Hunter S. Thompson and the twilight zone

I have a unfortunate habit of making generalisations, so here’s one for you: tortured aspiring writer boy types have a tendency to dig Hunter S. Thompson. Call it a target market. I’d even hazard a guess as to why. Thompson strikes that elusive space between being similar enough these boys to feel that he’s on their level and different enough to be envied and admired. On one hand he was disaffected, decidedly unprofessional and took drugs and on the other, he’s widely-read, a creative pioneer.

It’s a tendency that shows itself most starkly when you consider Thompson’s personal life. He left behind an immense vault of quirky anecdotes and stained memories with the people he worked with, partied with, married and wrote about. Some of these shards were hashed together in the film “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson” which screened late last year at ACMI. Well-researched and edited, it did a rather attractive job of relating the bottle-a-day, womanising, gun-toting lifestyle of this American Legend and it’s consequences. Of course, with some writers, you can get away from their deeply flawed personalties when you read them, but no, not Hunter — so consistent were his attitudes. so great the ego in his work,

So, it should have been no shock when I read this letter, on the rather excellent blog “Letters of Note” (click on the link for a transcription):

Still, it kinda was. Not only is he abusing this director, this Holly Sorensen character, by calling her a “lazy bitch” (on paper, I might note, instead of giving her a call or paying her a visit), he’s humiliating her in front of what appears to be a number of her colleagues. Abuse. Nothing less. It’s horrendous stuff, particularly to us, a generation of sexual harassment trained, occupational health and safety aware types.

But is it misogynistic? And does it make Hunter S. a woman-hater? There are a number of facts in the “yes” camp. It’s patronising, it’s rude and it’s been written by a man to a woman and CCed to a bunch of men who the author has named as worthy colleagues. Add to that the phrase “Michael Thomas, who is a very smart boy” — subtext “unlike you, you lazy bitch” — and of course the “lazy bitch” line itself, and we’re hardly getting a picture of a chap with respect for women, particularly women in the workplace.

Having said that, the letter was written in 2001 at which point Thompson’s biological age was 65 — pretty much old codger territory. His brain would have been irriversably drug whipped and he wasn’t the most pleasant of men to start off with. While Sorensen’s gender is unavoidably relevant here, I get the feeling Thompson would just as thoughtlessly written the same letter to a man. In fact, I reckon Thomson falls prey to yet another awful stereotype I’ve been bottling up: terribly clever men who spend so much time coping with their own existence, it doesn’t actually matter who you are, you’re less important than they are. I encounter men like this regularly, and at first I think they’re misogynist or racist or whatever, but quite quickly it becomes apparent that they’re not out to make me feel sidelined because of who I am, they’re just working so hard on holding their persona together they can’t afford me or anyone else any genuine attention.

It’s worth noting here that I’m aware how sexist it seems to be stereotyping men, but I firmly believe that women are much more likely to be socialised into considering how their actions affect others, and are thus much less susceptible to this frame of mind, though of course, neither are they totally immune.

Hunter S. Thompson made a name for himself by kicking political correctness up the arse and abandoning all social mores including the barest skerrick of respect for women. It’s like the classic case of the lovably irreverent village drunk who is sitting on everyones shoulders Friday night, but come Monday morning, the townsfolk have gone back to work, all the while tut-tutting the drunk: he’s lost his job, he abuses his wife and golly gosh, he doesn’t have a single functioning relationship left. Hello townspeople, how is meant to be both? I’m not apologising for Thompson’s hideously selfish behaviour, but rather trying to examine what we want modern masculinity to look like when we applaud Thompson in one realm and condemn him in another. A cowboy on paper and a SNAG in person? I’m confused.


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9 responses to “Hunter S. Thompson and the twilight zone

  1. andrepeach

    I think the reason Hunter S. is more than just a male fantasy-in-the-flesh figure (although he certainly is that) is that at its best, his writing is damn good. He manages to capture the spirit of a time without being wholly taken in by it.

    Of course the man was sociopathic and had a towering ego, the kind that leaves its imprint on a work such that we can read a single sentence and know that it was his. This obviously all feeds into the author-as-genius trope which is totally masculinist, capitalistic etc etc but is hard to escape. I can’t see collaborative novels replacing our fetish for single authors just yet…

  2. I would suggest that modern masculinity should look like nothing. Just as modern femininity should look like nothing.

    I also don’t think that celebrating someone’s work/art/achievements means we are celebrating their entire being. No one is that perfect or consistent.

    In short… Not misogynist! But hilarious/disrespectful.

  3. Nicky P

    You don’t see something curmudgeonly charming about starting a letter “Okay, you lazy bitch”?

    Given this is a slice-of-life from a whole web of tangled relationships that we know nothing about, I think it’s tricky to draw any broad strokes. For all we know, he writes to male publisher starting “Look, you fucking bastard….”.

    I think that the presumption that a single woman on a correspondence must necessarily be provoking reactions that are solely a product of her gender is pure shadow hunting.

    If you look for faces in the clouds, then you’ll find faces in the clouds.

    (PS Don’t you think ““Michael Thomas, who is a very smart boy”” is packed with coded hierarchy? I wouldn’t say this was a better way to be referenced than “lazy bitch”: she might well be a lazy bitch (with bitch being nothing more than a gendernoun for “bastard”), whereas no matter how “good” Michael is, he is a “boy” being thrown scraps of praise.

    Or maybe I’m looking for faces in the clouds.)

  4. Bhakthi

    Ah, the usual suspects. Thanks guys.

    Brad — Theoretically I agree with you when you say masculinity and femininity should have no defined form, but surely that would include freedom to be macho and sexist, too? It’s like pole-dancing classes being the unintended consequences of feminism; who the hell am I to tell a woman she shouldn’t objectify herself?

    Nick — you’ll find that I agree with you, which is why I went onto talk about some other factors and consequences to this behaviour:

    “While Sorensen’s gender is unavoidably relevant here, I get the feeling Thompson would just as thoughtlessly written the same letter to a man.”

  5. catherine

    The point is, his ashes got shot out of a giant cannon.

  6. threemovements

    thanks for posting again Bhak, you know how much I enjoy reading your posts.

    I have had a similar problem with other American authors, Steinbeck in particular who’s epic novel “East of Eden” has some horrifically misogynist representations of women (in a truly biblical sense). The worst part about it was having this pointed out to me *by a man*. It made me feel like I was bad at being a woman to love a book that so hated on them. But I think I agree with Andre that some men who write fucked up things about women are unfortunately brilliant writers. What I think I take from work like that, especially “East of Eden” are the other messages, images in the book and just lay the misogyny by the way side, cause hey Steinbeck was socialised too.

  7. Jim

    Mother Bhakher,

    I think maybe your constant search for true misogyny may be wearing down your hate-sensor.

    Truth is, when one comes across someone like Thompson, it’s not hard to find `misogynist’ among the dozen labels to describe them.

    Being rude in general doesn’t necessarily exclude them from being less rude to any one bunch. It comes down to set theory. Misogynists are a subset of misanthropists. So if one is a misanthropist, they must be a misogynist also.

    All Singhs are Sikhs, but not all Sikhs are Singhs.

  8. Bhakthi

    Adelaide: thanks for reading it! In some ways, I’m suprised you enjoy my blog, I so often think it childish, reactionary and reductive writing, but there ya go.

    The whole issue of respecting art despite politics was going to be part two of this post, but you and Andre have already brought it up. You just have to put these things to the side sometimes; you’d lose your mind otherwise. For me the main thing is to remain aware and keep talking about it (god, I sound like a dork/politician).

    Jim: misogynists are most certainly NOT a subset of misanthropes. People who have narrow and prescriptive beliefs about women, motherhood, sexuality, femininity can come from REALLY POSITIVE places, like the church. Sure, you could argue the church is misanthropic, but I’m sure its patrons would argue otherwise.

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