Shared Pain and an Artist’s Tragedy

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Shared Pain and an Artist’s Tragedy

The following post originally appeared on the Venture Galleries website.

The actor Philip Seymour Hoffman and I were neighbors in the way many New Yorkers are neighbors, which is to say: I never met him, never spoke a word to him. Our apartments were four blocks apart. When I was in the city (where I live very part time), I just saw him around on the street now and then.

On the sidewalk Hoffman looked like a normal guy. I passed him maybe four or five times — once spotting him through a window when he was seated at a breakfast counter on West 4thStreet — and I never saw anyone stop him for an autograph or even do a double-take.

I don’t draw too many conclusions from that unrepresentative sample, but it fits my understanding of his talent. In the best possible way he wasn’t leading-man material, not just because he didn’t have the face or the build. He disappeared into his roles the way only truly great actors can. I like to think that even with George-Clooney looks few people would have stopped him on the street, which I take as a kind of respect for his craft that goes well beyond the fame that begets autograph chasing.

The day Hoffman died my family and I happened to be in New York. That afternoon we’d had lunch at Daniel Boulud’s db Bistro Moderne in midtown, followed by a matinee of Cyndy Lauper and Harvey Fierstein’s Kinky Boots at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. That night we ate dinner at Michael White’s Ai Fiori at the Langham Place Hotel on Fifth Avenue and 36thStreet. We had devoted ourselves all day to consuming the creative output of others.

It was Super Bowl weekend, midtown felt zooish, and the night was cold. On a summer evening we might have walked, but we took a cab home. I imagine now, in retrospect, that as we pulled up in front of our building Hoffman was already in distress up in his apartment with his heroin. We went up to our own apartment and fell into bed.

Over the next week, reactions to Hoffman’s shockingly premature death served as a kind of litmus test. Those who wished to find a morality play expounded on the method of his self-destruction. Those who considered his entertainment value spoke of the roles he’d never get to play. Others focused on the tragic pain that drove his actions.

At a dinner party last week I asked the table for a reaction to his death. After a few pro forma statements about the loss of a fellow human being, our different outlooks played out on what everyone agreed was a tragedy.

The doctor spoke of oxycontin as a gateway drug to heroin, sharing his insights into the process of Hoffman’s demise. The journalist spoke of what made Hoffman one of the greatest actors of his generation, and how people underestimate the rare kind of person it takes to be a truly great actor.

Both of these are valid perspectives, of course, but I had my own, which didn’t quite involve observing the problem of heroin from afar or observing Hoffman’s work from the back of the theater or being Hoffman’s neighbor in Manhattan, all of which I’d done.

My filter was my own knowledge of the pain that creating fictional characters imposes on the human mind. By this statement I don’t mean to suggest that I can fully comprehend Hoffman’s pain (which was unique to him) — or, for that matter, any other person’s pain (which is unique to them). Yet I feel a level of empathy that goes beyond how great Hoffman was or wasn’t or how society made it too easy for him to do himself in.

Fictional storytellers — among whom I count actors — share the necessity, in order to execute their craft, of inhabiting other human beings. An actor deeply in touch with his role isn’t merely playing a part; he or she becomes that person for a time. Similarly, a writer doesn’t conjure characters from outside himself, but from within himself, which requires an intermingling of egos.

Recall how exhausting it was for Spock to do the Vulcan mind meld — how hard to recover from immersion in another being. We were meant, I suppose, to understand this as the purely logical mind’s aversion to emotion, but I think there was something more going on with that trope.

To successfully inhabit another being — albeit a fictional one — requires setting the ego aside to make space for another personhood, and consequently to realize the ego’s fragility. Our fragility. For if we can create a character and inhabit him, what does that say about the reality of our selves?

Storytellers travel to a place that few others know, the place where being gets created. If they do it with seriousness of purpose and well, they approach a dangerous precipice. They can fall off that edge and lose themselves. At the least, when they come back from that place they see human reality for what it is: in many ways just another constructed thing. And each time they fully inhabit another character, perhaps it becomes that much harder to return. They look around and everything seems so wrong, so phony. They look in the mirror and wince at the shallowness of life.

For some, sadly, all of this becomes torturous, and they’re tempted to escape back to that place of creation. But they can’t be writing or acting all of the time. And they know that each time they go to the creating place, the pain of returning becomes that much more difficult to face. So, sometimes, they look for another way to escape the reality that has now been revealed to them as a hollow facade.

All storytellers know this pain, but of course we have different capacities to deal with it. For Hoffman, apparently, the journey became unbearable.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and I were neighbors. Now he’s gone.

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