Monthly Archives: August 2014

O Captain ! My Captain !

In 1865 Walt Whitman wrote a poem mourning the loss of Abraham Lincoln. “O Captain ! My Captain !” sets out an extended metaphor, using its titular captain, dead on the deck of his ship, returning in victory from some battle, as an elegy for Lincoln, killed but victorious, at the close of the American Civil War. 

O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:

But O heart! heart! heart!

O the bleeding drops of red,

Where on the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.

The poem – or at the very least its title – has become closely associated with the film “Dead Poet’s Society”; it is a moniker the inspirational teacher in the film dares his students to bestow upon him, in part a throwing off of the cloying conformity of their regimented school lives as he teaches them to seek new perspectives, find expression, and think for themselves. At the climax of the film the teacher has been dismissed but has to return to the class to fetch some personal effects. A number of students, in trying to say goodbye, climb atop their desks – a perspective shifting trick he’d previously encouraged in them – and call out “O Captain ! My Captain !” in tribute. It’s a scene that always moves me but I accept that, for some, may seem overly schmaltzy.

The teacher – or the actor playing the teacher – was Robin Williams. He died this week, taking his own life at the age of 63. In the shocked aftermath there’s been something of a conflation of the roles he played and the person he was, which I guess is inevitable when there is so much of him in the public domain, and the inspirational teacher figure seems to have struck a chord. That and the irrepressible funny man: the kinetic, slightly manic, lightening fast mind that seemed to spin relentlessly with ideas. 

I’m not going to lay claim to being a huge Williams fan. I like some of his work, in particular his stand up and some of his movies – “Dead Poet’s Society”, “Good Will Hunting”, “Good Morning Vietnam”. I watched “Mork And Mindy” as a kid. Large parts of his work though passed me by – I didn’t find “Mrs Doubtfire” particularly funny and have never been in a hurry to seek out “Patch Adams”. I thought he was one of the good guys but I’d become pretty ambivalent about his films.

So, in some respects, it has surprised me that I’ve dwelt on his death, that I’ve given it much thought beyond noting it with sadness. Except, of course, that Williams suffered from depression and took his own life and if you’ve ever suffered something similar then news like this is like a flare going up from a stranded boat – some vessel grim and daring perhaps – and you feel your eyes drawn to it. I should stress at this point that I am not currently in a bout of depression nor do I have suicidal thoughts: if you’re reading this and you do then please take some time to reach out to people that can help, The Samaritans, Mind, your doctor, a friend or your family. It may not feel like it but things will get better. There’s no shame in letting people help you.

The heavy media coverage has made it difficult to tear my eyes away from that flare even if I wanted to. Some of it sensationalist, salacious, downright irresponsible but some of it at least prepared to try and open up some new dialogue about mental health. Williams doesn’t look like our imagined personification of depression. When Philip Seymour Hoffman overdosed earlier this year – also a long term mental health sufferer – there was a little commentary on the end of another life by a terrible illness. But no substantive change in the narrative: it was seemingly easy to understand his self destruction as another in a long line of tortured, genius artists. Williams, from a media and public perspective, is different. He was a clown, the life and soul of the party, the guy that starred in tender hearted kids’ films. The tragedy, of course, is that in reality they were all too similar: both torn apart by being unwell.

So with Williams’ death we’ve had plenty of the “but how can someone who brought so much joy…”, “but how can someone who had so much…”, “how can someone who was that funny…” questions. Maddening as they are it’s useful, I think, that they’re asked: perhaps this is what it takes to move perceptions. Someone could have everything in the world, could bring endless happiness to everyone, always be the funniest guy in the room, and still be depressed. It does not discriminate. It’s an illness. Sure, we call it “depression” and it’s not as straightforward as that, case to case it doesn’t neatly fit a catch-all, one size fits all categorisation but it’s as arbitrary as cancer, as arbitrary as life. Understanding and empathising with that moves us a long way.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;

Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!

But I, with mournful tread,

Walk the deck my captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.

There’s a long way to go: the fearful trip is not done but we have lost another captain. A more open discussion of mental health illnesses might be something positive that comes from this loss. It feels finely balanced at the moment – a mixture of some frank, illuminating stories and reporting that set out the challenges in treating mental health issues, against some lurid, tabloid rummaging through the garbage (“he was sober / wasn’t sober”, “he was bankrupt”, “his marriage was breaking up”, “he was in early stage Parkinson’s”). Some of the good has come from surprising sources – Alistair Campbell wrote an eloquent piece in The Guardian that  strongly echoes my own views – which is encouraging. The more we hear stories from people that we don’t think depression looks like the more we can appreciate that it can look like any of us.

It looks like Buzz Aldrin. Winston Churchill. Someone you know at work. Possibly as many as one in five or one in six people in the UK at some point in their life. The person you love. A lot of people you’ve never met. It sometimes looks like me. It also looked like Robin Williams and we need to keep talking about that until the ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done.