On the Death of Philip Seymour Hoffman


"Good Morning—Midnight—
I'm coming Home—
Day—got tired of Me—
How could I—of Him?

Sunshine was a sweet place—
I liked to stay—
But Morn—didn't want me—now—
--Emily Dickinson


"He was found with the needle still in his arm."


Did you know that about Philip Seymour Hoffman? He was the star of The Master and Boogie Nights and he was found dead, in his bathroom, in his underwear, with a syringe sticking out of his arm. Would you like to know that? 

I'm glad we know that. It's our right to know that. It's not quite enough that we know he died of a heroin overdose. How many glassine baggies of heroin were found in his apartment? Was he sweating and glassy-eyed, frantically withdrawing money from an ATM the night before? Did he leave a beautiful corpse? Are there photos? I'm always afraid I'll miss a detail possibly indicating that someone who overdosed on heroin had a drug problem.

I'm glad that stories discussing the decedent's drug abuse took care to note, as many times as editor or propriety would allow, that the syringe full of evil heroin was still sticking out of Philip's arm. I'm glad they're glad to note that. Not for pornographic reasons, of course. Entirely ethical reasons. Because the media is there to get the story, right? [Just ask Dr. V—or rather, her bereaved.] I'm glad that our media provides the knowledge. They may not be able to suss out whether Iraqi defectors are lying, or operate a Sochi toilet, but by God, they can defile a cooling celebrity corpse from miles away. They're professional tourists and I hope they never change or learn anything. 

As soon as the news of Hoffman's death was confirmed, off they galloped to the Village, on expedition into a land they knew absolutely nothing about, but about which they nevertheless felt very voluble. It all must have been very exciting for them, speculating about that dead star's last days, dissolute as the spree surely was, full of vicissitudes few of his professional mourners will ever have to experience. Drug addiction is very exciting.

It also must have been exciting to stomp on a dead star's corpse. That's what our interlocutors do, you know. I had never realized that before, until I had read the many, many "tributes" to Philip Seymour Hoffman—if these are tributes, libel and scorn me as flagrantly as possible when I die. In so many of these "appreciations," I can hear the faint sibilance of hissing, by people who utterly despise a stranger for overdosing on illegal drugs. Hoffman didn't die the right way; he died contemptibly, in the eyes of America, and this was expressed in a million sleazy slimy little ways by the commentariat.

Some of this contempt was obvious enough as to elicit condemnation; this was the rotten, low-hanging fruit, the mealy, malodorous sub-Murdoch right-wing. I take it for granted that a tow-headed virgin with rage issues, drawing a check with "Breitbart" stamped somewhere on it, will say something somewhat indelicate in times like these. That's a low bar. It's a bar that resides somewhere south of the Mariana Trench. Or Hell. I take it as an article of good faith that anyone of good conscience would support imprisoning a ghoul like Andrea Peyser or Dr. Keith Ablow in that padlocked basement from The Road, only removed from time to time to be partially cannibalized. That should go without saying. So spare me the localized outrage—at least those sleazes had the decency to be clear in their hatred of drug addicts.

No. I'm talking about the damning with faint praise, the pat on the back that might hold you back. I never realized just how much American culture despises and misunderstands addicts, in as personal terms as can be mustered. That's what struck me—that so many of the hacks penning encomia for Hoffman didn't even realize that they loathed the man for suffering from a disease. It was like watching a group of children gossiping in a nonsense language they had invented, in order to exclude an unpopular classmate. There's a certain internal logic apparent in the chatter, as the gibberish is repeated in certain sequences, respecting vague rules, using distinct inflections. But all an observer would be able to discern, amidst the nonsense, is the latent contempt for the subject. 

Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman is a typical example. Here is how Gleiberman—a grown man who, in his infinite wisdom, once gave the mighty O Brother, Where Art Thou? a rating of "F"—reacted to the news of Hoffman's death

"Learning that he was found in his Greenwich Village office apartment with a syringe in his arm (with plastic packets of heroin by his side), a thought that popped into my head was: My God, it sounds like a Philip Seymour Hoffman character."

Except it wasn't, you credulous sack of shit! This was a real goddamn human being, with a real addiction, who existed outside the four sides of a movie screen. And you should probably keep that thought to yourself—very healthy reaction, I would say, indicating a deep spiritual life and great compassion for the human condition. "Who can ever know someone else's demons," muses Gleiberman—shortly after writing the words, "I just about teared up thinking of whatever it was that Hoffman himself, at the moment of his overdose, might have been trying to escape from." Translation: "Who can say what his demons were...besides me."

Esquire's Tom Junod heightened this ghastly trend, of mindlessly interpreting Hoffman's private torments without any apparent knowledge of what addiction entails. In perhaps the most blithely unaware, cold, nakedly infuriating passage, Junod casts Hoffman's substance abuse as what a screenwriter might call "backstory"—a charming foible at home in Hoffman's offbeat dramatic repertoire:

"...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…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." 

I've written some pretty nasty obituaries in my time. But I have never, ever spurted crocodile tears for a dead man, and then fancied that a more fitting death would have been accidental strangulation while jerking off. That should be the kind of insult you get spat on in public over, years after the fact, by grey-faced people who remember what you wrote. But that's not the worst of Junod's putrefaction:

"Would Matt Damon ever be found dead, with a syringe still hanging from his arm? Would George Clooney essentially eat himself to death? No, for the simple fact they both have way too much to lose...The great character actors are now the actors whose work has the element of ritual sacrifice...It should be no surprise when, occasionally, they break, or turn out to be broken."

Read that a few times, and tell me the aforementioned right-wing trolls couldn't have written this monstrosity, belittling a man's death as just desserts. First of all, Matt Damon and George Clooney very well could overdose on drugs if they suffered from the disease of drug addiction, despite Junod's unspeakably stupid supposition that they "have gotten too big for demons." Second, relegating the incredibly powerful compulsion to use drugs and alcohol to the characteristic of a tortured artist is as savage and depraved a notion as anything spouted by fundamentalist Christianity. Third, this man is a grown-up who wears adult pants and everything, and falls ass-backwards into money every time one of his "long-form" white guy essays is published.

I could go on, citing this trash. There are a number of Daily Beast stories I could link to here, with titles like "Inside Philip Seymour Hoffman's Apartment" or "Inside Philip Seymour Hoffman's Funeral," but I'm not going to, because it is the worst website in America and needs to continue bleeding ad revenue at the rate of "First Day of Antietam," so that it might die quicker. But that would be to continue looking for answers from remorseless, stupid people who cannot provide them, and who cannot be bothered to think the answer does not lie within. You'll note the paucity of reactions which mentioned, for instance, that perhaps decriminalizing drugs could save lives, such that heroin users might know the purity or chemical composition of the drugs they are injecting. Russell Brand mentioned that—but then, is he a "Serious Person," or just some goofy junkie with eleven years of sobriety?

For addicts, their best thinking winds their way along a perilous path, inevitably arriving at either death or dissolution. You can't think your way out of the throes of a bender; you can't bargain with your own sickened mind, in which even light bends. It is surely not easy to explain addiction to somebody who does not suffer from it, but honest descriptions exist, as solicited by The Guardian in this piece after Hoffman's death. The people describing their heroin habits in that piece are not actors, or geniuses, or famous—they're your friends, neighbors, and family members. 

No, Hoffman did not ultimately survive his habit. This cannot be surprising, because substance abuse of this kind is necessarily progressive and fatal. 

What is surprising—what is astonishing—is that for twenty-three years, an addict had his daily death sentence reprieved, through means he himself could not entirely divine. He had gifts, and in the light of day, honed those gifts. He saw himself forming a richer life than he had known the day before, and as an artist, shared it with other people, for little reason other than the satisfaction of knowing he had expressed some truth well. 

Philip Seymour Hoffman was an immensely talented actor; he had a disease. He died of that disease. But don't ever say he isn't enduring, now.


General Gandhi


Read more from General Gandhi at The Gist


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