This is not a eulogy; it is not a ritualized recounting and remembrance of a man’s life pronounced with threnody enough to disquiet but not to deject. Nor is it an obituary: it is not the mundane registration of a death which provides an ultimate codification of a man’s life by means of a short biographical blurb. To eulogize Hunter S. Thompson would be to wind him up in a sheet woven from the same kitsch fabric he found hilarious, disturbing, and utterly alien throughout his life.
He was a half-mad Sisyphus rolling a wheelbarrow of speed, reds, booze, and sundry hallucinogens up a hill from which it would shortly roll down-the recurring demand of the bimonthly article deadline. He was free in some kind of insane Camusian way. Indeed, the greatest, most sincere compliment I can bestow is that he just didn’t give a fuck. Salient among the details to emerge from the circumstances of his passing is Thompson’s apparent wish to forgo the usual burial conventions; instead he wanted his ashes to be blasted from a cannon-here one thinks to those lines of Shelley:
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind.
Consider the immediate response of his family and friends who witnessed his shotgun-suicide-namely, to finish their drinks with a laugh and a sigh. This is both poetic and profound: I gently urge you to imbibe before continuing.
THERSITES AND THE NIGHT TROY FELL
Thersites, as Homer reports, was a common soldier with the gall to harangue the Greek warriors assembled on the plains of Troy. It was his crime to challenge the presumed justice of the epic endeavor; he lays bare the grand illusion of their enterprise, but receives for his pains more of the same: much-twisted Odysseus beats him with a stick peremptorily and decisively by way of reply. Thompson himself received similar treatment during the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago when Mayor Daley’s uniformed thugs beat him with billy clubs for the odious offense of having a press-pass on his person.
Thompson was an essentially Thersitical figure: someone uncouth who speaks an uncouth truth to an uncouth audience which dreams itself otherwise; someone bred, inured, and attuned to the manifold pages of human turpitude. The character of Thersites is archetypal across both literature and history (the ugly little man who challenges things), and Thompson was a contemporary figuration.
Thompson drew his energy from the spectacle of the breakdown; he took delight in the riotous and public transition of order to disorder, especially as it may transpire through the horrified eyes of upright spectator-citizens, the indignant, frightened, and nauseated members of the bourgeois and hoi polloi alike. Wherever he went, things began to fall apart, falconers to lose their falcons, etc. Whatever city he inhabited, whatever locale he frequented, it was only a matter of time before his reports would tell of its disintegration and invasion by a host of motley freaks, winos, and ragtag marauders. He never visited Troy save the night it burned. “An eye from the eye of the hurricane,” he once wrote: this phrase encapsulates his unique journalistic stance astride the whirligig of events.
PARIS, PRAGUE, AND BALTIMORE
Thompson suffered no authentic agony although he lived out his share of irritation. In this, he differs from Baudelaire, a fellow voyager on the drug-quest whose work is a labyrinthine alembic of pain, desire, disgust, and intoxication. Although Baudelaire constitutes the prototypical drug-quester, Thompson himself was undoubtedly more influenced in his self-modeling by more proximate questers like Burroughs and some of the Beats.
Thompson lacked Baudelaire’s elegance, his delicacy, his perverse talent for drawing out the fine from the crude. Of course, it is dangerous to imply that Thompson was a poet or conceived himself to be one; indeed, there was something basically anti-poetic in his stance, something that seemed to mock and preclude the very possibility of poetry or beauty, something unavoidably coarse yet nevertheless something immitigably real. The following words of T.S. Eliot are posted as epigraph to one of his books:
Between the idea
And the reality
Falls the Shadow
The Shadow is his muse; the inspiration of his journalism is to discern and pry apart the disjunction of ideology and society, the idea and the reality, and then to transcribe and present this vision of cleft space to the reader.
In so many of Thompson’s stories (it is curious how the word “story” can refer to both fiction and journalistic report) one notices the same quality of malevolent inertia: an irresistible fatalism in which the nominal agent becomes a sort of spectator gazing on as the world and even his own action seem to unfold of their own dread accord. I think this is a frequent characteristic of dreamlife – we don’t realize what we’ve done in a dream until we’ve already done it.
Consider a certain chapter from Kafka’s unfinished novel, Amerika, in which Karl Rossman is confronted at work by a drunk acquaintance from his past: the man almost demonically intrudes into Rossman’s ordered life and upsets it, setting in motion a chain of events that culminates in a stunned and innocent Rossman. This sort of perverse inertia is a familiar element in Thompson’s writings – often he pitches an ostensibly normal scene that shortly and unstoppably evolves into something entirely bizarre and unexpected.
H.L. Mencken, another famous American journalist, at first glance seems wholly dissimilar to Thompson. Yet Mencken’s report, “Hills of Zion,” which describes in an orgiastic revival happening in the general vicinity of the Scopes Trial, must stand as an incipient instance of gonzo-journalism. While Mencken was a jaded member of civilization mocking what he saw as outposts of barbarity, Thompson was a barbarian mocking what he saw as the garish megaliths of civilization.
AESOP’S REVENGE – HOMO HOMINI LUPUS
My first experience with the Thompson oeuvre occurred in 10th grade when one Alex Hardt showed me a book of Ralph Steadman’s drawings to which Thompson wrote a mock preface scabrously insulting Steadman. Steadman, who frequently collaborated with Thompson, depicted vividly and unforgettably the animality of man – this element is critical to the work of Thompson. Man is a wolf to man. So reads the old line of Plautus, to which Thompson would indeed assent; he was a misanthrope par excellence. But he would also smile at the imaginative limits of Plautus’ conceit; Thompson and Steadman envisioned, and respectively described, the tragicomedy of the globe: wolves, sharks, pigs, alligators, snakes, rats, them that chew the cud, them that divide the cloven hoof, and every combination thereof.
Everyone is familiar with Orwell’s book, Animal Farm. While Orwell was a satirist, Thompson was a journalist. Orwell wrote allegory; Thompson wrote realism; while Orwell mostly had a point, Thompson was mostly drunk.
FEAR AND LOATHING IN COPENHAGEN
The signature phrase “fear and loathing” recurs throughout Thompson’s work; countless of his dashed-off reports adhere to the simple formula, “Fear and Loathing in ___,” and of course his most famous book bears the title, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Thompson provoked fear and loathing; he felt fear and loathing. One cannot help but notice the verbal resemblance between “fear and loathing” and “fear and trembling.” Kierkegaard’s book, Fear and Trembling, examines that horrible moment of Abraham when he stood over Isaac.
Kierkegaard utilizes this critical moment of faith on Abraham’s part to extrapolate the complex necessities of a genuine Christian faith. One must be a “knight of infinite resignation” and simultaneously a “knight of infinite faith;” one must realize truly and totally the utter hopelessness of the present in practical terms (infinite resignation) while nevertheless wholly believing the opposite (infinite faith).
What the hell does this have to do with Thompson? In 1972, Thompson voted for McGovern; not only did the poor bastard vote for McGovern – one of America’s worst all-time candidates – he wagered a serious sum of money on his victory. Thompson previously made and won hundreds of political bets during the campaign (in the final count he lost only two, an unheard-of ratio in the sub-subculture of journalist-gamblers on the campaign trail). Drugged-up misanthrope that he was, Thompson had an uncanny knack for political prediction. Why then did he place his bet on someone so clearly, so obviously, so resoundingly destined for defeat? What else could he be at that moment but the knight of infinite faith and resignation?
One thing is for sure: if there is a Hell, Hunter S. Thompson is at home there. It was Thompson’s vocation to incite, behold, live, and finally to preserve in words a certain flame of chaos and corona of madness. This vocation also does not require a corporeal habitation, and indeed one may see great advantage in an infernal residence for Thompson. Look for his next dispatch: Fear and Loathing