Friday, February 25, 2005

And Death

This past weekend Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide. I didn't know the man. I've never read any of his writing. I've only seen Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas one-and-a-half times, and I didn't really care for it all that much. But for some reason, this suicide is striking me with particular force - something is deeply troubling to me about this man's death.

Part of it, I'm sure, is a very basic stumbling block; I simply cannot comprehend that a person's quality of life would be so bad that non-existence would be preferable. But in this case there is something deeper haunting me. There is simply no way that Hunter S. Thompson's quality of life was what drove him to suicide. The man was a visionary. He created a new style of journalism ("gonzo-journalism" in which he weaved himself and his perceptions/experiences into the stories he was writing about others). He was incredibly perceptive and a master at skewering the faults he saw with American life. Given his success I have to imagine that he was financially well-off. He was famous - an American icon (for some bad, for some good, but an icon none-the-less) - but not so famous that he couldn't find quiet. Any piece of literary or journalistic drivel which flowed from his typewriter was snatched up and published. He was a regular columnist for ESPN. Surely a poor quality of life wasn't to blame.

Some have speculated that this was a long-planned suicide – that Thompson didn't want to live "old", that once he reached a certain point it was inevitable. Maybe I buy that, but maybe I don't.

Even if those are the facts, I am left staring blankly into his act, searching for a meaning, a reason, a cause, an answer. Was he bored? Here was a man who had lived his life fully (it was the basis for a critically acclaimed film!)(I'm confident that some critics acclaimed it. At very least those who wrote for High Times). By all accounts Thompson had amazing powers of observation. He could see what others could not. Did those powers fail him? Did he lose sight of his own life, of his own ability to make of it what he would? Or did he never really posses that ability? Was his wild array of experiences and success just that? Did he live his life without the realization and self-awareness that I wrote of in the "Life" post? Or did he live his life with that, and simply gave up on it? Did he think death would be a new and exciting experience? Did he simply decide it was time to end his "movie"?

I cannot know. I'm not sure that I want to know. Certainly though, only one person can answer the questions, and everyone has to answer them on their own. We don't know his reasons, we only know how he responded to them.

Hunter S. Thompson was a journalist who asked questions by placing himself into the stories of those around him.
Hunter S. Thompson was a man who obscured his answers by removing himself from his own story.


joel said...

Matt, from what I've been reading this past week, it seems as though HST has been suffering a wide range of medical problems – many of which involved very painful symptoms and treatments. One of the writers on ESPN today said that for months, HST had been wanting the pain to go away, but it just wouldn't. I don't know if that was his reason for killing himself and I am positive we'll never know. I'm also not condoning the act, but I strongly feel as though we cannot condemn the man for what he did. We should laud him for what he was as a writer and what he meant to the world of journalism and mourn his death. The circumstances of his suicide are not ours to judge. As you wrote, "only one person can answer the questions."

Matthew B. Novak said...

First, I've read several reports which have said that his pain had nothing to do with his suicide - and his own family was making those claims.

But more importantly, I think that while we cannot judge his suicide on an individual level (we can't offer any opinion as to his ultimate end, i.e. heaven or hell), we can certainly condemn suicide as an act in itself. Life has value, and suicide, by its very terms, is a rejection of that value. Suicide is non-life-affirming, and a moral wrong. We can't translate this to "HST was bad" or "HST was himself wrong", because we lack the authority to judge individuals. We can certainly say though that this action, in itself, is morally wrong.

dyk said...

Certainly I can't be the only one to notice that "And Death" happened to be published next to "An Observation About Not-Feeling" and the potential significance of the latter with respect to the discussion of suicide. I won't say whether it applies in this particular case, because I know next to nothing of Mr. Thompson and his body of work, but simply ending pain, whether physical or emotional, achieving that state of 'non-feeling' is very often a motive for committing suicide.

Matthew B. Novak said...

But part of the appeal of not-feeling is awareness of the not-feeling, which suicide sort-of preempts...