Posted on | February 15, 2012 | 30 Comments
“It’s like being assigned to cover a psychotic breakdown, so that the challenge as a journalist is to report accurately all the paranoid gibberish, the bizarre hallucinations and delusions of grandeur.”
— Robert Stacy McCain, Jan. 11, 2012
“But there is no point in haggling any longer with this. The time has come to get full bore into heavy Gonzo Journalism, and this time we have no choice but to push it all the way out to the limit. The phone is ringing again and I can hear Crouse downstairs trying to put them off. . . .
“Only a lunatic would do this kind of work . . . Where is the meaning? That light at the end of the tunnel?
“Crouse is yelling again. They want more copy. . . . Those halfwit sons of bitches should subscribe to a wire service . . . a whole grab-bag of weird news; just rip it off the top and print whatever comes up. Just the other day the AP wire had a story about a man from Arkansas who entered some kind of contest and won a two-week vacation — all expenses paid — wherever he wanted to go. Anyplace in the world: Mongolia, Easter Island, the Turkish Riviera . . . but his choice was Salt Lake City, and that’s where he went.
“Is this man a registered voter? Has he come to grips with the issues? Has he bathed in the blood of the lamb?”
— Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72
Allusion is one of those literary devices with which I have a love-hate relationship: I love to employ allusions, but recognize that such references may be wasted in our subliterate postmodern culture, and I’m occasionally annoyed when some hipster smartass drops an allusion to something sufficiently obscure that I have to look it up.
We’ll get to Bob Belvedere in a minute, but first let me explain that sometimes allusions can serve the useful purpose of reminding us of our ignorance. Stupidity is incurable, but ignorance can be remediated, and an intelligent person should have enough pride to feel the sting when confronted with evidence of his ignorance.
Having partied my way through college, I emerged with an eclectic hodgepodge of an education, full of gaps representing classes I’d skipped or where I’d done only enough work to slide by with a C. And so, in my early to mid-20s, I began to recognize the vast depth and breadth of my own ignorance. One of the clues to this problem was when I’d pick up a magazine like The New Republic or Vanity Fair and, in the middle of an article, see a word like “Burkean” or “Tocquevillean.”
Now, I had enough of an education to know that there were such persons as Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, and that these were important authors of influential works. And I was certainly fluent enough as a reader to deduce from contextual clues what the writers meant by phrases like “Burkean critique” or “Tocquevillean self-governance.” But I’d never actually read Reflections on the Revolution in France or Democracy in America, so that these allusions in magazine articles were picking at the scabs, as it were, of my wounded intellectual pride.
Eventually, I was prodded into pursuing a course of intense auto-didacticism, remediating my ignorance to such a degree that some friends have praised my “encyclopedic” knowledge of such things — praise that perhaps goes too far, but certainly reflects how hard I’ve worked over the years to fill in the gaps of my education. (Indeed, I’ve even been called a “Hayekian intellectual”!)
One of my most unusual encounters with such an allusion was the Police song, “Don’t Stand So Close to Me”:
It’s no use. He sees her.
He starts to shake and cough.
Just like the old man in
That book by Nabokov.
Again, I was sufficiently educated to have some sense of who Vladimir Nabokov was and, given the obvious contextual clues, understood that this was a reference to Lolita.
However, I’d never actually read the book, and this smartass allusion — damned British New Wave punks! — was enough to make me go out and buy the book, just so I could say I’d read it.
Well, surprise, surprise! Nabokov’s most famous (perhaps infamous) novel is a quite challenging piece of work, embedded with all manner of allusions and symbols that I frankly didn’t understand. The key clue of Lolita‘s inverted murder mystery — “Waterproof!” — completely eluded my recognition, and I failed even to comprehend how the novel functions as a sort of devious satire.
This made me feel stupid. And I don’t like feeling stupid.
Eventually, however, I encountered The Annotated Lolita, with an introduction and extensive footnotes by Alfred Appel Jr, who had been one of Nabokov’s college students. Suddenly the meaning of all those obscure references was revealed, and I felt slightly smarter (and much less ignorant).
Longtime readers will have by now noticed my fondness for the works of Hunter S. Thompson, which is a double-edged sword. If you love the legendary Gonzo journalist and also like this blog, this is clearly a compliment to my work. But I realize that some may disdain me as offering a cheap imitation of Thompsonesque writing, and I also realize that there are some people who hate Thompson.
Pearls. Swine. Et cetera.
The fact that Thompson was himself attempting to emulate his own literary heroes — including Fitzgerald and Hemingway and, to a lesser degree, Norman Mailer — is generally overlooked. What was original in Thompson has to be understood in light of those influences, but I didn’t start this post with the idea of conducting a Gonzo Journalism Seminar and we’re already past the 700-word mark, so I’ll avoid that digression.
My point in bringing up Hunter S. Thompson was that there are a lot of people who “know” his work in the sense that I once “knew” Burke, Tocqueville and Nabokov: They are familiar with his name and know him by reputation, but have never taken the time to fully acquaint themselves with his work or really understand what he was all about.
It is my hope, of course, that my frequent references to Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 have caused a few of you actually to buy the book, because I insist that you can’t really understand what’s going on in this year’s Republican presidential primary campaign unless you go back and see what Thompson wrote about the 1972 Democratic campaign. Were I asked to teach a college course on political journalism, that book would certainly be on the syllabus, because what Thompson did was absolutely some of the most honest and insightful writing ever published about politics.
Also, it’s funny as hell.
But I get annoyed sometimes at the failure of people to realize what I’m up to here. It isn’t my habit to tell people all my plans in advance, or to spoil the fun of letting them figure things out for themselves from the frequent hints, but . . . ah, let’s just say that if you’ve been hitting the tip jar regularly, you’re Jann Wenner.
Try again: The other day, somebody said to me, as if it weren’t the umpteenth time I’ve heard this, “You really ought to write a book.”
Being just a bit on the edge of exhaustion at that point, I blew up: “What the hell do you think I’ve been doing this whole time?”
Between what’s been scattered across this blog over the past year and my articles at The American Spectator, surely there is enough material to compile a narrative account of this everlasting nightmare of a presidential campaign, a book that could conceivably be lashed together in a desperate post-Election Day frenzy of high-speed editing.
Only one place on the planet, however, could possibly provide the kind of calming environment necessary for such nerve-wracking work: The Grand Hotel in Port Vila, Vanuatu.
When this campaign ordeal is over, win or lose, I’m going to Vanuatu. And if I can’t find a publisher who understands why this is an absolutely necessary trip — and really, shouldn’t it be obvious by now? — then I’ll just have to rattle the tip jar with seismic intensity, and write the whole damn thing off on my taxes.
Here’s the genius part, see: The Vanuatu trip will be a legitimate tax-deductible business expense and, just doing the cocktail-napkin calculation in my head, it should do enough damage to my gross annual income that I’ll be below the poverty line when I file with the IRS a year from now.
Take that, you bureaucratic tax-grabbing bastards.
But I digress . . .
Allusions, yes — that’s what this is all about. One of the few bloggers who seems to grasp the implicit meaning of what I’ve been doing here is Bob Belvedere of The Camp of the Saints, the title of which is itself an allusion, but I’ll resist the temptation to go down that sidetrack. Bob linked me today in a round-up post with this curious title:
This phrase had a sufficiently literary ring that I immediately recognized it as an allusion, and reckoned that Belvedere was displaying his erudition by dropping a reference to one of those 20th-century poets I’d never bothered to read when I was getting a C-minus in the second semester American Literature course that bored me to death when I was 19. So I Googled the phrase and found this:
Morning seems strange, almost out of place.
Searched hard for you and your special ways.
These days, these days.
Spent all my time, learnt a killer’s art.
Took threats and abuse ’till I’d learned the part.
Can you stay for these days?
These days, these days.
Used outward deception to get away,
Broken heart romance to make it pay.
These days, these days.
We’ll drift through it all, it’s the modern age.
Take care of it all now these debts are paid.
Can you stay for these days?
OK, so what 20th-century poet composed that? Nobody in my Norton literature anthology. It’s the lyrics of a song by Joy Division:
Bob Belvedere, you son of a bitch: Lead me off on a tangent with lyrics from some damned New Wave art-rock outfit, will you? Make me track down a song by a suicidal epileptic limey? Don’t you realize how valuable my time is, Bob?
William Kristol just cranked off a quick 200 words about Mitt Romney’s attacks on Rick Santorum and it’s already at the top of Memeorandum, while I’m bogged down doing a riff inspired by your allusion to Joy Division. This is probably why Tabitha didn’t invite me to BlogCon, Bob: They want pure politics, not a bunch of pretensious literary claptrap about obscure post-punk bands.
An entire afternoon utterly wasted and now, if Santorum somehow pulls this off, he’ll probably give Bill Kristol that Vanuatu gig.
I blame you, Bob. And when I’m sued for copyright infringement by the estate of Ian Curtis, I’ll send you the bill.