On Death, Vulnerability And Its Limits


On Sunday morning, or really Sunday afternoon, I awoke in a haze, courtesy of a red wine-fueled excursion to Chinatown. The night had turned to morning, and following an ill-begotten stop at White Castle, it had deposited me back in my Bronx apartment sometime after 4:30 a.m. I knew I would wake up hating my decision-making, or lack thereof, and sure enough, the most depressing moment of my recent existence came when I had to stare at myself in the mirror the following afternoon, barely able to keep my head up long enough without my illness manifesting itself in a particularly vile and violent fashion.

Living alone, I utter very few words inside of my apartment, aside from the occasional out-loud reading of a recipe or outward reactions to Rangers games and Carmelo Anthony. On this day, however, there were even fewer words; only the occasional obscenity escaped for the most part. This all comes with the territory of the hangover, a lingering evil which reduces men to nonsensical animals, not unlike the substance that engenders them in the first place. Alcohol is poison; this is what we know. Yet many among us put it in our bodies and take temporary leaves of absence from the world, from reality, because we feel like we do enough to earn it, or perhaps don’t do enough to earn anything else. People say things like “I would rather be dead than feel like this,” and often, we think we mean it.

It was in this state, a regretful and passive emptiness eroding most of my desires, that I first read reports about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death in his Greenwich Village apartment. As the news spread throughout the day, and details concerning needles and addiction made themselves apparent, I started to consider “the limit,” and how some of us push ourselves to it. In no way am I comparing a night out among friends to a heroin addiction, or alcohol to heroin itself. But the reasons inherent to why we do what we do when it comes to these sorts of things fascinated and enraged me simultaneously. Why would a 46-year-old man be shooting heroin? What troubles could the greatest character actor of our time, and probably of any, be facing that he hadn’t already overcome? What good was to come of it?

These queries always roll from the presses at times like this, when someone of great talent passes far before his or her time, yet these times still happen. It doesn’t seem fair, and it certainly isn’t right, but to the unseeing eye, missed details can be everything. Perhaps Hoffman was simply trying to get high and move on with his life; surely, accidental deaths happen with enough frequency that another one like that wouldn’t be out of the question. But we can never know his motives, not now, and it will be tough as we watch media outlets project whatever issues he might have faced, whatever weight he carried from role to role and through stints in rehab, onto a man that we will never know personally. There’s no sense in that, much like in the rest of it.

In many of his roles, Hoffman exuded a kind of unspoken sadness and earnest hope for what lies ahead, cognizant of the fact that the past cannot be changed. His characters were often constants in the lives of the people surrounding him, peripheral blocks of wisdom whom central characters looked to in key moments. Hoffman as a man selected roles which he embodied, and the viewing public could look to him to deliver mesmerizing performances in even second- and third-tier films. He was our constant too.

I remember looking around at a bunch of people in a room who were waiting for the kickoff to the Super Bowl, and another delivery of food. “Philip Seymour Hoffman is dead, and people want to watch this inconsequential bullshit,” I said to one of my friends, rather smugly and with a bit of hangover-anger rolling off my tongue. On Twitter, people were debating Kevin Durant’s nickname and why Bon Jovi didn’t have more of a place at the Super Bowl XLVIII table. It didn’t seem right. It never will, I’m certain.

With the pressure we all face daily, in every role and on every level in society, it has to be the case that some people won’t deal with it the way we want them to, and that it hurts them. Compartmentalizing has become a necessary skill for people in all walks of life, and some among us are able to do it better than others. Philip Seymour Hoffman as a generational landmark is something which is, and that cannot be taken away from us. His talent has, and that is the greatest shame.


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