Weltschmerz, or the Price of Comedy and Rage

“Weltschmerz” by Rockwell Kent, 1946

“Weltschmerz” by Rockwell Kent, 1946

If retaining a sense of humor while angry is a touchstone that confirms we’re grounded in our centerpost of self and not drifting in an archetypal possession of rage, then it might make sense to look to a consummate comedian for insight on the creative expression of rage.

Robin Williams was gifted with an extraordinary ability to feel deeply, and his comedy was most often rooted in anger. His anger was compassionate, ethical and tempered with a love for human frailty. He had a brilliant, discerning mind, as well as the ego strength to hold the tension between anger and despair for almost his entire career. Because of his soulful inner light, we could trust him, and allow the lens of his dark comedy to view that which we most wished to avoid. Robin Williams could feel and express that which we dared not. But holding that tension took its toll on him, both physically and mentally. Eventually, as Robin’s body weakened from the degenerative effects of Lewy Body disease, so did his hold on hope, and he could laugh no more. On August 11, 2014 Robin Williams took his own life, and left the world a darker place.

I didn’t learn of his death until the morning after. I was sitting on an examination table dressed in a Johnny coat waiting for my oncologist to enter the exam room. I had been cancer-free for quite a while but was eager to share the good news news that I had also finally become free from the medications that I had depended on during the course of my breast cancer. My doctor, Vanessa, had been my greatest cheerleader and I couldn’t wait to see her reaction.

But when Vanessa entered the exam room her eyes were swollen red. She was accustomed to sorrow in her specialty, and was all too familiar with delivering unspeakable news. Yet there she was, without words. She looked at me through tears, shaking her head and gently rocking the clipboard in her hands as if it were an infant. Finally she whispered, “I just learned that Robin Williams is dead. He took his own life last night. The world has failed him.”

I was speechless and felt the air leave my lungs, leaving in its place a brick of despair pressing on my chest. I tried to breathe but got dizzy. The news was just too much to process. The news of Robin’s suicide hit me harder than the news of my own cancer had hit me years before. When we could finally speak, neither Vanessa nor I even mentioned my progress. Personal progress was nothing in the presence of such monumental loss. We tried our best to recall our favorite moments from Robin’s performances, and we tried in vain to smile at the memory of his compassionate face.

Some people are in touch with the pain of the world in a visceral way. Weltschmerz, or ‘world hurt,’ flows in our veins. Perhaps we are a subset of the intuitive, insightful, deeply feeling personality types, or perhaps we are just very old souls - deeply connected to collective transgressions of the past. However it might have come to be, Robin Williams was an extraordinary expresser of Weltschmerz. He could make us laugh in the presence of horror.

In this article on Weltschmerz, Joachim Whaley, a professor of German history and thought at the University of Cambridge, describes it as “pain suffered simultaneously both in the world and at the state of the world, with the sense that the two are linked.” And in the same article, Wilhelm Alfred Braun describes Weltschmerz as “essentially a symptom of a period of conflict, of transition.”

These definitions remind me of Loralee’s closing remarks last night as she paraphrased from _____, ‘releasing anger clears psychic space to shift an archetypal field.’ And it’s true that anger, expressed through comedy, is an effective tool in service of this shift. But what if holding the tension between comedy and rage requires unsustainable strength?

In the case of Robin Williams, his creative gift was ultimately more than he could contain. The anger that informed his comedy made him sick, and before we understood what was happening, we lost him. My doctor Vanessa was right, the world had failed him. We failed to support the depth of his vision with the actions and changes his soul cried out for. He inspired us to great heights and led us the threshold of the redemptive potential for rage, but we only laughed in response.

Loralee left us with a warning about the task that faces us, as agents of the transformative feminine, at this time in our world. Let’s not forget that “in trying to channel rage as both generative and transformative, we’re battling with the Gods.” Indeed our battle is epic, archetypal, and we need a healthy respect for the power of the opposition. We also need to become more aware of the point at which our leaders (and I include sensitive men like Robin Williams among our leaders) are in need of restorative care.

Robert Altman’s 1970 film M*A*S*H is another exquisite expression of the motivational power of anger rooted in comedy. A sense of humor turned out to be the most important weapon for those frontline surgeons to survive the war. In many ways M*A*S*H can be seen as a forerunner to Robin Williams’ portrayal of the disc jockey in “Good Morning Vietnam.” Most of his lines in that film were improvised, pulled from the depths of his personal values and soul. I had the privilege of hearing Robin Williams improvise up-close and personal at a fundraiser one time, and the collective energy that flowed through his body was palpable. His genius was in his willingness to tolerate this connection.

The irony is not lost on me that the name of the theme song to M*A*S*H, one of America’s most enduring comedies, is “Suicide is Painless.” Whether we’re speaking of surgeons or DJs or actors, the comedy of rage is a force to reckoned with, and sometimes it’s a force that overwhelms. Humor and pain / comedy and tragedy / anger and despair - are only a hair’s breadth apart. Let’s make sure we have a safety net for our artists who dare to walk the line.

I leave you with two video clips rooted in comedy. One expresses a deeply personal rage, and the other expresses the need for release from sustaining the tension between comedy, anger and despair. The beauty of human frailty comes through in both. Let’s hold on to that beauty with discernment.

“The Angriest Man in Brooklyn” with Robin Williams, 2014. (wait for the final seconds!)

“Suicide is Painless” from M*A*S*H directed by Robert Altman, 1970, sung by Ken Prymus