Suicide used to be a tragedy. Then Hunter S. Thompson did it.
You know Hunter Thompson? He was the irascible writer who invented his own genre of journalism back in the early 1970s and had been living off of the reputation forged at that time ever since. Angry and drug-crazed, the author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was the nightmare you hoped your daughter never brought home. His gonzo writing was great to the extent that it spoke truth to a corrupt establishment, but wanting to the extent that it embraced 20th century nihilism.
To understand this nihilism, the absence of hope, is to understand the life, and the death, of Hunter S. Thompson.
Thompson wrote in such a way that didn’t recognize any reality outside of himself. His very style of writing, whether it was about the Hell’s Angels or the 1972 presidential election, drew as much, if not more, attention to the person behind the typewriter as to the subjects under consideration. This approach was a novelty 30 years ago, but today, an age of celebrity reporters and Internet bloggers, it seems hardly path-breaking.
Thompson represented that small segment of the baby boom generation that associated getting old with everything bad. For these people, life is nothing more than one big consumption good, with the consuming being best during the physical prime. When Abbie Hoffman said that no one over 30 should be trusted, everyone under 30 recognized that sentiment and smiled in amusement. When his generation passed the age of 30, they had long since figured out there was more to life than the personal and the political. But when Hoffman killed himself at age 53, they knew that they had lost a man that took himself a little too seriously, and who, for all his passion, never really got the hang of how to live.
The same could be said for Hunter Thompson, who, in a macabre fashion, planned his death as if it were just another book promotion, complete with having his ashes blown out of a cannon on his Colorado property. At 67, the pains of old age were catching up to him. He had an artificial hip, a bad back, a limp, and a drinking problem, while the newest generation of writers knew him, if they new him at all, as a columnist for the ESPN web site. Why go on living if doing so requires pain? Why grow old in darkness when sticking a .45 in your mouth means you might become another Hemingway or Kerouac?
His wife of less-than-two years seems to think so. "… I know he is much more powerful and alive now than ever before," Anita Beymuk Thompson told the Denver Post following his death. "He is in all of our hearts. His death was a triumph of his own human spirit because this is what he wanted. He lived and died like a champion."
Grieving widows can say silly things, but it is hard to imagine Priscilla Presley making such a statement about her husband after he was found, disgraced, in that Memphis bathroom. People that go out like champions don’t have their blood and brains sponged up by county health workers following self-inflicted gunshots. Champions know that suffering is an essential element in living happy and accomplished lives. They know growing old is a gift that allows a fuller appreciation for better times and for the inherent goodness of life.
Thank goodness most baby boomers don’t think this way, but for those that do — for those who are just starting to qualify for Social Security and who only know the kind of intimacy that is Viagra-induced — Thompson provided a heck of an example of an exit strategy. Is suicide now hip? Will it now be considered a good career move? If it wasn’t for this, Thompson’s death would simply be pathetic. Instead, it is tragic.
Contrast Thompson’s life example with that of John Paul II. The 84-year-old pontiff, whose hospital visits made front-page news the week of Thompson’s suicide, has Parkinson’s disease and severe arthritis. His hardships last week are the most recent manifestations of his difficulties. As long ago as 1998, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger would write about him: "The pain is written on his face. His figure is bent, and he needs to support himself on his pastoral staff. He leans on the cross, on the crucifix…." By all accounts, he has embraced his suffering in ways that would baffle Thompson and his followers.
And yet, the Holy Father is revered because most people know, if only implicitly, that men and women need the examples of those who persevere through suffering if only to provide hope — a divine mystery seemingly absent from Hunter S. Thompson’s life — that life is worth living.
Living without hope, after all, is the hardest life of all. It is a life that ends with fear and loathing.
Writer and journalist Hunter S. Thompson died on Sunday afternoon, February 20th, in the kitchen of his home in Woody Creek, Colorado. He stuck a .45 caliber handgun in his mouth while his wife listened on the phone and his son and daughter-in-law were in another room of his house. May he rest in peace.
Chris Westley [send him mail] teaches economics at Jacksonville State University, Alabama.