Hunter S. Thompson, 1939-2005


Hunter S. Thompson died yesterday of a self inflicted gun shot wound in his home in Woody Creek, Colorado. He was, among other things, the creator of “gonzo” journalism.

The NYT recounts the way Thompson described the origins of gonzo journalism.

“‘I’d blown my mind, couldn’t work,’ he told Playboy. “So finally I just started jerking pages out of my notebook and numbering them and sending them to the printer. I was sure it was the last article I was ever going to do for anybody.”

Instead, he said, the story drew raves and he was inundated with letters and phone calls from people calling it “a breakthrough in journalism,” an experience he likened to “falling down an elevator shaft and landing in a pool of mermaids.”

He went on to become a counter cultural hero with books and articles that skewered America’s hypocrisy.

A couple of points suggest themselves. They turn on what kind of innovator Thompson was, and how best to think about his particular engagement with culture and creativity.

First, it’s interesting to note that this particular cultural invention began with an act of “nothing left to lose” desperation. Some will be tempted to say that this disqualifies Thompson from hero status. After all, he was driven not be choice but necessity. Can this properly be called “innovation?”

I think Thompson deserves rights of authorship and hero status. Some people would have bowed before their desperation and given up. It takes more than mere recklessness to keep going in these circumstances.

Second, there is never nothing left to lose. At the very least, it takes a willingness to make yourself ludicrous. Thompson was courting ridicule. He might have made himself a laughing stock.

But more than that, there was imagination. This because we are never really “trying anything.” We are choosing even in our desperation. Choose wrong, and it really is just a fall down an elevator shaft. No pool of mermaids awaits s.

So it looks like there was courage, choice, and imagination in Thompson’s act. It was innovation, not brute reaction.

There remains a voice of skepticism. Thompson’s particular act of innovation, combining pages at random, was entirely in keeping with the cultural moment. In a sense, we could say that the cultural innovators of the 1960s were merely democratizing the aesthetic, cultural innovations created by European artists, especially Fluxus, the surrealists and other modernists. Here too Thompson is reduced from hero’s status. He is, by this account, merely part of the diffusion set that brings things from the margin into the mainstream.

I think this is too little too. Thompson was a modernist to the extent that he was prepared to set up shop where culture had not yet gone. One splendid way to get there is to refuse to form your first impressions and general observations according to the rules of journalism, to leave them be, to supply them whole, to pass them on.

This takes a refusal of the writer’s vanity, the one that says “look how fully, how formally, how artfully I operate the rules of discourse,” or “Look, how I add value by giving form.” Passing things along took a new kind of artfulness, that art that withholds itself. The hit against Gonzo journalism is always that it was narcissistic, that it always insisted in putting the author in the thick of things. But is this the whole story?

What Thompson was learning was something that we now take for granted: that the fresh, the vitality of cultural artifacts comes often from the extent to which they are created out of disparate parts. This is one of the continuities of the modernist and post modernist eras. We accept that creativity can be had by jamming together things that the rules of culture have put asunder. (I believe this is the best account for the surprising success of Strange Love, the show that features Flavor Fla and Brigette Neilsen).

I leave for another post the large problem here. The freshness of this strategy depends on the existence of subparts that are well formed, that are well defined by cultural rules. The moment we take the Thompson strategy down below the surface of discourse and begin created the bits and pieces without regard to a cultural code, this the moment that we are approaching the word salad (world salad). Sorry, have run out of time on this time.

Hunter S. Thompson, we remember.


O’Donnell, Michelle. Hunter S. Thompson. New York Times, February 21, 2005.

p.s., still a problem with MT.

3 thoughts on “Hunter S. Thompson, 1939-2005

  1. kurtb

    You forget that Hunter S. Thompson was also a pathological liar and self-inventor. Gonzo journalism as the result of random pages torn out of a notebook sounds too much of a good story to be completely true.

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