During a talk on December 17, 2012, at the Rubin Museum of Art in NYC, in which Phillip Seymour Hoffman spoke with New School of Social Research philosophy professor, Simon Critchley, about portraying unhappiness on stage and screen, there lies a moment of blazing insight into the struggles Hoffman was potentially grappling with.
When the interview was nearing an end, and Critchley was looking down at his notes for, as he said, “anything else intelligent to say”, Hoffman leans in to ask, now in retrospect, a startling, naked question.
“So learning how to die is learning how to live?”
He faltered as he seemed to try to get the professor to take seriously the question and give a real answer.
Somewhat apologetically, he said this must be basic for the professor, but again asked with a shy intensity, “Is that what that means, right?”
The professor goes on to pontificate on philosophy and how Socrates accepted his death and the hemlock, when he didn’t have to.
This was one moment when I wanted to jump into the screen and stop the action, for it was an urgent and immense moment, Hoffman’s question, his vulnerable need, and it was lost in the haze of philosophical words.
It was also evidence of a classic balancing act that I imagined Hoffman to be grappling with.
The balancing act of being alive.
In his case, balancing life with death.
It seems he may have been asking about why he flirted with death.
Specifically, whether there was the redemption of knowing life more intimately from circling death.
I think that anyone who responded to Hoffman’s death—be it with anger, shock, grief—felt also a ping of familiarity.
Though it may be difficult to consciously identify, there is a link between his story and our own.
Don’t we all balance our truest moments of aliveness with projecting personas that adapt us to everyday social situations and professional scenarios?
This is a sort of death pose we adopt—the moment by moment death of who we really are—often without knowing it.
Do we even know what it feels like to cast off the shackles of socialized behaviors and glib responses to get a peek of who we really are? What are the feelings lurking beneath the automatic ways we have learned to relate?
In my work, I get more than a glimpse of what is real for people; what they deal with beneath the social mask.
While it is very moving to be trusted enough to be allowed inside, it can be alarming, as well.
The disparity between how a person truly perceives herself, vs. how she has learned to respond to life publicly, is a testimony to the strength of survival.
It is also a deeply poignant portrait of loneliness.
For, only she herself, alone, converses internally in the most authentic telling of her truth.
This is a common condition for people.
This is why, I believe, we are fascinated with celebrity mental disturbance.
In the most extreme cases, we see those who appear to have everything, as with Phillip Hoffman.
Everything we can see about his life has the golden glow of prosperity, fame, winning the fortune of life’s best bonanzas.
Obviously, whatever went on inside of Phillip was discordant with what we might expect from a gifted, brilliant winner of a coveted fame; a professional artistic place in the sun.
Whether you explain by calling him an “addict” or perceive his true psychological condition to have been devastated and fundamental, appearances did not align with truth.
This is where we are most gripped with his death, along with the total loss of a beautiful artist.
This is also our story.
The balancing act of being truly alive.