Friday, March 04, 2005

Last thoughts on HST - A Great Fear of Falling

So, the latest report is that he left the phone, went to a typewriter and typed the word "counselor" in the center of the page, and then shot himself. He used the stationery of the Fourth Amendment Foundation, an organization he had set up to defend privacy rights, and of course there's already speculation that he was making some sort of political statement.

But maybe it was the first piece of paper that came to hand, and who knows, maybe when the big black was starting to close in he was thinking about Oscar Zeta Acosta, his so-called "300-pound Samoan attorney" long ago disappeared. Or maybe he was looking for help. Or maybe he was trying to design a fitting coda for a life that in the end had become too much the cartoon strip. If so he got what he wanted.

But I think he was sending a message to someone, making some sort of statement. Maybe to Anita. Maybe to the world at large. No one, unless they've gone completely over the edge, or sending a message, or both, commits suicide while on the phone to their spouse and with family, including a six-year-old, in the next room. No one leaves a one word suicide note unless they want endless speculation on what was meant, with no resolution, ever, since the one person who could provide a definitive answer isn't taking calls anymore.

Back in 1964, Thompson went on a pilgrimage to Hemingway's grave - as most of us who admire him find we eventually have to do - and later wrote...

It is not just a writer's crisis, but they are the most obvious victims because the function of art is supposedly to bring order out of chaos, a tall order even when the chaos is static, and a superhuman task when chaos is multiplying...So finally, and for what he must have thought the best of reasons, he ended it with a shotgun.
I don't think so. Hemingway was another suicide sending a message, as almost all suicides are doing, usually something to the effect of, "you failed me." Hemingway almost certainly deliberately positioned himself in the hallway of his home so that his wife Mary would have to step over his body in order to reach a phone... or even get downstairs for that matter. I often wonder what was going through Hemingway's poor, confused, electro-shocked mind at the end, maybe just "Fuck you, Mary".

Maybe something similar was going through Thompson's mind. I think in the end for Thompson, maybe it was just despair, the one sin the Church won't forgive. And maybe the message was meant for God. I think Thompson, if anyone had ever asked, would have agreed with Twain's opinion, "If there is a God, he is a malign thug."

One of the ironic things about Thompson's early books, better recognized when they were first published, and increasingly lost as the gonzo message was celebrated by later generations, was the thread of despair that ran through them. Thompson was a disillusioned child of the `60s, another one of us who believed there was a moment in time when things were going to change...
"There was no point in fighting -- on our side or theirs," he wrote. "We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark -- the place where the wave finally broke and rolled back."
... and things did change, but not for the better.

In the end maybe all that was left for him was the Villon epigram that opened "Hell's Angels"

"In my own country I am in a far-off land
I am strong but have no force or power
I win all yet remain a loser
At break of day I say goodnight
When I lie down I have a great fear
of falling"

"Fall of Icarus" by Breughel

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Copyright © 1976 by Edward Mendelson, William Meredith and Monroe K. Spears,
Executors of the Estate of W. H. Auden.

"In three words I can sum up everything I've learned in life: It goes on."
-Robert Frost
And our ship sails on.

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