Let me strap on my lizard tail, take a few hits of adrenachrome, and scrawl for you my musings. [Moments later…] Whoa. Right on. Here we go.
The question: Substance abuse – Writing fuel or writing substitute?
I say fuel.
Granted, the stigma of alcoholism and addiction adheres itself to the stereotype of writers. What drunks! What freaks! What introverts plagued by the pain and suffering of their own humanity! Sure, we’ve had a few of these throughout history. But really, doesn’t Poe’s addiction produce some amazing literary results? Writers, often referred to as seers, don’t necessarily like what they see. To observe the human condition at a deeply personal level can produce extreme depression, particularly when the writer sees no way out of the social confines that trap him or her. Think Oscar in Wilde. Addiction, even when detrimental love is the drug of choice, becomes the fuel used to examine the world around him. Narrative requires conflict, and those who are deeply conflicted have a great deal of material to work with.
Sometimes, when depression becomes severe enough, addiction becomes not the fuel but a salve applied to the wounds of the soul. In Barton Fink, we find W. P. Mayhew at the point when addiction gets in the way of his writing. This doesn’t mean Mayhew stops writing completely though. He simply abandons his role as sole creator and becomes part of a collaborative team.
In the case of Raoul Duke, a.k.a. Hunter S. Thompson, again, I say fuel. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas may have begun as an assignment to report on the Mint 400, but Duke’s gonzo journalism reported instead on his immersion in the counter-culture of the late 60s and early 70s. The difference here is that substance use (or abuse depending upon whether or not you’re in town for the Narcotics Convention) becomes the lens, not necessarily the protective salve. It is the reality and that reality is chaotic.
What I find most interesting about this particular travel narrative is that it becomes a commentary on a lack of control. Who has more control, the cops or the addicts? Let’s see…
While, the cops at the convention think they have their finger on the pulse of drug abuse by listening to L. R. Bumquest examine the advanced stages of cool and groovy, they completely miss the two offenders seated in their midst. On the flip side, Duke and Gonzo appear to be irrational, chaotic and generally unaware while submerged in their drug induced stupor. But are they? They know when to double dose, controlling their chaos through the knowledge that the ether will wind down in two hours just as the mescaline kicks into high gear. They have perfected their experience down to a science, in some ways making it seem less like chaos and more like control.
I must point out here that chaos does not refer either to random events or lack of control. According to Wiki:
In mathematics and physics, chaos theory describes the behavior of certain nonlinear dynamical systems that may exhibit dynamics that are highly sensitive to initial conditions (popularly referred to as the butterfly effect). As a result of this sensitivity, which manifests itself as an exponential growth of perturbations in the initial conditions, the behavior of chaotic systems appears to be random. This happens even though these systems are deterministic, meaning that their future dynamics are fully defined by their initial conditions, with no random elements involved. This behavior is known as deterministic chaos, or simply chaos.
Noting the above definition, is constructing the illusion of control a better way to live when you’re constantly at odds with what deterministic systems actually exists? Do you end up frustrated, angry and out of personal control because you can’t get a room at your original hotel, yelling at the desk clerk (“Law & Order” detective, Elliott Stabler) because your wife thinks that this is the end of the world and has fallen to tears? Or is it better to roll with the punches, taking it all in stride, and hold true to the understanding that control is the illusion? Perhaps, like Duke and Gonzo, you instead walk into the Bazooka, a symbol of American excess, with your knees as sturdy as rubber chickens and the understanding that you can’t make it stop. All you can do is watch yourself do this.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas seems to say that it doesn’t much matter which side you chose. While the film may end with Duke’s contemplation of Leary and the fall of the acid culture, calling them “a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers,” he offers no alternative and little comfort. Each person engages with life in their own way, creating new deterministic systems and chaotic effects for another and both approaches are no more that personal indulgence. In the end, the tattered American flag trails behind Duke’s car, a symbol of the past and failed ideal of control over your own destiny… a failed American Dream.