Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Why Hunter S. Thompson's Vision of the American Dream Didn't Die in Vegas

Yesterday, I watched the movie Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson, a documentary about the author's (best known for writing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) life. Thompson is one of the United States' best contemporary writers, well known for his invention of Gonzo journalism, a type of journalism that weaves fact and fiction together and places the writer as a central figure into the news story. He is one of the most controversial figures in U.S. history--he was a notorious gun, alcohol, and drug fiend. He wrote scathing reviews of American politics. Overall, he was a driving force, and in my opinion, a piece of complete and glorious work. To me, he is the epitome of what man is--a combination of animal grittiness and rawness and a higher intellect that allows us a place above the rest of the animal kingdom. He was an incredible writer, a shrewd social critic, and a man who was trying to deal with the way America was heading.

Thompson was a patriot, no doubt. For all of his social critique of the United States government and its citizens, he loved his country. He was constantly searching for the so-called American Dream--not the one that immigrants come here for, the promise that if you work hard, you will succeed. He believed in the stereotypical American ideal, the promise of freedom, liberty, and rights that can not be taken away. Fear and Loathing is about searching for exactly that in Las Vegas, of all places. The novel is non-fiction (as non-fiction as Thompson could make it) and shows Raoul Duke (Thompson himself) and his attorney, Dr. Gonzo (Thompson's actual attorney) going on a drug-filled trip in Vegas. Most of the movie is painfully comical, but there are undertones of seriousness and a deep thought that's quickly fleeting throughout the scenes. Thompson catches it when he writes:

San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. But no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time in the world. Whatever it meant. And that, I think, was the handle - that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of old and evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. 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 - that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

When I listened to that for the upteenth time, something clicked in my mind. Thompson had been searching for the American Dream and he had found it. In fact, he had lived it. His Dream had happened once, and only once in the history of the United States--the 1960's, the counterculture movement. That time was a period of free love, psychedelics, incredible music, Civil Rights movement, and Vietnam. It was a backlash against the strictness of the 1950's, so great that it changed the way that not only Americans, but the whole rest of the world viewed America. The 1960's was a period of freedom, in essence. Freedom to speak, to love, to write, to do whatever one wanted. Of course, that freedom came with a price--shootings, overdoses, sexually transmitted diseases, and more were the consequences of this movement. Yet, all movements that shake a country's history are extreme. And the 1960's were a perfect example of how freedom could be taken to a new level and what the risks of doing that were.

Yet, those times ended as do all times. Unlike other times though, the counterculture movement stayed in future generation's minds. Those who were present at the time were nostalgic. Those who heard the stories from their parents were eager. And in Fear and Loathing, Thompson desperately tries to cling to those memories. What happened at the end?

We are all wired into a survival trip now. No more of the speed that fueled that 60's. That was the fatal flaw in Tim Leary's trip. He crashed around America selling "consciousness expansion" without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him seriously... All those pathetically eager acid freaks who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit. But their loss and failure is ours too. What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped create... a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody... or at least some force - is tending the light at the end of the tunnel.

Yet, I don't believe that the counterculture movement is dead. Yes, the incredible music is dead (but only in actual physical form). But the idealism that was so infectious and that made that period so magical is still here. Here, with us. Not our parents, but with us. Teenagers my age, college students, even thirty year olds. We are the new counterculture movement. Because, you see, society is like a wave. The 1950s were a time of strictness, and the wave was back. The wave rolled in, beating the sand into submission, and those were the 1960s. Then the wave retreated again. And now, it's time that the wave rolls back in. The anti-drug movement is hardly working. The ideas of love and relationships are becoming much more accomodating. We are still idealists, persistent in our beliefs that we should have these rights, that we should protest if something is wrong and we don't agree with it. We are in the time period of LGBT rights. We are in the time period of increasing secularism. We are in the time period of increasing liberalness, not necessarily politically-inclined, but socially and morally inclined. We are freeing ourselves again, and though this movement is not quite so explosive and not quite so historically significant as the one in the 1960's, we can still see that it will definitely affect future generations.

So, no. I don't believe the American Dream died in Vegas or in any other place. It's still here. Perhaps not as monumental but just as powerful, just as important. And I have a piece of mind to dive right into it and to see what happens.


  1. Hm... interesting but my perception is that right now, as of 2011, US is becoming less liberal not more: all the fuss about teaching creationism in schools, pro-choice rights are under assault, social inequality is increasing, education is becoming less affordable, environment protection is a joke, and so on.

  2. i think it may be less liberal at the moment, but throughout the future years, it will be more liberal. the world has progressed to liberality and it will do so furthermore.