“If you don’t like me just say it.”
“I don’t LIKE YOU!!!”
“Why don’t you like me? You’re a p—k and I like you.”
“Because you make my effort a joke! …. This isn’t a game to me. This isn’t playtime! This is serious…business.”
This is the transcript of a conversation between Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams. True, they were both acting in the film Patch Adams. Equally true, it does not matter. Mr. Hoffman played a method med student; a young man chained to his books with the white glint of a doctor’s robe burning in his eye. Mr. Williams played a nonconformist jokester; who seemed to scale the mountains of human emotion and intellect with almost no sign of strain.
Mr. Hoffman dedicated his life to acting. He got mad when fellow actors in Hollywood missed a cue. He got mad when Broadway actors missed his directorial vision. He strained his very soul to embody the characters he portrayed. He wanted to act perfectly, as the ideal dramatist. Mr. Williams dedicated his life to comedy. He ran at television cameras to get a laugh. He delivered light-speed standup before crowds of thousands. He admittedly overworked himself trying to do as many shows and as many movies as he possibly could. Then, effortlessly, he delivered some of the finest dramatic performances of all time. Mr. Williams and Mr. Hoffman are now both dead.
There are, properly speaking, four ways to speak about death. They are not necessarily exclusive to each other. The first of these four ways is the way of the sincerely sorrowful, those whose wails are filtered through language and arrive at the door of our soul as words. “My heart was black with grief. Whatever I looked upon had the air of death. My native place was a prison house and my home a strange unhappiness. The things we had done together became sheer torment without him. My eyes were restless looking for him, but he was not there.” St. Augustine’s account of grief has lost none of its potency in the hundreds of years since it was written. Tears come effortlessly, as does true sorrow. Filtered through language, sincere sorrow captures the state of a soul in the darkest of moments. And it cannot ever be faked.
This does not mean people do not try. There is the speech of the insincerely sorrowful; the speech of actors. Their will is involved in conjuring up the appearance of grief, but there is no substance of it. All grief or sorrow of this sort becomes a strain to maintain, the way all illusions are a strain to maintain. Mr. Hoffman became exhausted in every way, appearing in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Forcing himself into that character night after night “tortured him,” in the words of David Katz. Mr. Hoffman forced his eyes to tear, his heart to hurt. Ironically, forcing a show of sorrow on the stage turned to a true sorrow in his soul. Mr. Katz and others insist Mr. Hoffman was not the same man after the play closed.
Typically, however, the manufacturers of grief don’t strain so hard to feign sincerity. Following death of Mr. Williams, hundreds of professional writers, forced to write an obituary, produced the campiest, most irritating prose imaginable. All claimed to be deeply stricken and personally affected by Mr. Williams’s passing. That is the true sign of false sincerity: the story always turns attention back to the one telling it. For an example, nearing the end of his essay in the Atlantic, Mr. James Hamblin responds to the most obvious objection to his writing. “Is that (his argument above) manufactured sentimentality? I hope it doesn’t read that way. It’s real.” He only has himself to convince, because I am not buying it.
“What do you want your friends to say at your funeral?”
“Oh look! He’s moving….”
“There goes a funeral procession. I wonder who died?”
“Probably the guy in the coffin.”
A near-relation to false sorrow in the face of death is false flippancy: the expression that death is a small, irrelevant matter. Often times, being flip about grave matters subtly suggests, by the force of the joke, that frivolity is not natural to the situation. For instance, consider Mr. William’s early comedy, in which he addressed his alcoholism. “I want a realistic beer commercial. It’s five o’clock in the morning and you just p—-d on a dumpster: It’s Miller Time.” After a failed marriage, a withering physical frame and a noticeably more somber demeanor, it became clear that for all the joking, Mr. Williams had a real problem. After twenty years sober he relapsed. But the masked despair was present from the start. During “Live at the Met,” Mr. Williams described a hangover as being “like that scene from The Fly.” Placing his hands on the imaginary glass before him, he screamed: “Help me! Help meeeeeeeeee!”
True comedy does not attempt to dismiss death. Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” begins fittingly, with hell. The source of all true comedy is hope, and it jests “Oh death, where is your sting?” I have been told the story of St. John Vianney, who awoke in the middle of the night to see Satan standing at his bedside. “Oh, it’s you,” he said before rolling over and falling back asleep. Vianney beheld the specter of damnation and could laugh it off, because he carried with him the heavenly comedy. It is the saints who are the world’s foremost comedians. Consider the death of St. Lawrence. As he was martyred by burning, he quipped to the executioner: “Turn me over. I’m done on this side.”
Should the reader be paying attention, he will notice that the four ways of speaking may be divided into two camps: authentic and inauthentic, or again into: drama and comedy. Authentic comedy and authentic sorrow can be present in the same soul. It is the saints who have shown each of these in their isolation. It is Christ who shows them in their union, for he was the very Life of the World, who could command the dead to rise and yet he wailed at the tomb of Lazarus. It is easy to speak of hope, but almost impossible to act with hope. Hope is a paradox in theory and in practice. The man who has hope does not ignore the drama of death and thus he cries, but neither does he ignore the promise of life and so he laughs. Again and again the Nazarene cried for the dead and the dying, even as he bid them to rise and walk and live again.
Inauthentic drama gives the appearance of sorrow not present. Inauthentic comedy takes the present anguish and masks it. For this reason the former is related to indifference and the latter to despair. I do not think it was coincidence (indeed I hardly think there is such a thing) that Mr. Hoffman died of accidental overdose while Mr. Williams’ death was by all accounts intentional. The first is like standing on train tracks and then trying to jump out of the way. The second is like standing on train tracks resolutely, waiting for impact.
The objection will inevitably come: that to speak of a suicide is in very poor taste, and considering a whole life in light of it would be even worse. Far better to say that a person just died. The ending does not matter. But this is first-rate nonsense. One cannot ignore the ending of a life any more than one can ignore the ending of a sentence. The period (.) is an entirely different can of worms than the exclamation point (!) or the question mark (?). What is more, the two subjects of this essay founded their careers on this principle. Mr. Williams would never have told a funny joke if his audience ignored the ending. “If you want a linguistic adventure,” sounds rather stale and self-indulgent without the additional clause: “then go drinking with a Scotsman.” That is the genius of language from which all jokes and stories are born. Words can reach from the present into the past, and change it. We read forward and understand backward. It is in that moment when our faces cross over our shoulder to look behind that a joke may make us laugh or a death may make us cry, for both color what has passed by with what is here and now.
The last film I saw which starred Mr. Hoffman was (I admit it) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. We think Mr. Hoffman’s character to be the villain, until it is revealed in the final moments that he is a double agent and the leader of the revolution. The ending echoes back to the very first frames of film and transforms them. It is in keeping with this device of drama and the life-blood of comedy to insist that a man’s manner of dying matters. I agree with Mr. David Sedaris: the blood of every suicide splashes back on our faces.
In the death of Mr. Hoffman and Mr. Williams we find a most chilling reminder of the madness of our age. The sympathetic types tell us that depression and addiction are both an illness. Fair enough. But illness does not totally exonerate. Illness often arises from environment. West Africa is conducive to Ebola. Smoker’s lungs are conducive to asthma. Drinker’s livers are conducive to cancer. Sugar addicts are conducive to diabetes. The culture of the west is conducive to severe depression and addiction.
This seems to be the result of the cult of “self expression,” a plague to both my subjects. Jonathan Swift could write a joke without being a joke. Shakespeare could give life to a drama queen without becoming one himself. Their art was flung forth and forgotten. In those days, a performer of comedy was not a comic; he was a man. The writer of drama was not a dramatist, but a two-legged creature with his head in the clouds and his feet in the mud. From the modern idea that art is an expression of the self, comes the contemporary confusion that the self is only art. “I joke, therefore I am,” runs the philosophy of Mr. Williams. He readily admitted that he worked so hard for fear of being forgotten. Far better for him to have thought: “I am, therefore, I joke.”
Mr. Williams lived with an abounding desire to be liked. But the mind cannot think for more than one person. It has no room to carry the opinions of others. Appreciation does not waft from mind to mind like a metaphysical fog. You cannot walk by a man and take a mental sniff to see if he approves of you. Yet this is the thinking of all those who seek admiration as a means to happiness. Those who are most highly regarded seem to expect their demons to flee before the mass of popular opinion. But this never happens. A man cannot know what others are thinking, so he imagines what they might be thinking. Yet he, himself, cannot appreciate his gifts and his talents so it is impossible to imagine anyone else could either.
Those who have chained their identities to the opinions of others cannot hear the sounds of their own soul. Mr. Hoffman was a man far more interesting than any of his characters. Mr. Williams was far funnier than his jokes. But if “expression” constitutes “the self,” then we will always sell ourselves short, falling into misery and confusion. The cause is always greater than the effect. When expression is thought to be the sum total of the self, the results are fatal.
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