“He who makes a beast of himself
gets rid of the pain of
being a man.”
– Dr. Johnson
I was very excited when I found this reading in my inbox. Thompson is one of my favorite authors, Steadman one of my favorite artists and Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas one of my favorite books. It is in many ways one of the defining books of its generation and the selection we just read was easily among its most iconic and well known passages. Of course Thompson’s probably most famous today because of the film version of this book. It was once considered common Hollywood knowledge that Fear & Loathing could not be made into a film. This was a belief that was held for most, if not all of his work.
This is partly because, while funny, entertaining, and well acted, the first attempt at bringing the good doctor’s work to the big screen Where the Buffalo Roam was, as a film, a colossal failure. It was a hodge- podge of Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, The Great Shark Hunt (Various), and The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat (Oscar Acosta/Dr. Gonzo’s postmortem tribute). Of course nearly twenty years later Terry Gilliam (Director), Johnny Depp (Duke/Thompson), and Benicio Del Toro (Dr. Gonzo/Acosta) came along and gave lie to the common wisdom. Strangely enough that is what Thompson did his entire career.
While the film version paid great tribute to the opening of the book it was naturally unable to capture everything. The frantic, hilarious, and frightening nature of the two men on their way to Vegas sets the frenetic pace for the rest of the book, a pace that Thompson was never really able to recapture in his work or in his life. Ending this reading with the “reptile zoo” scene was an excellent choice. The reptiles represent many things not the least of which is the attitudes and lifestyle of Vegas (and possibly America) circa 1971.
More specifically the reptiles represent a theme common throughout Thompson’s work. One might even say that it was the underlying premise for everything he wrote. Thompson was a wordsmith in the vein of Mark Twain who said that “the difference between the right word and the exactly right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” For Thompson the word was Atavistic.
- The reappearance of a characteristic in an organism after several generations of absence, usually caused by the chance recombination of genes.
- An individual or a part that exhibits atavism. Also called throwback.
- The return of a trait or recurrence of previous behavior after a period of absence.
The savage traits exhibited by the “lizards” are not all that dissimilar from the ones present in Raoul Duke and (especially) Dr. Gonzo themselves. There is a key distinction. The lizard/people are behaving this way because they are convinced that in Vegas this behavior is acceptable. They fall into a prescribed and allowed societal hypocrisy. By contrast Duke and Gonzo know that they cross the line and do so consistently. They do not require the permissive environment of Vegas to live as they please; it is simply a place that they can turn up the volume and be less likely to run afoul of the authorities.
For Thompson it is the difference between a criminal (the lizards) and an outlaw (Duke). It is not that Thompson or his character (the two are somewhat interchangeable but when, where, and how are impossible to pinpoint) suffer from a total lack of morality, quite the contrary. For Duke there is no pretense that he is anything but a thinking animal.
The lizards represent a lust for power and pleasure that manifests itself in an orgy of violent reptilian decadence. Unlike the lizards that are slaves to their baser instincts, Duke is a master of his, more or less. We find out later however, that Gonzo is a slave to instinct albeit a fascinating one, also lacking hypocrisy.
Harder to nail down is Thompson’s notion of the American Dream. By turns one can define the dream as being the outlaw freedom exhibited by Duke or the savage, fat-cat hypocrisy of the lounge lizards of Las Vegas. Perhaps that’s how he intended it to be taken. I will likely puzzle over this story for the rest of my days. However, I am certain of one thing: Raoul Duke found the American Dream in Las Vegas in 1971. The American Dream is dead! Long live the American Dream!