I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone… but…

I must disagree somewhat with my co-blogger James Rummel’s earlier post on the cultural importance of Hunter S. Thompson’s works.

Those who’ve read my stuff in the past know that I’ve always been more than a little influenced by HST. For those of us who enjoy strong drink and occasional forays into the domain of high weirdness, the good doctor provided a vocabulary to describe the vague and sometimes horrible recollections of lost evenings. His prose could be simultaneously fascinating and stupid, hilarious and repugnant, right and wrong.

Even for those who have never been particularly interested in wild times and substance abuse, he is a unique chronicler of mid-20th century American history. As well as being a constant assault on conservative values, much of Thompson’s works are bitter recollections and critiques of the failures and weakness of the counter culture. His excesses are, intentionally or not, as much a warning as a celebration.

If you want to know why the hippie generation has become so bitter and reactionary, just read the famous “high-water mark” quote from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. His “doomed generation” was the flower power generation collapsed on its own worthlessness. In his middle works, even conservative thinkers can gain profitable insight into the self-destruction of 60’s idealism, and see the progress of the 67’ers into obsolescence and the emergence of a more sinister and violent left in their wake.

I link the decline in his later work’s quality to the ideological collapse of this generation of peace and love. Thompson’s attacks on evil fascist Republicans become more and more farcical as the Summer of Love’s corpse progressed in its putrefaction. I believe it was more the rise and apparent victory of his mortal enemy, conservative “swine” America, than the many years of hard living that left him a raging husk of a writer.

His decline was a sad one, as when he was at his best, his writing was grotesquely sublime.

Gun-nut. Drugged-out-freak. Pseudo-journalistic hack. Drinker. He was all these wonderful things and more. Even though his politics were idiotic, he was a unique individual, unwilling to conform to society’s expectations. With train-wreck-like charm, he gained fans across the political spectrum. Like him or not, his cultural legacy will be around for a long time, and his contribution to American literature is large.

As someone he probably would have called a filthy sell-out pig, I am saddened by his loss. I always figured he’d live to be a hundred, surviving on a steady diet of bourbon and cigarettes.

15 thoughts on “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone… but…”

  1. Fear and Loathing was interesting and in parts insightful. Thompson himself seemed to be a lout. I once attended a show of his in Chicago. He showed up at least an hour late and was so intoxicated as to be almost incoherent. He spent a lot of time railing against Nixon (this was around 1990). For me it was like being transported back to the ’60s — I hated the experience. However, many of the other people in the audience loved him. I think they were there out of 60s nostalgia or because of the stoner vibe (which I also disliked).

    Thompson didn’t change much intellectually after the 60s. I think that was a big part of his appeal to some people. Contrast him to Tom Wolfe, who has changed with the society and continues to be an acute observer of a much different world, forty years on. I doubt that the people in that Chicago audience who cheered loudest were also fans of Wolfe, but who knows.

    I wonder how Gary Trudeau is taking Thompson’s passing. Maybe we should send a card.

  2. I still think that quote from The Great Shark Hunt that I posted on Mr. Rummel’s post is a good self-assessment by HST.

    The whole point of an act like his was to shock and offend people like me. Okay, mission accomplished–but he wouldn’t go away. So, let him have his due measure of eulogy, and then bring on the next pants-dropper to crow about how liberated from bourgeois strictures he is.

    I mean, he reminds me of Philip Roth (IINM) after his mid-Seventies trip to Czechoslovakia: “Here [in the U.S.], everything goes and nothing matters. There, nothing goes, so everything matters.”

    Prediction: He will be remembered more fondly as a symbol of his era, rather than for his actual writing.

  3. Party-on Hunter, this bud’s for you.

    Putting his drug use into some context: Man’s social structures are doomed to model prior biological systems. Nature has obliged us by devising an almost infinite variety of cellular and super-cellular organizations from which to choose a template.

    Every single one of them uses chemical signals to organize its component cells on the micro scale, and to direct the activities of their distinct aggregations, or tissues, on the macro scale. A signal compound could be acetyl-choline triggering the calcium-pump at a muscle receptor, or adrenalin driving a system-wide metabolic response.

    As cellular units in our body politic, we come pre-programmed to socialize around similar chemical signals. Man’s physiological drive to medicate is evident: every human culture, modern or ancient, has constructed complex social rites around narcotia.

    HST made his own rites, but like so many I know, left them unchecked by an opposing impulse called self-preservation.

    In any culture that values work, longevity and concentrated intellect, the tension between these values and our desire to “party” may be our species’ natural regulator as we evolve our endocrinological parasympathetic networks.

    Hunter, do they have LSD-25 in heaven?


  4. Others may disagree with me, but I do beleive that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is HST at the top of his game.

    You really should give it a read Jonathan, as it’s consistently heavy on the gonzo and light on the journalism (which he was never very good at). The Johnny Depp movie is good, and actually pretty true to the book (but, alas, I’m a sucker for Terry Gilliam movies…)

  5. His “doomed generation” was the flower power generation collapsed on its own worthlessness.

    I understand your point, Cap’n, but I think it’s a bit harsh and therefore misleading.

    I’m one of those who think ‘the 60’s’ were necessary and in many ways healthy for us a people. It’s fashionable to kick the boomers and flower children around these days but there was a lot of good that came out of the 60’s. As a result of that era of revolution, we’ve reaped:

    * A society much less tolerant of overt and covert racial and gender discrimination.
    * A society more aware of the importance of maintaining a healthy environment.
    * A society that is (arguably) freer for everyone.
    * A more open and transparent government.
    * Healthier diets.
    * More human and humane medical care.
    * The end of some truly dangerous and unwise weapons programs, especially chemical and biological(!!) warfare programs.

    And we all know the downsides:
    * Rampant drug abuse.
    * Less civility in public social life.
    * Dramatic rises in crime.
    * Loss of productivity and quality in business.

    So we paid a price for all the questioning, for the new, sometimes ‘pie in the sky’ approaches we took, the tossing off of age-old norms. And some of those discarded establishment ideas were picked back up and given a dusting off, and we admire them again with new appreciation. But all-in-all, I think it was a useful cleansing; a much needed bath we all took. We all benefitted from the 60’s and we’d be lying to ourselves (perhaps dangerously so) if we pretended otherwise.

  6. Michael,

    The only problem with what you say about the 60’s is that so many of the people who should at this point get off the stage are kicking and screaming that their was is the only way and they just won’t leave. Somewhere along the line someone has to say that the drugs have done their damage and we should now get over it.

    I for one am so sick of the boomers who move to their gated communities and then praise people like HST, yet if someone like him showed up anywhere near them they would be screaming for the cops. I also think that it is about time that we realized that our country may have had some things that needed correcting but that for the most part we had it right to begin with and we should support that. The sheer hypocrisy of the 60’s generation people still around and in power is breathtaking.

    HST and his ilk told us some of what we did wrong but they never had the wit so tell us what we were doing right. They have been dining out on shock values for 35 years. Enough already!!

  7. Michael, as a member of the upstart post-genX generation, I must fulfill my generational duties and disagree violently with almost everything you wrote in defense of boomerhood. These are basically the same arguments boomer teachers tried to pound into the heads of kids my age. I, for one, have never really bought into this brand of conventional wisdom.

    Please indulge me in a friendly bit of line-by line commentary on the points you mentioned:

    * A society much less tolerant of overt and covert racial and gender discrimination.

    This is probably the only one of your points I’ll grant you without much debate. Of course this was really all about the Civil Rights movement and not the whiney Flower Power people…

    * A society more aware of the importance of maintaining a healthy environment.

    By indulging in all manner of pseudo-science and propaganda while trying to reduce all human activity to stone-age levels. The environmentalist religious movement that emerged out of the sixties is not something to be particularly proud of.

    * A society that is (arguably) freer for everyone.

    Since you included arguably, I’ll not argue this point.

    * A more open and transparent government.

    A more open, transparent, and much bigger government. Quite frankly, I’d be much happier with a government of closed door conspiracies with 1950s budget and presidential power.

    * Healthier diets.

    Eggplant and Tofu do not a healthy diet make. Old hippies are always sickly looking. If my steak and martini dinner is unhealthy, so be it.

    * More human and humane medical care.

    If the hippies had their way, we’d be stuck with Canada’s crappy health care system. How long do you want to wait in line for that vital chemotherapy?

    * The end of some truly dangerous and unwise weapons programs, especially chemical and biological(!!) warfare programs.

    To be precise, we’re only talking about the end of American chemical and biological warfare programs. The Soviets kept on happily churning out the anthrax / plague / bioengineered super flu right up until the end of the Cold War. And more to the point, if the Flower Power folks had been in charge, we would have unilaterally disarmed, leaving Soviet troops free to race across Europe eating all the croissants.

    Of course I’m grossly over-generalizing here. For every filthy hippy, dripping with smug satisfaction in his holy idealism and purity, there was a regular Joe who saw through the veneer of utopian good-vibes to the underlying core of poorly thought out ideas and nihilistic bullshit. Unfortunately, however, the loud and smelly hippies get to be remembered as the voice of their generation.

    Were the tumultuous social upheavals of the 60’s necessary and healthy? Perhaps so, in the same way a high colonic is necessary and healthy after you eat nothing but tofu and eggplant for six months. It may be necessary and healthy, but it’s not something that I would be particularly fond of recollecting.

    I am possibly overly harsh, but that’s the way I see it…

  8. I’ve got to say when I think how stupid we were doesn’t all have to do with Woodstock (and I have trouble sitting through those scenes) as much as reruns on the movie channel of James Bond. Yes, at one time we thought that was really cool. Someone still must, since they keep doing marathons of those movies. (And of course Sean Connery had the wit to almost pull off those masterpieces of sleaze.) My kids don’t watch Law & Order SVU, I liked Modesty Blaise. Yes, I do sometimes think those were sick times. But, we say defensively, they were our times. You can’t expect us not to remember them fondly. My parents, stationed across the continent from one another and feeling a part of something big and important often remembered WWII with affection. That doesn’t mean they were stupid or had no perspective – it just means that we remember the intensity of our late teens and twenties with nostalgia–whereever and however we spent them.

  9. Now now Ginny, don’t go messing with ol’ 007. The Bond franchise has always been awesomely superfantastic, and will remain so even if it must endure another Timothy Dalton.

    Heh, not everything from that era smelt of crappy patchouli…

  10. If another Boomer can put his $.02 in:
    We didn’t all buy the peace-love-dope stuff. Some of us maintained enough skepticism and ironic distance to see that things were clearly going wrong. Frank Zappa got me through high school. He was every bit as savage toward the hippies as toward the “great Midwestern hardware store philosophy.”
    Doubting those who disagree with you is easy. Doubting those who agree is much harder. Doubting your own wisdom is harder still, but you can’t be a libertarian until you do. When you hear someone say they have a Unified Theory of Everything, chamber a round and take the safety off. We’ve seen what that kind of credulity did to the last century.

  11. If I may quibble with one point and add a couple of others:

    -The civil-rights movement peaked in the 60s (and in some ways — e.g., “affirmative action” — started to go astray). The hard work was done earlier, particularly during the 1950s, that supposedly unadmirable period of conformity and McCarthyism. Thomas Sowell pointed out that black incomes rose faster than white incomes until the welfare-state “reforms” of the 60s, which also coincided with the formation of a black “underclass” with chronic familial pathologies.

    -Violent crime rates increased dramatically during the 60s and only recently declined from those elevated levels.

    -The divorce rate increased dramatically during the 60s, fed by no-fault divorce laws and greater tolerance of divorce. IMO this was a disaster which destroyed many lives and from which the society still hasn’t recovered.

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