Philip Seymour Hoffman & The Public's Problem With Mournography

It is insulting that the press' perception of the public is one of a celeb-obsessed mob, insatiably baying for the nauseating specifics of the case - trouble is they're just about right...
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It is insulting that the press' perception of the public is one of a celeb-obsessed mob, insatiably baying for the nauseating specifics of the case - trouble is they're just about right...

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Last Sunday news arrived of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tragic death from a heroin overdose.  He was an actor whose talent drew universal respect from in and outside the industry, and the news prompted shock and profound regret from all who knew and worked with him. Regrettably, the following days also brought thinly-veiled media conjecture of the inner demons they suspected beset the father of three, helpfully accompanied by images of his grieving relatives and a body-bag being carted into an ambulance.

The continued and self-serving newspaper analysis would strike us as more of an ethically suspect practice if it weren't for the fact that we have gotten so used to it, and that many in fact have developed rather a taste for it. After all, it really is only the next logical step for us to paw over the minutiae of the hours and days leading up to a man's untimely death when we already think nothing of buying a gossip magazine for an update on the painful divorce of two television personalities. In fact, last week’s event represented something of a perfect storm for reactionary columnists around the globe – the death of a film star, attributed to a hidden drug problem.

At its root, the press' examination of the circumstances surrounding Hoffman's death is at once insulting and depressing. It is insulting that their perception of the public is one of a celeb-obsessed mob, insatiably baying for the nauseating specifics of the case; just how many bags of heroin were found, exactly why wasn't he living with his family, where was he and what was he wearing when was he found?

It is depressing because that perception is probably just about right. Unhealthy fixations with drink and drug abuse and ‘mournography’ have crept into the psyche of ordinary members of the public. To what extent this appetite has been cultivated by the media is up for debate, but a morbid interest undoubtedly exists. Any normal level of curiosity can surely be satisfied by the bare facts, and the intimate details surrounding the man’s death shouldn’t be up for grabs no matter how many hits they generate.

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In any case, those who believe these details offer any great insight into what happened to Philip Seymour Hoffman are mistaken. Describe the physical circumstances as fully as you please, and you will gain nothing more than superficial understanding. There is a vast explanatory gap between a description of the event and knowledge of the event itself.

One’s own underlying motives, dispositions and weaknesses are elusive enough even given our uniquely privileged position to introspect. Our thoughts are immediately available to us for self-analysis, yet we struggle to fully interpret and understand our own temporal identity. Several times removed through the filter of the tabloid press, we stand no chance with Hoffman’s. And still this deeply unflattering exercise in futility persists.

The reduction of what must have been an unrelenting internal struggle to a trivial, bite-size news story is utterly unhelpful to anyone looking for an answer to any important question. To look at his work would be to understand a little better. In a startlingly poignant scene from ‘Before the Devil Knows Your Dead’, Hoffman lies in a narcotic haze, spread-eagled on the couch of his apathetic dealer and confesses that his life makes no sense to him. While his accountancy work deals in the tangible, his life’s equation involves no such absolutes. Increasingly he is aware of a terrifying disconnect between expectation and reality; all the things he has acquired fail to neatly cohere and resemble something whole.

Most of us cannot begin to understand the position that Philip Seymour Hoffman found himself in, and neither should we try to by piecing together the wreckage he left behind. It is meaningless to perceive a life by its composite parts, they are not the same thing.