What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.
“Days” by Philip Larkin
And so another of my teenage heroes, Robin Williams, has left us – and already the ‘sad clown’ archetype is being rolled out once more, with commentators professing to find it a mystery, that those with the talent to make us all laugh so often have difficulty doing the same service for themselves.
It is no mystery to me. The twin poles of drama, comedy and tragedy, exist as two of our attempts to answer our fundamental unanswerable question – why do we live? What are our days for?
We live in a time where we know more than we have ever known about the ‘how’ of our lives.
But the ‘why’ still stubbornly eludes us.
And each one of us in our own particular way must find our own accommodation to its absence.
We can seek to ignore it in the minutiae of ordinary life, drowning it out with the ‘what now’ and the ‘how’.
Or we can seek the certainties religions seem to offer us. Or seek power over others, or a life in their service. (But unless we are prepared to tread these paths with unwavering humility the consequences of these choices can be terrible, as we know from history and from the events unfolding around the world as I write).
Or we can pour our uncertainty into an art, or a craft, into science or philosophy, and seek to make, shape and write our own versions of answers – tragic or absurd, sublime or banal, precious glimmers of insight or failed speculations.
So it is not so hard to see that a comedian – one who shows us all the absurdity of our lives and invites us to laugh – may feel the uncertainty underlying their art rather more than those of us who are privileged to enjoy it.
For all of us, whether we consciously acknowledge it or not, life, and our continuance in it, is a question of faith. Not as it is generally understood in the religious sense – because that is so often tied to a set of beliefs that can be badly, tragically, wrong.
But a faith expressed by Walt Whitman, which Williams’ character quotes so memorably in Dead Poets Society:
“…’what good amid these, O me, O life?’ Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.”
But this faith, like all faith, is fragile.
One in four of us will experience depression within the course of any year, when our biochemical and philosophical accommodations with our existence fail.
All any of us can hope, amid the uncertainty of our lives, is to try and act as another great, dead, poet, W H Auden, suggests in 1 September 1939:
Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
RIP Robin Williams, o Captain my Captain. You showed your flame for as long as you could, and the verse you have contributed stands as your memorial.