Monday, February 3, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman: the Death of a Genius

The unspeakable sadness still lingers. Philip Seymour Hoffman died yesterday of  a drug overdose.

Michael Daly described the scene:

Philip Seymour Hoffman lay dead on his side on the bathroom floor clad in a T-shirt and shorts, a hypodermic needle sticking out of his left arm.

In the trash, police found five empty heroin envelopes. Nearby were two full envelopes.

Some of the envelopes were marked in purple with an Ace of Spades. Others were stamped with an Ace of Hearts. Narcotics cops immediately set to determining which dope dealers use those brand names.

Now, of course, some are asking what it means when an artistic genius dies in such an undignified state.

Tom Junod addressed the question in Esquire:

The second was that of course he had died in such a sordid manner — how else was Philip Seymour Hoffman supposed to die? There was no actor, in our time, who more ably suggested that each of us is the sum of our secrets…no actor who better let us know what he knew, which is that when each of us returns alone to our room, all bets are off. He used his approachability to play people who are unacceptable, especially to themselves; indeed, his whole career might be construed as a pre-emptive plea for forgiveness to those with the unfortunate job of cleaning up what he — and we — might leave behind. The only way that Philip Seymour Hoffman could have died in a manner more consistent with the characters he created would have been if he had died by auto-erotic asphyxiation.

Hardly the most edifying image, in a text designed to glorify Hoffman. But, I promise you, no one will call out Junod for defiling Hoffman’s memory with a disgusting image.

I find it more telling that Junod believes that Hoffman died “in character?” Who decided that there is a special virtue for an actor to die “in character?” Who told actors that they had to become the characters they were playing? I think we know the answer to that one. If Junod is right, it means that it's time for the acting profession to take a few step back from the “method.”

Surely, Hoffman was a great actor, but was it necessary for him to become the characters he was playing? Is there any real virtue in thinking that you are sacrificing yourself for your art?

Even if we ignore the damage it does to the actors themselves, method acting fills our screen with actors who mistake intense emotion for great acting.

There’s a reason why so many of today’s greatest actors hail from the other side of the pond. Can you imagine Benedict Cumberbatch or Tom Hiddleston (or John Gielgud or Laurence Olivier or Vanessa Redgrave) dying on a bathroom floor with a needle in his arm? 

In The New Yorker, Richard Brody suggested that Hoffman’s addictions were a sign of genius.

In his words:

Genius, whether at its most constructive or destructive, its most sublime or its most repugnant, is unnatural; Hoffman lived for great art, and it’s impossible to escape the idea that he died for it. The complete price of his nearly superhuman ability has yet to be reckoned.

Die for art? It feels like an updated version of a passage from As You Like It. When Orlando says that he will die for love, Rosalind replies:

The poor world is almost six thousand years old, and in all this time there was not any man died in his own person, videlicet, in a love cause. Troilus had his brains dashed out with a Grecian club, yet he did what he could to die before, and he is one of the patterns of love. Leander, he would have lived many a fair year though Hero had turned nun if it had not been for a hot midsummer night, for, good youth, he went but forth to wash him in the Hellespont and, being taken with the cramp, was drowned; and the foolish chroniclers of that age found it was Hero of Sestos. But these are all lies. Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.

And not for art either.

Be that as it may, Hoffman was certainly a great actor. Being a great genius is quite something else. Since actors interpret roles but do not create them, we might all decide that it best to save the term genius for Shakespeare and his ilk.

Regrettably, when we identify genius with substance abuse we encourage artists of limited talent to believe that they can sell themselves as geniuses by abusing narcotics or alcohol. It is probably better not to feed this illusion.

Whether or not the term applies to Philip Seymour Hoffman, Brody is correct to say that there is something “unnatural,” even “superhuman” about genius. In the past people considered genius to be a God-given talent, something that you did not earn but that you hold in trust.

Anyone who possesses genius is duty-bound to allow it to express itself. Among other things, that means caring for the human body which serves as the instrument through which it expresses itself.

Those who possess genius do it far more honor by following Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule, than by mainlining some Ace of Spades.

And then there is Jared Padalecki, an actor I have never heard of who starred in a movie that I have also never heard of. Thus, I read his comments objectively.

Padalecki tweeted his 1,200,000 Twitter followers:

Sad isn’t the word I’d use to describe a 46 year old man throwing his life away to drugs. “Senseless” is more like it. “Stupid.”

For those who were seeking a deeper meaning into the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, this was a slap in the face.

As a Jezebelle named Rebecca Rose pointed out, it is bad manners to speak ill of the dead so soon after their demise, but still, there is something profoundly  “Stupid” about risking your life for a fix.

In Rebecca Rose’s words:

First off, at the very least it's pretty insensitive to refer to the death of anyone as "stupid" within hours of when it occurred. But let's remember for a moment that Hoffman had a long battle with addiction, which he himself freely and openly acknowledged to the public. He was in rehab as recently as May of 2013.

I don't believe in massive online pile-ons when people make mistakes like this. However, when a celebrity who has more than 1.2 million fans who actively follow him on social media, he or she owes it to them to think long and hard about the opinions and beliefs they promote and just what the overall consequences of that might be. Whether we like it or not, he is a popular figure to lots of people and it might be cool if he wasn't so dismissive—and downright flippant—about a topic like drug addiction and the death of a someone who clearly struggled with it for most of his life. We do need to hold people like Padalecki accountable for what they think and say to the millions of people who follow them, not so we can enjoy a good ole' fashioned Twitter witch hunt, but so we can help make sure the conversation around these topics isn't tainted by misinformation and rash judgements.

Clearly, Padalecki crossed a line. But, he’s a celebrity. What were you expecting?

But Rose misread his comment if she thinks that he was either dismissive or flippant. He spoke in anger; he was enraged that such a smart man could be so stupid about his drug addiction.

Everyone feels for the children he left behind, but shouldn’t Hoffman have given a little more thought to them himself?

Rose seems to believe that addiction is an illness and that people who are mainlining heroin are no more accountable for the damage they do to themselves than are people who die from tuberculosis.

But, addiction involves behavior. Whatever its cause, millions of addicts have, by force of will and by following a good treatment program, learned how to control their behavior and to beat (or at least manage) the addiction.

Rose is outraged at Padalecki’s judgmental attitude, but she shows no interest in holding drug addicts accountable for their behavior.

By her reasoning, such as it is, Hoffman did all the right things: he went public about his addiction and he went to rehab last year. Unfortunately for him, more than a few people were unwilling to hold him to account, not for the effort, but for the result.

It is definitely a good thing that Hoffman had made efforts to beat his addiction, but, just as obviously, he failed.

Rose puts herself in an awkward position. When you tell a drug addict that you refuse to be judgmental and that you believe that there is nothing he can do to control the addiction, you are becoming an enabler.


Ari Mendelson said...

Having read Theodore Dalrymple's book "Romancing Opiates" I think it wise to have an extreme skepticism of claims of "addiction" to heroin. The book is extremely enlightening, and cuts through a lot of the sentimental nonsense that surrounds our ideas about these drugs.

Lastango said...

Methinks the writers at Esquire and The New Yorker are hijacking Hoffman's death in order to showcase their own erudition, the greatness of their own artistic genius. We are to assume it takes one to know one.

Sam L. said...

I have never seen any of his movies.

Ares Olympus said...

My brother died 8 years ago, in his 30's, from Methadone overdose, a drug used to treat heroin addiction, but had also used Meth and anything he could get before he got treatment. He died in bed at a halfway house.

He didn't have the success of Hoffman, but did dream of success, listening to the Amway motivational speakers talking about having tears in their eyes writing a million dollar check to help orphans or whatever.

A few years before he died he looked back to his lost marriage, when he felt the best, and reflected that he was using the most drugs at that time. He never reflected that his money problems were related to drug usage.

I don't know anything about what "addiction" is, but I can see apparently we're not all the same, and experience different sorts of pain, and we all find different coping mechanisms for that pain, and perhaps none of them are all-bad, but if they give relief, they'll be abused eventually if we're not careful.

I could see my brother's bad habits clearly - offering to buy him food, and his first choices were cola and Little Debbie snack cakes. His mind was laser-focused on whatever would provide some sort of relief. Illegal drugs were just more expensive.

On the other side, he was a people person, and would sit up all night talking to a friend who needed help, and in the end, his heroes were the drug treatment counselors, who had redeemed themselves to help others. I learned a lot at his memorial service, and he affected many people for his generous spirit.

I guess one virtue of unavoidable pain inside, is you learn the value of kindness, and just give everything out front, since you never know what tomorrow will bring. I have no evidence I would have been stronger. God just gives us different challenges.

Anonymous said...

If Hoffman died "in his greatest role," who wrote the script? What a waste.


Anonymous said...

Hoffman is reportedtohave suffered at thievery least from depression for which he self medicated. Thereis a better way to treat depression and rather than romanticize ordemonize let's look at why he didn't get effective treatment or whether he even tries psychotherapy.GV

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Last I heard he had been going to AA and NA meetings, but had stopped a week before his death. He was also taking about a dozen prescription drugs.

Anonymous said...

I thought this was an interesting article. I'll take aerobic exercise for my endorphins, but its scary to imagine what its like when you just can't feel good no matter what you do. I hope science can keep learning, with so many "uncontrolled experiments" in play.

The brain’s own opioid system (e.g., endorphins) becomes suppressed by the high concentrations of opioids used by addicts, and many people’s brains never recover full function. That means no matter how sober they are, they cannot experience ordinary pleasure, they feel vaguely ill all the time (like a low-grade flu), and they are constantly craving opioids. Which is why long-term opiate-replacement therapy—that is, taking a small amount of an opiate under the supervision of a doctor indefinitely—may be an answer for the most intractable addict or for the recently relapsed addict.