Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Man for Whom Pain Was His Life as a Man

My journey to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was long and needlessly complicated, probably like that of most people. I first heard of it as a film that was based on a book, but I was more interested in other Terry Gilliam films, like Twelve Monkeys, Time Bandits, or Brazil. This was during high school sometime. Then when I came to university, I worked with a sports editor at The Muse who could not string a sentence together, but held incredible admiration for this man Hunter S Thompson.

A few months into my first year, a bunch of my friends and I went to an on-campus screening of Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and I watched it for the first time chugging rum from a plastic bottle, laughing uproariously at the madness on screen. I remembered virtually nothing of it. One friend, who had organized the screening, was a few rows down on a couple of hits of acid. During the opening bat hallucination sequence, he had a rubber bat hurled at him from my row, freaked out, and ran away.

Since then, I have seen the movie a total of five times, only once while I was sober. I only learned more about Hunter Thompson in the flurry of tributes written upon his suicide in 2005. My friend who had dropped the acid during the screening said it was because he couldn't take living in a country under George W Bush. But as I read more about him, I understood that this was a man of incredible will, who would never buckle down to a political enemy, even one he found so repulsive and horrifying as Bush jr. No, this was a man who could not bear the physical pain of being alive anymore. He had destroyed his body, and he would not allow it to restrain him anymore. His funeral services, with his ashes launched from a giant fist-shaped cannon built by Johnny Depp, were suitably epic and weird. It still took me almost four years after this to read his most famous book.

I can understand its reputation among my friends as a manic drug comedy. It's filled with scenes of "bad craziness" of all kinds,
vivid descriptions of the wild alterations that drugs can do to a human body. Thompson's hallucinations veer disturbingly close to the actual experience of the world, not as revelations of some true nature, but of seeing all that there is and always was more accurately, with greater clarity. He was a man with an incredible insight into American ideals, capitalism, the fear of freedom, conformity culture, and his own corrosive flaws. Better writers than me have already talked to death Thompson's skills describing the items of this list. But of the last, he is most subtle in his descriptions.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas begins with a quote from Dr Samuel Johnson, "He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man." Thompson wrote with an elegant voice, his words flowing in a torrent, a river slicked with oil and lit on fire. In his voice, perhaps, he was most human. But the book depicts a man for whom paranoia, fear, bitterness, and existence on the edge of madness were the constants of his life. His drug intake is not to gain some kind of transcendence, not to find some plane beyond humanity that some philosophers call the vertical or the overman, and that some religions call nirvana.

The peace he sought was the peace of the wild animal, the peace free from thoughts of spiralling complexity. In drugs, he sought to become pure simplicity. Thompson's moments of sobriety in this book are his moments of greatest depression, greatest wretchedness. The joy returns as he becomes less human, as he becomes more drug, more movement, than man. The Thompson of this book is a man for whom humanity is torture, and to escape from that torture is to remove all complexity. Drugs are his means to this end. I loved this book, its wondrous flows of words, its comedy of satire and depravity. But this book terrified me as well, with its picture of a humanity degenerate, worthy only of being escaped, utterly hopeless. All Thompson's talk of 'The American Dream' that he and Oscar Acosta search for is ironic. This dream is the dream of the stupid and the willfully blind, like the cops at the district attorney's conference, or the gamblers/lizards who populate the casino.

My friend was wrong about Thompson's suicide in more ways than the one I mentioned earlier. George W Bush would not have been intolerable to Hunter S Thompson. He would be inevitable. Thompson would kick himself for not expecting this laughing fool, perhaps surprised that he had not risen sooner. W is the paradigm case of the stupid and the blind. No, Obama is the man incompatible with Thompson's worldview. This is a man who inspires hope and love in his rhetoric, and embodies that in his family. He's ambitious in his policy, and believes that Americans can overcome their impulses to pettiness and spite, becoming neighbours and brothers. And he is sincere in this belief. That is a man of which Hunter S Thompson could not conceive.

Among the few acknowledgments of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is thanks to Bob Dylan, for "Mr Tambourine Man." If he had lived long enough to see American politics today, perhaps he would have understood this song not just as a dream and a refuge, but as a prophecy or a foreshadowing.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

"Let's Go Visit Little America and Eat With Forks!"

Over the past couple of weeks, my friend Rob was visiting as he slowly made his way back to Newfoundland from Seoul, where he had been teaching English. This is a social phenomenon I find fascinating, that so many young people, humanities majors mostly, are going to Asia to teach English on year-long contracts after graduation. The pay is often very good, and a lot of their expenses like moving costs and accommodation, are taken care of by the company. I know growing numbers of people who have done this, are doing it now, or plan to. I've sometimes joked about how eventually, Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing, and Shanghai are going to develop neighbourhoods with significant numbers of North Americans and their white or biracial descendants, just like Chinatowns and Little Toykos in Western cities.

Little America, self-contained cities of whitish people in a few high rises.

I think at some point in the future, I'll write a book about some of these English teachers, fictional of course, based loosely on the stories of people I know who've gone to Asia. I might go to Korea myself after I finish my PhD, mostly just to do first hand research for this book, which I might call Little America. It sounds like an incredible kind of journey to take, and there are lots of ways to approach the scenario, many hooks to hang stories from.

Korean culture is far more conformist than we're used to in North America. Rob describes how enthusiastically a whole class of elementary school students joins in denouncing one of their fellows when they commit some minor infraction. "Teacher, he's chewing gum in class!" In Canada, a kid who does that gets beaten up at lunchtime. But in Korea, the first one to tell on somebody gets popularity points.

There's almost no homegrown rock music in Korea. Older people listen to traditional music, and younger people listen to K-Pop, which I've sampled at the bottom of the post. Some of these songs are actually pretty catchy, even though the members of the groups are even less differentiated than the members of the old American boy and girl bands. You can't even tell which one is the Cute One™. They're all goddesses. One is usually a little more badass than the rest, because she's the one who does cheesy raps in the middle of the song. I say cheesy raps, because Lil Wayne could eat these people for breakfast.

There is a stereotype here in Canada of the Westerner going to teach in Asia and coming back with a hot Asian girlfriend or wife. It happened to my friend Dave, whose wife is Japanese. But Rob told me that many women in Korea look to Western English teachers as someone to cheat on their boyfriends with. There are many one night stands, but it's almost as if the experience is just to cross one more item off their bucket lists. "Slept with a Westerner. Check." The dynamic on the whole is about consequence free sex, which is attractive in some ways, but tiring in others.

And yes, Korean businessmen really do act that way when they're excited.
Incidentally, the title of my almost-finished book has changed again. It's called "Small Man's Town," and I think it's going to stay that way. I had trouble saying "Laughing Lovers" out loud to people. But "Small Man's Town" gets to the heart of the book's major themes much better. I think of it as my love letter to Newfoundland and Memorial University, especially since I doubt I'll ever want to go back on a permanent basis. But it's also kind of a breakup letter, and "Small Man's Town" delivers that very directly and clearly.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Clichés About Power Corrupting . . .

I support Barack Obama, and I wish that he wasn't in this mess, but in a way, it seems unavoidable. Three of his cabinet appointees have hit trouble because of tax irregularities that, if their ubiquity among Obama's prospective cabinet is to be taken as a guide, is prevalent among most rich people in America. I was especially sad to see Tom Daschle resign from his not-yet-appointed position today, since I know from his career as Senate minority leader in the 1990s that he would have done good work on the health care reform project that Obama wants to tackle before 2012. However, the fact that he owed well over $100,000 in taxes that he never paid for his driver was just too blatant a screw up to recover from.

He would have gotten the votes in the Senate to take the job, but Obama's whole project for his administration is to run government differently. What I found especially sketchy was that since he lost his re-election bid in 2004, he has earned over $1,000,000/year working for a health care lobbying firm. While Daschle was never a registered lobbyist, he worked for the firm, and they made use of the many connections Daschle had throughout the government. Daschle had become too much of an establishment Washington political figure, and in the past few days, we've seen how he's come to inhabit many of the worse qualities of that description.

I've been reading Obama's book, The Audacity of Hope, over the last few days. In one chapter, he describes a trip he took hitching along on a private jet to Silicon Valley to visit Google headquarters. He found the American tech industry facing some major problems, like a steadily shrinking number of young Americans with the qualifications to work in technology development, and the dearth of blacks and Latinos among those few Americans graduating with advanced degrees.

He also describes a train trip he took to a small town in western Illinois, where a highly profitable Maytag plant was about to shut down and move to Mexico, simply to garner even higher profits based on cheap, if less dedicated and skilled, labour. He talked with people who failed to benefit from incompetently run retraining programs, and one recently-unemployed man who had lost his health insurance, and faced going far into debt to finance his son's live-saving liver transplant.

He called this last story something that a politician misses by spending too much time in private jets.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Briefly Commenting on a Writing Soundtrack

This post is a brief diversion from a short paper I'm composing for one of my graduate courses. It's a 1000 word interpretation of some ideas I find interesting in Gilles Deleuze's book Nietzsche & Philosophy. Quite a few folks I know tell me that they can only work in silence, and I actually find silence more distracting than having some kind of semi-regular noise or sound in the background. My mind tends to wander in silence, and I find myself thinking about (so far) unrelated philosophy, ideas for fiction, or food I need to buy. So having some music of any kind playing in the background actually helps me focus my energy, and increases the pleasure of writing.

This song is a recurring item on my working soundtrack at the moment. And I will make no apologies for it.

My thoughts on the movie Milk which I saw last week, and the novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas which I finished (for the first time) a couple of weeks ago, will come later this month.