On Philip Seymour Hoffman

I was saddened today by the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman. There was a broad reaction both in the news and on social media. There was praise, shock, and sorrow. Someone on Facebook oddly noted that this is another bad sign for 2014 while another, a  religious conservative, used the event to evangelize. Even in light of the tremendous Super Bowl win by my hometown Seahawks this evening, I found the death of one of my favorite actors an odd juxtaposition and one that was very much a part of my consciousness all day. The obvious comparison might be that the victory by the Seahawks represents success. The football team showed tremendous discipline, they functioned as a team going deep on their roster to pull out the win. The QB is a professed Christian thanking God for the opportunity to play with the media talking about the bright futures of all the players, the coach, and the team praising their hard work and unrelenting purpose. This is an organization of individuals coming together to be the best at what they do and pulling it off.

Hoffman, who apparently died of an overdose alone in his Manhattan apartment seems the antithesis of this success. Overcome by whatever demons were chasing him, he left this world on what many might rightly say "the bottom." The money and fame apparently were not enough. In the end he was taken out by a needle that, as far as we know, was being used to silence some unspoken pain or existential angst.

But my thoughts did not immediately go there. While Hoffman's passing is upsetting, I have an overall sense of gratitude and found myself actually envying his accomplishments rather than fixating on his death. I suppose my mind goes there first because of this almost indisputable fact: he left us something great and he used his finely-honed skill as an actor to show us something about the world and about ourselves. That's not trivial. Few of us, even if we live to a ripe old age, will have either the talent or the opportunity to do what he did. Spending decades on this planet is certainly something we all hope and strive for. But as I age, I'm less convinced that it's the number of years we live that really matter in the end and life is more about how we use the years we have. Yes, that sounds like something you'd see on a motivational poster but there is something substantial there I think. 

I watched the game with friends and family and Hoffman's death came up. We discussed how a man who clearly seemed to have skills that far exceeded many of his peers and the ability to get to the root of the human condition could be so "disturbed" as to take his own life by giving it over to substance abuse. But we noted that this so often is the case with artists and philosophers. Those who have the ability to see more deeply and are able to unearth the frailties of the human condition so acutely tend to be much less able to paper over them with all the adornments and facades that are used with such aplomb by the rest of us.

While I admittedly know very little about what Hoffman was dealing with (he may have well just loved or become addicted to being high and went too far), there is a thread of truth to the idea that many who go out the way of Hoffman did haven't given up, they've given in. They haven't bypassed the despair that seems so inevitable but they've gone headlong into it. Some figure out how to make it through (or better, live in the midst of it) but many don't. Still, it is the embrace of despair that gives the artist and philosopher the power to see it for what it truly is and provides that unique lens for examining the human condition. In films like Before the Devil Knows You're Dead and Synecdoche, New York Hoffman explores the side of being human that leads to despair and we know as we watch that he really gets it. There's something authentic there. You don't get those insights by reading self-help books or watching a lot of reality television shows.

Which is the better life?  Russell Wilson is a football player who appears to be at the top of his game at 26, who loves God, his family, and his team, who visits children at a local hospital and gives to the needy and Hoffman is an artist who died alone at 46 with a needle in his arm and left the world deep insights into our nature and who brings us to the edge of despair so we can peek inside. This is not an answerable question of course because "the good life," whatever that may mean, is both person-specific and complex beyond what any course-grained analysis could possibly penetrate. But to ask the question is at least to say that an answer isn't cut and dried.

A colleague who watched the game with us sent me a short blog post in which the author, Alissa Wilkinson, attempts to reflect on Hoffman's influence on her life. She has more familiarity with Hoffman's stage work than I do and her insights resonated with me (and inspired me to write this). She observes,

In Hoffman's performances (from Along Came Polly to Capote to Synecdoche to Mission Impossible to the entire PT Anderson oeuvre and everything besides), I always had the keen sense that this was not "just acting" to him. He was, emphatically, not a movie star. Acting was less job, more vocation or calling, almost a cross to bear, as wild as that may sound. He said as much in interviews - talked about how painful the work was to him, how it hurt to inhabit another person that way.

Well said. Great art and the best philosophy, when it attempts to be authentic, is a cross, a burden. It demands that its creator not take the easy way out. You have to embrace the subject matter entirely, darkness and light. And this may mean (and generally seems to mean) that what comes out of the other side of the creative process is not going to be popular or "palatable" to a larger audience. It may mean one ends up alone—or at least more alone than one otherwise would be—perhaps misunderstood, and most certainly rejected at some level. For few of us have the stomach to see our worst parts as they are with no adornments or sugar coating. When one truly comes to understand that, it's impossible not to view "populist" as compromise. The dilemma then truly becomes an ugly one: authentically stay true to the craft and all it demands or inauthentically create what people will consume. Either may lead to despair because neither gives us everything.

Hoffman may have been at just this fork in the road. Certainly many other artists have been. I only wish he could have figured out how to live another day to show us a way through. Maybe in what he left us, he already has.

Thanks to Ben Olsen for the link.

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