The mind may sort it out and give it names—
When a man dies he dies trying to say without slurring
The abruptly decaying sounds. It is true
That only flesh dies, and spirit flowers without stop
For men, cows, dung, for all dead things; and it is good, yes—
But an incarnation is in particular flesh
And the dust that is swirled into a shape
And crumbles and is swirled again had but one shape
That was this man. When he is dead the grass
Heals what he suffered, but he remains dead,
And the few who loved him know this until they die.
-Galway Kinnell, from “Freedom, New Hampshire”
The death of Philip Seymour Hoffman has been met in equal parts by deservedly effusive praise for the man’s art and the bizarre, prurient, voyeuristic, and pornographic interest in the particulars of his demise by apparent opiate overdose; heroin remains one of the few real taboos left, one of the few almost unspeakable deviancies, and, as such, some people just can’t stop talking about it. The prolific internet presence, General Gandhi, in his Twitter incarnation, noted maybe the most egregiously awful example, published in Esquire and Elle:
“Would Matt Damon ever be found dead, with a syringe still hanging from his arm?” — a real sentence about PS Hoffman’s death, in Elle
— Windy City Help Out (@Bro_Pair) February 3, 2014
The sentence is pretty astonishingly tasteless on its own, but to appreciate the depth of its stupidity, you have to read it in context and realize that its author, Tom Junod, hasn’t just stumbled into a graceless or infelicitous comparison, but has deliberately and knowingly set up a pair of competing schemas: on the one hand, you have George Clooney and Matt Damon, who “have too much to lose,” and are therefore psychically and spiritually immune to the lure of addiction; on the other, you have Hoffman and Gandolfini, “whose work has the element of ritual sacrifice.” This kind of casual, causal linking of transgressive genius to substance abuse has the fetid scent of an adolescent bedroom. Put down your bongs, guys. This shit’s about to get real.
My brother died in 2009 in similar circumstances—not, as the ghoulish, now-standard description goes, “with a needle in his arm”, but alone in a cheap motel room that our parents had rented for him, because, when they’d allowed him into the house, he’d stolen, and yet by that point, he’d have otherwise been living in his car. But, you have to understand, the last six desperate months of his life were sudden and alien to him, and to us. He was far more Matt Damon than Hoffman: a handsome, athletic man with an unaffected smile and uncanny personal charm; old high-school teachers who’d given him nothing but Cs (when he probably deserved to fail) remembered him as one of their favorite students; old girlfriends never seemed to get angry with him. He bounced from job to job (a signal, in retrospect, but at the time, we saw it as an overly gregarious and under-focused twentysomething’s natural fecklessness and indecision; it would eventually correct itself). Mostly he bartended, and he was an excellent bartender. He was never much of a drinker—mostly wine and beer, and rarely in any quantity. Like a lot of bartenders and other such nocturnal creatures, he dabbled in cocaine. If you’d have asked me a year before he died what his biggest problem was, I’d have told you it was that he partied a little too often, although that, too, seemed like nothing more than the kind of mild, youthful vice that we all, mostly, grow out of.
In fact, my brother had been a daily opiate user for the better part of a decade. He never did finish college, but he spent a few years at West Virginia University, and as a freshman, he’d badly broken his leg during a game of pickup soccer. After the surgery, he’d started on pain killers, and when the prescription ran out, he got them elsewhere—codeine, oxy, and eventually, Fentanyl and heroin. I was anything but naïve about drugs myself; I’d at least tried most of them; my best friend struggled with heroin; my boyfriend at the time was a recovering alcoholic and drug addict—and for all this, I never saw it in my brother, never suspected, never knew until it was too late. He was locked in that motel room, and he was dead. Would Nathan Bacharach ever be found dead with a pile of broken pills hidden in the sock drawer?
I don’t suggest that we turn away from the circumstances of death—the opposite of pornography is a prudish sterility that’s equally awful. But if George Clooney died of prostate cancer, would we take the occasion to make it a reflection on the type of roles he chose? It is one thing to learn to gaze without flinching at the cause of a man’s death, another entirely to treat his illness as a mere foible of his eccentric genius. Hoffman had a family. They knew, or they did not know, the extent and late stage of his disease, but what consolation is it to them, or to anyone who knew him, for a stranger to offer his sickness as a slick metaphor for his professional artistry, a cheap window-dressing on his soul? An actor’s art is doubtlessly informed by his person and his inner being, and Hoffman doubtlessly drew on his own sense and memory of darkness in performing it, but he was a great actor not because of his addiction, but in spite of it, and he did not die because he was a genius, but because he was a man—all of us have our end, but none of us deserves it.