A Few Words on Substances and the Artist (Prompted by Philip Seymour Hoffman, R.I.P.)

Like pretty much everyone, I reacted to the news of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s untimely death from a drug overdose with utter shock and profound sadness. After a little reflection, however, I realized the shock was probably misplaced. The real surprise might be that he managed to stay clean and sober for as long as he did. Is it really so surprising that an artist of this extraordinary intensity should find the allure of drugs ultimately irresistible? Not to me. Which made me think, not surprisingly, of Fassbinder.

They’re not so different, Hoffman and Fassbinder. The kind of performances that both were able to summon from the depths of their own experiences and psyches (and I use the term performance loosely to include authorial and directorial performance); the grueling discipline they subjected themselves to; the intense, seemingly round-the-clock focus they required of themselves; the complexity and nuance, the deep understanding and generosity and kindness each brought to the characters they realized (regardless of how they behaved in their personal lives—that’s not what I’m talking about here)—not to mention the sheer appetite through which they seemed to engage with the world—all this must have been utterly exhausting. (Precisely the word PSH used to describe the acting process in that now much-cited Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, by the way). Who in their right mind would sign up for such a way of life? Who could endure it—and who would want to?

The qualities that enable a person to direct four feature-length movies and four stage plays in a single year, or transform themselves from a 250+ pound man into the diminutive Truman Capote through sheer concentration (the opposite of De Niro-style weight gain or Christian Bale–caliber weight loss, by the way), are not normal, rational, or healthy. Happy, secure, stable, well-adjusted adults do not willingly spend days, weeks, or months on end taking on the extremes of other humans’ misery, nor do they willingly subject themselves to punishing, ultimately arbitrary work schedules—for years on end—that threaten their mental and physical health. To do so is to already have crossed a line into the irrational and the unknown and the dangerous. You’d “have to be crazy” to do what these guys did. So why are we surprised when they show the same disregard for their well-being by abusing drugs?

Let me put it this way: I cried for two whole days after watching Synechdoche, New York a single time. What could it possibly have been like to inhabit Caden Cotard’s character day and night for the weeks and weeks it took to shoot? I cannot imagine living with that degree of sadness and pain. Can you? (I reckon we should probably be worrying about Charlie Kaufman right about now, too.)

Please don’t get me wrong.  I’m not justifying drug use on the grounds that it helps artists make great art—god knows, we lost an entire generation of jazz musicians to that particular fallacy—and I’m not suggesting that drugs are a necessary outlet for the intense emotional burden some great artists bear. But I don’t understand the incomprehension and the hand-wringing and, worst of all, the accusations of weakness and irresponsibility that ensue when such an artist does seek oblivion or relief or stamina or whatever it is they seek through drugs. Just watch Berlin Alexanderplatz or In a Year With Thirteen Moons or Synechodoche, New York, or even that otherwise pretty mediocre transvestite movie costarring De Niro, elevated only by the cringe-inducing honesty of Hoffman’s performance. (What was that movie called? That’s how otherwise unmemorable it was: I’ve forgotten the title but I remember the performance). Weakness has nothing to do with it.

What keeps coming up, in memorium after memorium, is the anger and resentment we feel at the thought of all those great PSH performances we are forever deprived of because of Hoffman’s selfish recklessness. No different, I’m sure, from the laments about all the films RWF would never be able to make after his untimely death at the age of 37 (nine years younger than PSH, I might add). We feel cheated and deprived when the artists we deeply admire let us down by dying when they didn’t have to. But did we ever stop to wonder what it cost them, that genius, that intense burning brilliance, when they were alive and working? Do we ever stop and think, if not how sad, at least, what an incredible sacrifice (or even, wow, that looks really scary)? Do we ever marvel at that fact that they are even able to get up in the morning to do it, day after day, despite the incalculable personal cost?

When we bemoan the loss of all the great films Fassbinder could have made had he not been a driven, drug-abusing libertine, we fail to acknowledge that it’s the driven, drug-abusing libertine who made the art we so love (and at the death-defying pace he found necessary to get it done). That’s who he was, that’s how he worked. We don’t have to know why, exactly, and we don’t need to understand how he pulled it off for as long as he did to know, at least on some level, that we probably couldn’t have expected the one without the other. To speculate on how things could have been had he not succumbed to the scourge of drugs seems a little dishonest and naïve and, to my mind, implicitly puritanical (though quite commonplace in this pathologizing era of the DSM-5). Better simply to accept that he was a creative genius who took irrational risks on behalf of that genius. It paid off spectacularly, too—until, of course, it didn’t. That’s how risk-taking works.

Of course the situation was different for PSH, who spent most of his working life in abstinence. Still, to wonder how he could have stayed clean for 23 years while contributing some of the most beautiful performances of the century, only to blow it all on a heroin binge after starring in a high-concept pop-culture dystopic adventure for young adults, is to make impossible assumptions about who he was deep down—and about which impulses he should have given in to (the deep, painful creative ones) versus the ones we know he should have successfully combated (the impulse to get really fucked up, for example—whether in hindsight, or because we have zero tolerance when it comes to the well-documented risks posed by drugs). I just don’t know how you can presume to separate the two on someone else’s behalf or how you can know where the line is or should be for them.

So, rather than dwell on the whys and what-if’s of a brilliant career cut short by a seemingly preventable death, I suggest we look back in wonder and amazement at the body of work PSH managed to leave us—against the odds, I might add—and at the mysterious complexities of a human being who could go there in the first place.  That’s what we’ve had to do with Fassbinder, after all.

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1 Response to A Few Words on Substances and the Artist (Prompted by Philip Seymour Hoffman, R.I.P.)

  1. davexrobb says:

    Liz, this is really brilliant. Thank you.

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