September 30, 2014
Sad clowns and other balloons
For the Herald
Press the air down in one place and it will reappear elsewhere
THE HAGUE — At his best, which was very good indeed in the period before Hollywood tearjerkers enlisted him, Robin Williams could slip from one character to the next at the velocity of an optic nerve. As we now know, and might always have suspected, this frenetic ability to shuffle his faces and voices as if playing DJ to the emanations of a thousand human souls is an indication that not all was well within the comic’s bosom. Williams, like almost every gifted comedian, was prone to depression and addiction. He even confessed once that cocaine, his drug of choice, did not wire him so much as calm him down.
Comic genius and its tragic comeuppance — whether it is of Williams, or Peter Sellers, or the joker most venerated by my father’s generation in the drabness of post-war Britain, Tony Hancock — intrigue and unsettle us all. It is obvious that a sort of complex psychological bargain is established between the manic hilarity of the comic’s exterior and the brooding, sinister and sceptical self within. Over time, as those funny voices grow familiar and wan for the performer even as popular demand for them never ceases to grow, this deal begins to break down. The sour inner demon wins out.
Science has seemingly confirmed as much: “The creative elements needed to produce humour are strikingly similar to those characterizing the cognitive style of people with psychosis, both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder,” explained one Oxford University professor this year on the basis of a study of over 500 comedians.
Curiously, the demise of comedians is also the most human version of one of the best known and most reliable phenomena of political and social science. The more the comic causes people to forget the pain of their daily lives through cathartic bellyaches, the more he or she in turn suffers from the torment of daily life. Call it the balloon effect: press the air down in one place, and it will reappear elsewhere. Hand out laughs, and reap melancholy in return.
It is not hard, in this European summer of barbarity and anxiety, to find a balloon effect of one’s choosing. The archetypal manifestation has long been the drug trade, where decades of efforts to wipe out crops and fashion clean-living Western youth have been thwarted by the inventiveness of the trafficking industry as it responds to ever rising demand —Williams included. Part of this nimble feat has come in the form of geographic shifts, with the cocaine route to the North fleeing the short-haul route to Miami and ending up instead taking long and lingering detours through Central America and West Africa.
At the same time, trafficking methods have also adapted to the times. The largest cocaine hauls of the last-week in Spain were not detected in the false bottoms of a suitcase, but in the storeroom of the Navy’s most important training ship and in the breast implants of an incoming Venezuelan woman, whose misshapen cleavage attracted the gaze of some nearby officers of the law.
Economics obeys similar rules of displacement, above all in modern-day Europe. No sooner had the financial engineering and firm leadership of the European Central Bank been credited with rescuing the euro and ending recession than the continental economy began to list once again: figures this week show both Germany and Italy to be contracting, while France flat-lines. Better news was to be found, apparently, in Britain, where GDP growth notched up the brisk pace of 3.2 percent.
However, it is here that the rigid discipline of trapped air is at its most eye-catching. The economy as a whole certainly grew, and employment rose to its highest level since 2008. But in the process wages fell by 0.2 percent, the worst showing for over a decade, and productivity continued to bump along the floor of an Amazon retail warehouse. It may be heresy within the economic profession to argue that free-market economic activity is a single “lump” that can be sliced up between people, yet it would surely not surprise anyone to find these professionals may be mistaken.
For the most perturbing manifestation of the simile, nonetheless, there is nowhere better to go than the Middle East. Since venturing from the battlefields of eastern Syria in June, the Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS, has seized control of huge portions of Iraq through exceptional brutality and cunning. The reasons for this success are manifold, but the prevailing sense, as US President Obama dispatched special forces last weekend, is of historical recurrence. Those dethroned by the US invasion of 2003 have returned behind shock-troops far more radical and zealous than the original enemy.
Last week I commented in this column on the extraordinary work of filmmaker Medyan Dairieh, who spent 10 days with ISIS, and has since posted his video reports on Vice News. The latest shows the militia bulldozing a border post between Iraq and Syria and proclaiming death to the Sykes-Picot pact, which created those borders in a colonial era deal back in 1916. Meanwhile, a number of detained Iraqi border guards are jokily shown a machete and told they will have their heads removed. The object of play this scene most closely resembles is not a balloon, but a boomerang.
Strangely, even these holy warriors have time to consider matters other than war. A close observer of jihadist media chatter noticed last week that a number of IS loyalists were exchanging memories of the late Robin Williams. No doubt there is some bizarre justice in this. For while Williams died in the depths of laughing sadness, the fundamentalist fighters can still find time to joke in a pool of blood.