Gnostics in the Bottle
“Genie, you’re free.”
Shortly after actor and comedian Robin Williams’ tragic suicide, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tweeted these three words, along with an iconic image from Aladdin.
At first, the heartfelt gesture seemed to brighten an otherwise bleak day. Like so many, I had watched Williams conjure both comedic and dramatic magic throughout the years, from Mrs. Doubtfire to Awakenings, Jumanji to Good Will Hunting, Hook to Dead Poets Society, his effervescence was just everywhere – and felt like it always would be. So to hear about his untimely death already felt like losing a personal friend. To hear that the cause was depression and suicide was to realize that this friend may have been a total stranger all along.
After such horrible news, the Academy’s tweet seemed to bring some semblance of sense back to the situation. It honored his life, tipped a hat to one of his most beloved characters, and wished him peace.
But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like this simple gesture was not so simple, and that to link Williams’ death with the Genie character was not such a sweet idea after all.
Mental health professionals like Dr. Christine Moutier, the Chief Medical Officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, quickly picked up on the dubious and even dangerous nature of the Academy’s message. “If it doesn’t cross the line, it comes very, very close to it,” Moutier explained. “Suicide should never be presented as an option. That’s a formula for potential contagion.” The starry sky, the big hug, the peaceful sense of escape – all of it attaches a sense of liberation to suicide. For vulnerable individuals – especially given growing concerns about physician-assisted suicide and what some have termed a broader suicide epidemic – this is deeply problematic.
But the tweet was also problematic on a philosophical level. Yes, “you’re free” could suggest freedom from the scourge of chronic depression through suicide – that itself was alarming. But what if it subtly signaled a release from the scourge of life itself? That it’s not our demons, depression, or dukkha that we’re freed from at death, but the disease, disorder, and decay of the material world, period? That, like Genie in his lamp, our souls are all “trapped” in our bodies, awaiting our own personal prison break?
Countless religious and philosophical traditions, including many Christian denominations, have spoken about life and death in these terms – but none more so than Gnosticism.
“Whereas formerly Gnosticism was considered mostly a corruption of Christianity, it now seems clear that the first traces of Gnostic systems can be discerned some centuries before the Christian Era...Although Gnosticism may at first sight appear a mere thoughtless syncretism of well nigh all religious systems in antiquity, it has in reality one deep root-principle, which assimilated in every soil what is needed for its life and growth; this principle is philosophical and religious pessimism…This utter pessimism, bemoaning the existence of the whole universe as a corruption and a calamity, with a feverish craving to be freed from the body of this death and a mad hope that, if we only knew, we could by some mystic words undo the cursed spell of this existence – this is the foundation of all Gnostic thought.”
In short, Gnosticism tends to set up the material and the spiritual – the body and soul in particular – in opposition, spurning the former as “the darkness” and clinging to the latter as “the light.” But this is far from some extinct or esoteric belief system. As Ross Douthat argues, “the Gnostic spirit is everywhere in contemporary religion” – from new age spirituality to the New Atheism.
For instance, we see the “utter pessimism” of Gnosticism in the hit series True Detective when Rust Cohle reflects on the tragic death of his daughter. His neo-Darwinian commitments notwithstanding, Cohle’s pessimism pushes him into Gnostic territory, where the soul is “yanked” out of non-being and “forced” into being, flesh is “meat,” life is a “thresher,” and parenthood is a “sin”. (Most Gnostics in the ancient world, not wanting to perpetuate the bondage of bodily life, were notoriously ascetical when it came to sex and reproduction.)
In fact, Cohle sounds a lot like the very evangelical Christians he despises. “This, all this, is not real,” one tent revival preacher declares in an extended scene. “Your angers and your griefs and your separations are a fevered hallucination once suffered by us all, we prisoners of light and matter. And there we all are, our faces pressed to the bars, looking out, looking up…”
Even the final monologue of the season, which is profoundly spiritual, is laced with a tincture of Gnostic duality. “I been up in that room looking out those windows every night here just thinking,” Cohle muses. “It’s just one story. The oldest…Light versus dark…once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winning.”
These same Gnostic overtones lurk in the otherwise Dante-like What Dreams May Come, where an angelic figure in the afterlife explains to Robin Williams’ character, in classic Platonic terms, that thought is “real” and physicality is “the illusion”:
Since Irenaeus, the Church has resisted Gnosticism, arguing that the physical world is not a prison or an illusion but our eternal destiny. The key, as Scott Hahn explains in a conversation with Father Barron – the way out from the Gnostic pits that beset us on all sides – is the sacramental view of reality engendered by the Incarnation:
“The Incarnation show(s) that…the material and the spiritual elements of human nature are united in each person, and that God reaches our soul through the material; that he doesn’t just enlighten our soul, he feeds our body with the Eucharist, that then transforms us so that we live out the mystery of the Eucharist we celebrate – not only by keeping commands but by loving sacrificially, even when it involves suffering and martyrdom.”
I applaud for the Academy for wanting to honor the life and work of Robin Williams. By all accounts, this comedic genius was also an incredibly gentle and giving soul, and will be missed immensely.
But consciously or not, that image of a freed Genie calls to mind these pessimistic and ultimately dangerous conclusions – not only that suicide can be a valid escape, but that the world itself may be an invalid snare.