Founded in 1994, the European Graduate School is a program led by philosophers, film makers, writers, poets and artists, located in Saas-Fee, Switzerland. A fun camp of critical theory and continental philosophy, its teachers and students gather from around the world in a secluded Swiss Alp town for three-week-long intensive study and lectures that continue late into the night at Metro Bar, Happy Bar, Popcorn, or wherever else. Fortunately, all of the official lectures are videotaped and archived.
In this 2012 conversation between philosopher Simon Critchley, a professor at EGS, and late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, we are transported directly into the head and heart of an actor who brought wisdom and complexity to any character he portrayed. Critchley begins by asking Hoffman about happiness. Hoffman thinks about it in the context of his life and answers, Was I happy or was I not aware?… I really don’t know. Aristotle thought happiness was a virtue (of the gods) and that happiness has to do with a relation to something outside oneself. Hoffman says that he takes too much pleasure and kills it. There is no pleasure I haven’t made myself sick on…I look at pleasure and kind of get scared. Happiness, according to Hoffman, is when he is with his children and they are OK—when he sees them enjoying each other, and they let him enjoy them in turn, this brings a feeling of happiness. It’s a question of being in the present moment, which remains a constant struggle.
Critchley does not think happiness is something that lies within but is something that lies without. It exists specifically in relation to people. Critchley thinks Hoffman’s feeling of happiness with his children is love. Hoffman adds that happiness is a consequence of love and that love is conditional. I think my love will overcome. Love is that which can overcome. Referring to the feeling of happiness with his children, and the way in which they bring him back to his own childhood, Hoffman asks, How does happiness become unconditional? Critchley remembers in the movie Magnolia the idea that the past is a thing which isn’t through with you. The past is always there waiting to be called upon. It’s like a tangible thing waiting for an invocation. Like a relentless beast, the past is always awake and ready to rupture the present. Eventually, the truth will undo you. Critchley mentions Sophocles in that there’s “no man happy until he is dead,” or that happiness depends on what others know or remember about you—that happiness could be a sum or fragment of everyone’s narrative about you. I think a lot of people probably live their life not concerned with their own happiness but with the story they’re creating. That’s definitely not me.
Simon Critchley is Hans Jonas Professor at The New School for Social Research and European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, where he conducts an Intensive Summer Seminar. His recent books include The Book of Dead Philosophers, Infinitely Demanding, Impossible Objects, Faith of the Faithless and Stay, Illusion! The Hamlet Doctrine (co-written with Jamieson Webster).
Philip Seymour Hoffman was an American actor and director. His memorable performances range from supporting to lead roles in a number of movies including The Big Lebowski, Boogie Nights, Capote, Synecdoche, New York, Moneyball, The Ideas of March and The Master.