3. Being Thompson
All of the fanfare surrounding Thompson’s death reminded me of the pomp and circumstance surrounding the English Romantic poet Lord Byron’s death in 1824. When Byron died, he was not only the most famous writer in the world but also one of the biggest celebrities in the West. Despite his own position as an aristocrat, as someone ultimately removed from the plights and realities of commoners and the downtrodden, common readers throughout England and many parts of Europe admired and even worshipped Byron. They saw him as an advocate on their behalf, as an iconoclast and revolutionary, as a writer and public figure in touch with their own feelings and circumstances.
In the years leading up to and following Byron’s death, a number of Europeans adopted something of a Byronic pose, imitating the poet’s own style and manner, both in their writing as well as in their fashion and speech. They did so, of course, for the purpose of their own advancement, for the persona of Byron was a form of social capital and hence a means of attaining clout and power over the members of the public that so admired Byron. A number of my college friends and I did the same thing with Thompson. We purposefully dressed like him, acted like him, wrote like him, and even spoke like him. We did so in order to test the waters as writers and thinkers and also to capture the unique cultural position of Thompson. By being Thompson we were able to establish a unique position out of and away from the mainstream, to stand off from everyone else and honestly meet the kind of girls who were impressed by that sort of mad, bad, and dangerous to know personality that Thompson offered, not to mention excuse our own use and abuse of controlled substances.
As was the case with Byron, acting like Hunter S. Thompson allowed us access to a unique form of social capital, with which we could engage in a number of different social markets. As with Byron, Thompson’s personality and social position serves as the man’s greatest legacy. Both Byron and Thompson cultivated public personalities that were designed to appeal to their audiences. Both carved out positions in the public consciousness that served to not only grant them a certain measure of attention, respect and artistic freedom, but to also provide a space which their descendants could occupy in order to promote their own ideologies, for better or worse. Like Byron, Thompson cast a mold that others could not only encase themselves in, but also modify to their own ends. In this respect, Thompson was a trailblazer, a revolutionary, someone who provided many of us with a position from which we could pronounce our own accounts of the weirdness, danger, and horror of our circumstances and observations. And for that alone, we owe Thompson our eternal gratitude.
4. The Doctor is Dead, Long Live the Doctor!
We’ll never know for sure what went through Thompson’s head before he sent a bullet slamming and burning into it. We can suppose that he felt himself to be at the end of his career, that he was depressed by his declining health, or that he felt that had lost his famous edge. But all of that is mere speculation. All we can do really is accept and respect his decision. After all, he always suggested that he would end his life on his own terms when he felt that the time came. I can accept this, but still the image of Thompson sitting at his desk with his brains blown out still haunts me.
For the longest time, I couldn’t figure out why this bothered me so much. I’d never met the poor bastard. We’d never shared a conversation or a beer. All that I really knew of him was his work and myth. But still, the image of him sitting alone and turning a gun on himself lingers in my mind. When I think about Thompson, I often return to the epigram to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a line that he took from Samuel Johnson:
“He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”
In many ways, I think these lines say more about Thompson than anything he himself wrote. At the core of Thompson—beneath the dark humor and all of the Strum and Drang of his writing and his life and all the hyperbole and self-myth making—was a man who felt tremendously and deeply. And what he felt most immediately and directly was pain. If Thompson suffered from anything, it was not insanity, egomania, or drug addiction, but rather from an acute awareness of the horrors of the world, of all the hypocrisy and bullshit behind the American dream, of all that was possible in man and also all that was lost, of all that America—a country he both loved and loathed—was ultimately capable and fundamentally incapable of being, and of his own strengths and weaknesses.
At the end of the day Thompson was fundamentally incapable of bullshitting himself. He was just too smart and too tuned into what was going on in and around himself. And in the end, it proved too much for him, hence the bullet he put in his head. I suppose that’s what my heartbreak is owed to, the fact that he couldn’t take it and that his only way out—his only chance at peace—was death. He suffered for us for many years, and in the end, he died for us and because of us. Something about that just seems incredibly wrong to me. I’m by no means a faithful sort or a believer in any sort of afterlife. But for Christ’s sake, if Thompson is out there somewhere, I hope he’s in peace. He deserves that much.
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