Jeremy Paxman: Do you understand [Philip Seymour Hoffman’s] involvement with drugs?
Will Self: Well addiction’s no respecter of persons. You know there’s hardly anywhere you can point a finger, high or low in our society, and not hit somebody who’s got addiction issues. Heroin is a drug that we associate most strongly with addiction, but people can be addicted to all sorts of things. I think the fact that heroin was involved with his death is what people find very shocking, largely because of the image that heroin has in our culture…
The old sawhorse of whether the fact he was such an amazing actor was in some way connected to his drug use – or the pressures of his life led to his drug use – I dare say that’s in the mix, but you know, you can go to any poor or deprived part of our country, and throw a stick and you’ll hit somebody who’s got a heroin habit.
JP: It’s interesting, it’s often represented as a sort of loser’s drug, which is the environment that you are talking about there. By no stretch of the imagination was this man a loser.
WS: No, and as I say, you will find heroin addicts in every walk of life. But I think in America, in particular, there’s a very strange culture surrounding opiate drugs, which is the broader family of drugs of which heroin is one.
JP: What’s heroin like?
WS: You’re asking me personally?
I think that for people who don’t have a kind of need to be anesthetized, it probably is experienced as, yes, euphoric, but they wouldn’t necessarily feel a pull towards taking it again.
One of the strange things is that most of the people watching us now, at some time or other, will take medical diamorphine, which is heroin. And if they’re in pain, they’ll experience simply the removal of the pain.
JP: But it’s not instantly addictive though.
WS: No, it takes a fairly concerted effort to get addicted to opiate drugs, so you can say that people who do become addicted, maybe they’ve got a predisposition to it, but they have to make some decisions. They have to kind of decide to take it…
JP: But apparently he spent 20 years clean.
WS: Yes, that may well be true. Of course we don’t know whether he had other addictive behaviors that, so to speak, kept the addiction dormant.
I think that the way this story is being reported suggests this idea that addiction’s like a kind of ugly spirit that was cowed and pushed into the background, and then it reared up again in that way. I’m not sure that’s a very useful approach; it seems a rather medieval perception of it. But we don’t know what lead to him being in that situation. Again, very sadly, and this is only supposition, often with people who return to using heroin after a long period of abstinence, they can’t judge the dose. This happens quite frequently…
Will Self and Jeremy Paxman, talking last week on BBC Newsnight about the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman.
I recommend watching the remainder of this five minute interview for two primary reasons. First, Self is one of the more naturally expressive cultural commentators out there — and not only that, he’s a former heroin addict. Because of this, we must be extremely careful when weighing his words on this topic, especially those on the question of whether Hoffman’s creative genius was tied to his drug use, given that this riff could be a thinly veiled absolution of Self’s own related sins.
While I understand those who may take it this way — as a bit of self-justification designed to soften any critiques of his parallel personal history — I am inclined to take Self’s analysis as instructive, if also with a large grain of salt. His experience with the stuff colors his perception of it, sure, but it also means he knows more about it than I do. This is why the testimonies of sinners are always more powerful than those of saints: only they can say “I’ve been there” with a straight face.
I think it is also worth commending both Self and Paxman for the sobriety and gravity which they lend to this topic. So often, untimely celebrity deaths mark occasions for saccharine tributes and tabloid prying. So rarely do we recognize what we’ve lost and what we can learn. Yet notice how Paxman says “By no stretch of the imagination was this man a loser”; his voice registers the brilliance of Hoffman, the brutality of his demise, and how these two facts combine to cast a piteous shadow over the entire event. Hoffman’s death is devastating because he was a father, a son, and one of the most incandescently brilliant actors of our time. But it is also a moment for reflection because tragedies, unlike happy endings, are also the most dramatic lessons.