Monday, February 21, 2005

The Receded Wave
""There was no point in fighting -- on our side or theirs."...."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."
-Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971) by Hunter S. Thompson

From a self-inflicted, gunshot to the head, Hunter S. Thompson's has killed himself in the excessive style true to the manner in which he lived.

I think it is a rarity where one can say a single person is representative of a specific era of history and culture, but I am certain that such a thing can be said of Hunter S. Thompson. His famous line (quoted above) from his most known publication bears witness to his unique and insightful observations of American culture during the 60's, and his lament that a high water-mark of progress had been reached during that time - only to recede away in subsequent years.

When someone mentions "The 60's" to me, I can't help but instantly hear Steppenwolf's Born to Be Wild playing in my head, or visualize Peter Fonda cruising down the road as Captain America. And I also can't imagine a 60's without the likes of a Hunter S. Thompson - as participant in the movement of the times as well its designated observer.

I barely heard him. My eyes had finally opened enough for me to focus on the mirror across the room and I was stunned at the shock of recognition. For a confused instant I thought that Ralph had brought somebody with him--a model for that one special face we'd been looking for. There he was, by God--a puffy, drink-ravaged, disease-ridden an awful cartoon version of an old snapshot in some once-proud mother's family photo album. It was the face we'd been looking for--and it was, of course, my own. Horrible, horrible...
-from The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved (1970)

In truth, Hunter S. Thompson died the moment the wave of the 60's broke. No matter how acute his observations may have been in later years, they were irrelevant - his was an iconic life that vanished when that which he reflected did also. His suicide is the natural conclusion to the fear and loathing of post-60's America he held. His later years were spent largely in retreat - bunkered down in his Colorado compound no doubt with ample quantities of booze, drugs, and typing paper. His later works breaking barely a ripple in the cultural consciousness.

The passing of Hunter S. Thompson, in my view, marks the official end of the idea of the American frontier. Think of the themes of the 60's: rules to be broken, rules to be rewritten, perhaps even the abolition of rules themselves. Freedom to imagine, freedom to roam, freedom to experiment. California Dreamin'; On the Road; Get on on the Highway; And We Got to Get Ourselves Back to the Garden....There were spaces still left in America, territorially and imaginatively, where one could get lost in, where one could explore, where one could potentially Turn On, Tune In, and Drop Out. As dominant as the national culture was, large gaps still remained. If not, how could there have been space for a counterculture to develop and flourish? Hunter S. Thompson was a pioneer in this new cultural frontier as exemplified by the way he lived; in the way he observed, and in the way he wrote so that others could understand (and perhaps be inspired to join). Can the same be said of any living writer today? Of the succeeding generations, is there a voice that is as iconic as Thompson's was to his?

The cresting of the wave ended the march of unbridled freedom that the 60's generation sought to expand and empower. The figurative receding waters, observed by Thompson, marked the culture returning to sobriety and caution - a passing truly abhorrent to the practitioner of excess that Thompson was. Indeed, ours is a time of antibacterial hand sanitizers, 911/GPS locator services, international organizations in thrall with the Precautionary Principal, and schoolkids under the control of behavior modification drugs. Safety and Precaution. Precaution and Safety. Safety and Precaution. The very antithesis of Hunter S. Thompson.

No wonder he pulled the trigger....


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