Fear and Loathing in the Desert of the Real

Psychedelic drugs have been a widespread part of popular culture since the middle of the twentieth century, influencing artists, musicians, celebrities, environmentalists, surfers, ravers, scholars, etc.  It is fairly well-documented that psychedelics have shaped the development of various spiritualities, including nature spiritualities oriented toward experimentation with intense, boundary-dissolving, sensory experiences, wherein the self and the natural world converge, such that nature is felt to be a source of belonging as well as a strange and uncanny other.  Deep ecology would be a case in point, as would the aquatic nature spirituality of surfers. 

A particularly unique example of psychedelic nature spirituality is implicit in the 1998 film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, based on the novel of the same name by the “gonzo” journalist and pop culture icon Hunter S. Thompson.  Fear and Loathing portrays a wild and drug-fueled trip in which a fictionalized Thompson (played by Johnny Depp) goes to Las Vegas with his legally dubious lawyer (played by Benicio Del Torro) to find and cover the story of “the American dream.”  Nearly all of the dialogue in the film is taken directly from the book, making a close reading of the book a helpful tool in analyzing the film. 

What I’m interested in doing is looking closely at the film to consider two things: 1) How  does the film affirm psychedelic experiences of the sacred (wholly other) power of natural phenomena (e.g., bats, reptiles, plants, water, the desert, as well as varieties of genders, classes, and races of humans)? 2) How does the film criticize various spiritualities, including Christian, New Age, Satanic, and even psychedelic. 

My initial thought it that the film affirms the experimental and experiential wildness of psychedelic nature spirituality while also harboring a critique of its tendencies toward utopianism, idealism, and anti-modernism.  Through that affirmation and critique, the film promotes a more realist sense of psychedelic nature spirituality.  Accordingly, the film celebrates Las Vegas in all of its deserted reality, that is, the groundless artificiality and errant depravity that characterizes the hyperreality of Baudrillard’s “desert of the real.”  This resonates with Mark C. Taylor’s realized eschatology, in which the hyperreal desert of Las Vegas is the site of the realization of the Kingdom of God on Earth. 

The deserted realism of Fear and Loathing makes it unique among psychedelic nature spiritualities, and, perhaps paradoxically, it also makes it the most viable for becoming integrated into contemporary society.  I don’t romanticize Thompson or his drugs, guns, or suicide.  What makes him relevant is not his authenticity or originality or his subversion of the system.  He is so relevant precisely because his passion for the real is thoroughly ungrounded and ethically questionable, abyssal and abysmal, deserted like the realized Kingdom in which we all participate.

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