Mar 032005

By a feat of yogic discipline — or sloth; you choose — I managed, until now, to pass by the deaths of Hunter Thompson and Arthur Miller without dusting off my opinions of them for public consumption. I am neither man’s ideal reader, and my experience with Wordsworth and W.E. Henley has shown that it may be wiser to keep my own counsel in such cases. No eloquence can persuade the man who feels a sense of something more deeply interfused that rolls through all things that Wordsworth is a fatuous bore. Detailed analysis leaves the impenetrable head of the Invictus fancier bloodied but unbowed. I confine myself to saying that I simply lack the alpha model to appreciate these gentlemen, and that the people who have it might do better with a different model.

My favorite Hunter Thompson book is Hell’s Angels, his only book whose subject is not Hunter Thompson, which tells you all you need to know. As Cosh, his most interesting eulogist, pointed out, Thompson was one part John the Baptist and one part Jonathan Swift, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” being his Book of Revelations and Voyage to Brobdingnag, respectively. Revelations has its distinguished admirers, D.H. Lawrence for one, but as a computer programmer I object to dumping core, even in Thompson’s fine style, as a literary technique. Cosh thinks Thompson is immortal. I expect to outlive his reputation, provided I lay off the cigarettes.

Arthur Miller was a playwright. He married Marilyn Monroe. He will be read as long as there exist high school teachers charged with imparting the obvious to the oblivious, which is to say, forever.

But I wanted to talk about something else.

Why must people write of someone when he dies of whom they did not think to write while he was alive? Tom Wolfe I can see: while his obituary wasn’t very good, he was a friend of Thompson’s, and he presumably got paid. One would also expect Thompson’s long-time and only conceivable illustrator, Ralph Steadman, to say a few words. But what were the rest of you thinking?

The uncharitable explanation — monkey see, monkey scribble — has as usual a good deal in it. Thompson is a topic, Miller is a topic, and we are perennially starved for topics: such is the vital function of the newspaper. But there is something even more unpleasant at work — a ghoulish, misbegotten sense of duty, as if failing to note their passing means that our own will also go unremarked. Well, it will. Not to worry.

Occasionally the manner of exit is pertinent. Thompson’s, like Thompson, was histrionic; Mark Riebling and I’m sure many others have made the suitable remarks. Arthur Miller, on the other hand, went old, rich, and in his sleep, which didn’t seem to shut anybody up.

Obituaries fall loosely into three categories: encomium, scorn, and measured assessment. Encomium, at best, is too little too late; at worst it is breast-beating aimed at calling attention more to oneself than to the dear departed. (Many of the great fakes of English literature, like Lycidas, are eulogies. Does anybody believe that Milton gave a damn about Edward King?) Scorn is unsportsmanlike, its object no longer being around to answer back.

Measured assessment is worst of all. If you’ve ever flipped through a biographical reference book, say Harvey’s Oxford Guide to English Literature, you know what I mean. I open it at random to Prosper Merimée (1803-1870) and read, “French novelist and dramatist, a member of the court of Napoleon III, was the author of admirable novels and short stories (‘Colomba’, ‘La Vénus d’Ille’, 1841; ‘Carmen’, which inspired Bizet’s opera, 1852), of plays (‘Theâtre de Clara Gazul’, 1825), of ‘La Jacquerie’ (feudal scenes in dialogue form), and of the historical novel, ‘Chronique de Charles IX’ (1829). His well-known ‘Lettres à une Inconnue’ display his ironic and critical temperament. He was a strong supporter of the innocence of ‘Libri the book-thief’ (q.v.).” I find this heart-breaking, down to the last q.v. Poor Merimée! It’s like being buried twice.

Sir Paul Harvey, here, is just doing his job; measured assessment is not the sort of thing that anyone should do for fun. And let’s face it: Hunter Thompson and Arthur Miller had their literary deaths decades ago. You didn’t know them. You read a few of their books and you still can, any time. Do you honestly care that they’re dead? Why should you?

  14 Responses to “Obit Dicta”

  1. As usual, you have a well-reasoned take on this that is sure to offend someone. I liked Jim Glass‘ comment myself:

    This fairly well-off and famous 67-year-old’s routine is to sleep until 5 pm when he wakes and his 32-year-old wife puts a drink in his hand.

    But the normal vicissitudes of age are catching up to him, so he has the option of:

    a) taking care of his health,

    b) moving to a warmer climate, or

    c) suicide.

    He chooses c.

    I hate to sound cold, but why am I not overwhelmed with sympathy?

    Hunter was only remarkable for being an odd duck with a talent for forming interesting strings of words. Were it not for this talent people would have just written him off as a less creepy version of David Koresh. Unfortunately he never put this talent toward expressing anything of lasting relevance, so you’re probably right about outliving his literary reputation.

  2. Actually… people are lost and drug addicted. Hunter Thompson was famous for being just that, and, like tupac, he couldn’t live up to the image he sold us. Key word sold. Hunter Thompson was a genius of marketing his perspective, his "interesting string of words" as you say Matt. Tupac, mind you, also has an interesting string of words.

    The relevance of both lies in their actual dichotomy, as does the relevance of most of us. We are neither angels nor devils, unless we are schizophrenic or homocidal. Jesus, I think, would be schizo, Bundy, homocidal.

    Yay! Hunter Thompson managed to be fun to read for about two weeks before I picked up an old Douglas Adams book and realized how much was actually missing. Then I read his letters and realized how much the man wanted to be famous and relevant for "being him", and I have much respect for that, if only because he actually shot himself in the face.

    Tell me that doesn’t take courage.

  3. Aaron, welcome back. I agree with you about Thompson, but I have to admit I have a warm spot in my heart for Miller. I saw the original production of "The Crucible" at the Circle in the Square in New York (I was 17) and I was moved as I have never been by any play since, even much better ones.

  4. Miller has meant more to less people than Hunter has.

  5. Aaron,

    You commented on why things weren’t written about Arthur Miller in life that are now written in death. The reason is simple and natural, because we tend to take people for granted in life, as we do our parents until they are dead. The nostalgia enzyme in us secretes when someone we know dies.

  6. My dad died. When my mom dies you think I will appreciate her more because of nastalgia?

  7. Hell’s Angels, Marilyn Monroe.


  8. well done aaron. I agree with you on the over blown eulogies.

  9. "imparting the obvious to the oblivious"


    BTW–What James Joyce was to poetry, Miller was to drama. Read "After the Fall" and contrast it to any of Joyce’s perfectly rendered, perfectly awful poems. Miller has studied all the rules, follows them to a tee, and, in the end, hasn’t a clue.

    It is a shame they outlived Cobain.

  10. Cobain was not nearly as smart as Thompson, and though they both shot themselves in the head, Cobain did it because of a heroin addiction, a ruinous and ambitious wife, and stomach problems, and he was like 35.

    And his lyircs don’t even read better than the letters Thompson wrote when he was 18.

  11. Tommy,

    All true. But Cobain rocked.

  12. Quit dicking around — it’s been two weeks since your last post.

  13. The best critical assessment of Arthur Miller anywhere!

  14. Tommy,

    Kurt Cobain was 27 when he took his life, part of that 27 year-old club (Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, James Dean).

    and I agree with Bill, Cobain at least rocked, however briefly.

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