His Own Late Quartet: Remembering Philip Seymour Hoffman

“For us, it means that playing for so long without pause, our instruments must in time go out of tune each in its own quite different way. It’s a mess. What are we supposed to do? Stop? Or, struggle to continuously adjust to each other up to the end, even if we are out of tune? I don’t know. Let’s find out.”- A Late Quartet

A Late Quarter, starring Hoffman, Christopher Walken, Catherine Keener, and Mark Ivanir

A Late Quartet, starring Hoffman, Christopher Walken, Catherine Keener, and Mark Ivanir

Watching the decidedly underrated A Late Quartet (2012) tonight, one of many flourishes in Hoffman’s beautiful and complicated career, I was moved to consider its sense of urgency. Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 4, opus 131 was written to be played without pause, and the film offers many possible reasons for that unusual insistence on the part of the composer. By the time the piece is finished, instruments may have worked themselves out of tune and the melody runs the risk of falling flat. Of course, the deaf Beethoven wouldn’t have heard any of that discord; he knew only that he was writing an opus without pause, without relief, without rest. No port in the storm, for the players of opus 131.

Everyone on the internet seems intent on sharing their thoughts about addiction, about art, about acting, about life. My own post, indeed, signifies one among thousands of pieces that will pass through online filters and get filed away within the insurmountable wealth of data that exists nowhere in particular. So why am I writing this? Why do we write at all? Why do we act? Why would Beethoven compose a piece that proves physically impossible to carry out perfectly?

Because nothing is carried out perfectly. Because life is lived imperfectly. Because acting is an imperfect attempt to restore some part of our imperfect lives, as art is an imperfect method of laying it all under the microscope. I know there are worldviews which might posit perfection as an ideal, which might even promise it given the right attention to addressing our flaws. But frankly, I don’t buy it. Addiction – call it a disease, a battle, a weakness – is another word for struggle. It may not always look like addiction; it may look like self-righteous distancing from addicts and alcoholics. But that self-righteousness is made of the same material. It’s made of doubt and insecurity, of struggle. Daily struggle.

This is not existential despair here. Don’t worry, I’m not about to drop Kierkegaard on you. Even philosophy, its most profound insights, are part of that struggle. None of the great thinkers offer certainty. None of them offer a pause in this opus. As for Philip Seymour Hoffman: the world’s supply of writers have weighed in on the tragedy. I read a report on addiction as disease, saying in no uncertain terms, “It wasn’t Hoffman’s fault that he relapsed” (TIME: How Philip Seymour Hoffman Could Have Been Saved). The mainstream media’s morbid fascination with the details of his death, on the other hand, seems to miss the point entirely (CNN: Hoffman’s Obituary). I’m not here to weigh in on that perceived disparity – nor would I be at all qualified to do so. I do know, however, that Hoffman was one of the greatest actors I’ve ever seen. He was one of very few actors – a dwindling number, in fact – that would draw me to the theaters. I sat through hours of movies I had no interest in seeing just to catch a glimpse of Hoffman at work. With the exception of a few scenes from The Master, I didn’t regret a second of it.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, versatile and taken too soon

Philip Seymour Hoffman, versatile and taken too soon

“Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future, and time future contained in time past. If all time is eternally present, all time is unredeemable. Or say that the end precedes the beginning, and the end and the beginning were always there before the beginning and after the end. And all is always now.” – A Late Quartet

This quote is an allusion to T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton,” a poem that creates a wake of distorted time and leaves us faltering in it. The poem’s a mess, in its own fascinating Eliot-esque way – just as Beethoven’s opus 131 is a mess, leaving its performers desperate to find the tune. For those of you musically inclined, you might know the experience of playing on an instrument dramatically off-key. If it goes flat far enough, a talented player simply changes keys mid-stride: that A become a B and that C# becomes a D#. You find yourself straddling keys and chords, working desperately to find the tune again. I’ll be the first to admit I know little about Hoffman’s kind of addiction, but if his acting is any indication, I imagine he spent his life straddling keys and chords. At times the melody was perfect – I think of Synecdoche and Charlie Wilson’s War – and at times, it was strange – Along Came Polly and Boogie Nights. At times it was something else entirely – perhaps Capote or Punch-Drunk Love. Whatever he was, whatever his career was, it was distinctly his own. His own kind of frantic effort to find the harmony. Adjusting within himself and within his community, up until the very end, looking for that fine balance, that unquestionable chord.

And does it all work? Does the harmony finally come? Like Peter Mitchell (played by the incomparable Christopher Walken) says in A Late Quartet, “I don’t know. Let’s find out.” That’s what Hoffman was doing, after all. He was finding out. He was the definition of an actor: on the quest to discover. He didn’t follow directors around, he didn’t choose roles based on marketability. Certainly, he was on a mission to “find out” his range. And whether he was a joyfully detestable villain in MI:3 or the old-school manager Art Howe in Moneyball, he seemed to prove there was nothing he couldn’t do. His career was cut much too short, but even if he had lived to 110, it would have been too short. There would be more roles he’d want to explore, more things he’d want to find out. And all I can say, when thinking about all we’ll miss with him gone, is “I don’t know.” I don’t know what we would have seen in the years ahead, but it would have been something special, I assure you. We would have watched him adjust his performances up until the very end, even as his world and our world swung steadily out of tune.

A Response to Matt Walsh’s “Thank God I wasn’t college material”

Today, this blog has been making the viral rounds: “Thank God I wasn’t college material.”

I have been vaguely familiar with this blogger for some time, mostly because of retweets and Facebook posts by what I know to be well-intentioned people, even if this particular blog aptly represents what I hate most about social media and this new era of digital evangelism – and not just religiously-speaking, but the kind of evangelism that makes every issue worth dying over.

Image

Side Note: For someone so preoccupied with economic value, Mr. Walsh fails to realize what the death of universities might mean for small town America.

I was torn about responding to this “article” because I don’t want to encourage more traffic on Mr. Walsh’s post. But then I remembered no one reads my writing here, so it was moderately safe to comment on this particular blog’s content without feeding the fire of ludicrous thoughtlessness it has come to represent.

Another reservation was the impossibility of addressing the many logical fallacies and rhetorical flaws held within this particular post. Suffice it to say that any exercise to address the problems of the initial text would be too longwinded and unfocused an effort.

Lastly, let me be the first to say: this post will not be combatting Mr. Walsh’s argument with personal experience. I could bore you with the details of why I found liberal arts to be rewarding and essential to my development as a thinker, a writer, and even as a Christian; for the time being, however, let’s leave it at that. As someone who now teaches college composition, believes in the power of effective writing, and has seen the potential within students unlocked through college-level work, I found the broad generalizations of Mr. Walsh’s blog both humorous and deleterious to our shared understanding of what it implies to be a “writer” and what it must mean to be a “Christian.”

An Overview

After calling academics “con artists,” telling parents “Don’t send your kids to college,” and thanking God that he escaped college-level “Creative Writing,” the lack of developed rhetoric and middle-school level bully tactics only emphasize what a college education might have done for this individual. The irony was just too rich to pass up: I’m not being hateful, I’m just stating an obvious point of humor. He defiantly proclaims how unnecessary college was for his development and then posts a blog which grammatically, philosophically, and rhetorically underscores just how much he missed by so self-righteously eschewing higher education.

Not surprisingly, he bases his argument in raw economics: student loans and job viability. What a strange thing for a self-proclaiming Christian to argue, considering the Church’s traditional role in forming the “whole self,” encouraging liberal and social education in order to create men and women who are trained in a wide array of fields and topics, beyond mere fiscal considerations. Of course, those are subjects he might have come across in a university Sociology, History, or Philosophy course – had he, as he put it, wasted his time and money on college. And given his penchant to on the one hand, question the ethics of Wall Street and on the other, whole-heartedly embrace capitalistic impulses (just consider the surfeit of ads on his website)*, a survey course on Economics might have also served him well.

In the case of his educational views, Mr. Walsh appears to have sold out to the god of capitalist logic, not shocking considering his placement among a conservative Christian contingent which can never quite make up their mind regarding the Christian role in the nitty-gritty details of culture and economy.

Image

My Alma Mater, Wake Forest University

A Resonse

I hope this does not sound hateful on my part, for there is nothing about this blogger or this blog that I hate – nor is there anything about it which surprises me. I am all too aware of this reasoning and completely support the idea of giving kids a choice when it comes to higher education. It should not be compulsory, a prerequisite for finding a career.

As his primary example, Mr. Walsh cites a teacher encouraging him to get a degree in creative writing. His response is one of incredulity: Why would he need a degree to be a writer? The major logical fallacy here is simple: no one said a degree is required. The teacher encouraged him to pursue a degree as a way of gaining experience, as a means of learning the tools of the trade. It’s not necessary, but many have found it helpful. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at the last 20 years of Pulitzer winners and see how many of them had formal education in some form of writing. The statistics speak for themselves.**

Mr. Walsh’s blanket generalizations – “Don’t send your kids to college” – are not as upsetting as they are hilarious. This is one of the most comically ill-fitted arguments I’ve ever read, begging the question of where this blogger learned to write and reason. With bravado and hubris, he claims he didn’t learn anywhere, that he didn’t need help, that education was always a waste of time for him, that he achieved his “success” through hard work and God-given talent.

Let me now say what I felt after the laughter stopped. I’m offended as an educator who believes in the power of the liberal arts, but more importantly, I’m offended as a Christian who views these posts as yet another way of casting Christians as uneducated and moralistic. He uses his story as some kind of moral example of writing success, his main line of defense against the necessity of college. Gaining a moderate number of followers on a digital platform of indiscriminate readers, oddly soliciting donations on your site, and then completely handing your blog over to advertisers is not my definition of writing success. The money he may or may not earn is not based on the quality of his writing, but rather on religious appeal for money, hateful rhetoric which draws ill-advised readers into online comment battles, and the stream of advertisements which show up at the top and bottom of every page.

A Degree In Creativity

Mr. Walsh appears perpetually eager to respond. Here is how he replied to the teacher’s advice: “And I have to get a DEGREE in CREATIVITY?” he asks, rhetorically (Mr. Walsh does not appear to be the kind of person who waits for answers, or who is interested in others’ points of view). “Wait, WHAT? Your creativity comes from your own mind and your own heart — you can’t learn how to be creative. If I can write things, and people want to read the things that I write, shouldn’t I be able to market that ability, regardless of my college experience?” He goes on to say, “If [your kids] aren’t actively pursuing a career that fundamentally requires a college degree, don’t encourage them to go.”

There’s a profound understanding of education: education is only about the career, about the marketing power of the person? Did Christ study the Torah so that he might draw greater donations on the road? Did the Apostles study the culture around them so that they might benefit financially from that knowledge?  The rhetoric is dismissed because in today’s world, it’s all about marketing. And to that point, some credit is deserved.

Mr. Walsh has indeed marketed himself well – but not based on creativity and not based on the power of his prose. In fact, these blog posts represent the least creative kind of writing: the incendiary, the hate-filled, the indefensible, the un-researched, the unrevised, and the unapologetic. He’ll spew off stats and lingo without so much as a footnote, he’ll attempt to tear down lives without so much as a compassionate word, and of course he’ll continue to get money from advertisers and church ladies alike. But this is not writing. It’s kicking sand at kids on the playground, it’s sitting sullenly in the corner and making derisive comments regarding people whom he has made no effort to understand.

He is confident that college is a waste of money, not because he took the risk and it failed to pay off. No, not in the least. He’s confident through an absence of experience, a disparity of thoughtfulness, and a decided lack of creativity. He himself has become a stereotype.

Image

My current posting, West Virginia University

College offers diversity of opinion, exposure to patterns of thought and logic otherwise avoided, a socializing experiment and experience that changes the whole person – not just the dollar sign underneath a signature. It’s not surprising that Mr. Walsh seems to have so much trouble understanding or relating to the culture, considering how he’s always rejected it. He claims to have hated high school education, willingly forwent the college environment, and now works alone as a blogger, a job which requires no socialization or legitimate discourse whatsoever. Liberal Arts are an effort to create individuals who not only value and market themselves as economic commodities, but also understand the deeper realities and convictions that provide the undercurrent to our present social, cultural, and political contexts. Liberal Arts offer a way to, above all, interact – something this blog and blogger seem very hesitant to do. A blog is a cowardly device (I should know, I’m using one this very minute, couching mild indignation with relative anonymity).

My English and Film studies degrees have not gone very far in carving out a space for me among the American job market, but they have done a great deal to encourage thoughtful approaches to contentious discourse like this: my college experience taught me to understand the world better, to understand myself better. And yes, it taught me to become a better writer, a more creative writer, a more complete writer.

I don’t know what kind of writer this blogger intends to be, but with honesty and without pleasure, I doubt it will be the published kind, or the professional kind. So far, at least, his prose is far from professional. He’s a daytime talk show host, using purposefully fiery dialogue, misogynistic stereotyping, and close-minded religiosity to stir up extremists on both sides – then reaping the financial benefit of the ensuing traffic to his blog. People don’t go to this site to be educated or enter into helpful dialectic; they go here to brawl, or to have their crazy ideologies confirmed.

For other highlights of similar dismissive writing, please see: “Dear A&E, congratulations, you just committed suicide,” “Put guns in the schools, because that’s the only sane thing to do,” and my personal favorite, “Jesus wants you to judge.”

Don’t write him off as a crazy zealot because apparently, very intelligent and thoughtful people are being taken in by these sarcastic, uneducated rants. I share Mr. Walsh’s fear of the world we live in – but more because of blogs like his than the public schools and the universities he so readily discounts.

* On the topic of advertisements, I realize that sites like WordPress might distribute ads around blogs like my own. That, however, is because they own the site and allow me to use it. Mr. Walsh’s blog, of course, is his own product and he controls the ads.

** I realize the Pulitzer is not an unquestionable indicator of success, and while many may disagree regarding its merit, I personally have found the award to be a fair indicator of important and blossoming writers of our time. Take the last five years of winners Fiction category: 5 have college degrees and of those 5, 4 have so-called ‘advanced’ degrees (i.e. MFAs). Adam Johnson, Paul Harding, Elisabeth Strout, and Junot Diaz all have MFAs; Jennifer Egan has a BA from the prestigious St. John’s College. In fact, of all 21st Century Fiction winners, the only individual not to graduate college – though he did attend the University of Tennessee for 5 years over the span of a decade – was Cormac McCarthy, one of my favorite American novelists and an exceptionally gifted writer by any definition. Did any of these writers require a college degree? Did any of them require elementary school? The simple answer would be no, but it would appear their wasted college tuition, all invested within fields that according to Walsh do not “fundamentally [require] a college degree,” benefited their literary careers. Read of that what you will.