On the face of it, Winston Churchill and Charlie Chaplin – two icons of the twentieth century – couldn’t be more different. One the statesman whose resolve led a nation in the struggle against Nazi Germany, the other the world-famous comedian behind The Great Dictator. But they are bound by a dark secret: both suffer from depression. In Two Gentlemen on the Beach, the Austrian literary laureate Michael Köhlmeier recounts their story. Below is an extract from the novel.
There Was a Reason That Chaplin and Churchill Told Nobody About Their Walks
There was a reason that Chaplin and Churchill told nobody – not even their closest friends – about their “talk-walks”, as the agile Chaplin called them, or “duck-walk-talks” in the corpulent Churchill’s self-deprecating version of the phrase: namely, because they were talking about suicide.
They didn’t linger on other matters. They had too few common interests and too many divergent views. They took short cuts, bypassing polite chit-chat, skirting around personal matters that didn’t relate to their subject, and picking up again where their exchange of views had left off months, or sometimes years, previously. They discussed motives and techniques for taking one’s own life, and contemplated the things that famous suicides had suffered and felt during the last days and hours of their lives: Vincent van Gogh, Seneca, Ludwig II of Bavaria, Lord Lyttleton, Hannibal and Jack London (whom Chaplin had known personally – he’d given him the idea for The Gold Rush). They analysed their own states of mind in comparison with these examples. They were at all times aware that they needed consolation; they liked to complain to their nearest and dearest (both of them had a tendency towards pathos and weepiness) that they had been in need of consolation their whole lives. (To the astonishment of both men, they discovered that long before they had met, each of them had wanted to write a short essay on this notion. Though neither was aware of the other’s intention, they had both been encouraged in this by T.S. Eliot. The famous poet, who was also plagued by depression, was planning an alphabet of consolation for the magazine The Criterion, in which Chaplin’s and Churchill’s pieces would have appeared alongside each other. For some reason, nothing came of it.)
After just one meeting, they made a pact to see each other at least once a year, and walk together for at least two hours. Neither of them was a great walker, and they only paid attention to nature with its birds, flowers, scents and colours when it aligned with their aesthetic aims – Chaplin when he was in front of the camera, showing its effect in the Tramp’s face, and Churchill when he was planning the garden at Chartwell, like a three-dimensional paint- ing, accessible to all the senses, a thing of his own creation. During their walks, they forced themselves to pay attention to nature and regard it as something requiring neither their assistance nor their judgement, though – as they confessed to themselves, half amused, half dismayed – they couldn’t articulate what they actually meant by nature. Once, as they were walking up a steep, narrow path through the Malibu Hills, they stopped beside a bush loaded with small, blood-red fruit. When, after several minutes, neither of them had said anything, Chaplin wondered aloud what the reason for their reverent silence was. Churchill replied, self-consciousness. Chaplin mused that they probably still had a long path ahead of them. At which Churchill turned and looked at the hills, with their covering of wispy grass, then turned back and nodded in the direction they were going, before commenting on the look and the nod: “This is our path! This one! Just to weaken your metaphor.” One could only afford metaphors when they didn’t concern the whole.
Consolation, they agreed, if it was to work and to endure, had to be planned – not unlike a proposal in the House of Commons or the building of a swimming pool; not unlike shooting a film. But the quality of a plan depended on how it was drawn up. They ordered – yes, ordered! – themselves to stick to a method that would entirely eliminate pathos, sentimentality, morality, anything weepy, anything smacking of bribery or fatalism, and all useless railing against God and the world. And they managed to talk about themselves and the possibility of doing away with themselves as if these were negotiations over a third person who was not present, whose thoughts and fate did not so much provoke their sympathy as awaken an academic or aesthetic interest in them. Churchill later remarked that, looking back, their conversations had been dominated by the passive mood: he and his friend did not negotiate, “there were negotiations”; they didn’t take an academic interest, their interest “was awoken”; they didn’t feel sympathy, it was “provoked”. Chaplin summarised their attitude to these conversations with the phrase “sober all the way to enlightenment”.
Their conversations were often funny, very funny. But the intention behind them was not. Sometimes they bore fruit: take the scene from City Lights, in which the rich man puts a rope around his neck, the end of which is attached to a heavy stone he intends to push into the water. The Tramp desperately tries to prevent him, and the whole thing ends with the Tramp falling in the water himself – this was a scene they had come up with together, when their friendship was just a few hours old.
So Chaplin knew that Churchill had periods of gloom and hopelessness – the “black dog”, as Samuel Johnson termed this bastard child of errant impulses and contaminated brain chemistry. He knew that Churchill, the quintessential British swashbuckler, kept finding himself in the kennel of the beast without having been able to take any precautions against it. He knew that the animal attacked him from behind, and within a few hours would turn Churchill, the quintessential rhetorician, into a nervous stutterer who was soon rendered monosyllabic, with only one thing on his mind. Churchill had never spoken to anybody, not even his doctors, in more detail and with more honesty about this torment.
Churchill, in turn, knew about the anxiety that came over the world’s greatest film artist in the days and weeks following the completion of a picture, enslaving him, crippling him, sometimes reducing him to speechlessness and leaving him feeling utterly destroyed. Neither of them had much time for philosophy, and certainly not German philosophy, but they did share Nietzsche’s opinion that the idea of suicide was a powerful consolation, which could get you through many a bad night. (Neither of them could have cited the place where that was written.)
To prevent this most radical of consolations from ever becoming their only consolation, Churchill and Chaplin decided to keep meeting; if there was one person who could stop the other taking this path, then it was he, or he.