Too Much Water, Too Little Air
By Glenn Perry
By now, everyone surely knows that Robin Williams hung himself on Monday, August 11th, 2014 at his home in Tiburon, California. Apparently, he had been battling depression over the last year, and perhaps his whole life. It is true that his progressed Sun conjuncted natal Saturn in June 2013, and that transiting Neptune was approaching an exact conjunction with his Moon. And certainly there are other relevant transits and progressions to Robin Williams birthchart that we might surmise contributed to his untimely end. But these cannot explain the lifelong vulnerability to mental illness that haunted him.
If I did not already know Robin Williams, my initial impression of his chart would be that he’s an extraordinarily sensitive, somewhat maudlin individual with a bit of a dark side (Scorpio Rising). Years ago when I first saw Williams’ horoscope, I was surprised. I was expecting some kind of zany Aquarian type energy that would be a fitting signature for his unorthodox, wacky, frenetic humor. I did not expect to see Sun Cancer with Moon in Pisces. A chart with both lights plus the Ascendant in water is too sedate and inhibited to fit the irrepressible Robin Williams. But now I know better.
As is true with any chart, the key lies in seeing how all the parts fit together. One crucial factor in understanding Williams’ manic performances is the emphasis on his 9th house (Mercury, Pluto, Sun), and the centrality of Jupiter as the planet with the most aspects (5). The closing trine from Moon to Mars-Uranus in the 8th may be particularly telling. As a Sagittarian angle to planets that also receive the square from Jupiter, there’s quite a bit of Sag-like energy in that configuration. All of this would be consistent with mania. For mania is the pathology that best reflects the extreme, unbalanced expression of Sag-Jupiter type energy, which helps us understand Williams, too.1
Robin Williams: July 21, 1951, 1:34 pm CST, Chicago, IL
A strong emphasis on the archetype of Sagittarius (by house, aspect, and Jupiter) may be a contributory or even necessary factor in Williams’ mania, but it is not sufficient. The other important factor is the signs in which the relevant planets reside. Note that the closing trine from Moon to Mars-Uranus occurs in two water signs, Cancer and Pisces. Underneath all that manic-Sag energy is an extraordinary sensitivity, a bottomless well of feeling that extends to unfathomable depths. As a metaphor, I’m picturing a hot air balloon rocketing into the skies with its furnace going full blast. But below there is a yawning, cavernous lake at the bottom of which resides the dead family of the native. The hot air balloon signifies his escape route, a desperate, feverish attempt to fly above and away from a tragedy too horrible to face, a grave situation that threatens to pull him down into a morass of guilt and grief that will extinguish all happiness forever. This is just a metaphor, of course. Yet, the real story is not entirely dissimilar.
In the vast majority of cases, mania alternates with depression. This is what is meant by bi-polar disorder—two diametrically opposed states that vacillate back and forth. What goes up, must come down. Writer Greg Gutfield noted that comics are like construction workers dangling from the girders, inevitably one will fall down. It is an apt metaphor, as comedy can be understood as compensatory to the demons that lurk below. Comics are notorious for being quiet and reflective in their personal lives, and often tortured in their private thoughts. In a 2006 NPR radio interview with “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross, Williams said that mania was something he imitated for various characters he performed, but he was not always manic. “Do I perform sometimes in a manic style? Yes,” Williams said. “Am I manic all the time? No. Do I get sad? Oh yeah. Does it hit me hard? Oh yeah.”2
Seeing Williams perform his frenzied comedy routines, I always had the impression that he was struggling to stay away from something—to rise above it, but not necessarily in a good way. This is typical of humor, of course. As a defense, it allows us to bind and release feelings that are too painful to face directly. It is almost cliché to say that comedy is born out of suffering. Like his idol Jonathan Winters (who was also bipolar), Robin’s comedy style seemed more self-generated than interactional. He was like a self-sustaining, perpetual motion machine that only minimally required interaction with other people on stage. Once he went on a riff, he could sustain it under his own steam with little input from anyone else. For him to actually stop, listen, and connect with others would merely interrupt the self-stimulating flow of his non-stop free-associations. Exciting, crazy, brilliant, it was breathtaking to watch him. It was as if he were channeling some comedy sprite. But such a pattern of behavior is more than simply a talent. It reflects something deeper. When the ‘on’ switch is always on, one suspects the off switch is dreaded.
In the interview with Terry Gross, Williams was asked if he had ever been diagnosed with clinical depression. Williams answered: “No clinical depression, no. No. I get bummed, like I think a lot of us do at certain times. You look at the world and go, Whoa.” This is interesting, for it suggests Williams’ sadness was more in response to collective suffering than to events in his personal life. In a 2010 interview for The Guardian, Decca Aitkenhead observed that Williams seemed to be two different people. On camera he’s “hyperactive to the point of deranged, ricocheting between voices, riffing off his internal dialogues.” Off-camera, however, she notes he is a different kettle of fish. “His bearing is intensely Zen and almost mournful, and when he’s not putting on voices he speaks in a low, tremulous baritone – as if on the verge of tears – that would work very well if he were delivering a funeral eulogy. He seems gentle and kind – even tender – but the overwhelming impression is one of sadness.”3
Too Much Water, Too Little Air
Aitkenhead provides as good a description of Sun Cancer/Moon Pisces as you’ll read in any astrology text. Her experience of Williams is consistent with what one might expect with someone whose dominant function is water. As astrologers, we know water is the most vulnerable of elements. Each water sign in its own way signifies a need to love and be loved—Cancer, to love those who depend on us for care; Scorpio, to love another with a depth of passion that transforms both lover and beloved; and Pisces, to love humanity with an indiscriminate, all-inclusive compassion that transcends the petty differences that separate us. But water-needs come with a price, for almost invariably our actual experience of love will fall short of the ideal. And it is precisely the failure to realize that ideal—failure to love enough and frustration of our need to be loved—that makes water so susceptible to emotional pain.
All of this is especially true of Moon Pisces, for it combines two watery elements—the Moon, which rules the personal sign of Cancer, and Pisces, the transpersonal water sign. Moon Pisces thus signifies an instinct to love collective humanity in a personal way, as if every human being were one’s own child, especially those victimized by an absence of love. At the time of this writing, I know little of William’s family background, children, divorces or anything of the sort, but Moon Pisces suggests he is no stranger to loss and tragedy, even if it is not his own. Moon Pisces feels everyone’s loss as if it were their own. As the poet John Donne wrote, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.” Pisces is existential guilt, the guilt we feel merely for being human; the sort of guilt that reminds us we are our brother’s keeper and that tugs at our conscience whenever we see another person suffering. This condition is exacerbated when the Moon disposes three planets in Cancer, one of which is the Sun. By way of dispositorship, all that Cancer energy leads to the Moon, which, in turn, injects even more feeling into the Cancer clad planets it trines. That’s a whole lot of unrestrained Cancer-Pisces energy. In fact, it’s non-stop, just like Robin’s comedy style.
Speaking of comedy, a word about Scorpio is in order. While astrologers seldom speak of Scorpio as a sign of humor, its relevance to comedy is self-evident. The vast majority of humor reveals a grievance of one sort or another; it addresses those things about which we experience the most discomfort—processes of elimination (bathroom humor), fear, pain, shame, sex, power, and at the top of the list, death—all of which are ruled by Scorpio. A primary function of humor is to release feelings that accumulate around such topics. Such catharsis is orgasmic and healing, which we experience as laughter. With Scorpio ascending, this was Williams’ prime directive, his most basic instinct. Scorpio rising assured he would seek an outlet for the fear, pain, and shame that we all experience as human beings. And with the focal planets of his T-Square (Mars conjunct Uranus) in the 8th house, this only underscores the centrality of the Scorpio archetype in Robin’s chart.
Even with such an outlet, however, we must assume it was insufficient to process the sheer depth of pain that Williams experienced, all of which seemed to be funneled into his Moon Pisces. Just consider the chain of dispositors. His Scorpio Ascendant is ruled by Pluto, which (with Mercury) is disposed by the Sun, which (with Mars and Uranus) is disposed by the Moon. The Moon is disposed by Neptune and Neptune by Venus (with Saturn), which leads back to Mercury-Pluto, and so the cycle repeats. At the bottom of his chart, however, is the basin into which all his water flows: Moon Pisces. This is the cavernous lake of infinite depth that I suspect he sought to avoid, but in the end claimed him.
Whether by synchronicity or merely a casting director’s intuition, actors have a tendency to be cast in roles that reflect their core issues and character structure. To cite but one of innumerable examples involving Williams, he was cast early in his career as the irreverent DJ, Adrian Cronauer, in the 1987 film Good Morning Vietnam. Initially he manages to stay above the pain of war by spoofing the military in his usual manic way, but his humor is like a tourniquet on a bleeding wound. Soon he is drawn down into the underbelly of Saigon and comes face to face with the horrors that afflict both Americans and Vietnamese alike. His anguish is palpable. He wants to save everyone. He fails.
We might say it is the story of his life.
When you consider Williams’ life as a whole—beautiful wife, beloved by millions, a home in Tiburon, millions of dollars in assets, and an ongoing fun career that seemed to have no limits—one is compelled to ask, what’s wrong with this picture? If a person cannot be happy with all that, what hope is there for the rest of us? But Moon Pisces is not merely a container of personal happiness; it’s also an open vessel for all the suffering in the world. Its emotional antennae is attuned to the millions of victims one cannot save, the stark tragedies of life, the sickness and despair, the excruciating losses and ineluctable grief that sweeps across the oceans like a tsunami into one’s own consciousness.
What effective response can there be to such suffering? My answer is rationality—the state of being reasonable. That’s what air is about. It confers the ability to step above the immediate situation and view issues from a detached perspective regardless of how upsetting they might be emotionally. Air is the witness, the spectator, the objective function that serves as a mediator between the ideal and the real. This provides the individual with a logical, rational faculty that enables him to learn the underlying causes and reasons for what ails us, and to propose sensible solutions.
Given the sheer amount of suffering in the world, this might seem cold, unfeeling, even indifferent. But that’s precisely the point: the element of air allows us to recognize the sheer unreasonableness of assuming responsibility for the world’s ills. As an individual, you do what you can—contribute to charities, support worthy causes—and turn the rest over to God and the slow, patient unfolding of time. After all, you’re just one person, here for only a brief moment in the vast expanse of human history. You have to keep things in perspective. Left unchallenged, however, the existential guilt of Pisces can metastasize into excessive, unwarranted, irrational guilt—the kind of guilt that robs you of personal happiness and sabotages your health and well-being in the misguided notion that you should atone for the imaginary crime of not helping enough. Guilt of this sort leads to the classic Piscean act of self-undoing. When mired in irrational guilt, a martini beckons like a seductive temptress and a line of cocaine says, “Take me in; oh yeah, I’ll fix your problem alright.” And very soon one is a victim oneself, of addiction, a condition that Williams battled for much of his adult life.
In Williams chart, air is his inferior element, which should come as no surprise. Its only inhabitant is Neptune in Libra in the 11th house, which forms the third leg of the T-Square to Mars-Uranus and Jupiter. One suspects Neptune in Libra was a co-conspirator in that manic T-Square that Williams utilized to avoid grief, for Libra is antithetical to feeling. It seeks a way out by playing fair and being nice. I am reminded of the scene in The Abyss in which the couple played by Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio argue over who should put on the only diving suit as their damaged midget submarine slowly filled with—you guessed it, water. Each kindly offered to let the other live, but whatever rationality remained between them was soon overcome by the sheer, overpowering amount of water that submerged them.
If Neptune in Libra is your only planet in air and you’ve four planets in water, it can be like getting a note from the hospital that says, “The good news is that we’ve learned a lot about the virus that originated in you, killed your family, and subsequently wiped out your home state of Illinois. But gosh isn’t it wonderful that you survived!” A polite communication utterly dwarfed by the tragedy of its contents. My point is simply this: too little air in the face of too much water cannot mitigate with rationality the guilt that one is required to endure. So, into the depths you go, flailing and gasping. How ironic that Williams died of asphyxiation, literally a condition of severely deficient oxygen to the body—or, too little air.
Further testament to Williams’ lack of air is his 2010 interview for The Guardian. Aitkenhead notes that Williams only became coherent when talking about his travails with alcohol and subsequent guilt. Otherwise,
He is vague, tangential and at times more or less incomprehensible.…the freakish articulacy showcased in Good Morning Vietnam was gone. Quite often when he opens his mouth a slur of unrelated words come out, like a dozen different false starts tangled together, from which an actual sentence eventually finds its way out….It’s like trying to tune into a long-wave radio station.4
Certainly, this can typify a lack of air. What Williams really wanted to talk about, it turns out, is his relapse into alcoholism—in other words, water topics, at which point Aktkenhead says he suddenly becomes lucid and forthcoming. Robin admits he resumed drinking in 2006 to deal with a general all-round “fearfulness and anxiety,” and he laments how his second marriage ended in 2008 largely because of his drinking, even though by then he was sober. “You know, I was shameful” he confesses, “and you do stuff that causes disgust, and that’s hard to recover from.”5
Clearly, Williams feels guilty about his drinking and the destruction of his marriage. However, I suspect this merely encapsulates a deeper, more irrational guilt that drove him to drink in the first place. The consequences of his drinking is not the true source of his grief and guilt, merely the visible tip of the proverbial iceberg, a focal point into which he can pour his feelings. The ultimate wellspring of his suffering is more diffuse, ineffable, and without bounds, like Pisces itself.
According to all reports, Robin Williams did not leave a suicide note. And so we may never know the real reason that compelled him to take his own life. My best guess is that he simply did not know how to make sense of his feelings. His capacity for a rational and objective response to the world’s ills, which he experienced as his own, was simply inadequate to the extraordinary depth of compassion he felt in the face of human suffering. Sometimes one can be too good a person, which is its own kind of illness. Robin’s stopgap remedy was humor, and when that failed, drugs and alcohol; and when that failed, suicide by hanging, as if he truly were a criminal. In the end, his escape into the giddy heights of manic humor failed him. Perhaps he simply ran out of gas. The gravity of his situation finally proved too much, pulling him down into that deep dark lake and extinguishing forever the last flicker of brilliance in a tortured soul.
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1 Perry, G. Depth Analysis of the Natal Chart. Haddam Neck, CT: AAP Press. See in particular Chapter 6, “Psychopathology of the Zodiac”.
2 “Robin Williams on Depression: ‘I Get Bummed’, from The Huffington Post, by Kurt Heine, posted 08/11/2014 at 11:07 pm, at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/11/robin-williams-mental-illness_n_5670367.html?utm_hp_ref=celebrity&ir=Celebrity
3 Aitkenhead, Decca. “Robin Williams: ‘I was shameful, did stuff that caused disgust – that’s hard to recover from'”, in The Guardian, posted Sunday 19 September 2010. http://www.theguardian.com/film/2010/sep/20/robin-williams-worlds-greatest-dad-alcohol-drugs