Reconsidering the Legend of Raoul Duke on the 40th Anniversary of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
“He who makes a beast of
himself gets rid of the pain of
being a man”
– Dr. Johnson (epigraph to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)
Early spring 1971 and the first rays of the rising sun creep into a room at the Ramada Inn just outside Pasadena California, where one Hunter S. Thompson is holed up, crouched over his IBM Selectric, hands flashing back and forth over the keys, as though directing a kind of demented orchestra. The words flow faster and faster, a chaotic hell broth of paranoia and insanity that would culminate in one of the most original, hilarious and celebrated statements on the sixties drug culture – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Thompson’s dissection of the dark side of the American Dream would catapult him to rock star status overnight and confirm his status as the infant terrible of the literary world. Through the pages of Rolling Stone he unleashed upon an unsuspecting American public what is undoubtedly his greatest artistic creation, not Gonzo Journalism as many would have you believe, but rather his compelling and brilliantly subversive literary persona – the Hunterfigure – as best exemplified through the guise of Raoul Duke.
What followed for Thompson was an almost Jekyll and Hyde relationship with his literary alter ego, a continuous symbiotic state of co-existence with the monstrous and unruly Duke, for good or ill. Such was the enduring power of the character, heightened by Ralph Steadman’s darkly captivating illustrations, that the public perception of Thompson became truly distorted, unable to distinguish between the serious author and the myth of the drug crazed Gonzo Journalist. Of course, Thompson deliberately contributed to this confusion, blurring the boundary between author and character to such an extent that the ensuing confusion was inevitable. Such was his method actor-like approach to the persona, spanning almost his entire literary oeuvre, that one can be forgiven for being unable to identify the thin line of differentiation between his public image and private self.
In many ways it is this aspect of the Raoul Duke phenomena that has come to define Thompson’s career – with a distinct marker separating the period prior to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, from that which subsequently followed, wherein the myth superseded the man. Of course Thompson was acutely aware of the dilemma that the Duke persona presented for him following the success of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and its immediate follow-up, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. As his output as a writer slowed, his critics accused him of becoming enslaved by the Duke persona, not to mention being creatively burnt out. Thompson himself broached the issue in the author’s note of The Great Shark Hunt, in which he confessed that the anthology marked a milestone in his career:
I feel like I might as well be sitting here carving the words to my own tombstone…and when I finish, the only fitting exit will be right straight off this fucking terrace and into the fountain, 28 stories below and at least 200 yards out in the air and across Fifth Avenue. Nobody could follow that act. Not even me…H.S.T. #1, R.I.P. 12/23/77
Thompson’s frustration as a writer was also evident during this same period in the hour long BBC documentary Fear and Loathing in Gonzovision, as part of which he returned to Las Vegas, accompanied by Ralph Steadman. Though Thompson wilfully participated in the film, he was not entirely comfortable with the idea, aware that there was an underlying presumption that he was somehow going to deliver a sequel to the events described in his classic work, once more running amok in a drug-crazed frenzy on the Las Vegas strip, only this time in front of a film crew. Yet again the misconception surrounding his literary persona had come to dominate proceedings, an issue that Thompson attempted to clarify somewhat when asked as to whether there was any pressure on him to live up to the image he had created:
Well there certainly has, I mean you have been putting it on me all week…I’m not sure at all what you think you are shooting…I have no idea whether you think you are making a film about Duke or Thompson. That’s a serious point, I’m never sure which one people expect me to be and very often they conflict, most often as a matter of fact with people I don’t know, I’m expected to be Duke more than Thompson…I’ve been using Duke for 10 years, maybe more, I began to use him originally as a vehicle for quotations that nobody else would say, that was me really talking, those were my quotes…I’m really in the way as a person, the myth has taken over…I’m no longer necessary, I’m in the way. It would be much better if I die. Then people could take the myth and make films.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and yet the discourse surrounding Thompson’s seminal work has changed little – largely still centred upon Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo’s astronomical drug consumption and withered analysis of the American Dream. Duke, of course, looms larger than ever, aided in no small part by the tour de force that is Johnny Depp’s portrayal of the character in Terry Gilliam’s cinematic adaptation, which in itself has attracted a sizeable cult of worship. Just as in Thompson’s own lifetime, the drug crazed Raoul Duke persona overshadows the brilliance behind its very creation. In retrospect, Thompson’s remarks to the BBC now appear to be particularly salient.
That Thompson is still largely misunderstood as a writer is unsurprising though, as there is a long standing pattern of ignoring the thought process behind his greatest work. More often than not, the trajectory of critical analysis has focused on the cult of personality surrounding Thompson and that of his legendary drug consumption, coupled with the subsequent effect of these influences on his writing. Rarely does it pause to reflect on just how and why Thompson came to that point in the first place. There is a wealth of material that pinpoints The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved as marking the birth of Gonzo Journalism, but there is a dearth of analysis on the seeds that were planted along the way. The same goes for Duke, with little discussion of the various incarnations of the Hunterfigure prior to his most infamous outing in the pages of Rolling Stone. Yet it is an essential task and one that does not lead to an undermining of Thompson’s as a writer. In particular by investigating the narrative genealogy of the Hunterfigure we can discover new layers of meaning to every facet of his writing and thus extend the discourse far beyond the current narrow parameters.
Ironically it is the very topic that has overshadowed the genius in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegasthat offers the first clue as to why Thompson felt compelled to create the Hunterfigure and make him a paragon of gross excess. The infamous epigraph at the start of this article returns us to familiar territory – that of the role of drugs in the Gonzo narrative. The quote from Dr. Johnson has now become synonymous with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the rampant consumption of drugs by Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo as they travel across the desert to the very bowels of Las Vegas in search of the American Dream. To date, the significance of the quote has largely been confined to the relationship with the central thematic message of the story. However its deeper meaning in relation to Thompson’s life and work has been all but ignored, which is surprising given that the sentiment behind it, particularly in relation to the latter half of the quote, is tied so closely to understanding his need to create a fictive persona. In order to illustrate this, it is necessary to first take a step backwards and examine Thompson’s early life in Louisville, Kentucky, before subsequently discussing key aspects in the evolution of the Hunterfigure. Continue reading