Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Hunter S. Thompson: Brilliance, Buffoonery and Freedom.

                             Hunter, photographer unknown.

Hunter S. Thompson. If I could only take books by six authors to the proverbial desert island I’d probably take one of his. But was he a genius or was he a clown? Both, probably. In some ways, everybody is. But that’s another essay, one I will probably never write, unless somebody pays me for it. I don’t want to give too much away for free on Suffolk Punch, and the last post, on Allen Ginsberg, depressed me for some reason. It was like being back at university again, catching your foot in the very unsavoury trap of trying to be objective about something you enjoy. I’m not interested in being objective. And I don’t enjoy philosophy, other than the unchallengeable, half-considered variety I occasionally indulge in here. I don’t want to present anything I write as reasoned analysis or even, finally, clever. All I am is a fat hippie sitting at a semi-functional laptop passing the time until my girlfriend gets home.

So, why did I mention Thompson at all? Because I’m reading Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail right now and I’ve been discussing the good doctor with my poetry friends. Some think he was a dupe of his own fame who tragically wasted his gift. Which he was. Others think he was at best a middling writer. I don’t agree with that, but each to his own. Still others seem very preoccupied with his drug consumption, his drinking, his fast cars and his guns, as if he offered up a model of free living that we should all aspire to. Non-poetry friends get hung up on this aspect of Thompson too. But most of them lead very sedate and controlled lives, the opposite of how Hunter supposedly conducted himself. Bob Marley’s fans tend to be the same, although Marley is so beloved of everybody nowadays he’s like Mother Teresa with dreadlocks.

I find all the crazy stuff funny, in Hunter’s books and articles, but I wouldn’t want to live that way. I’ve had periods of heavy drinking in my life and smoked a bit of grass, but whenever I’ve come across anything more hardcore than that it has scared me to death. I had a first date once with a woman who warned me people would be pilling at the party we were attending. Immediately I imagined myself taking a tablet out of sheer weakness, collapsing, dying on a paramedic’s stretcher and being on the front cover of the paper the next day. Should I admit that? Am I crippling my chances of being crowned King of the Counter-Culture? I’ll have to live with it if I am. In my experience intoxication of any sort is frequently a massive bore to be around. I’d rather have a nice cup of coffee. And isn’t Hunter’s message, ultimately, about being yourself, freely, without feeling the need to conform?

                            Hunter, photographer unknown.

Much as the public image amuses me (and let’s remember, he cited his captivity to it as a good justification for suicide), I read Thompson, simply, because I love his best writing. I have always occupied the same sort of intellectual territory as Hunter: both feet in my own muddy water, but with one eye on the main game…it was inevitable, growing up as I did in the 1980s, when Britain had its own brutal right wing government run by an allegedly charismatic (I couldn’t see it), morally bankrupt (I could see it) Nixon determined to stamp out the opposition by any means necessary. Watching communities being torn apart by Thatcher brought me into politics in exactly the same way that getting a beating on the streets of Chicago in 1968 brought Hunter into politics. I’ve tried to get away since, but it keeps dragging me back. The risks associated with failing to supervise those evil bastards adequately are just too great.

But it isn’t just an affinity of mind that makes Hunter's writing sing for me; it’s the style. He’s a good prose writer, with a masterful ability to create a scene, and a well-known gift for flights of the imagination unparalleled anywhere in literature. He’s elegiac too. Everything he writes after the Battle of Chicago – when he’s on top of his game – is infused with the same poetic sadness, the same sense of mourning for the better world that he grew up believing in. His generation almost had it, as other commentators have said; but for reasons which, again, I don’t want to go into until someone pays me, the chance slipped through their fingers. And Hunter’s sadness about that seems almost to have crushed his spirit.

I wrote a beautiful poem saying most of the above for a creative writing class I was forced to sit through at the university three years ago. The lecturer, with whom I had an extremely counter-productive, year-long war that humiliated us both, loved the poem, but I have since lost it. I think I wiped it accidentally from a file with the lecturer’s name on it when I knew I would never have to see the crimson-faced, dyspeptic creep again. Still, the ideas survive even if the rhythm and the organisation that characterised the poem have been blown into the cyber world like Hunter’s ashes flying high into the air over the Rockies. To summarise them, in the way they used to make us summarise when we were writing “proper” essays: I like him, but I’m not like him. Except I am.

Looking at that apparently jangled, meaningless statement and considering the multiple personalities Hunter has in the public consciousness, I feel I have to do a Hunter and close with a quote by another great American writer, Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes.)" Right on, Walt. It's the organising principle of the human condition. 


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Dylan Berndt said...

Thanks for the rollicking read! I wrote a poetic tribute to "the good doctor!" http://adviceforthemad.blogspot.co.za/2015/07/why-you-should-stay-passionate.html

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