If you want to view paradise…Remembering Gene Wilder, our quiet dreamer

A world of pure imagination ...

Gene Wilder died yesterday. The outpourings of grief were swift and strong. “Gene Wilder was one of the funniest and sweetest energies ever to take a human form,” wrote Jim Carrey. “If there’s a heaven, he has a Golden Ticket.”

During his life Wilder described himself as a “Jewish-Buddhist-Atheist.” His “religion,” he said in a 2005 interview for the book Stars of David, was “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

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And yet for those who ever saw him interviewed (here’s a great one from 2013), there was something about him, his gentleness and soft-spokenness, that seemed somehow otherworldly. Like he wasn’t quite from here or he was connected to something bigger. Somehow, even though he didn’t believe in a god, in some strange way his demeanor seemed to offer the promise of one, just around the corner.

Many of us remember his famed performance as Willy Wonka in a similar way, a quiet and strange messiah come to bring people to a better place. “Come with me and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination,” he invited Charlie Bucket, Veruka Salt and the rest. Watching the scene, one thinks at first he’s talking about the fantastic candy land in which the characters find themselves, a sort of consumer’s utopia.

But as the film goes on such notions are debunked; it’s not the child who can eat the most who is king here, nor the wealthiest but the one who finds wonder all around him. “If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it,” sings Wilder. You can hear the deeper beautiful kingdom he’s calling us to in the quiet longing of his voice, the wide-openness of his eyes.

Though she knew he was an atheist, interviewer Abigail Pogrebin couldn’t help but ask Wilder in 2005 whether his own experience of cancer ever left him wondering how God could let such things happen.

“That ignorant question,” he replied, “and I say ‘ignorant’, not ‘stupid’—never crosses my mind. I would never have dreamed that God would favor you if you did this, and piss on you if you did that....There couldn’t be any God that cruel or dumb or uncompassionate.... The world is not based on fairness. Human beings can rise to fairness, can administer something that makes it fair or just. But that’s not God. When I was being radiated twice a day at Sloan-Kettering, they’d wheel me down there and I’d see these little kids—5, 6 years old—bald from the chemotherapy. I’m supposed to think that if their mothers had prayed to God, asking, ‘Please help my child,’ then they wouldn’t be here? Nonsense.”

Wilder died on Aug. 29 in Stamford, Conn., holding hands with his gathered family while listening to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The clouds are indeed far behind him now. And though he might not have believed in the possibility of heaven himself, still his life makes us wonder with hope what someday might be waiting for us.

Jim McDermott, S.J., is America's Los Angeles correspondent.

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William Rydberg
1 year 10 months ago
Jim, Although he is a generation older than myself. I remember several of Mr Gene Wilder's movies when they were in first-run Theatre. Enjoying immensely, the witty dialogues and his charming way of delivering a theatrical line. Although, having never met the man, somehow, knowing that I would have liked the man if I met him socially. He fell into that rare category, of seeing him, was to love him almost unconsciously, as though he were a very special uncle, or big brother. Just a sweet wonderful guy! Somebody, I and many of my friends would have loved to be like to emulate in some positive way. Which is why I think long and hard about how you have his attempted to capture the devastating circumstances of his death-at least from a Catholic faith perspective. As Catholic's, we are taught from an early age to let God be the Judge. That God is Love. That the only just Judge is Jesus-God come in the flesh. However, intuitively we know that there is great tragedy in not coming to know the good God. Somehow worst still, as a religious person, Atheism? Incomprehensible. Tragic, horrific loss comes to mind.... Catholicism accurately teaches that nobody earns God's grace, that everyone receives Sufficient grace. And above all, if we are truly honest, we know that we don't deserve to come to the knowledge of the Truth. As a Catholic, that Truth is Jesus Christ-God come in the flesh. Second person of the Trinity, the One God. As Catholic's we are taught that God desires that all men be saved. Truly a Mystery. Which is why I suppose that I have real difficulty as a religious person with how you described things and passed over the mystery that remains. For me, as a religious ending one's life in atheism is... But nothing is impossible for the Trinity... May Gene Wilder's soul and all of the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace... in Christ, Blessed be the Holy Trinity...
Lisa Weber
1 year 10 months ago
His faith is known to God alone. If he brought joy and laughter to others in this world, he did better than average. I believe that God understands that.

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