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Thursday, January 05, 2006

In defense of Hunter S. Thompson and the Real Right to Die

Boy, I hope I don't screw up here. As you know if you've been reading these posts, I am a big fan of Brad Warner, the Zen teacher whose book got me back to Zen practice after years of uh, neglect. And I've succeeded in inviting him to come to Nashville for our spring retreat in March. So I hope I don't piss him off. But one of his comments the other day struck me as something I wanted to argue with, and I'm doing it here rather than in the comments section on his blog.

Brad made the following comment on January third (of course this is out of context, so I invite you to check out the Hardcore Zen blog). "And yet, you need to be able to practice some kind of self-regulation. We do need to know right from wrong. Otherwise you'd end up like Hunter S. Thompson or somebody like that." One thing I do feel Hunter Thompson was imbued with was an overwhelming sense of the difference between right and wrong. He just didn't draw it in the same place as some others do.

But I realized that when Brad replied that he hadn't read Thompson's writings; he was just reacting to the public persona of HST as satirized, most famously as Uncle Duke in Doonesbury, but also as portrayed by Bill Murray in Where Buffalo Roam, and slightly less misleadingly by Johnny Depp [By the way, Fear in Loathing in Las Vegas was a great movie, I thought, except for Depp's portrayal of Thompson, which was way too clownish. Johnny Depp is usually a great actor and one of my favorites, but why was he so far off in his portrayal of Thompson? And likewise, he says the character he played in Pirates of the Caribbean was based on Keith Richard. I just thought he seemed like a silly fag. No homophobic reference intended. But enough about Johnny Depp.]

Anyway, Brad responded to a couple of us objecting to his characterization of Thompson by saying that he hadn't read Thompson and that he was not commenting on HST the literary man but on Thompson the man who drugged himself throughout his life and then killed himself. True, Thompson did just that but he did not kill himself with drugs; in fact he seems to be one of those rare cases where his highest literary function was not impaired by them. In fact, I think it is probably true that his accomplishments as a journalist, literary originator and cultural icon are inextricably tied to his lifestyle. Anyone who has ever read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or any of this other works should immediately see what I mean. The whole Gonzo thing was the integration of his lifestyle with his experiences as a journalist of his day. If you read The Great Shark Hunt collection, you'll see that his pre-Gonzo journalism in incredibly insightful and well-done; he just hadn't yet created his own form, like Kerouac when he wrote The Town and the City. And if you're not familiar with Kerouac, go check out my November blog on him. It's not at all coincidental that I mention Thompson and Kerouac in the same breath. Not only are they two of my biggest literary influences, they are also two of my biggest heroes, despite the fact that they led atypical lives. Or maybe because of that.

I have to admit that I had gotten away from Thompson's work. Of course I read the above-cited books, plus Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 and of course Hell's Angels. If you haven't read Hell's Angels, do so immediately. It's pre-Gonzo, and a totally immaculate piece of first-person journalism. He explores them to their depths (and don't confuse the Angels of '69 with what they later became), and then of course in the end gets beaten shitless for it. He kept on writing, on the political campaigns and sports (Nixon loved to talk football with HST, by the way). But I drifted away.

I really want to make two points in this blog: First, Hunter S. Thompson was a genius who changed my life, your life and our country forever (although the latter is being consistently eroded). Second, I am damned sick of people attacking him for the way he died. Having shamelessly exposited my theses, let me continue to ramble. Hunter could have wanted no less.

I have noticed in some of the blogs I've been reading lately that the usual analysis of blogs in general is that the off-topic ones are not successful, presumably because the people who try to follow them are not interested in all of the content. This blog is all one world, my world. I think that just like HST's writing and his lifestyle, my interests in Zen and in politics and American culture are inextricably linked. This is for the Zen guys: Have you ever noticed that what you are doing when you wind up observing the mind in zazen, is in fact observing the personality? I think the bottom line is to realize that all you observe is to observed from a perspective. Perspectives are not arbitrary and bad; they exist because despite the deep realization you can have in your zazen that you are not distinct from the universe, the truth is that you must distinguish yourself from the rest of the universe to function, because the universe cannot drive your car, it cannot do your taxes, and it cannot write your blog. When I successfully disengage in zazen, I (?) can successfully and objectively observe the actives of Bob J. Who is not me at that moment. Like I talked about stepping out of the movie.

But Bob J. is a creature who does what he does. The zazen me cannot control him. I think that this is the false edge of any kind of meditation where it falls into mysticism. The basic fallacy is that I can encompass all of God or the universe in my own human being. Give up on that.

Now, on Hunter's death. He was pretty private in his writings about his personal life. I know what that is like after writing this blog for a few months. The more you try to broaden your base, the less you want to tell about yourself. I try to use my personal life only when I need to make a point. But I have to diverge here.

I have never understood why people are so personally offended when someone commits suicide. Now it is one thing when the person is not mentally competent or is severely depressed or is in some way unable to make a rational decision based on his or her own beliefs. There are other matters involved in a Schiavo situation where someone else has to make the decision whether your life is worth saving or not. But the question here is, is my life not mine? If you think no, it is not, it belongs to God, you are not thinking or you are reading the wrong blog.

Now the sentiment I have often heard expressed is, how can anything be worse than not living? That seems to me like a stupid question. Living in inexorable, excruciating pain seems obviously worse than not living. For some reason, it occurred to me some years ago that your life will always be an equal balance between pleasure and plain. I can't prove this; it just seems true. For example why are rich people not always happy? Why are poor and sick people sometimes quite happy? Have you ever noticed that when times are really "bad" you can be quite happy? Have you ever noticed that when times are "good" you are can just not be happy? Have you ever felt guilty about that?

My theory or perception is that we are going to be happy and unhappy in about equal degrees for equal amounts of time, no matter what happens to us. There is of course no way to prove this, but it seems true. You vacillate between happiness or unhappiness no matter what happens to you. This is one of the reasons why it is so meaningless to compare your life with anyone else's; what might be a major tragedy for them might be a benign moment for you. The starting points are different. This is why the goal of zazen is not happiness. Some have said it is equanimity; I think it is perspective. It is why I am able to sit and look at my own actions like those of a character in play.

Consequently, death is a neutral event. In other words, if the life part of my life-and-death is a neutral, a draw, then the death part is pretty much nothing. Plus, my death (as opposed to my dying) is not an event I expect to experience. In other words, the only bad part of death is the experience of getting there. Of course there are all sorts of arguments and illusions about life after death, but I see no reason why they should be true other that misguided wishful thinking, and really no reason to wish they were true. Moreover, even if they are true, I have no way of knowing that and no way to plan for them. So really I see no reason to prefer life over death except as a means of prolonging the status quo and avoiding the unknown. This is of course from the individual point of view, but that is the only point of view I have most of the time.

My favorite uncle died a few years ago by committing suicide. He was in his 80's and had had a successful life by most definitions, although he certainly wasn't rich. He had had a meaningful career and had raised children who had lives of their own. His mind was rich and intelligent but his body was falling apart. Like Hemingway, he had showed signs of deciding to end it, and like Hemingway they took away his guns but forgot one with one round in the chamber. He killed himself with one shot to the head with a .22 short, which is an accomplishment.

So how can anyone decry this man's decision? Whose life was it? How worse can you deny a man's dignity that by denying him a right to end his life when he chooses? One of the most obnoxious and invasive behaviors of the right-wing Christians of our era is their insistence that they are more qualified than the individual to make the life-and-death decision. Historically, the resistance to suicide was probably based, like marriage, on the ownership of one human by another, or of the individual by the monarch or the state. If we truly lived in an enlightened age, we would have been able to move beyond that.

This blog is getting incredibly long or it seem so to me, and I've been working on it too long. But I want to come back in the next day or two and discuss these issues. In particular, I want to talk more about Thompson and why I think his work is so significant for our time and meaningful to me. But that's enough for now.

In the meantime, you might want to check out the following odd but meaningful interview with Thompson, a year or two before he died:


paulette said...

Well, there are many things you said there that i feel are true but not wholly. I agree with you totally that Hunter changed the world and spoke truth that most people don't want to hear. i enjoyed that last quote from him immensely. As for his death, it was no surprise to me--it was just so typically Hunter. I do think though that it reflected some kind of anger towards his own family. Why not go out in the woods somewhere and peacefully disappear. Why mess up the kitchen and present a traumatizing scene that your own grandchild might walk in on? Why do that to his son, and his wife? I thought that was chicken shit and unnecessary but not out of character. Hunter was a selfish, over indulgent, hedonist who loved to shock. That doesn't mean i don't think he didn't have a right to take his own life (personally, i do not think our lives are our own--i think our lives create energy that is beyond our will--i think that energy effects others. Why create sorrow when you can just as easily create joy?--just because you can. Suicide is appalling to me because i think of all the dead people i know who really wanted to live. Who really wanted to know what was going to happen next. Who really loved life and who really hated having to die and yet they must. Sometimes i live for them. I have felt suicidal and it is a totally selfish, self indulgent, mindset that comes from a place where you think you are much more important than you really are. To think that your suffering is greater than others is to think that you deserve a more tragic, dramatic, ending than nature allows. The fact of the matter is--to experience the whole enchilada, we have to wear out, let go of ego, and finally disappear without fanfare. That's the natural order of things. A gun blast in one's kitchen is a cowardly act and a selfish one. Though certainly not out of character. don't get me wrong. I love hunter and wanted to go to his funeral and regret that i didn't just drive as close to it as i could. i remember when the BBC interview came on in the 60's. He horrified and intrigued me. He didn't say any of the hippy things i wanted him to say. he even said some things my dad agreed with which was something i found puzzling. yet there was a truth to him and a bravery that was undeniable. He did change my world that night. i looked at things differently from then on.
Now for defending Johnny. First of all, he needs no defending but He was not playing Hunter--he was playing Raoul Duke who is a cartoon character. Hunter himself plays Raoul Duke at times and if you watch the old tapes you see Hunter acting very fucking ridiculous, coked out in some hotel room, his face white with drugs--is he faking being that fucked up or is he faking being a journalist. I dont' think even he knows the answer. i think johnny did a good job of playing Raoul Duke, maybe not so great at being Hunter--but then Hunter didn't do to well at being hunter either. He was a very cartoonish being. Albeit a political one. If you read Hunters letters to johnny, you see that he really liked the job he did even though he felt he "whored it up". He never said he liked anybody elses rendition of him. But it was pretty clear from the interviews i've read with both people that he really loved Johnny and thought that he "got" him even though he didn't in anyway "resemble" him. Fear and Loathing is ridiculuous because people on drugs are ridiculous. Yet, there is insight in the drugs as well and genius and all that is evident in the characters. We are supposed to feel the effects of the massive quanties of drugs these two are taking as if we have taken the drugs ourselves. I can see why you wouldn't like it because when you get to that level of highness you blackout and function in blackout. These guys are not in blackout, they are just fricken "ALTERED" and know it. Somewhere in there, the "observer" is still operating. That's what makes it entertaining for me.
As for johnny in Pirates. yeah he comes across faggy but then if you really look at any man for very long--the fag within is revealed. Johnny uses impressions of people and things but does not imitate. He used a family dog for Edward Scissorhands for his impression. Have you seen any interviews of that dude (i forgot his name-Rolling Stones guy). He slurs his speech and waves about his cigarette or hands in a very "affected" way. Also he dresses with lots of little beads hanging from his hair and bandanas and flamboyant shirts. That is what Johnny said he copied. You could look on it as faggy or as i did--he seemed drunk to me. The only faggy thing he really did was that you could tell he had no real desire for the pretty girl on the deserted island. however, that is because he doesn't feel anything because he was cursed. Besides he drinks too much and that replaces his libido. Anyway, in conclusion. I loved both movies. Don't ask me about Charley and the Choc Factory though because i was somewhat disappointed with that. Not Johnny so much as the factory.

Warp Spasm said...

i really don't know where to begin. i've got so many things running through my head about your post, about HST, suicide, parallells...
let me try to make some sense. first off, i'm completely down with defending HST. If you check the archives of my blog you'll see my own little homage to the man. i think i said something about being surprised that he hadn't done himself in earlier. he must have been just so fed up.

with re: to suicide- my mother committed suicide. i have second-hand knowledge of the misery some people live with. that said, i'm also a big fan of Albert Camus. I think he was dead on (pun intended) when he said that suicide is the only philosophical question. its a daily grind, man. like the buddha said, life is suffering. doesn't mean we have to check out early, but personally, i like knowing it's an option.
re: the HST interview. I was stunned to read that he thinks of politics as a circle. i was a high school teacher and used to explain the political spectrum that way. i originally thought it up when i heard an interview with timothy mcveigh. i am way left, mcveigh, way right, but i found myself agreeing with him. go far enough in one direction and you come around the other side.

finally, the parallel thing i mentioned: i was deeply effected by reading both HST and Kerouac during my undergrad years. i wanted to be HST, not just meet him.
second, i am, for lack of a better tag, a buddhist and really enjoyed Hardcore Zen.
three, i think you said you are not a lawyer anymore, but i am currently in law school.
way too weird!

alright, i'll stop rambling. gotta tell you again that you've got a great blog going. it's an inspiration to me since i haven't kept my blog all that interesting of late.