The Fall-Winter of 2008-2009 in American history will be remembered for three things: who won the presidential election, who won the Super Bowl and... what the hell is going on with Joaquin Phoenix?!
Dostoyevsky, the 19th century Russian novelist who mercilessly plumbed the depths and shallows of the human psyche, once wrote: "Man is a mystery. It must be unraveled." Dostoyevsky's statement sounds like a mandate of sadistic curiosity that seems to define the media's attitude to the mysterious unraveling of Joaquin Phoenix.
I have to admit - and I am pretty sure I am in good professional company - that, as a psychologist, I've been scratching my head in search of a differential diagnosis. But don't worry: I am not going to go all clinical on Joaquin and repeat the "he's-gone-bonkers" (psychotic break) hypothesis. A) it's been already forwarded by better minds than mine; and B) I don't know the guy to engage in this kind of clinical assassination. But I'll step out on the proverbial limb and toss a few hypotheses into the ring...
Joaquin the Publicity Stuntman: The "publicity" hypothesis is an obvious cynical default interpretation that has been un-creatively over-massaged by both media and the general public alike. There is not much to add here other than to say that the obvious tends to be the most likely.
Joaquin the Gambler: This movie-star-gone-rapper switcheroo could be nothing more than a lost bet. Faustian in its mischievousness, this scenario is totally plausible. When you have everything that you want and money is nothing, what more thrilling poker bet can there be than to denounce your movie career, announce an unlikely career as a rapper and then hit the talk show circuit for half a year while keeping a poker face and rolling the tape of a future mockumentary.
Joaquin the Rascal Sage: Joaquin is the new Zarathustra, come down from the Olympus of the rich and famous to awaken the cultural zombie to the falsity of the material idols we so myopically worship. Joaquin is the "re-incarnated" Diogenes (that mad Greek from Sinope that lived in 412-323 BC), the new Cynic who forces us to re-evaluate our priorities. Perhaps, like Diogenes, by abnegating what so many of us desire (fame, riches, recognition, social acceptance), Joaquin is prompting us to examine our values. Or, perhaps, Joaquin, in the Gurdjieff-style "Rascal Sage" manner, is engaged in a civic project of Pattern Interruption with the goal of exploding the cultural expectations of the linear progression of success. And by confusing us, he is trying to enlighten us.
Joaquin the Method Actor: Joaquin, an obviously phenomenal actor, is engaged in a post-modern, Stanyslavsky-esque method-acting project... acting the role of an actor who no longer wants to be an actor.
Joaquin the Authenticity Agent: in watching the interviews on "You Tube" and reading the coverage of Joaquin's laconic media confessions, I am in awe of the fresh breeze of authenticity that he brought to the media scene. He doesn't seem eager to over-indulge in details. Like an all-too-familiar curmudgeon type, he grunts out succinct "no-s" not bothering a damn to elaborate, and, on occasion, snipes (!) back at his interviewers with no-punches-pulled feedback about their invalidation of his rapping efforts. This, I have to say, very neatly lines up with Barrack Obama's "I screwed up" courageous transparence. Perhaps, Joaquin is being an agent of change in promoting a real Reality TV.
Take the evening with Letterman, for example. Throughout the years I've seen many a comic self-deprecate when their jokes seem to fall flat. And while these moments of personal transparence seem personal, I don't think they really are. When a comedian is making a joke and sees that his or her "content" fails to launch, my guess is that the comedian defaults to plan B - a moment of "process" with the audience in which the comedian makes a joke of himself. This is pseudo-authenticity. There is nothing personal there. But look at what transpired between Letterman and Phoenix. At some point, seemingly frustrated with Joaquin's lethargy, Letterman seems to make a rather personal stab at his guest - something to the effect that you don't act like this (meaning being an uninteresting, disengaged guest) when you come to my house (or something to that effect). I don't think that I've ever seen Letterman authentically offended. As one of the kings of comedy, Letterman is bullet proof - but Joaquin, without doing a whole lot, managed to get past Letterman's defenses. Now, that's reality TV.
Joaquin the Rapper: Allow me to posit the following: what we are witnessing is no publicity hustle but, perhaps, nothing other than one man's discovery of his Flow. Why not take the man's motives at face value? If he is unraveling clinically, that would be therapeutic. If he is testing an artistic hypothesis, let him. After all, rap - as a genre - at its best is a kind of mantra-like American Zen which entrains a mind in a groove like a good set of prayer beads; a kind of phonetico-semantic sleuth of rhymes with an occasional pro-civic pattern interruption messages. Sure, we've come to expect our rappers to drip with gold and ink and have a six-pack under their wife-beater tees... And here's Joaquin: disheveled, a bit pudgy, falling off the stage instead of boogying like the best of 'em. So what?! Maybe Joaquin is trying to redefine rap, away from its stereotyped Form-Focus to its roots in the Essence of Flow. Who knows?!
Which, in closing, brings me to this: regardless of why Joaquin is doing what he's doing, perhaps his social valence is to be...
Joaquin the Koan: a Koan is a riddle question used in Zen training to help the seeker transcend seeking. A Koan cannot be answered logically - as a Question, a Koan is a Quest that has to be lived. Perhaps, just perhaps, Joaquin - knowingly or unknowingly - is positioned as a cultural Koan, as a sobering opportunity to learn to tolerate the ambiguity and the uncertainty of life. Perhaps, Joaquin is a reminder to us to put our anxious need to know aside and to allow the mystery to unravel on its own, at its own pace.
Maybe, the question that Joaquin poses is as simple as this: can we compassionately accept our own not knowing?
Pavel Somov, Ph.D., author of "Eating the Moment: 141 Mindful Practices to Overcome Overeating One Meal at a Time" (New Harbinger, 2008), www.eatingthemoment.com