I recently finished writing my dissertation which, to cut a long story short, was an argument about the value of drug literature within post-modern discourses. One of the chapters focused on the work of Hunter S. Thompson and how he explicitly explored the empty void left within the American cultural psyche once the hippie movement of the ’60s burnt out.
Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas is beautiful prose. Honestly, if there was just one book I could recommend that everyone read it would be this. But unfortunately, due to the strict word count of the dissertation process there were several wonderful passages that I couldn’t include within my work; there’s parts of it I’m just dying to discuss! This includes my favourite part of the novel, from Chapter 12:
I recognise this feeling: three or four days of booze, drugs, sun, no sleep and burned out adrenalin reserve – a giddy, quavering sort of high that means the crash is coming. But when? How much longer? This tension is part of the high. The possibility of physical and mental collapse is very real now…
…but collapse is out of the question; as a solution or even a cheap alternative, it is unacceptable. Indeed. This is the moment of truth, that fine and fateful line between control and disaster – which is also the difference between staying loose and weird on the streets, or spending the next five years of summer mornings playing basketball in the yard at Carson City.
No sympathy for the devil; keep that in mind. Buy the ticket, take the ride…and if it occasionally gets a little heavier than what you had in mind,well…maybe chalk it off to forced consciousness expansion: Tune in, freak out, get beaten.
I love this passage. It’s one of my favourite pages within the whole of the English language. I’m just so taken by the hedonism and nihilism of it. In the 1960s, the psychedelic movement made an argument that drugs allowed you to understand more, to see the hidden beauty in the world around you. Charismatic hippie leaders like Ken Kesey or Dennis Leary, spent the decade promoting widespread LSD use as a means of reimagining the world around you free of spatial relationships; they sold the idea that you get high to better your perception and yourself.
But here, just three years after Kesey’s biography, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, was published Hunter S. Thompson offers a very different drug experience. This trip has absolutely nothing to do with improving oneself. It only cares about self destruction, pushing yourself further, taking the high beyond your contemporaries into new unexplored realms. In Thompson’s world once you “buy the ticket” of psychedelia, you need to fully commit to the ride even as it takes you hurtling towards the crash. But what I enjoy so much about this passage is, the concept of a complete and utter collapse isn’t necessarily a negative one. It presents a strange form of comfort to be found as you straddle the blurred line between order and complete disaster. The tension that the trip might be about to go too far is the “high”, not the hallucinogenic experience itself.
Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas is a novel primarily devoted to finding the “American Dream” after the death of ’60s counter-cultural movements. Much like men like Kesey or Leary, Duke (the fictionalised version of Thompson with the text) intends to take huge amounts of drugs and use the perceptual changes to better understand the point and purpose of life. But Duke never finds a meaning. The text argues that Nixon’s America is so inherently postmodern that there’s no value in anything anymore. This is why I love this passage so much: in a postmodern society, so focused on beating you down, there’s a comfort in deliberately choosing to feel empty. There is always the possibility of a complete mental and physical collapse, Thompson just presents the beauty of choosing to flirt with it via a hedonistic use of drugs rather than waiting for society to take you there.