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February 23, 2005

Hunter S. Thompson, Eclexia & The Alternative Mainstream

I hate suicides and lushes. So a suicidal lush gets no props from me. I also have no experience whatsoever with Hunter S. Thompson's actual work. All I knew yesterday is that one of the Doonesbury characters (which I don't read) is supposed to be vaguely based on this guy. He was certainly influential.

I am given to believe that people in search of alternate realities are generally desparate. Of course I was educated in the sciences, I have to believe that. Still, no desparation speaks louder than that of extreme excess. A supernal desire to blot out reality says to me, 'I don't know how to get my life to make sense given what I see'. That's an understandable problem, which is why there are 500 religions in the world. The religion of drug abuse, I reckon, has its global devotees. And so they've lost a prophet of rage. But what have we lost? What has humanity lost? Someone who dealt with reality? Are we so convinced by the fact that he wrote non-fiction?

In reading much of what people had to say about Thompson, I sense an anti-authoritarian resonance. Hunter S. Thompson is the man everybody wanted Michael Moore to be. Most are convinced he had actual genius and sustained his inspiration long enough to be considered one. I think rather that he was a creature of his day and marked its boundaries by his extremity. In admiring Thompson, like admiring Leroy Neiman, we are admitting to loving a moment in time. A crazy time.

Back in 1978, when I was a freshman at USC, I was transfixed by the cryptic language of the Reader, LA's original alternative weekly. I'm sure that was the psychedelic reality of gonzo.

What was a secret was that I wanted to live in 'The Swamp' which was filled to the brim with wise-cracking, subversive, geeky whiteboys. In 1978 I registered to vote and later cast my ballot for John Anderson. I was only 17 but the student who registered me said it didn't matter, nobody ever checked other than him. What was most fascinating to me were the classified and political sections of the L.A. Reader. It was the most cantankerous thing I had ever read. Here was a newspaper with curse words and rambling cryptic messages in the back pages, rants against the system, my great introduction to the world of snark. I wanted to be in there. I wanted to play Moog synthesizers, program computers and repair pinball machines. I wanted to figure out a way to hack the timesharing system.

Being charitable, I recognize that there are few temptations as appealing as having the power to invert somebody's world. To generate the act which is so perverse and mind-altering that some individual or group is forever marked. What could be more gratifying than conversion, to seduce the meek beauty, to decorate the soldier's gun with flowers, to show with implacable logic and inimitable style that the core beliefs of your opponent are dead wrong and stop them in their tracks. These are the head swelling rewards of conversion and it must be that which lies at the heart of the devotees of the alternative.

Witness Charles Monroe-Kane. His is the story of an impetuous youth determined to pull off a moral stunt.

I have struggled mightily over the past several months to find something upon which to hang my thoughts about the 'alternative mainstream' and this must be it. It explains the the sin of Eclexia. I think I have broken through, excuse me while I absorb the import.

It's ironic and perhaps only appropriate that taking seriously someone I was bound to disrespect cued up this insight.

Part One: The Sin of Eclexia

"A little bit of everything adds up to a whole lot of nothing."
-- Cobb's Rule #1

There is probably no such word as 'eclexia', I just made it up, but the sin is real. It is the fatal attraction to novelty and change. It is the mindless sacrifice of tradition at the alter of the new. It is the inability to find satisfaction in the settled.

Eclexia is characterized by a restless antipathy to the established and an overweening desire to get away from it. The eclexic is eclectic to a fault. Their fatal flaw is that once the novelty of the thing has worn off, once it becomes established, their interest and respect fades rapidly.

Eclexia is a sin because it is fundamentally disrespectful of the efforts made by people who bother to study something specific. It acts against collaboration in solving standing problems. It refuses to focus. Thus the eclexic requires some outre personality which allows him to eschew the 'mundane' tasks that are faced by all of us. In that regard, eclexics are dependent on an established alternative subculture - something that allows them to easily be understood as 'cutting edge' or 'radical' even if they are not talented or committed in any way.

Part Two: The Alternative Mainstream
I don't believe that the world operates singularly in zero sum terms, but that a cultural win-win is possible. Still there is a certain cost to alternative culture which isn't countercultural. It's the cost of dissonance.

I'm trying to guage what is transient about American culture. It has to do with my conservatism and also with a better understanding of class. It's particularly compelling for me to gain this understanding since I expect to be doing a bit of business with some Chinese folks.

I am convinced more than ever that society advances through adherence and conflict. At all levels there are power struggles - people follow their desires and adhere to what gets them what they want. But of course a lot of people opt out. Some opt out loudly. This loud dissent is sometimes the very stuff of which progress is born, but sometimes it's simply noise. We have so many competing versions of what happened in the 60s that it's often difficult to distinguish between the useful dissent and simply dropping out.

But we have survived all of that era intact and a great deal wealthier. The alternative has become substantial. Today you could be a billion dollar business selling music and clothes for tongue pierced youth. The alternative is established. The good news is that the social pressure towards conformity has dropped below the suppressive, although I'd rather not be queer. The bad news is that we must often share the social stage with people whose lifestyle, indeed their lives, make no sense.

Eclexics and noisy alternatives often mistake their differences for sentient dissent. Indeed we even have a 'politics of difference' as if such a thing were consistently ethical. While I'm not certain Hunter S. Thompson was a creature existentially tied to such madness, he certainly seems to have inspired those who are to devotion.

I have just been arguing that the good thing about the blogosphere is that it can serve to counteract the cults of personality surrounding broadcast media stars in the category of 'news'. What was Thompson but a media personality who 'reported' the facts?

Thompson belonged on the fringe, in the alternative scene, and was part of the movement of the 70s that altered the landscape of pop culture. Now that we have an alternative culture in the US that is at least as big as Catholicism, it seems appropriate to honor the Gonzo. It's part of our correctness.


I take a small bit of comfort in knowing that eclexics will bore of Thompson reverence within a week.

GVDL, ever mature, demonstrates his ability to repel the hordes.

Posted by mbowen at February 23, 2005 10:07 AM

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Well, HST...he, rather more than T. Wolfe, opened up political reporting. He is an heir of the Sage of Baltimore, Mencken. Was he worthy of the amount of comment he's recieved? I think so, especially in this venal and bloated age.

I liked the Times article the best:


Posted by: Anonymous at February 24, 2005 12:41 PM

How could you hate a suicide? The majority of people who commit suicide are mentally ill, suffering from severe depression. Depression is a real medical illness, not a flaw in character.

When someone commits suicide, we should ask the question what could have been done to have helped that person in his/her health crisis instead of wagging a finger of disapproval, which is the equivalent of blaming someone for developing breast cancer.

Mr. Cobb, you disappoint me. You are too intelligent a man not to know more about effects about depression.

Posted by: anonymous at March 2, 2005 01:13 AM

I'm not particularly interested in the effects of depression any more than the average psychiatrist is interested in the effects of hard disk defragmentation algorithms. And it's going to take a good long time before I am convinced that socialization of the mentally ill contributes to the strength of our nation. It's a big gripe for me, and I notice it whenever I see a healthy 19 year old black man who can't get a job contrasted with a 85 year old white woman with both a new mercedes benz and a handicapped parking permit. In short, when I am convinced that our ability to care for the weak at the expense of the vital makes us stronger than we otherwise would be, then I'll be quite politically correct on the matters of cripples, retards, junkies, and other defective people. In the meantime, I believe there is a certain amount of excess and overreach when it comes to allocating resources towards making life comfortable, period. To me it represents a complete failure in honestly dealing with the ethics of death.

As for Mr. Thompson, I think he pretty much knew what his life was worth, and as GVDL states, I think it's a crime to create widows and orphans.

Posted by: Cobb at March 2, 2005 02:07 AM