Philip Seymour Hoffman: not waving but drowning

Philip Seymour Hoffman was an ideal actor. He had great professional success but he wasn’t glitzy or overtly glamorous. He combined serious work in the theatre with major roles in highly regarded films. He had won an Oscar. He seemed more Manhattan than LA. He was a devoted father to his three young children. Then he was found dead in his apartment, apparently from a heroin overdose. We can only imagine the panic, sorrow, frustration and turmoil consuming him inwardly – while to the wider world he appeared a model of diligent accomplishment.

Hoffman’s life and death presents us in a specifically tragic manner with a more general truth about the human condition: that there is often a terrifying gap between the public perception of someone’s life and the inner experience.

In a short poem from 1957, the English poet Stevie Smith homed in on precisely this split between public smiles and private pain. She imagines a man drowning off a beach. Onlookers see his frantic signals but imagine he is just larking around. And, finally, Smith gives us the dead swimmer’s haunting summation of his existence:

‘I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.’

The phrase is compelling because we are, all of us, much more distressed than the people around us realise. And, the flipside of this same coin, other people are much more distressed than we allow ourelves to discover. We don’t pick up on the quiet references to ‘difficulties’, we assume things must be fine, because it’s just so much more convenient that they be so.

We were not part of this actor’s life. Many of us are spared his specific troubles. But we are, in some corner of our souls, still a little bit like him – and so are all the people we know; not waving but drowning.