Whatever the ballpoint does, it’s just scratching on the surface.
‘The voice of his generation,’ trumpeted the blurb on the back cover of a dog-eared Hunter. S. Thompson collection of letters. This sentence and its accompanying bombastic hyperbole spun my mind — I had to sit there on the beach for a while and collect my thoughts. The beach was in Thailand, on a small tropical island, close to the border with Cambodian (for a while, I’d had my eye on an escape route around the cape that separated us). As I sat there on the white sand, looking out over a clear, blue lagoon, I tried to think about what I was doing with my life and put a few things in perspective.
Why the melodrama? Uncertainty, the sudden feeling that ‘hell, I’m wasting my life’. Everyone gets it, even people who are filling thoroughly useful roles. I’ve known surgeons, enterprising businessmen, chefs, loving mothers even — and they all regret having wasted their lives in unfulfilling toil. Right there on that beach, I realised that I too was wasting my life by trying to write. At least it wasn’t too late…
What is the point of all those words out there, anyway? Why do people go on with it? Mr. Thompson, or so the stained paperback cover would have us believe, tries to understand American culture (or its decline) by writing journalistic stories about it — observing what’s out there and then writing subjectively about it. We, the readers, get a picture of the rise and fall of America through the eyes of a witty commentator, complete with his own prescriptions and proscriptions. It’s all there, critiqued in an amusing, crazy way by a sharp mind (albeit often stupefied by drugs and alcohol): the power structure, the government, the winners and losers, the in-crowd and the out-crowd, the ugliness and the beauty.
A hint of envy washed in with my emotion, ‘Why am I not doing that?’ I thought.
Publishers and reviewers (the writing business) are wizards at concocting illusions for us, the readers; they are alchemists turning scrap iron into gold, magically transforming the mundane into the sublime, muck into masterpieces. The writer sounds almost biblical at times, prophetic, omniscient.
Looking back, I realised that I had been a victim of such hyperbole many times, buying books because some idiotic reviewer got carried away with his own pomposity. ‘a life-changing masterpiece’, ‘thoroughly brilliant’, ‘the work of a genius’, they scream at you, and you stupidly read the book expecting some kind of enlightenment. But the book never delivers what it promises. And you’ve wasted time and money again.
We live in hell. Literature seems to be intelligent people describing it. Popular fiction seems to be not-so-intelligent people helping us to forget it. Both are nothing more than forms of escapism. Writers are never going to offer us solutions to the problems of life; they are never actually going to make our lives better. They describe, explain, titillate, and stimulate us for a brief moment before we have to get back to and face (alone) the misery that is our own lives.
Sitting there under a palm tree, I was not attacking writers, just the weighty value that some attach to them. They do a good job of observing and recording (often with sublime eloquence) the human condition and the havoc wreaked by it. Some even plumb the depths of human consciousness itself. But do they take us to a higher plane? Do they make the world a better place?
Getting back to Hunter S. Thompson, I wondered if he had ever realised a simple truth in life that the world out there is simply a reflection of what’s in you: you are the world and the world is you. Mr. Thompson can happily spend his life depicting with zest and eloquence the society around him, but if he never realises that the society is him and he is that society, then his work will remain as simple entertainment and he will continue to suffer along with what he is describing.
Am I deluded? I know that it is a slow and mostly futile process to prod and push society as a whole in the way that you think it ought to go (as writers and politicians do). It’s much more intelligent to sit on a beautiful, deserted beach on an island near the Thai-Cambodia border (far from Hunter S. Thompson’s world of fear and loathing) and try to understand and know yourself. Don’t try to become the last hope for humanity; just relax.
(c) Paul S. Davey. November 2001, Thailand.