Mr. Hoffman’s Sad Death and True Tragedy

Among the (sadly) few opinions (a lot of people offering one of two, so a lot of voices, but only two actual opinions), I fear we may miss one of the nuances. That is, those who argue whether if his death at 46 of alleged heroin use should be classified as “tragic.”

A tragedy is one of two literary forms from the ancients, the other being comedy/farce/happy ending. Mr. Hoffman would appreciate this fact, since all films and plays start with someone’s “book.” Someone must have an idea, a germ of an idea. If a film is full of crashes and grisly killings, the “book” is very flimsy. Or, you can have a “book,” (which may never be a book, actually), that plums the depths, makes the actor work and the audience think as well as feel.

An ancient tragedy would have a startling germ of an idea from which all else flowed. The writer/speaker would drop a seed in the first scene of the first act that would grow to an inevitable event by the denouement. The “book” could not proceed without the ‘tragic flaw.” Oedipus is told he will kill his father (patricide) and have sex with his mother (incest). He runs away from father and mother (he thinks) but his nature it is that dooms him. His life becomes a swaggering mishmash of bold warring and meaningless wenching. He finds his end when he kills a man in personal combat and takes a woman to be his bedmate. Shocked he is to find the man is actually his father and the woman his mother. Though he has tried to find his way out of the predictive fantasy, events, the gods, all things have gathered in his nature to bring about prophesy’s fulfillment.

We want science in our day to give us a true picture of our physical reality. Then, we think, we can run from the prophecy of our own demise, or, at least, come to terms with our “thingness” and, so, reduce the pain. We are disappointed to discover science, like other arts and religions, can only infer what might happened by a calculative look at what has happened, thus to predict its regularity. We are left gaping when nature corrects for itself, or some conclusion reworks itself a centimeter from the accepted reality.

“My Kingdom for a horse,” the King cries, and then runs down the list of consequences, each one a loss, that led to the loss of his Kingdom and life. In a tragedy, the end result is inevitable, though a better ferrier could, mayhap, save a King’s life.

Mr. Hoffman’s death is sad, wrenching, perhaps self-inflicted, though he certainly had various accomplices. In a tragedy, events conspire against the protagonist. The gods decree their capricious will. In a comedy, there exist the seeds of catastrophe, but someone’s love act resets events. Some characters will/must/do suffer but love resets the props on the stage.

Mr. Hoffman seemed to have people to love him. His companion of fifteen years and three daughters come to mind. Somehow, all their love did not change his nature, or move around the props. One could conclude from this that his death was inevitable, then, that he fell victim to his own nature and there was nothing anyone could do to subvert the will of the Demon-gods who set the stage.

You do not believe this inevitability argument. Neither do I. This is why we spend time and screen space debating the death of this talented celebrity. There are plenty of celebrities who are not talented. They are famous because they want to be famous and are willing to do whatever the camera wants so they can have their fifteen minutes. Mr. Hoffman is grieved because his talent is undeniable.

There is no need to think his death is classically tragic, however. This could function as an excuse to stop drug interdiction and close the rehab clinics. Or, more deeply, we could use his death (and our reaction) as a reason to stop loving, forgiving, rescuing.

Now, that would be catastrophic. Not classically tragic, mind you, but catastrophic.

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