radically accepting finitude
by Oliver Sacks (from The New Yorker)
One of the most amazing experiences of my life was working with Robin Williams, watching him become me, in the filming of my book “Awakenings,” in 1989. The patients whose experiences I had recounted in the book—some of them were still alive then—loved him, too. Over the next twenty-five years, Robin and I became good friends, and I grew to appreciate—no less than the brilliance of his wit and his sudden, explosive improvisations—his wide reading, the depth of his intelligence, and his humane concerns.
Once, when I gave a talk in San Francisco, a man in the audience asked me an odd question: “Are you English or are you Jewish?”
“Both,” I replied.
“You can’t be both,” he said. “You have to be one or the other.”
Robin, who was in the audience, brought this up at dinner afterward, and, using an ultra-English, Cambridge voice laced with Yiddish and Yiddish aphorisms, gave a stunning demonstration of how one could indeed be both. I wish we could have recorded this marvellous flower of the moment.
Robin had thousands of voices, and faces, and personae. He could become Lon Chaney, Hamlet, Dr. Strangelove, Mae West—or all of them in a single sentence. Indeed, he could become any animal. When we had lunch together a few months ago, we got to talking about reptiles—Robin had had a pet iguana—and he combined a zoologist’s knowledge of lizards and turtles with an inner understanding of what it was like to be them, and he could imitate their postures and behavior to perfection. Imitate is too mild a word; he became them as, in “Awakenings,” he became me.
I sometimes joined the Williamses in the summer at Lake Tahoe. I would go for long swims in the lake, with Robin paddling next to me in a kayak. We would chat about neurology and biology, literature, history, biographies—he was startlingly well informed on pretty much everything under the sun, and this was a very different Robin—thoughtful, relaxed, not onstage, not “on.”
In addition to all his gifts, Robin was the kindest and most generous of men. William James, the great nineteenth-century psychologist, was called “that adorable genius.” For me, more than anyone I have ever known, Robin, too, was that adorable genius. It is infinitely sad that this unique human being, who gave so much and so fully of himself to all of us,
should have taken his own life.
Nice eulogy – pity about the final sentence. The piece could have ended with “It is infinitely sad that this unique human being, who gave so much and so fully of himself to all of us, had given all that he had to give.“ or something like that, out of respect for the man. Or you could leave out the final sentence all together, and just leave it there. You could even say that it is sad that he had to resort to such a crude method to end his life, you know?
(I replaced the image which accompanied the original New Yorker article with this stunning portrait by Irving Penn.)