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: