Hunter S. Thompson -- Fear, Loathing, and the Dancing Bear

02.22.2005 | David Walley | Media Affairs | 4 Comments
“To exceed the limits of a formula without destroying it is the dream of every magazine writer who is not a hopeless hack.”   —Raymond Chandler

It’s snowing here in Maine, seven am, and I’m starting my daily slog writing about the life and times of Herbert Feis, an economist who worked for the State Department from 1931-1943, resigned and became a Pulitzer Prize winning historian of the Cold War. I’m just far enough in to spy the proverbial light at the end of the middle. After my first smoke and cup of coffee, I read the paper. News is an addiction, a dangerous drug at times, but I do it because I don’t know how else to start my day, because my work needs some structure, because without it I’m flailing about. I can’t afford to flail; I want to get this puppy out of my brain and on paper, so that I can start another project, and another and another. Writers don’t die; they just turn the page.

It seemed one did today. My work can wait for a bit.

So I’m up to my second cigarette and the gay sports pages, AKA the obits, to see who among my contemporaries has checked out.  Today it’s Sandra Dee and Hunter Thompson, both recluses and icons of by-gone eras, flies in amber. Dee disappeared after 1962, first into a marriage with Bobby Darin, then a Hollywood divorce that was her last fling with the limelight until today. In the public’s otherwise occupied mind she remained an eternal teenager trapped in the panty girdle of Fifties morality, an anorexic wraith no one heard about for more than forty years.

Thompson didn’t give up the ghost that easily, didn’t go quietly into the night. He blew his brains out at his fortified compound in Aspen. Colorado. The news was shocking but not unexpected; it was almost bound to happen.

There will be countless public lamentations this week, learned disquisitions on New Journalism and the legacy of HST written by the chattering classes who claimed him and his style as influences, but remained untouched by his intent. Lip service will be paid, debts will be acknowledged to his anarchic style by those who’ve ceased to be animated by his spirit, who’ve put it aside as a childish enthusiasm now that they’ve become grown-ups and get their news from dinner parties and publicists. They will blog about him in their electronic diaries, hoist a few, smoke the ceremonial joint if they can scrounge up some chronic from the kids.

And in that altered state, they will meditate on their checkered youth when they were intense, righteous, and angry. They will remember who they used to be but no longer are, before becoming so nuanced to spin as to become spinners themselves. “The Doctor has finally left the building,” they will say, but no one will meditate on the addiction of fame that destroyed the doctor, since they aspire to fame themselves. They’ll make him into some sort of psychedelic Hemingway, blowing his brains out when he found there was no more big game to go after save himself. Did HST blow his brains out for our sins? Of course not, but it doesn’t appear that anyone wants to hear cautionary tales in an hour of public mourning for a lost soul.

And that’s a tragedy in itself, that after Thompson’s initial successes he became a brand name, a commodity known not only to his fans, but also to himself. He became what he beheld and has now paid for so becoming. With the success of Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas and then Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, Thompson gradually started to believe his own myth, and eventually became a parody of himself.

[HST on a Bear Hunt, 1969]
Thompson on a bear hunt in Montana, 1969.  HST archives

“I may go out tomorrow if I can borrow a coat to wear
Oh I’d step out in style with my sincere smile and my dancing bear”  —Randy Newman

Writers can’t afford to believe their public personas, even if those personas bring them notoriety, fame, money. When they do, they lose their edge and cease to exist. Thompson ritualistically dulled his edge, so that the formula became rigid and mechanical, and the reader in reading the Loathing series sees how it was done, feels that had he had access to the same chemical tools, that he could get there himself. But far from informing Thompson’s consciousness and his journalism, the drugs hid it.

Thompson never bothered much with being there, only on getting there. He became the story, our own counter-cultural celebrity journalist. He bullied compliant and frightened editors who allowed him free range to exercise and exorcise his demons real and imagined for our entertainment, and he became — and was encouraged to become — our amazing dancing literary bear. He allowed this to happen. Hell, it was a living and a good one, and it was easy to do. Plug in a subject – golf, guns, the Super Bowl, politics, whatever — drop some chemicals, mix it up, and there it was. Without the drugs, perhaps he would have been a John Grisham or a Tom Wolfe. That’s what literary life in America is today… Just fame and the artist.

Apparently he didn’t think too much about the consequences, and who does who’s in the middle of them? The myths one creates about oneself — especially those one inherits from the public and allows one’s self to believe — are the most addictive and destructive. Like his journalistic forefather Ambrose Bierce, Thompson became a fly in the ossifying amber of his time. As everyone else “moved on”, he was still there. Anyway it was far easier for people to make him into a symbol than to try to keep his metaphor pliant, to encourage that burning observational intelligence. But Thompson I’m thinking had become too far gone himself to notice what he was doing, and what had happened to him. By the early Seventies, he had become Dr. Gonzo, Uncle Duke, a clown.

And we liked it like that, we expected that from him, and apparently so did he, at least until it was just too painful, until his various “medications” were no longer strong enough. Getting old isn’t for sissies, Lord knows. He was sick, ailing, had a hip replacement, legal problems of course, and perhaps he found himself in a place where suicide appeared to be a viable solution to his temporary problems. Maybe he was just screwing around, play-acting; he liked to blow up things. Maybe he was so out of it, he had totally disassociated, was watching himself watch himself. We’ll never know. Maybe it was a defiant act, taking himself back from himself, finally sawing off a limb he’d been working on for some time. I’m sure within a week or so we’ll get the “real” story from The NY Times Book Review or The NY Review of Books or some other literary equivalent of Entertainment Tonight. Perhaps it’ll be Rolling Stone, which helped create Thompson and which in turn he helped create.

Perhaps the notion dawned on him that he was wasting his talents, that he was kidding himself slavishly promoting anthologies of recycled magazine journalism when he should have been going after bigger game, just like Papa Hemingway, but no longer knew how. Perhaps unable to pull himself back from the psychic brink he’d been teetering on for years, he finally said “I’m outta here.” There were no Nixons to kick around anymore, and going after born-again drunks just didn’t cut it, and no matter how egregious the shame and horror of Iraq no one seemed to be summoning the rage needed to tear the edifice down. Or maybe it was realizing that eventually he’d wind up on one of those celebrity poker shows or reduced to a sideshow freak in the journalism game, endlessly pumping out his old anarchic insights in a business too polite and old hat to cut him loose. Only so long you can be angry at the world without turning it on yourself.

Or maybe he was living in hell, and that part of him which hadn’t been totally obliterated by drink and drugs or seduced by the bitch goddess of Fame could no longer face the reality of what in his heart of hearts he knew he had become, and so ended his life being true to what he believed, that he had let us and still more himself down… a characteristic grace note to be sure.

The snow is starting to let up, and I’ve got to get back to work. Perhaps it’s best to end with a version of the epitaph from Dylan’s Tarantula, with apologies of course. Maybe the good Doctor would have approved, maybe not. It doesn’t matter anymore:

                                 here lies Hunter Thompson
                                 demolished by Vienna politeness-
                                 which will now claim to have invented him
                                 the cool people can
                                 now write Fugues about him
                                 & Cupid can now kick over his kerosene lamp-
                                 Thompson-felled by a discarded                            
                                 who turned
                                 to investigate a ghost
                                & discovered that
                                 the ghost too
                                 was more than one person.

I grew up too late to much care about Thompson — and not reading him at the right age of my own life I'm sure didn't help — though I loved Gilliam's Fear and Loathing. Read the book afterward and thought it paled in comparison, truth be told. But maybe that's because everything that shocked about it at the time has been assimilated into the culture since. It seems to me as such that Walsey nails this. If I read one more piece about "our better half" or one more hate screed like the other guy here wrote I'll be sick. This guy Thompson got stuck being himself publicly, with all the limitations that inflicts and that he inflicted on himself. Let's take this for what it is, a journalist at the right place and time for a hot moment to turn his troubles into assets, but not able then or later to shake those troubles.Sad, but not especially meaningful, at least in any public sense.

02.23.2005 | Rich Stotchkie
having moved to HI, HSTs Curse of Lono was a window into how a writer from another tradition/world view imposes that take upon alien behests and legacies. it helped me more deeply to recognize that i myself (despite a 20' stay) am a virtual visitor myself, and not sharing much with either tradition (white male or native Hawaiian), i could receive "Curse" as the fun fable it was. looked upon as a psychotropically frigated fabulous fable maker, he was a hellrider's read and sadly, as ridden and riven as those to whom he turned his attentions.
02.25.2005 | vernyce
As details of the suicide start to appear on CNN ( and claims of his increasing vows to do so echo from family members, one can still debate about what mental state Hunter was in during those final moments.

He was in pain, fresh out of surgery, probably looking at a severely reduced mobility for his remaining years. And though the act could in no way be thought of as NOT being 'pre-meditated', as he'd been planning it for decades and always claimed the only thing he feared was a situation in life where he couldn't kill himself if he wanted to, the actual timing of it makes one wonder just what the doctor was on, exactly.

With his son, daughter-in-law, and small grandson upstairs, having spent a deliberate weekend with the entire family, he calls his wife at the gym and asks her to come home and check out his latest draft of the new ESPN article (presumably this either didn't actually exist or will never appear, apparently unfinished). Then he sets the phone down mid-conversation, leaving it off the hook for her to hear the immediately ensuing gunshot.

This does not seem like the careful, deliberate action of one who is self-euthanizing. And yet, it is Hunter, after all, so one never knows, and of course, we will simply and purely never know.

My theory was that he'd been having constant arguments with the wife about whether or not he should do himself in, this much seems evidenced by her comments to the press... and in a cruel, nihilistic moment he decided to have the REAL last word.

A friend of mine asserts that he must have wanted the last thing he heard to be his lover's voice, and this was his way of making that happen without doing it in front of her.

Either way, there's no doubt that Hunter had it HIS way, and I only hope he left behind some final scorcher of a book, something which hearkens back to his 70s writings, repainting the latest version of the American Nightmare and definitively proving his clarity of mind despite the Lifestyle. But this, this I doubt...

...which is fine, since what he did leave behind is more than enough. Now, as for the military-style send-off for his remains:
02.28.2005 | J Warner

Thompson, the guy with the cigarette, became the story, our own counter-cultural celebrity journalist.

04.7.2011 | ecigs

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