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.

1 comment:

Colin said...

I'm an enormous fan of HST, owning most of his currently published works and watched several documentaries on his life. Hunter was a unique individual and it's actually kind of a shame that his legacy has been relegated to being a misunderstood and somewhat marginalized icon in drug culture.

As you probably know, Fear and Loathing was a great experiment in emerging forms of journalism (The New Journalism a la Tom Wolfe). At the onset Hunter himself considered F&L to be a half realized failure and it was only with time and the impact that it made on journalism itself that he came around to acknowledging its status as a masterpiece.

The problem with Hunter is that he is not a reliable narrator. You can, however, piece together truth if you aggregate enough sources. His death was tragic to be sure but through the volumes of "Gonzo Papers", "Hey Rube" and his pseudo memoir "Kingdom of Fear" it is clear that hunter relished freedom, and despised the arrogance of authority. It is also clear that he never intended to live a life that was no longer fun. This was increasingly the case in his later years. Between a particularly bad court battle fighting an accusation of sexual assault and several surgeries on his hip and back to cure chronic pain it would appear to me that life was no longer fun for Hunter.

I enjoyed reading this. You sound like you've done a good bit of reading on the subject but I've got to say that if you haven't already you should read "Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1972", certainly my favorite work by Hunter, and watch the documentary "Breakfast with Hunter" to get a first hand account of Hunter as he was approaching the end of his life.