So Fierce Is the World: On Loneliness and Philip Seymour Hoffman


First Person

Philip Seymour Hoffman, 2010. Photograph by Justin Hoch, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Licensed under CC BY SA 2.0.

“He’s dead.”

The voice on the phone belonged to Joshua, a friend with whom I had gotten sober years ago. Back then, in the nineties, driving to and from twelve-step meetings held in smoky church basements across Rochester, New York, in a rickety station wagon with my drum set in the wayback, we kept ourselves focused by improvising sketch comedy and working out stand-up routines that Joshua would then use in his fledging act, which he’d eventually abandon in order to become a travel writer specializing in Southeast Asia. He was calling from Portland.

“Who’s dead?” I asked, trying to think who from our past might have relapsed.

“The actor, the guy you’re writing about. Overdosed on heroin.”

“Philip Seymour Hoffman?”

I switched the phone to my other hand, eyes scanning the notes for an essay I was writing about Synecdoche, New York, a film starring Hoffman. There, right on my screen, cursor blinking, were two lines from a Rilke poem included in the movie: “Whoever has no house now, will never have one. / Whoever is alone will stay alone …”

“But he’s sober.”

“That’s what everyone thought, I guess.” Joshua let out a long exhale.

He filled me in on the details, about how the actor, a man three years older than I, had been found in his apartment bathroom, a syringe hanging from his arm. Hoffman had been to rehab twice in the two years prior, but largely that had been kept quiet. Until that time, his more than twenty years of sobriety were often mentioned in articles and interviews, perhaps especially because Hoffman had a penchant for playing sad, lonely, sometimes desperate, sometimes rageful men, the very people who were drunk or about to go on a weekend bender after years of sobriety. He played those roles from the inside out.

On the phone, Joshua and I became quiet: over decades of friendship, we’ve known too many people who, having not used for years, suddenly fell back into heroin or whiskey or coke, fell back so hard that they didn’t want to get out of it again, fell so hard that it killed, them or they took their own lives. We were aware that addiction, that space of desolation—of feeling abandoned and like you want to abandon the world—isn’t something that is ever cured: you hold it at bay, and, like loneliness, as loneliness, it can come roaring back at almost any moment. Sometimes because of a crisis, sometimes because things are going well, and sometimes merely because. You never get rid of it, not wholly. You find ways to protect yourself from it.

Later, reading the obituary for Hoffman in the New York Times, some lines from Truman Capote, whom Hoffman portrayed so unforgettably, float forward into my mind. “But we are alone, darling child, terribly, isolated each from the other; so fierce is the world’s ridicule we cannot speak or show our tenderness; for us, death is stronger than life, it pulls like a wind through the dark, all our cries burlesqued in joyless laughter; and with the garbage of loneliness stuffed down us until our guts burst bleeding green, we go screaming round the world, dying in our rented rooms, nightmare hotels, eternal homes of the transient heart.” Hoffman died alone in his apartment.

The desolation of loneliness, like the connected problems of substance abuse and depression, comes from the feeling that the experience—when one is in it—will never end. That is why, sometimes, people choose to end it for themselves. If we are to keep going, push through, or slip around it, I believe we must reinvent loneliness in order to survive it. I have been trying to do this my whole life.


“Do you know you almost killed those people?” the officer—lean, middle-aged—asked me as he latched the cell door behind me. Flat, measured, his tone wasn’t accusatory; it was definitive. He didn’t wait for the answer. I listened as he walked down the gray hall and passed through a heavy door, then bolted it shut behind him. The cell: cold despite its being August. Its walls: concrete painted white; the light: dim. An eighteen-year-old kid, I stared at the security camera hanging from the ceiling that was trained on me. They wanted to make sure I wouldn’t try to kill myself. I fashioned an ersatz noose out of toilet paper, folded my legs beneath me, and lay across the scratched steel bunk.

I didn’t know what the officer was talking about. That night, I’d lost hours to another blackout, and it was only his keys jingling in the lock that had led me back to consciousness. Before that moment, I had no memory of the evening.

I first began drinking and using drugs when I was about thirteen; at fifteen people started to say I was a nice guy until I got a drink in me; it was sixteen when I began to drink so heavily that I lost hours and then whole days to blackouts. My blackouts always had a feel of time-hopping teleportation. One moment I would be taking a long slow drink from a bottle, then hours later—sometimes even a day or so—I would suddenly appear back in my body. These moments were much more than jarring, they were dangerous. Sometimes I was in my room or apartment, perhaps in the middle of a sentence; other times, I would drop back into consciousness in a completely different city from where I’d been when I started to drink. Once, I woke up facedown in a puddle in a dark alley behind some family-owned appliance store in Montreal, three hundred miles from home, a bloody gash opened across my forehead and nose. A few years later, someone asked me what it was like. I compared it to the sci-fi TV drama from the nineties: Quantum Leap. My whole body buzzed and I reappeared in myself, unsure of where or sometimes even who I was.

That night, I’d been arrested driving eastbound in the westbound lane of a major highway outside Boston. The officer, when he was booking me, had said I could be released if someone would come and pick me up and pay the bail. I was in no shape to get myself home—in fact, I didn’t even have any shoes—and it was 2 A.M. It also didn’t occur to me until later that my car wasn’t actually in the police station’s parking lot. I hadn’t driven there, after all.

He slid the black plastic phone on the counter over to me.

“I don’t have anyone to call.”

“No one will come get you?”

I pushed the phone back toward him.

“Then you stay here,” he said.

He led me, handcuffed, to the cell. That was the moment when I was confronted with the fact that loneliness wasn’t some occasional situation—it had become, inescapably, my very identity.

“Addiction is a disease of loneliness,” a recovering addict in Vancouver tells the journalist Johann Hari in Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. What isn’t clear is whether he meant that addiction, by its very nature, isolates a person from everyone else, or if loneliness is one of the preconditions for addiction. The loneliness that I had wrestled with since I was a little kid stood at the core of my substance abuse. In my own case, I felt that drinking was a way to stop fighting the loneliness that I could neither solve nor escape, neither outthink nor outrun.

What unnerved me about Hoffman’s death, then, was that I recognized the latent potency of loneliness and how it can continue to develop, even as it is being curbed or kept under wraps. It moves quietly and often exploits the fact that we are slow to recognize it in ourselves. His death was, for me, a catalyst. That’s why I’ve now begun to try to understand loneliness, why I am seeking out its themes and variations. I may not be able to cure it, but I can learn how it thinks; I can figure out what it thinks about, there in the dark.

In photographs from around the time of that arrest, I am as gaunt as a self-portrait of Egon Schiele, a painter I discovered in my teens, a painter known for his own intense feelings of separateness. That marked isolation became harder and harder to hide, simply because I was drinking to slip the leash of my own self-consciousness. It wasn’t that I wanted to die. I wanted not to exist. A fundamental question of philosophy is “Why is there something rather than nothing?” My loneliness placed me in the middle of that question.

That’s where it can place anyone.


I got sober in Rochester, New York, in the early nineties, staying in the suburb where my parents had moved after I graduated from high school, a town a few miles from where Hoffman had grown up. That part of the country is brutal in its winters—tearing cold and endless snow and darkness that for months never abates. Or maybe that’s simply how it felt. Having not grown up there, I knew almost no one when I retreated to the area after my arrest, and the consequent loss of my job, my savings, and my license. Living at my parents’ house, I was taking classes part-time at the city’s famous music conservatory before I eventually entered rehab at the very hospital where Rod Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone, a hero of mine since childhood, had died in the seventies.

Rochester may have been where I dried out, but it was not cure for my loneliness. I was left on my own to practice drums and piano for hours every day, make my way into the school to take my classes, and then drift back to my parents’ house, where I stayed up for hours, hiding bottles of wine though I was supposed to be getting off the sauce. Every week, after my lessons, I went to the art-house cinema and saw whatever was playing. Sitting alone in the dark, whole worlds flashing across the screen, I fell into other people’s lives, other people’s stories. Since in being lonely we feel only the throes of emotional distance, it is through art, books, music, movies, that we can collect our glimpses of others’ lives, that we can collect those fellow travelers.

I did not know—of course, how could I?—that during those very same years, as I was trying to grab ahold of my life before it was lost altogether, a young man from the outskirts of Rochester, somebody who had once frequented that very same art-house cinema before I hit town, would be fighting through his own addictions while a student at NYU. Not classically handsome but compelling nonetheless because of his innate ability to convey a crushing vulnerability, he would eventually be called, frequently, “the greatest actor of his generation.” I didn’t know then either that one day, years and years later, I would watch a film in that very same theater starring this man, Philip Seymour Hoffman, that would be the saddest movie I have ever seen. How could I know then that a little while later, I would be asked to write an essay about this film, Synecdoche, New York, and that Hoffman would die of an overdose while I was in the middle of drafting the piece. He died even as I was wrapping my head around why his movie had moved me so deeply, about why and how Hoffman had become the Marlon Brando of loneliness.

Hoffman played Willy Loman in a high school production, which as an idea sounds like a pretty damned proposition. For a teenager to play a man burdened by his whole, disappointing life to the extent that he kills himself requires a kind of anticipatory empathy that most high schoolers wouldn’t be able to muster, let alone handle. I’d first read the play in high school. “An air of the dream clings to the place” was a stage direction that haunted me, as well as the line “He’s liked, but he’s not well liked.” If you feel lonely, that line cuts deep, down to the bone. I remember the class discussion of the play during my senior year: it was one of the mornings I wasn’t drunk.

He would play Loman again, many years later, on Broadway. Even at the age of forty-four, Hoffman had been a bit young to be playing Loman, who is supposed to be in his sixties, but at least in your middle age you get an ever-clarifying sense of the difference between the kind of loneliness that is transitory, tied to a given moment or circumstance, and the kind that arises from a particular, specific inborn feeling of distance. At only thirty-four, Arthur Miller wrote of the earliest days of developing Death of a Salesman, “I remember the rehearsal when we had our first audience. Six or seven friends. The play working itself out under the single bulb overhead. I think that was the first and only time I saw it as others see it. Then it seemed to me that we must be a terribly lonely people, cut off from each other by such massive pretense of self-sufficiency, machined down so fine we hardly touch any more. We are trying to save ourselves separately, and that is immoral, that is the corrosive among us.” The challenge, maybe it’s an imperative, is to find ways to save ourselves collectively, to throw off the “pretense of self-sufficiency” and confess, without shame or recrimination, that we need one another. First, we need to be able to learn from each other the very nature of that loneliness that Miller mentions.

Salesman is important in Synecdoche, New York as well. Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a director for a regional theater company in Schenectady, New York. Throughout the movie, he is distracted, shabbily dressed, unshaven. The play he is developing at the start of the movie is Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, a drama, we are quick to note, that more or less begins at the end of Willy Loman’s life, and which sets the tone of tragic inevitability and melancholia built into the movie. The movie, in other words, begins with a death (Loman’s) and then, two hours later, ends with another: Caden’s. As Hazel, Caden’s assistant and true love (played by Samantha Morton), insists the night before she dies of smoke inhalation after living in a burning house for nearly thirty years, the night they finally consummate their love, “The end is built into the beginning. What can we do?” Caden advises his actors, “Try to keep in mind that a young person playing Willy Loman thinks that he is only pretending to be at the end of a life full of despair,” and insists to the lead actor, “but the tragedy is that we know that you, the young actor, will end up in this very place of desolation.” The movie was released in 2008; Hoffman played Loman on Broadway in 2012, and though he received his third Tony nomination, his friends saw that the role changed him, haunted him. He was dead two years later. Desolation has its roots in the Latin word for abandonment.

Loneliness is not the same as depression, though they are often connected, as a depressed person can, as part of a range of symptoms, feel wholly isolated, and, at the same time, a feeling of isolation can lead to depression. Depression is, of course, a form of mental illness, but loneliness is harder to pin down, harder to define. The clinical psychologists Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz have found that patients often are more likely to admit to depression than loneliness because depression is commonly understood to have specific biochemical causes. Loneliness, on the other hand, is disregarded as mere “emotional neediness.” In The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-First Century, they note, “Our first concern was the welfare of our patients: we began to notice how much of their suffering was bound up in isolation and loneliness, whatever other diagnostic labels might be applied to them. We began to notice how hard it was for our patients to talk about their isolation, which seemed to fill them with deep shame.” The authors then add, with some dismay, “While our culture has successfully destigmatized mental illness (at least a little), it has restigmatized an ordinary human emotion.” The co-occurrence of depression and loneliness can mean that the latter is seen as merely a symptom of the former. The resulting problem is that loneliness all too often is not taken as itself something serious enough to be explored on its own terms, even by clinicians, even though it is clear that loneliness can feed depression.

A telling difference between the two states is that, with depression, the isolation that a person feels is not necessarily part of a paradoxical situation in which they feel isolated but don’t want to be. Part of the nature of loneliness is that a lonely person fights against the feelings of isolation even if they feel helpless before those emotions. The lonely person comes to perceive some schism between him- or herself and others that prevents meaningful intimacy, and the more convinced one is of that schism, the more one feels it is an unassailable divide. There is a fundamental ambivalence to loneliness, a desire for connection that is tied to a belief—it is more than a fear—that one is inevitably going to be rejected. For that reason, loneliness entails a feeling of increasing isolation that nonetheless is matched by a longing for greater social connection, even if at some level it also fights that longing.

The social psychologists Daniel Perlman and Letitia Anne Peplau define loneliness as “the unpleasant experience that occurs when a person’s network of social relations is deficient in some important way, either quantitatively or qualitatively.” They add that ultimately loneliness amounts to “a discrepancy between one’s desired and achieved levels of social relations.” One either feels that there aren’t enough relationships in one’s life or that there are many relationships but they are mostly superficial. Either way, there is a perceived lack of intimacy.

“In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion;” Albert Camus, in his essay “The Minotaur,” tells us, “in order to serve men better, one has to hold them at a distance for a time. But where can one find the solitude necessary to vigor, the deep breath in which the mind collects itself and courage gauges its strength?” Where does one find that solitude except perhaps at the center of the labyrinth of the self? But what if, there at the center, what we find is not the solution to the maze? What if there we discover at last that we’re just our own separate, grotesque Minotaurs: half person—a person we recognize as ourselves—and half anger, an anger we want to deny, an anger about being trapped, alone, an anger made to feel shame for feeling so alone. Maybe, in some ways, that is what happened to Hoffman: in his descent into loneliness, in order to know it and to be able to express on the cinema screen its warp and woof, he lost the thread that could have led him back out, and that hunger, that need for connection, devoured him wholly. Addiction and loneliness meet at that point of self-devouring.

Hoffman’s death was all too tragic, and all too human. So, too, is the loss of someone such as him, someone who could enact to us and for us the very real struggle to connect, to be vulnerable, to lay ourselves emotionally bare, which is the necessary, the crucial, condition for intimacy.

Loneliness is not only a feeling of a gap between oneself and others—it is a feeling of an active separation. The world pulls away and I turn from it, from the feeling of rejection, and step into open space. Arguably, if indeed we are born into loneliness, then one measure of what we call living is the ongoing attempt to overcome that isolation.That’s how we develop intimacy and its profound resolve in the face of that impossible distance. The risk lies in the fact that we might fail. The reward is that we all do, at times, succeed in our attempts to throw bridges out to the unseen shores deep in the hearts of others.

What’s the solution to loneliness? Maybe there’s no solution, but there can be responses, ones without blame or shame or self-recriminations. The psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, an important protégée of Freud, believed that loneliness begins at the very moment when, as infants, we first can distinguish our separateness from our mothers. In other words, as we move into developing a self, the more that we become who we are, the more we grow into our own, unique aloneness. A feeling of wholeness can be achieved only from the inside out. What remains a problem is the consistent longing for this to be otherwise, for the very reason that the self remains always partial and fragmented. “The end is built into the beginning. What can we do?

After I got off the phone with Joshua, I sat down and pressed play on Synecdoche, New York one more time. I paused the film on one of the opening shots of Hoffman—hair disheveled, his white T-shirt taut over his belly—sitting at the edge of his bed in his dingy boxers. He’s looking at himself in a mirror on the back of the bedroom door, but it seems like he’s looking right at the audience, at me. This is the moment when a voice on the alarm clock radio speaks the line from the Rilke poem: “Whoever is alone will stay alone.”

What we can do with our loneliness is find a way of tethering ourselves by fashioning things out of what we each of us feels, even our most alienated, painful feelings. Art, in whatever form, can be a way of doing this. An artist such as Hoffman reveals their own anguish in the face of loss and isolation, but their work grants us access to that pain in order to find ways through our own loneliness, to create our opportunities for discovery. In the end, that’s what it’s all about.


This excerpt is adapted from This Exquisite Loneliness, to be published by Viking in October.

Richard Deming is the author of five books, including Day for Night and Art of the Ordinary. He teaches at Yale University, where he is the director of creative writing.