In Manhattan during Christmas time in 1996, exhausted by holiday cheer, a tableau in the windows in Barneys New York brought Yuletide peace to my neurotic heart. In the store’s Christmas display, was a replica of Sigmund Freud’s study, including the Good Doctor himself. You could see Freud, brought to life by the gay essayist David Rakoff, talking to “patients” lying on the couch.
Rakoff, a prize-winning humorist, who wrote with wit and poignancy on topics from his stint as Freud to his trip on the last flight of the Concorde to his struggles with cancer, died on Aug. 9 at age 47. He is best known for his frequent contributions to the radio program “This American Life” and essays that appeared in “Details” and other magazines as well as in the “New York Times” and other outlets. He received Lambda Literary Awards for his essay collections “Fraud” and “Don’t Get Too Comfortable.”
Born and reared in Canada, Rakoff spent much of his life in New York City. His work is often compared to that of his mentor David Sedaris. Rakoff wrote about himself as being an outsider because he was Jewish, gay and a Canadian native. From this viewpoint, he observed the customs of U.S. culture much as an anthropologist from Mars might report on the mores of Earth.
Too often we pooh-pooh humor – treating comedy and satire as lowly stepsisters to tragedy. Laughter doesn’t mesh with emotional depth or matters of life, we think. But these wrong-headed assumptions misperceive the nature of humor.
“Humor is a serious thing,” renowned humorist James Thurber said, “I like to think of it as one of our greatest…resources, which must be preserved.”
Rakoff, whose essay collection “Half Empty” received the Thurber Prize for American Humor, proves the truth of Thurber’s dictum. His pieces, even when laugh-out-loud funny, are frequently infused with melancholy and filled with mordant reportage; and oases of humor can be found in his most serious essays.
Take Rakoff’s essay “Christmas Freud.” “I am gnawed at by two fears: one, that I’m being upstaged by Linda Evans’s wig in the Blondes window next door,” he writes of being the Yuletide Freud, “and two, that a car…will suddenly lose control…and kill me. An ignoble end, to be sure. A life given in the service of retail.”
In the same piece, Rakoff fantasizes about starting a worldwide “Christmas Freud movement” that would provide “grown-ups and children alike with the greatest gift of all: insight.”
Just as you think, Rakoff’s a fake Freud, but maybe he does provide insight to his “patients,” Rakoff makes you laugh again. “There s an unspeakably handsome man outside the window right now,” he writes, “I hope it is his phone number … how does one cruise someone through a department store window?”
Most of us, if we had cancer, wouldn’t be able to write not only well, but with humor, about our experience. This wasn’t so with Rakoff. “Hodgkin’s disease…is …,” he joked in the essay “I Used to Bank Here, But That Was Long Ago,” “So highly curable…that I like to refer to it as the dilettante cancer.”
A respect for responsibility was intertwined with his humor. In his essay “Isn’t It Romantic,” Rakoff skewers those who romanticize artists and suffering. “It can be delightful…to spend one’s days engaged in carnal hijinks and creative pursuits,” he writes, “Exponentially more delightful … than a life of responsibility.”
Though Rakoff doesn’t pretend that his illness imparts meaning to his life, he doesn’t give in to self-pity. “Everybody’s got something,” he wrote in the piece “Another Shoe,” “…what choice does one really have but…to really take it in, and then…get on with the business of one’s life.”
David, you got on with the business of your life – writing. We’ll miss you more than our words can say. R.I.P.