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February 2005

Fear and Loathing in Aspen

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.

Inhumanism and the End of Ethics

Inhumanism and the End of Ethics

I once said to my boss, by way of making an excuse for a long and rambling email I had just sent her, that sometimes I don’t really know what I think until I’ve written it down. Sometimes the act of writing takes me a step beyond that, to an idea I hadn’t had before and might not have had if I hadn’t been engaged in the act of writing. This happened to me a couple of weeks ago when I was composing for the Caelum et Terra blog, in response to a reader’s comment, a brief explanation of what is commonly meant by the phrase “the culture of death.” Suddenly there on the screen were the words “The end of the human is the end of the moral.” I read them as if they had been written by someone else, and felt that I had learned something.

Now, I don’t flatter myself that this is a new thought. It is, to pick the instance that comes quickest to mind, at least implicit in C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man. But I had never had it put to me quite so simply and starkly.

There is abroad in Western societies today a curious and, if I may say so, a sinister desire to establish as fact the idea that there is no such thing as a human being in the old accepted sense: a creature of mixed body and spirit, part animal and part angel, and thereby placed on the other side of an abyss from the rest of creation (so far as we know it). This rejection of “human” as a unique category is a simple inference from the Darwinian belief that man is only a particularly advanced mammal, not different in kind from a dog or a mouse, and it seems to be embraced with something close to glee by some people. It might seem that the dejection and discouragement with which many greeted Darwin’s work in its time would be more appropriate, but to those whose primary metaphysic is a rejection of all authority outside themselves it came, and apparently still comes, as a message of liberation. And it might seem paradoxical that those who embrace it most loudly and fervently often call themselves humanists, but that, too, makes sense if one thinks of the term as labeling one of two cosmic parties, the other of which is commanded by God.

Up to a point that position has consistency at least to recommend it. If humanity is only one artifact thrown up into separate existence by meaningless physical forces, then it is a silly mistake for us to flatter ourselves that we are anything else. But this “humanism” falls apart intellectually as soon as it begins to use moral language.

No one in his right mind holds a dog or cat or an oyster morally responsible for its actions. At most, in the case of a pet or a domestic animal we might expect obedience and use rewards and punishments to obtain it, but we do not expect a pet to have principles. There are alligators in my part of the country. Every now and then one of them causes trouble by attacking a person or just being in the wrong place. As far as I know no one has ever suggested putting one on trial and attempting to judge its guilt or innocence. The categories do not apply, anymore than they apply to hurricanes or falling rocks.

In a purely material world driven by mechanical forces alone, what meaning could words like “right” and “wrong” possibly have? They can only be synonyms for “desirable” and “undesirable,” and perhaps thereafter “lawful” and “unlawful,” but the reasons why a thing might be one or the other can only be matters of subjective preference, never of fact. If a human being is really not different in kind from a squirrel, or for that matter a stone, then moral language is simply nonsense, and any proposed scheme of ethics is but a way of one person or group saying “I want.” Or, if possible, “I command.”

If I remember correctly, Nietzche saw this and charged with sentimentality those philosophers who would reject God and yet retain an objective basis for moral judgments. To be consistent our modern inhumanists would have to agree with him. Though he aspired to the superhuman and they to the sub- or simply non-human, the ethical destination seems to be the same.


Der Uberhund: Beyond Good and Evil?

Lost Weekend

Lost Weekend

This being the second Sunday of the month, I had planned to continue my not-very-well-established second-Sunday routine of writing on the subject of music. My subject was to have been the music, or rather say the work, or rather say the post-1982 work, of Tom Waits. I even had in mind the title of the piece, which is unusual; most of my titles are tacked on at the last minute, after I look back and see what I’ve written. The title was to have been—and will be, when I eventually write the piece—“Tom Waits and the Absence of God.” On second thought, I may not write it at all, as the title pretty well says it all.

But I’m not writing about music tonight because I don’t feel like it. It’s been a demanding few days, and I don’t feel up to thinking very hard about anything very weighty.

I had a nice weekend planned. And before I go any further let me say that I am devoted to my wife and to my daughter (the only one of our children still at home, her siblings having left her temporarily an only child) and I greatly enjoy their company. But I also like solitude. It’s a rare treat for me and has been for most of my life. I grew up sharing a room with one of my brothers, and as an adult I’ve never lived alone for more than a few months. That has been for the best, I feel sure; I’ve always suspected that, left to my own devices, I would, in some unspecified way, Not Do Well. But the weariness with simply being alone of which so many single people complain is foreign to me. I hear what they say, and I grasp it intellectually, but I have never experienced it as they have, much as I’ve never experienced truly serious hunger. This of course does not mean I have never felt lonely—I’ve had at least my share of that—but feeling lonely in the midst of other people is a different matter from really being alone.

My wife accompanied my daughter this week to the All-South Band competition at the University of Southern Mississippi. They left Thursday morning. I planned to drive over and join them for the final concert on Sunday. This meant three days of having the house to myself, at least when I was not at work. I had hoped to take a day off but it was a bad time for that. Still, I expected to have at my disposal Thursday evening, Friday evening, and all of Saturday. And I didn’t plan to loaf, or at least not only to loaf; I’m working on a certain project which requires extended periods of concentration and quiet, and I hoped to make some real headway on it.

All this came to naught. At work we had planned for late Friday a major reconfiguration of our network. It was supposed to have happened last Friday, but had been postponed; at that time I thought I saw a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand on the horizon of my plans for this weekend, and I was right to be apprehensive. The work was also supposed to have been done in two hours or so, which I had mentally adjusted to four, but I was wrong about that—it took far longer. Without going into very boring and to most people incomprehensible detail, let’s just say that some of us stayed at work until after two AM that night and were back again in the morning to spend Saturday there.

By the time I left work Friday I was, to put it bluntly, infuriated at the thwarting of my plans for the weekend. I managed to keep my emotions under enough control to keep from doing eighty miles per hour down Highway 98 (the speed limit is fifty most of the way), which at 2:30 in the morning on the almost-deserted road would certainly have gotten me a ticket for speeding, if not for reckless driving, which of course is exactly what it would have been. (Or perhaps: Local Man Killed in High-Speed Chase.) The dogs and cats at home, having been shut up since seven that morning, were glad to see me, but I soon gave them reason to change their minds. (CAT, n. A soft, indestructible automaton provided by nature to be kicked when things go wrong in the domestic circle. –Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary)

I awoke Saturday morning, still grouchy, after four or five hours of fitful sleep interrupted twice by the alarm clocks left set for 5:45 and 6:00 by, respectively, daughter and wife. But sometime after breakfast and coffee I realized I had submitted; I had let go of my plans and my desires and was ready to accept whatever I had to do for the rest of the weekend.

And [Saul] said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. –Acts 9:5

In the end I had a few hours free Saturday night and was able to enjoy them without brooding about how short they were. I would like to be able to say I accepted my disappointment more graciously. I did eventually get around to offering it to God as a Lenten penance, but considering some of the things I said Friday night I doubt I did any better than break even. Still, this is the way we get the rough edges of our self-will smoothed out, and so perhaps the weekend was not lost after all, but found.

By the way, I didn’t actually kick the cats. But I did shove them out of the way with somewhat more than necessary force.

Clock and Dragon

Clock and Dragon

The Catholic world is a bit off balance, with Easter and therefore Ash Wednesday coming so early this year. Backing up from there, Epiphany was hardly over before the Mardi Gras festivities started. Last weekend my wife and I attended our first-ever Mardi Gras ball, at the kind invitation of the parents of one of our children’s friends. The dress, if not the behavior, at these events is formal, so our attendance involved my being outfitted in borrowed white tie and tails. My wife unkindly photographed me in this getup, and I look like a hapless and not very bright aristocrat who has been snatched by revolutionaries and has just begun to realize that they mean to shoot him.

The ball was a fairly sedate affair, and in that respect almost a letdown: a co-worker who attends lots of them had told me of once witnessing an all-out hair-pulling fist fight between two drunken women in formal gowns, and so I was on the lookout for spectacle, but although there was plenty of drinking, no one seemed stupidly drunk and everyone seemed to be having a fine and good-humored and relatively innocent time.

It was enjoyable, but on the whole I think I prefer being out among the rabble in the streets at the parades. I’m a little puzzled by this, as I generally don’t care for crowds and am frequently more depressed than heartened by the company of my fellow man in large numbers. But watching Mardi Gras parades fills me with a happy benevolence. I wrote at greater length on this last year, in my journal for February 22, 2004.

The Mystics of Time had their parade last night, and Karen and I watched it, as usual from the corner of Government and Franklin. The Mystics seemed to me to have some striking and, if one takes it as I do, rather unfestive symbolism in their pageantry. First, on what is called the emblem float, a large clock whose minute hand is speeding around the dial, compressing the hours into four or five seconds.


Old Time is still a-flying

Afterwards come the dragons: first the mama dragon, Vernadean, then her two children, Verna and Dean. I take the combination of clock and dragon as references to the all-consuming nature of time—the dark backward and abyss of time (from The Tempest, I think). Perhaps the intended message is “Eat, drink, and be merry,” but it strikes me more as a warning that the eating and drinking and merry-making will soon be over.


Vernadean, rampant, on a field of revelers

I start every Lent filled with good intentions and generally end with an almost fatalistic sense of my own incorrigibility, with little more thought about the whole business than that I will soon be able to resume whatever pleasure—usually coffee, alcohol, or music—I’ve given up. It strikes me this year that the most pressing thing I have to do is to reduce the level of distraction and stimulation in my life. That’s going to start with eliminating music from the daily hour and a half or so that I spend in the car—a step that will be quite painful—and giving some specific Lenten texts priority over all other reading. And it’s going to require spending significantly less time on the Internet, my usage of which has really gotten out of hand since I got DSL and a wireless network at home, and which I sometimes feel is inducing in me a case of attention deficit disorder.