage, but also depressed, addicted, or just generally fucked up should be a notion we're used to by now, 40 plus years after Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce made their mark. And it becomes too easy to construe comedians as inherently fucked up, or conversely, to view damage and darkness as a natural and necessary conduit for humor. This is a variation of the old conflation of personal disaster and creative genius, the fetish of countless teenage boys (self included) and a plotline that has somehow retained its mystique since Goethe and Keats introduced it.

Other sectors of the Internet mourning community have taken the opportunity to claim that depression is a disease like any other. Now, there is a certain truth to it (yes, it fits our definition of a disease) and a pragmatism to it (it's good to demystify mental illness, and to treat it as something that can be handled clinically). But it becomes too easy to medicalize our problems, to reduce thorny and difficult problems to something easily treatable with pharmaceuticals, which in empirical practice seems to only be sometimes useful, but is deeply in line with the American desire for quick fixes. And yet this line of thought, which should be more productive and more empirical, winds up leading to another form of mystification in the public consciousness. We take something difficult, and relegate it to the realm of expert knowledge, beyond comprehension. Which is perhaps, why, in eternally unsmiling and practically minded Hong Kong, the falling suicide of megastar Leslie Cheung was reported as “due to chemical imbalance.”

We don't want to confront the fact that at the end of the day, we are merely speculating, merely projecting fears and worldviews onto the unknowable and scary when it is suddenly thrust into the public spotlight. Instead of asking deep, serious questions, we impose our narrative on the material event, and damn the places where they don't synchronize.

I know that by writing about it, I am imposing my own narrative, taking this sort of cagey, oblique, postmodernist approach, out of my morbid curiosity about everyone else's morbid curiosity.

Which, like so many meta-approaches, leaves me with a sense of cold disconnectedness, of being trapped in an infinite mirror maze of language and sign and discourse. And I'll leave it there. I could extrapolate that to what the point of writing is at all, to what the world is, but I know well enough to leave those issues alone. I simply arrive at this point in said mirror maze. I feel like I'm somewhere important, but everyone probably does.