Monday, May 6, 2013

Smashing Windows with Dr. Gonzo

Hunter S. Thompson is a man renowned for his contributions to the journalistic style dubbed Gonzo, one which favors reports from personal experiences and emotion, often through use of sarcasm and satire. While Thompson’s journalistic style was readily available, I chose to look at how he used rhetorical devices of the creative style to communicate in a personal letter, “The Pro-Flogging View”, which he wrote in response to his friend and fellow artist Ralph Steadman. The letter that this responds to is a desperate plea from Steadman for parenting advice regarding his son. The letter is grounded in a similar regard to Gonzo journalism, with its focal point hinged on elements of the creative style, meant to be a cut-to-the-core satire that bites at the situational irony of Steadman’s son breaking windows, when Steadman, as an artist, was renowned for his politically satirical artwork. “The Pro-Flogging View” further uses similar elements of the Gonzo style by positioning Thompson in an objective viewpoint which focuses on his own experiences and direct reaction to the letter he received from Steadman originally.

The opening line conveys not only the essence of Thompson’s journalistic style, but also multiple instances of the Creative Style tinged with satire:

“I received your tragic letter about your savage, glue-sniffing son and read it while eating breakfast at 4:30 a.m. on the edge of Mobile Bay...and I made some notes on your problem, at the time, but they are not the kind of notes that any decent man would want to send to a friend...So I put them away until I could bring a little more concentration to bear on the matter...”

As a response to the received letter, Thompson uses Apostrophe to directly address Steadman and his plight. He goes a step further, belittling Steadman’s son through meiosis, attaching the term “savage” and “glue-sniffing”. But this also functions as epitheton, and similar terms are attached throughout the letter, but the attached attributes and belittlement actually serve to amplify Thompson’s belittlement of Steadman, rather than his son, in the claim for advice on parenting. All of these creative elements reassert Thompson’s satirical stance toward Steadman. 

Another section of the letter is ripe with rhetorical devices: 

England is the wrong place for a boy who wants to smash windows. Because he’s right, of course. He should smash windows. Anybody growing up in England today without a serious urge to smash windows is probably too dumb for help.

You are reaping the whirlwind, Ralph. Where in the name of art or anything else did you ever see anything that said you could draw queer pictures of the prime minister and call her worse than a denatured pig- but your own son shouldn’t want to smash windows?

Thompson uses Diacope, the split repetition of the phrase “smash windows”, to emphasize the core concept of his satire. Each time he amplifies the idea through additional detail, noting that anyone without the urge “is probably too dumb for help.” “You are reaping the whirlwind,” Thompson says, pulling from the proverb that the actions of Steadman’s son are the natural consequence of Steadman’s propensity to smash windows with his artwork. Thompson uses exemplum, the concrete example from Ralph’s life, to deny the intolerance of the father to the son’s actions. Of course Steadman asked for no permission to “draw queer pictures of the prime minister” or “call her worse than a denatured pig”, but that is the nature of satire, which then serves a double purpose because of Thompson’s choice of these devices. They all capitalize on the shortcomings on Steadman’s thoughts regarding his situation, and Thompson uses this ridicule in the letter to emphasize that point.

Four other continuous fragments from the letter serve as savage blows to the request from Steadman:

What do you think we’ve been doing all these year? Do you think you were getting paid for your goddamn silly art? 

No, Ralph. You were getting paid to smash windows. And that is an art in itself. The trick is getting paid for it. 

What? Hello? Are you still there, Ralph? 

You sniveling, hypocritical bastard.  

Thompson uses hypophora to berate Steadman first, setting up his swings with an intensity that reads like he is screaming the words in your face. He asks the questions and then follows them with the answers regarding the window smashing nature of Steadman’s son. This time, however, diacope is used to echo “paid” and “art”. Thompson is asserting that there is an artful variant of smashing windows through the right channels that lends itself to payment if harnessed in the right way, which he and Steadman have both been doing through their respective art forms.  The “What? Hello? Are you still there, Ralph?” that follow are rhetorical questions and direct address that emphasize the impact that Thompson was aiming for. “You sniveling, hypocritical bastard,” he follows, delivering another satirical blow that only adds to his argument through epitheton and meiosis.

As Thompson says regarding his words, “they are not the kind of notes that any decent man would want to send to a friend.” But Thompson doesn’t typically regard himself as a decent man, and he doesn’t spare the use of any harsh words in the letter to Steadman. Through use of all the rhetorical devices highlighted, Thompson repeatedly smashes the windows that Ralph Steadman tries to keep in place. He wants direct access to Steadman’s thoughts, not just the view offered through the transparent windows, and when he breaks the window, he doesn’t let the satire drop, even when he writes the post-script: “P.S.: Jesus, Ralph, I think I might have misspoke myself when I said ten thousand would cover it for the murderous little bastard. No. Let’s talk about thirty, Ralph. You’ve got a real monster on your hands. I wouldn’t touch him for less than thirty.”

As successful as Thompson’s style is at delivering his message, it is also important to look at the context of the letter. While originally intended for Steadman, the letter was also published in Thompson’s book, “Generation of Swine – Gonzo Papers Vol. 2: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the ‘80’s.” The book is a collection of political articles published by Thompson throughout the end of the 1980’s that highlight both the lived experience in the political climate, and the foul nature of politics near the end of a decade. Given the fact that it is dated April 21, 1986, one week after the previous article included, it is likely that it was published as an article in the San Francisco Examiner like the other articles.

Why, amongst the political turmoil of the other articles, does Thompson take the time to include this letter? Not only does it paint the image of deprivation in a world where windows should be broken, but the letter also points to it as a requirement for anyone that is intelligent. “Children are like TV sets,” Thompson states, “When they start acting weird, whack them across the eyes with a big rubber basketball shoe. How is that for wisdom?” Something wrong with it? No. I don’t think so. Today’s plate-glass window is tomorrow’s BBC story.” How do you build a career around smashing windows without raising a child prone to doing the same, even if he throws a brick instead of paint, ink, or type-written text? You don’t, and Thompson is candid enough to point that out you don’t avoid it. You embrace it. And in a readership steeped amongst a generation of “huge brains, small necks, weak muscles and fat wallets,” smashing windows might have been the most sane, grounding option available. Res ipsa loquitur.

Mitch Marty

Thompson, Hunter S. Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the '80s. New York: Summit, 1988. Print.

Artwork by Ralph Steadman.

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