Thursday, April 23, 2009

Bowman Final Project

“He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man”

Among the myriads of people Danielewski could have included in the “What some have thought” section, he chose to include the infamous gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, whose premier piece is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. Danielewski added Thompson’s take on House of Leaves because Thompson’s unique perception of what drugs meant to the 60’s and what it did meant for America. Danielewski used Johnny’s drug experiences, including his experiences with the Navidson Record, to explain the nature of the American Dream.

Just what is the American Dream? Pre 60’s era the American dream was a house with a white picket fence, two children, and maybe a dog for good measure, it was a state of mind, people being content and happy with their family and their success. Post 60’s that was all drastically changed and people were not happy anymore, America’s consciousness was expanded; due in no small part to LSD and a variety of other drugs, but what was left in the new blank space no one knew. This is what Fear and Loathing tries to find, and this is what Johnny seeks within himself, something to fill that space, the new American Dream, whatever it may be. Both books find their main characters in search of some intangible idea, and for both main characters, it is essential to get beyond their repressed feelings so they could realize the new American Dream. This is where heavy drug comes in.

Society does not turn a kind eye on drug users; the word hippie does not exactly have a kind connotation, people who are caught with drugs are often thrown in jail like beasts in a cage, and there is even a war on drugs. Danielewski puts forward the appearance that he believes the same; in the introduction drug’s are paired with nightmares, though very clearly not blamed for them, Johnny blamed his drug use for the initial onset of terror, and even within the Navidson Record Tom is seen as weak and even pathetic for his addictions. All these views reflect common perceptions of drug use in present day America. Danielewski’s form however, reflects the true nature of drugs, both in America and in House of Leaves.

Drug use is not disguised in House of Leaves in fact its one of the few things that’s out in the open. It’s put right at the forefront. Johnny Truant begins his introduction, on the very first page of text, with a listing of his supply: “For a while there I tried every pill imaginable. Anything to curb the fear. Excedrin PMs, Melatonin, L-tryptophan, Valium, Vicodin, quite a few members of the barbital family. A pretty extensive list, frequently mixed, often matched, with shots of bourbon, a few long rasping bong hits, sometimes even the vaporous confidence-trip of cocaine.” This parallels almost exactly the introduction to Fear and Loathing as Raoul Duke explains what he had in store for his week: “We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers downers, screamers, laughers…and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls…Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.” Both cases show through the form of the author their sheer inability to keep them a secret. Just like America, drugs exist both at the forefront of our culture, but are simultaneously considered taboo. Fear and Loathing unabashedly breaks the drug taboo to bring the American Dream to reality.

Duke, unapologetically uses drugs throughout the entirety of his time in Vegas, not to hide but instead to expand his mind, and free his emotions, in an attempt to find the new American Dream: “ …our trip was different. It was a classic affirmation of everything right and true and decent in the national character. It was a gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country.” Just what “fantastic possibilities” Duke may find are unknown, but because he has allowed himself to be completely and utterly unrepressed it is almost certain he will find them. Duke uses drugs for the same reasons the hippies did, to extend his consciousness and in doing so realize something deeper about him. He uses drugs to allow all his emotions out, sometimes it ends in terrible fear and anxiety, with hallucinated monsters, and weeklong black outs, but his feelings are anything but repressed. Fear and Loathing’s approach to drugs is what Danielewski intended drugs to mean in House of Leaves, drugs do not repress. Johnny needs drugs for their freeing qualities. Johnny craves happiness, he desires the American dream, but Johnny is as far from realizing the old American Dream as anyone can be. He has no family, few friends, and certainly no house with a white picket fence. So he seeks a new dream, like Duke, and like the Cultural Revolution. But Johnny is stuck, his history is repressed and he needs to discover it before he can move on.

Just like America’s repressed history is manifested within the house, Johnny’s history is manifest within the terrifying blackness within his psyche. If it takes mind expansion to discover his own American dream then he must be free of these mental blocks. He must dissolve his defenses and seek to free his history. Early in House of Leaves Johnny attempts to use conventional drugs to give him some avenue to talk about his past. He needs them for the uninhibinting effects they have, specifically alcohol. Johnny’s very first footnote explains how hung over he was after a long night at the bar picking up girls. He was not attempting to repress anything from his childhood with booze, he instead was using it to help free him from what happened. The alcohol gives him the swagger he needs to tell a story that explains his scars, giving him some small freedom from his past, though still locked in fantasy. Johnny’s repression goes far to deep for regular drugs, he must move to something less conventional, to open his history.

Duke and his accomplice Dr. Gonzo took drugs to escape the men they were. In fact several times throughout Fear and Loathing the drugs had such a powerful hold on Duke that despite how hard he tried to “maintain” they still managed to free his deepest fears, and hidden anxieties. The drugs, once imbibed, were absolutely unstoppable in freeing the beast within Duke and Gonzo. Before Johnny came into contact with the Navidson Record he too used drugs to have a good time, but the Navidson Record was a new kind of drug for Johnny something far stronger then anything he had experienced before. Looking at the Navidson record as some super drug helps to understand Johnny’s erratic behavior. He has become Duke. He has forsaken his duties and is in search of meaning. Though Danielewski never comes out and says it, it is clear through Johnny’s journals that he’s searching for something beyond the actual physical structure of the house. He’s looking for his past and trying to find meaning in it, and hopefully free himself enough to find his own version of the American Dream.

Fear and Loathing makes the use of drugs to discover ones past or at least interpret it commonplace. The whole trip is a reflection of the Duke’s history, and through it, his meaning. During a drug addled stupor he reflected on the 60’s “We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…you can almost see the high-water mark-that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” He concludes by saying how inevitably the dream failed and he was the man left standing. Not thinking the 60’s were some sort of righteous success but an event that happened in the past and would never happen again. In a way Fear and Loathing is about the death of the 60’s and the death of the Dream that was associated with that generation. Duke was uncovering what his past meant, just as Johnny was attempting to do. The difference is Duke had a better supply. Booze and barbitutes did not have the necessary strength to free Johnny’s completely. He’s only able to explain his past through bogus stories.

Strength is an issue with drugs, as Duke explains out of all the chemicals in his arsenal ether scared him the most: “The only thing that really worried me was the ether. There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge. And I knew we’d get into that rotten stuff pretty soon.” Here Duke expresses his knowledge and fear about the ether, but in the same breath exclaims the utter futility of escaping it. Once again the drugs are irrepressible, this time even before it’s entered his system he knows it is inevitable. Just like Johnny seeking the Navidson Record at 3am in a dead mans apartment, he may not consciously know it, but he would be “into that rotten stuff pretty soon.”

Johnny is the man in the depths of an ether binge, from the second he comes into contact with the Navidson record. For all intents and purposes the Navidson Record is a physically and mentally addicting drug. The Navidson Record is Johnny’s ultimate high; it violently frees him from any repressed feelings and his blocked childhood memories. It is his newest, and strongest drug. Completely addicting, Johnny’s hooked from the outset. It takes him completely by surprise slowly removing everything man like about him, stripping him down freeing his innermost demons, whether he wants them out or not. It is only in this state that Johnny is able to realize his new place in the world, but before his realization there must be a struggle. Just like the 60’s was a battle for the soul of America, within Johnny exists a battle for his soul, he is violent and it is tormented. Even his boss who was an ex-heroine addict comments on how terrible Johnny looks, telling him to get off the smack. Johnny’s internal conflict represents inherent in any revolution. He is sick because he does not want to think about his tortured past, but the Navidson Record is the same as drug use within Fear and Loathing and in the 60’s, it is irrereprisbile, and will release the beast within. He does not want to remember Raymond, or his mother, but the Record, defies his mental blocks, bringing him painfully closer to his new American Dream.

Taking it back to Johnny’s youth, and just what exactly he had repressed. Johnny’s mother’s insanity, and his fathers’ violent death weighed heavily on him. This can be related directly to the death of the traditional family in America; Johnny is on his own without the traditional rigid upbringing. If the traditional family unit defined the old American Dream, what happens now that the traditional family is no longer in the majority? Johnny needs to discover this for himself and must get through the pain of his youth to discover it. He could not have done this without going into his own ether binge. Whether he ever actually comes up with an answer is not as important as him trying to find it. Just like in Fear and Loathing, it is in the journey that the real truth is discovered.

The second major thing Johnny has locked away is his relationship to Marine Man Raymond. Initially Johnny acts out, he is a “beast” as Marine Man less then affectionately refers to him. The Marine Man beats the “beast” out of Johnny, and attempts to turn him into some upstanding man through brute force. Danielewski could have made Raymond anything, but by making him a Marine, related him to America’s military, and related Johnny’s early rebellion to the 60’s. Johnny is repressing the acts of atrocities of America’s military, just like America was pre 60’s. Prior to the 60’s all wars were just and morally right, post 60’s the Korean War and the Vietnamese War adapted connotations like no wars in America’s history. Johnny’s attempt at looking into his past for the relationship to the Marine Man and the beating he took for it, symbolizes the struggle within America’s conscious. The obstacles that Johnny must surmount to realize his own American dream parallel the obstacles of the 60’s and Duke. Johnny is just a big metaphor for America seeking a new American Dream.

Hunter S. Thompson “your film didn’t help it’s well…one thing in two words: fucked up” this encapsulates the whole reason Thompson was included within the text. A book about repression is to him “fucked up”. Fear and Loathing is repression free. It’s about going beyond the act of repressing feelings, and finding in the pure opulence of the situation some sort of meaning. It was about introspection thinking about exactly what it meant to exist in the here and now. It show cases drugs as a medium for growth and personal expansion, it sets the stage for Johnny’s own cultural revolution within himself, and it gives a better understanding of the nature of drugs within House of Leaves.

1 comment:

Adam Johns said...

I enjoyed this paper enough, and it read smoothly enough, that I just read it the whole way through. Usually I comment as I go, but I'm not doing that this time. In fact, I think both the paper's strengths and weaknesses are bound up with its compelling, readable style.

There are a number of compelling ideas here. Johny is a gonzo journalist, freeing himself to tell the unrepressed truth. The book is a drug, the most powerful drug of all. Yet, to HST, a book about repression - a book which *is* repression, is totally fucked up (which gets elaborated on even more in the text of the book, as I'm sure you recall).

These ideas are interesting, legitimate, and smart. They also don't really peacefully coexist with one another. If HST ultimately recoils in horror from the book's exegesis of repression, then it's not terribly gonzo, is it? If the book is a drug, what is the meaning of the "false" happy ending - and of Johny's utter rejection of all other drugs, including a simple beer, at the end?

I really think you're on to something here; for what it's worth, this is the most detailed and interesting take I've encountered on the role of drugs in the novel, and it's a worthwhile attempt to play up the role of HST (strange that you don't talk about Lude here...).

Yet, you have little inclination to wrestle with the biggest difficulties the book throws in front of you - starting with all the after-school special stuff which you dismiss as mere convention, without turning to the character of Lude, etc.

Let me put it another way: most of the paper is about the novel *as* gonzo journalism; then at the end, you quite legitimately touch on HST's shock and revulsion at its anti-gonzo, repressive character.

Which one is it?

Or is it both - and if so, what does it mean for it to be gonzo/anti-gonzo?

This is a cool paper and a smart idea, but you don't work through all of the difficulties it raises (although you do *recognize* them, which is very much in your favor).