Fear and Loathing in Aspen
I was never much attracted to the writing of Hunter S. Thompson, and accordingly never read much of it beyond a few excerpts from the two Fear and Loathing books that appeared in Rolling Stone many long years ago. I had at the time enough difficulty maintaining my own equilibrium without entering into someone else’s derangement. Moreover, I didn’t even want to look at the repulsive and disturbing Ralph Steadman drawings that accompanied Thompson’s work. (Here’s a sample.) In general I’ve never cared much for people who make a show of cultivating their own derangement; to tell the truth, I’ve never entirely believed them, suspecting that somewhere under the pose was a very solid, stable, and perhaps calculating sort of fellow. (Yes, this goes for Rimbaud, too, who after all proved himself pretty capable in the practical world after he gave up poetry.) Real madness is not amusing, either to the victim or to those around him. Gerard Manley Hopkins is more to be trusted on the subject:
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there.
So when I say that Thompson’s main gift seems to have been the somewhat limited one for invective, I’m mindful that I may be misjudging him. And one day I may revisit his work, although there are quite a few still-unread classics in the queue ahead of him.
Whatever the merits of his work, he certainly made the phrase “fear and loathing” not only well-known but inextricably linked to his own name and personality. And now it appears apropos for the end of his life. Since his suicide last week the reported reactions of his family have veered back and forth between their natural grief and their attempts to justify his action as the honorable choice of a man who has decided, quite coldly, that some personal cost-benefit analysis of his condition and prospects has tipped far enough toward the cost side that it is time to go. That they are having a hard time maintaining the latter attitude is pretty clear if you read the news stories.
I think everyone can understand, if not approve, the suicide of someone who is in the extremity of pain, whether of body or mind. And we may sympathize with the propitiatory suicide of one who believes that he has lost his honor and can only regain it by giving up his life. But as far as we know Thompson’s suicide was for none of these reasons. It seems, rather, the sort of act that Chesterton had in mind when he explained the Church’s condemnation of suicide. I can’t remember where the passage occurs, so I can’t quote him exactly, but the basic idea is that a murderer kills one man, while a suicide kills all men, and indeed rejects the entire cosmos itself. In a suicide like Thompson’s, there is (apparently) no positive good envisioned; there is only the fear and loathing of age, weakness, and helplessness, and the determination to evade them. Some have described it as a last act of control, but this description is hardly justifiable, since it destroys the controller and closes the door to all further action. It is an act of nihilistic defiance only, not of achievement.
One need not be religious to see this. Obviously a Christian (or for that matter an adherent of almost any traditional religion) cannot approve Thompson’s action, but a clear-headed non-believer should be able to see the essential self-centered pride of it as well, the cosmic wrongness. Even, or perhaps especially, if one believes the state after death to be one of non-existence, the idea that self-murder is an effective act of self-assertion does not commend itself to reason.
From the Christian point of view a calculated and rational suicide—committed, to modify the traditional language of extenuation, while the balance of the mind is not disturbed—can be seen as the extreme and archetypal pattern of all sin, which originates in the refusal to submit: the satanic “I will not serve” becomes, in the end, “I will not be.” Fear and loathing indeed. But as a wiser man than Hunter Thompson once said, “You got to serve somebody.” I’ll say a prayer for what may well be a very surprised and unhappy soul, but I can’t respect Mr. Thompson’s final act in this world.