"Hunter S. Thompson, whose life and writing, vivid and quirky reflections of each other, made him one of the principal symbols of the American counterculture, shot and killed himself yesterday at the age of 67 at his home near Aspen... His beat, he once said was 'the death of the American dream.' Interviewers later suggested to him that he in a way embodied that dream. They said he exploded in profanity, but conceded that perhaps he did."
—Washington Post, February 21, 2005
It was believed afterward
that the man was a lunatic,
because there was no sense
in what he said.
—The War Prayer, Mark Twain.
Hunter S. Thompson was uncharacteristically succinct when he described his vision of Hell: "a viciously overcrowded version of Phoenix—a clean, well-lighted place full of sunshine and bromides and fast cars where almost everybody seems vaguely happy, except for the ones who know in their hearts what is missing."
Trying to imagine heaven, he couldn't get past the pearly gates: "[I bet] 8 to 1 that Heaven will be a place where the swine will be sorted out at the gate and sent off like rats, with huge welts and lumps and puncture wounds all over their bodies—down the long black chute where ugliness rolls over you like waves of boiling asphalt and poison scum . . ."
He keeps following this description down and down and down until he's right back where he began—Hell—and in the process he's filled in the blank—the "what is missing."
What is missing?
For Thompson, writing that was less than a total, personal commitment to righteousness was a sin. The New York Times obituary cited his "acerbic eye for truth which he used in the style of first-person reporting that came to be known as "gonzo" in the 1960's..." Thompson sneered at the so-called "objectivity" of the mainstream press. "Objective journalism is one of the main reasons that American politics has been allowed to be so corrupt for so long," he insisted.
For Thompson, writing that was less than a total, personal commitment to righteousness was a sin.
Thompson's Hell sounds much like Dante's first circle of Hell where the great philosophers and poets—dead before Christ's Passion—lounge in a dim, half-lit waiting room, a kind of black and white movie waiting to be colorized by the second coming. It's what theologians call limbus patrum, the limbo of the Fathers who are being punished for the sin of Adam.
Thompson's vision also pays homage to his hero, Ernest Hemingway, and his iconic short story "A Clean Well-Lighted Place." In the story two waiters, one young and brash the other old and understanding, wait for a deaf, drunk old man to leave. We learn through their dialogue that the old man has tried to kill himself the week before. While the young waiter is impatient to get home to his wife, the older waiter understands the need for a clean well-lit café to drink in when you have nothing else in the world. After the old man leaves and the bar is closed up, the older waiter thinks: "What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too."
According to Douglas Brinkley's lament, "Contentment Was Not Enough," in the March 24, 2005 of Rolling Stone, Thompson was obsessed with Hemingway, so much so that in 1964, on assignment from the National Observer, he went to Ketchum, Idaho "in search of why" Papa had killed himself with a 12-gauge shotgun, and ended up making off with the elk horns that adorned the front entrance. Thompson's article chronicling the trip surmised: 'He was an old, sick and very troubled man, and contentment was not enough for him.' Ironically, Brinkley points out, in those early days before acid and Chivas Regal became part of Hunter's rider, the man now being eulogized as uncompromising and one-of-a-kind actually modeled himself after Hemingway—the man who more than any other gave rise to the term "American Writer." Brinkley goes so far as to call Thompson's first two books, Prince Jellyfish and The Rum Diary, "largely Hemingway-derivative."
But where is hell? Certainly not Phoenix. Pittsburgh? Detroit? The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1917 has it that "some [theologians] were of the opinion that hell is everywhere, that the damned are at liberty to roam about in the entire universe, but that they carry their punishment with them. The adherents of this doctrine were called Ubiquitists... However, that opinion is universally and deservedly rejected; for it is more in keeping with their state of punishment that the damned be limited in their movements and confined to a definite place."
Thompson would not have liked that idea of confinement. He loved road trips, fast cars and motorcycles. He loved the wide openness of the West: literally, the land, and, figuratively, the liberty. After spending an evening at his compound shooting empty liquor bottles with a laser-sighted rifle, Christopher Hitchens called him the "minuteman of the Rockies." True, Thompson was a prototypical militiaman—anti-establishment, and an ardent defender of individual freedom, but a key exception to this stereotype was his sympathy for the powerless and disenfranchised.
Looking at Thompson's literary output it seems he would've been intrigued by the Ubiquitists' idea that "hell is everywhere." (Was Pope John Paul II thinking of them when he said hell is a state "rather than a place"?) Thompson gravitated towards sin, viciousness and decay wherever he went. In fact, we best know him for finding their American headwaters in the book he called a "failed Gonzo journalism experiment," Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, not to mention the other wild, untamed American tributaries he navigated and lived to tell about, like Presidential elections, the Kentucky Derby and the Super Bowl.
Unlike most artists hostile to Christianity, Thompson embraced the most debated aspect of Christian cosmology—hell.
Thompson's drive and appetite to track, capture and study life in these artificially grotesque places began quite by accident. Rolling Stone contributor Mikal Gilmore marks the turning point in Thompson's life as the 1968 National Democratic Convention. Gilmore wrote that while covering the convention Thompson was caught in the midst of a demonstration, and even though his press credentials were clearly displayed he was assaulted by a policeman, causing him to crash through a storefront plate glass window.
Thompson later wrote in Rolling Stone: "[T]hat week in Chicago permanently altered my brain chemistry, and my first new idea—when I finally calmed down—was an absolute conviction that there was no possibility for any personal truce, for me, in a nation that could hatch and be proud of a malignant monster like Chicago. Suddenly, it seemed imperative to get a grip on those who had somehow slipped into power and caused this thing to happen."
Unlike most artists hostile to Christianity, Thompson embraced the most debated aspect of Christian cosmology—hell—mostly as a way of making a clear delineation between who deserves hell and who does not. (He admitted being influenced by the Book of Revelation). Like Dante, Thompson's image of Hell was a reflection of the world as he saw it, populated by the still living: war mongers in the Johnson administration, power-corrupted, neo-Nazi police departments and all those politicians and lawyers who enacted and upheld the social and political structures bent on seriously restricting a citizen's right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
In each decade of his career—beginning as a high school student with his first rants condemning the "youth of today," where he sounds like a Russian Holden Caulfield—Thompson took aim at the fat cats, hypocrites and politicians.
At one point during the Viet Nam war, after reading a news article that quoted Secretary of Defense Robert F. McNamara, he called up Western Union and sent a telegram to the White House that read: FIRE MCNAMARA AT ONCE HE IS A LYING BLOODTHIRSTY BEAST.
Thompson was under no delusions that there was some exemplary moral center to the counterculture. The Hell's Angels, he wrote in a 1967 letter to Dale, a 14 year-old fan, are "not smart, or funny, or brave, or even original. They're just Old Punks... They're not even happy; most of them hate the lives they lead, but they can't afford to admit it because they don't know where else to go, or what else to do. That's what makes them mean... and it also makes them useless, because there's already a big oversupply of mean bastards in this world."
Thompson was a prototypical militiaman—except for his sympathy for the powerless and disenfranchised.
Neither was he under any delusions that Allen Ginsberg was a holy man, or that Timothy Leary was a guru for saying that LSD tuned you into a higher plane of consciousness. For Thompson, insinuating himself into the most debauched and outrageous situations was part of his Doctor of Journalism persona. Drinking, dropping acid, using a cigarette holder, driving fast and charming women were simply accoutrements necessary to fit in, to find the pulse of a people and place and time—bottom line: to get the scoop, the insider look, what no one else can get at.
Thompson's method paid off insofar as he's left us with stories that show just how close to the surface depravity lies. For this reason, his contributions to journalism and literature are inestimable and troubling, as most great artistic work is.
There are generations of male writers in this country plagued by the ghost of Hemingway. I fear that Thompson, who never achieved half the literary success and notoriety of Hemingway, will become the patron saint of all disgruntled, drug-experimenting, teen and twenty-something aspiring writers.
Sadly, in America, literary luminosity often comes with a heavy price. William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neil, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Cheever, Ray Carver all either drank or smoked (or both) themselves to early graves. Kurt Vonnegut—now in his early eighties—was once asked, "Why do you smoke so much?" He replied, "I'm trying to commit suicide; I'm just not very good at it."
Why? One stock answer is that the writer is so involved in imagining and breathing life into stories of struggle and pain that alcohol and other drugs are needed to calm the whirling storm of tormenting thoughts. According to Joseph Blotner, his principal biographer, Faulkner drank heavily because he sought "temporary oblivion from the world around him." This suggests that the drinking was a willed remedy, an existential act, not an uncontrollable dependency. But medical records and anecdotes by those close to Faulkner suggest otherwise, that Faulkner suffered from a physical addiction, a disease that put him in the hospital countless times.
Tom Dardis, author of The Thirsty Muse: Alcoholism and American Writers, traces the connection between creativity and substance abuse back to Horace, who was citing Homer's love of wine when he wrote:
...no lyric poems live long/ or please many people.../ Which are written by drinkers of water.
In America, artistic creativity goes hand in hand with the idea of escaping the tyrannies of daily life. What's most troubling about this approach is that it denies the unity of the soul and the body, the incarnational core of humanity. Gone is the meticulous and dedicated—even if anguished—craftsman, whose talent is harnessed in the service of God. Instead, the artist who relies on alcohol and drugs to co-create desecrates God's own creation in the process.
In Thompson's case, his self-abuse obscured that side of him that was most praiseworthy and unique, his apocalyptic vision—that the swine would ultimately be separated from the upstanding. But like some hubristic protagonist of a Flannery O'Conner short story, Thompson believed the only chance the meek had of inheriting the earth was if they organized a mob, crashed the gates of the Pentagon, captured the top brass and put them on trial for their crimes.
He was not afraid to talk about his sins. He was never a moral relativist. He knew what he was doing.
Many have argued that certain works of literary genius wouldn't have been produced without drugs and alcohol (On the Road, Howl, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), but this avoids an honest discussion of what really makes an artist good.
What made Thompson's writing great was his empathy for those flailing about for a way to live under oppressive circumstances. His April 29, 1971 Rolling Stone article "Strange Rumblings in Aztlan," about the rise of the Chicano movement in East LA and the suspicious police-killing of prominent Mexican-American journalist Ruben Salazar, is a masterful piece of journalism. It weighs in at 45 pages (in the Modern Library edition Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and other American Stories), putting it in that rare class of lengthy, deeply empathetic, investigative journalistic pieces rarely found in Rolling Stone, or anywhere, these days. Thompson tames down his usual Gonzo persona, and draws attention to his outsider status—to the fact that he is seen as the enemy and he must therefore work to gain the trust of the people whose story he is telling. Confronting again the sort of police brutality that had unhinged him a few years earlier, he dutifully and carefully unravels the tragic story of Ruben Salazar, weaving a labyrinthine story structure that mimics the web of competing accounts, half-truths and outright lies that make up what Thompson called only a "composite" of what really happened to Salazar.
"Strange Rumblings in Aztlan," more than any other work by Thompson, shows his desire to give voice to those condemned—whether to living in quiet desperation, or subject to defamation, injustice, or physical attack.
Is hell-fire metaphorical or literal? My guess is that Thompson would have considered theological quandaries like this a waste of time. It was probably enough that he saw suffering all around him. Like other writers, he felt the pain of others more acutely than most. Perhaps by tracing that pain back to its monolithic source he came face to face, as have so many artists and activists, with a power that cannot be defeated by human acts alone. (I'm reminded of Ginsberg's Howl and his evocation of the Judaic tradition's apocalyptic leviathan, Moloch.)
I've known many politically-committed artists, and activists who have followed this noble and, I think, essentially human path to understand the source of the injustices they see around them, and who, by doing so, have arrived at a deep conflict within themselves. I count myself in this number.
A good friend of mine, a beautiful poet and one of the most moral people I will ever know, once asked me, "How much closer would you be if you had a gun?" I understood right away what he meant and it scared me senseless. What is the use of struggling? What is the reward for spending a life of transience and solitude railing against powers that seem so impersonal and indomitable?
At the time I told my friend that I could never do it. I could never kill myself. That's all I said. But I wish I had told him that the reason I continued to write and do my small part was that I knew that my struggle is to be more like Christ, and that as long as I live and work with this in mind, despair will always be a passing feeling.
There was something missing from Thompson’s vision of heaven and earth
For so many, this despair does not pass. When people arrive at that deep conflict within themselves they believe that the world offers them nothing. Their unique talents, their quest for knowledge, is all for naught.
Thompson's decision to take his own life deserves attention because he was a great sinner. He was not afraid to talk about his sins. He was never a moral relativist. He knew what he was doing. He had lived through situations that would have destroyed a person of lesser savvy and constitution, which is a nice way of saying he could handle his booze and drugs.
Great sinners, as Augustine has shown us, can bring us insight into the human struggle that no one else can. And Hunter S. Thompson did. Through the cultural revolution of the sixties and seventies he was its unsightly prophet, and his greatest accomplishment was to live through it and tell about it. Unfortunately, there was no place left for him to go.
Could he have converted to Christianity? To Catholicism? That's hard to imagine—he was too much the lone rebel. He could never be a part of a universal church. He believed that homogeneity was the great evil.
Somehow he had convinced himself that he was the exception, the one who could take all of this pain and decay into himself and shape it into knowledge and power.
Until he put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
There was something missing from Hunter Thompson's vision of heaven and earth: the saving truth and light of Christ.
"Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more... He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, (for) the old order has passed away." [Revelation 21:1,4]