At the stroke of midnight in Washington, a drooling red-eyed beast with the legs of a man and head of a giant hyena crawls out of its bedroom window in the South Wing of the White House and leaps 50 feet down to the lawn ... pauses briefly to strangle the chow watchdog, then races off into the darkness...toward the Watergate, snarling with lust, loping through the alleys behind Pennsylvania Avenue and trying desperately to remember which one of those 400 iron balconies is the one outside Martha Mitchell's apartment.
Ah...nightmares, nightmares. But I was only kidding. The President of the United States would never act that weird. At least not during football season.
That’s Hunter S. Thompson on Nixon (He Was a Crook, 2005).
I’ve been getting into Hunter S. Thompson recently. His brand of writing is refreshing. My mind has 2 reactions, the first is of rejection: If you read the above, it’s clear that Thompson was just looking at Nixon’s physical features, combining it with a prejudicial bias, and letting his imagination take over. And in a sense anyone can do that.
But Thompson’s work stands out with a brutal honesty. He took rational concepts and warped them with a part of the brain that’s not used to tackling them. Consider the following on the American Dream:
"Nonsense," I said. "We came out here to find the American Dream, and now that we're right in the vortex you want to quit." I grabbed his bicep and squeezed. "You must realize," I said, "that we've found the main nerve."
"I know," he said. "That's what gives me the Fear."
The ether was wearing off, the acid was long gone, but the mescaline was running strong. We were sitting at a small round gold formica table, moving in orbit around the bartender.
"Look over there," I said. "Two women fucking a polar bear." (Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, 1971).
You might have a different opinion about the American Dream, but how are you supposed to respond to that?
The problem is that we’ve all become so used to arguing with the rational part of our brain that we rarely take the time to consider our first impressions. Of course first impressions rarely provide the answer, but overbearing rationality can have just as dire consequences.
A similar thing might occur in scientific paradigm-shifts. The ancient Greek astronomer Ptolemy, for instance, set up his model of the universe such that all the planets were rotating around the earth. For centuries, this was the prevailing system. Similar to any astronomer without advanced equipment, he built his system off of geometric proofs, resting on axioms, and accounting for what could readily be observed in the sky. His volumes of work, at the outset, are only mildly complicated, but as he accounted for more phenomena, things got uglier. He created epi-cycles - cycles of cycles - based off of certain stars and alignments; and then he brought in epi-epi-cycles; and then he brought in equalizers in order to represent the ratios of various epi-cycles to each other; and then the equalizers arbitrarily applied in some situations and not in others. The pages in his work go on and on to no end, as the proofs get longer and longer to tackle less important phenomena. You can get lost intellectualizing the world, but it didn’t take a genius (or maybe it did) to see that his system of the heavenly bodies was surprisingly complicated, tedious and ugly. The model was corrected, of course, after Copernicus suggested that the sun was in the middle of the universe, if only because it created a system about one-tenth as arduous as Ptolemy’s. Copernicus has since been credited with kick-starting the Renaissance by suggesting that natural phenomena, in more ways than one, don't revolve around the human mind.
But the point is that the rational parts of people’s minds can lead them just as far astray – if not further - as the irrational parts. Nietzsche attributed this to the artificial power of objectivity. When an argument is cloaked in rationality and objectivity, it’s given an air of superiority which is often undeserved.
Perhaps the largest blow to the purely “rational” approach came from Godel who proved the inherent fallibility in purely logical systems, and he achieved this nonetheless by building his own purely logical system as well. Although a few modern authors have capitalized on Godel’s message and updated it for modern times (particularly Douglas Hofstadter, in his book Godel Escher Bach) it has yet to fully be incorporated into much of empirical research – be it in medicine, economics, psychology, or social science – where theories live or die in accordance to how they align with purely mathematical models, particularly the generalized linear model. The concern, just as with Ptolemy, is that even if a model is comprehensive and internally consistent (or non-contradictory), it can still have no correspondence with reality whatsoever.
Sometimes rationality is achieved at the expense of reality. Economist Mark Skousen, for instance, claims that theoretical models of the marcoeconomy have likely done more harm than good for the national economy.
The problem with Nietzsche however was that he took his ideas too extreme and – as is common with the human mind – painted the world in black and white; it came to the point where he was almost building his own objective model based on his criticisms of the nature of such models. His criticisms of other systems seemed somehow to not apply to his own.
Hunter S. Thompson in contrast wrote with a humility that suggested that he didn’t have any of the answers, but instead was simply a crazed observer who couldn’t shut his eyes:
But what was the story? Nobody had bothered to say. So we would have to drum it up on our own. Free Enterprise. The American Dream. Horatio Alger gone mad on drugs in Las Vegas. Do it now: pure Gonzo journalism. (Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, 1971).
Most of all Thompson saw that at the bottom of all of his subjectivity and irrationality taken to the nth degree wasn’t a new vision of the world, but simply chaos and self-destruction. He portrayed this rather well in his criticism of Timothy Leary and the whole hippie movement, all of whom were convinced that their new-found notions of free love and a world without boundaries somehow argued for a harmonious peaceful vision of the world.
Anyone who has experienced hallucinogenics I think can attest to the falseness of Leary’s vision: When you break down the barriers to reality you come across a dissonant chaos at the center of all things, equal parts innocent, joyful, revelatory, and frightening. You see just how fine-tuned the human mind - in its normal state - needs to be in order to make any sense of the world whatsoever. The hippie movement was as optimistic as Nietzsche was pessimistic, but broth broke down on the same accord. Wrote Thompson:
What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped to create...a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody-or at least some force-is tending that Light at the end of the tunnel.
This is the same cruel and paradoxically benevolent bullshit that has kept the Catholic Church going for so many centuries. It is also the military ethic...a blind faith in some higher and wiser "authority." The Pope, The General, The Prime Minister...all the way up to "God."
One of the crucial moments of the Sixties came on that day when the Beatles cast their lot with the Maharishi. It was like Dylan going to the Vatican to kiss the Pope's ring. (Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, 1971)
What we can get from all this isn’t so much yet another model for how the world works, but it maybe just as important. It hints at a sense of humility and awe necessary to make any sense of the world – at just how disconnected our rational minds may be from it, and how we need to keep in mind that the further we depart down the path of abstract theory the more we have to ensure that our feet are planted just as firmly on the ground.
Media (in order of appearance):
Photo: (1) Nixon?, 01/19/2006, by Michelle Aquila; (2) Hunter S. Thompson, 05/13/2007, billypalooza; (3) Bat Country, 07/15/2006, by Aaron Booth; (4) Portrait of Ptolemy; (5) Ptolemy's cycles; (6) Buy the ticket. Take the ride., 04/25/2008, by Ratticus; (7) Timothy Leary; apathy's hunter s thompson, 12/21/2008, Zen Sutherland..
Video: (1) Music video, from afiendishthingy, of the song "A Day in the Life", by The BeatlesSgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band. from their 1967 album Sphere: Related Content