The Undisguised Menace: Participation as Protest

2 Apr

This post contains part VIII of my senior capstone paper, Speed Limits: The Formation, Dissemination, and Dissolution of the Counterculture in American Literature 1951-1972. Click here to view a full list of works cited. Click here to view all sections of the paper.

The counterculture in its death throesImage from

The counterculture in its death throes
Image from

One individual who was profoundly influenced by the traumatic downfall of the hippie movement—crystallized by such tragic events as the 1968 Democratic National Convention and Kent State—was Hunter S. Thompson. He describes the general cultural malaise of the early 1970s in this way:

But what is sane? Especially here in “our own country”—in this doomstruck era of Nixon. We are all wired into a survival trip now. No more of the speed that fueled the Sixties. Uppers are going out of style. This was the fatal flaw in Tim Leary’s trip. He crashed around America selling “consciousness expansion” without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him too seriously. (Thompson 178).

Thompson’s writing gives voice to a segment of the counterculture that was left completely disillusioned and disaffected at the end of the sixties. He also represents a unique manifestation of the outlaw figure in popular culture; Hunter Thompson not only embraces the outlaw lifestyle of restlessness, lawlessness, and drugs, but he seems to have built his entire career on those very premises.

However, Thompson’s illegal exploits do not relegate him to the outskirts of society like Dean Moriarty or to exile like Ken Kesey. Thompson’s popular success as a countercultural, outlaw journalist comes to signify the final step in American society’s absorption of countercultural ideals. The countercultural drive for authenticity had irreversibly changed American culture, but the results were far stranger than anyone could have imagined. At the time of its serial publication in Rolling Stone magazine in 1971, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas simultaneously railed against mainstream culture and counterculture as it exposed the wretched consequences of both cultures’ excesses and hypocrisies.

Thompson’s own drug use creates a protest against these corruptions by forcing the reader to consider the relative immorality of drug use in a morally-bankrupt, disillusioned society. In one of Thompson’s many laments about where America stood at the end of an era he muses:

A proper end to the sixties: Tim Leary a prisoner of [Black Panther] Eldridge Cleaver in Algeria, Bob Dylan clipping coupons in Greenwich Village, both Kennedys murdered by mutants, [LSD manufacturer] Owsley folding napkins on Terminal Island, and finally Cassius/Ali belted incredibly off his pedestal by […] Joe Frazier [who], like Nixon, had finally prevailed for reasons that people like me refused to understand—at least not out loud. (22-3)

In response to the current state of cultural and political affairs, which he prefers not to comprehend, Thompson finds it necessary to possess an epic arsenal of drugs to simply get him through his current assignment—covering a motorcycle race in Las Vegas.[15] Thompson admits that the collection may be a bit over-the-top, but he chalks this up to “the tendency to push it as far as you can”—an echo of the Prankster mentality (4). Literary critic Shimberlee Jirón-King notes that “the warrant informing [Thompson and Acosta’s] work categorizes political and social corruption, bankrupt systems of government, as a much weightier moral crime than the escapades and the vulgarities that they are so willing to divulge” (Jirón-King 3). In essence, what’s a suitcase full of drugs compared to the insidious assassination of a president?

Thompson juxtaposes his immoral behavior against the hypocrisies of the world around him, each one of which he is determined to expose. Take, for instance, his coverage of the National District Attorneys’ Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. While covering the race had been “an observer gig,” this assignment demanded “participation.” He writes:

Our very presence would be an outrage […] We were the Menace—not in disguise, but stone-obvious drug abusers, with a fragrantly cranked-up act that we intended to push all the way to the limit . . . not to prove any final, sociological point […] It was mainly a matter of life-style, a sense of obligation and even duty. If the Pigs were gathering in Vegas for a top-level Drug Conference, we felt the drug culture should be represented. (Thompson 109-10)

As Thompson and his attorney proceed to shed light on the abundant hypocrisies and ignorance at the drug conference by stumbling gracelessly through it, the reader is left with feelings of shock and disgust. But there is also a quiet envy of such brazen behavior, though we recognize it as socially unacceptable and dangerous. Perhaps this reaction stems from the pleasure taken in observing someone say what we feel needs to be said, pointing out uncomfortable societal truths in a very public way. We experience this protest vicariously as observers, with an added sense of relief that we do not have to suffer the consequences.[16]

Thompson’s drug use creates a protest not only against the hypocrisies of mainstream culture, but also against what has become mainstream counterculture. Thompson “refuses interpellation by both the dominant culture and the counterculture” by writing in a manner that is simultaneously offensive to the “silent majority” of Nixon voters as well as the burned-out remnants of the hippie movement (Jirón-King 3). Jirón-King claims that “[Thompson] seeks not a chemical sobriety, but a meta-cognitive rejection of the social opiates offered by hegemonic discourse. […] [Thompson] makes use of the unexpected metaphor in order to exploit disjunction and shock the reader into the recognition of his or her own narcotic slumber” (8). This metaphor takes an unexpected form as Thompson’s attorney sits in a hotel bathtub, begging Thompson to throw the radio in with him when Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” peaks—signifying the peak of his acid trip (Thompson 59). Here the reader is confronted with a horrific image of how far some will go for the ultimate experience. The moment harkens back to Sal’s echoing question from On the Road: “What do we want?” (Kerouac 245). Thompson’s response from the other end of the counterculture wave is: “This is it […] I’ve gone as far as I can […] This time it’s a suicide trip” (Thompson 59). The counterculture had begun its search in earnest for true authenticity only to find itself flailing around in a bathtub full of green water, high as a kite and begging for death. For the reader, who may still consider himself part of the counterculture at this late stage, Thompson’s depictions of drug use epitomize how the movement has driven itself into absurdity, causing Thompson to reevaluate his place within it.

[15] The arsenal supposedly included “two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers . . . and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls” (Thompson 4).

[16] As Thompson biographer Peter O. Whitmer says, “Thompson provided America with a kind of Mad Murphy Doll. Wind him up tight, lace him with illicit substances, point him toward and social event requiring some pretense of decorum and protocol, and watch the whole thing collapse […] [Thompson] is the literary bull in the china shop of Western civilization” (Whitmer 88).

Next Post: No Mercy: Gonzo Journalism and a Failed Revolution


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